By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
During an era when two-thirds of young Catholics say they can be good Catholics without going to Mass and many believe in a woman's right to choose abortion and view premarital sex as morally acceptable, Karen and David Hickey might be considered renegades -- because they are so devout.
The lives of the Fairfax County couple and their five young children revolve around the Catholic Church, and they stand out as devoted because so many others do not follow the teachings of their church to the letter.
For the Hickeys and a community of young, conservative Washington area Catholics who piously follow the teachings of the church, Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Washington next week carries a special meaning.
They appreciate Benedict for his unwavering advocacy of what they hold to be "Catholic": ancient liturgical practices such as the traditional Latin Mass, the supremacy of the Catholic Church, Gregorian chants in worship and theologians who concur with the pope's teachings. As the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog for 24 years before becoming pope, Benedict earned this group's devotion.
"I love Pope Benedict," said Karen Hickey, 35, who keeps a bust of him on her piano. "He's done so much good in the little time that he's been there."
Young, orthodox Catholics are more enthusiastic about Benedict than are many in the older generation, said Colleen Carroll Campbell, author of "The New Faithful," a book about the youthful set. "They like his countercultural stance on a lot of things. . . . They also like his emphasis on Catholic identity and fidelity to Catholic doctrine."
But even Benedict in person isn't enough to draw some traditional Catholics to the papal Mass next week at Nationals Park. They feel it will be too informal for their taste, and many dislike the idea of receiving Communion standing up instead of kneeling at an altar rail.
Chris Paulitz, a Senate aide, says he won't go, but he will show his support for Benedict by going to see him pass in the popemobile.
Such young Catholics' strict obedience to the tenets of their faith makes them an anomaly in their generation. Only 14 percent of Catholics ages 20 to 40 attend Mass at least weekly, according to research by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, and just one in five goes to confession once a year or more.
For conservative Catholics, that's unthinkable.
"You have to live your faith and practice, not just learn the doctrine," said Anne Francoise Guelcher, 40, the mother of six children -- ages 15 months to 14 years -- who lives with husband James in Montclair, Va.
Guelcher home-schools her children. "That way, I can really teach them about the faith," she says.
The family goes to Mass every Sunday and on Holy Days and celebrates the myriad Catholic feast days. Like other devout Catholics, they keep holy water, which has been blessed by a priest, in a small font by their front door. They say the rosary and pray to the saints daily.
"We live it every day," Guelcher said.
Like Catholics of their generation, young conservatives grew up under the liberalizing changes to the church brought on by the Vatican II Council in the 1960s, but some rejected those reforms as they reached adulthood.
Paulitz, 32, remembers "lots of guitars and banjoes" at church services and priests who had fallen away from church doctrine.
"I felt uncomfortable about it constantly," he said.
Like the Hickeys and the Guelchers, Paulitz and his wife, Diane, found their way to St. Mary Mother of God, a 163-year-old parish near the Verizon Center in Northwest Washington. It is one of the few churches in the Washington area that offers the traditional Latin Mass every Sunday.
To traditional Catholics, the old Latin Mass -- a formal rite entirely in Latin -- stands in marked contrast to the more informal modern Mass ushered in by the Second Vatican Council. Benedict last year loosened restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass, also called the Tridentine Mass, cheering conservative Catholics everywhere.
St. Mary's, which has been holding the Tridentine Mass for more than a decade, has become a gathering place for traditional Catholics. Most Sundays, the church is overflowing.
Capitol Hill aide Paul-Martin Foss, 26, says he feels comfortable at St. Mary's. Worshipers there, he said, don't question church canon.
"On the major doctrinal issues, it's pretty much settled," he said. "They are all pro-life and faithful on all the church's moral teachings and dogma."
It is not an easy existence. Conservative Catholics, compared to "cafeteria Catholics" -- the term for Catholics who pick and choose which doctrines to follow -- say they can feel off the beaten path culturally.
Daniel Heenan, 25, a Sterling Catholic school teacher who plans to enter the seminary, faces the amused scrutiny of his peers for his devout life. "A lot of them think I'm a lunatic," Heenan said.
He said friends will say, "You're 25; you should be out getting drunk and having a good time, not going to church."
Those who eschew artificial birth control and have large families say they hear comments and rude remarks when they venture out with their children: "Don't you have enough?" and "Aren't you done yet?"
Sam Fatzinger, a Bowie mother of 11, has learned to respond with a tart: "No, I'm just getting warmed up."
"So many people think that with large families you're weird or crazy," said Nicole Santschi, 41, of Manassas, who is expecting her eighth child. "But we're normal, down to earth. But our goal is to get our kids into heaven and doing what God wants us to do. It's hard, but He gives us the grace to do it."
In the Hickey household, daily life revolves around the Catholic Church.
"We try to make this like a mini-church -- a domestic church," said Karen Hickey, a former Senate press secretary who grew up Jewish.
Even 3-year-old Caroline has memorized some of the evening rosary, chirping "Hail Mary, full of grace" with only modest prompting from David.
During the day, Karen and the children make it a practice to say novenas -- a devotion modeled on the nine days of prayers that, according to the Bible, the Apostles said after Jesus's ascension to heaven. On one recent warm day, Karen gathered the children together for the fifth day of the St. Joseph Novena. With 4-month-old Alice on her lap and the other wiggly children -- 7-year-old Henry, 5-year-old Charlie, Caroline and 2-year-old Jane -- around her, she read from the novena book.
As she read, "God employed only the humble who do not claim for themselves glory," Henry burst out indignantly, "You left the door open, and there is a giant bee."
Karen paused only briefly.
"Thank you," she said calmly, and kept reading.