God's Country

The Faithful
A History of Catholics in America
James M. O’Toole
Harvard University Press, $27.95, 384 pp.

Two images came to mind as I finished this terrific new history of American Catholics. First, I thought of John Nava’s tapestries lining the walls of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, where a dozen anonymous faithful seamlessly blend into the Communion of Saints, including notables like John Chrysostom, Joan of Arc, and Frances Cabrini, all turning their attention to the Eucharistic banquet table. Then, and somewhat discordantly, I thought of the NBC series The Office, a comedy that mixes benevolence and malevolence, discomfort and compassion, incompetence and informality, in a narrative of workaday life under the sway of a distant corporate headquarters. Both visions reflect some truth about Catholicism in this country. Taken together, they suggest the stylish way James O’Toole weaves the grand with the humdrum in his account of American Catholic life across the centuries, with its panoply of joys and hopes, anxieties, and griefs.

The story told in The Faithful begins along the late eighteenth-century Eastern Seaboard, with what O’Toole calls the “priestless church.” These tiny, inchoate communities practiced their religion without Rome’s involvement or even a cleric’s help, except for the occasional itinerant priest who might pass through once or twice annually, stopping to refresh the community’s participation in formal sacramental life. Revolutionary-era Catholicism...

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About the Author

James P. McCartin teaches at Seton Hall University. He is the author of Prayers of the Faithful: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics (Harvard University Press).