Footloose

28 August 2015 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Feast of St. Augustine, Doctor of the Church

This column is brought to you today by the word “hagiology.” Hagiology (the study of hagiographies) can be fun. A hagiography, dear readers, is an account of a saint’s life. It includes biography, legends, miracles and (if applicable) a description of martyrdom. Hagiographies are sometimes read aloud at monastic meals.

Customarily, monks sit silently at meals. At the refectory table, you just can’t shout out, “Got milk?” Consequently, many communities have developed a kind of in-house sign language. You point to whatever you need and signal. Want the milk pitcher passed down? First point, then make like you’re milking a cow. Want the butter? Point and pretend you’re slathering a slice of imaginary bread. This proves once again that there’s always a way to skirt the rules.

Once, I was on retreat at a very strict monastery. I eagerly learned the community’s table signs, but then suddenly lost my appetite. The problem wasn’t the food but the readings.

A monk stood at a lectern and read aloud while we were eating in silence. He was reading from a hagiography. Unfortunately for me, it happened to be the feast of St. Isaac Jogues and the North American Martyrs. The reading described in grisly detail the terrible tortures these poor souls were made to endure before they finally gave up the ghost. Being a gentleman, I will spare you the particulars, dear readers.

Hagiology can be a very effective appetite suppressant. This is one of the main reasons you seldom see an overweight monk. 

Today being the feast of St. Augustine, I was reading his hagiography in the classic four-volume work by Butler, “The Lives of the Saints.” Fortunately, St. Augustine is a doctor of the Church and not a martyr. At any rate, it struck me that before Augustine settled down (at about the age of 30 in an age when the average lifespan was 40 years) he led a footloose life. One has to wonder if Augustine took a vow of instability. If so, he kept it very well. Unfortunately, it drove his poor elderly mother, St. Monica, to distraction.

Augustine Aurelius was born into wealth and privilege, sent to private boarding school, hung around with a gang of snooty young men who considered themselves better than everyone else, bragged about his sexual conquests (real or imagined), stole things as a prank, joined one pagan cult after another, frequented prostitutes, cohabitated with various women “without the benefit of Marriage,” fathered an illegitimate child, and even became engaged to be married to an 11-year-old heiress (in those days, girls became eligible for marriage at the age of 12 years). Talk about footloose. Anyway, skipping a bunch of stuff, he was eventually ordained Bishop of Hippo. 

The hagiography of St. Augustine naturally led me to the question, “Are people today, like St. Augustine in his day, footloose?” Let’s look at the statistics.

The average worker (for one reason or another) stays at a job only 4.6 years, according to the Bureau of Labor. That sure looks like “footloose” to me.

What about the commitment of Marriage? Surprisingly, the annual divorce rate for the total population of the United States is 3.4 percent. The trends indicate that fewer Americans are getting divorced. Why? It’s because fewer young people are getting married.

The annual number of Marriages in the United States has dropped from 8.2 percent of the total population in the year 2000 to 6.8 percent in 2012. These figures are the most recent available from the Center for Disease Control. I’m sure the 2015 figures will show a continued drop in the number of Marriages. As to why the government office for disease control is tasked with tracking Marriage and divorce rates, I have no idea. That’s the government for you. Nevertheless, the government statistics clearly indicate that fewer Americans are marrying in the first place. That sure sounds like “footloose” to me.

What about what we in the Church call “domicile” or “quasi-domicile”? It used to be that an individual was born, lived, died, and was buried in the same parish. Those days are gone.

In Canon Law, a domicile requires a five-year residence or intention of residence. A quasi-domicile requires a three-month residence or the intention thereof. A person living in a place for less than three months is legally considered a transient.

Again using information provided by the U. S. Census Bureau, out of our total population, 40,093,000 people moved. That’s an overall percentage of 14.19 percent annually. Of these 40-plus-million Americans who changed residence, 7,628,000 moved to a different state and 1,269,000 actually moved to another country. The highest concentration of people who change residences, by the way, is those in their 20s and 30s (almost 18 percent).

There are no government statistics on how many of this multitude of movers were parishioners moving from one geographical parish to another. My estimate would be 99.9 percent. Like everyone else, parishioners are footloose. 

What’s a poor pastor to do? I pray to Augustine, patron saint of the footloose.

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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