Catholics not all ready to embrace new Ave Maria

A Sunday morning Mass this month at Immokalee’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Church began with a hymn called “City of God.”

Let us build the city of God...

May our tears be turned into dancing...

For the Lord our light and our love has turned the night into day.

Ten minutes from Our Lady of Guadalupe’s wooden pews with stained seat covers and wrinkled light blue bilingual missals titled “Celebremos/Let Us Celebrate,” the new residents of Ave Maria town gathered for a Mass of their own.

Once builders have finished their work, residents will celebrate Mass at Ave Maria — if not a City of God, then a city with many Godly influences — in a 100-foot tall place of prayer called an oratory at the town’s center.

On Sundays there, surrounded by a 300-acre university, quaint storefronts and high-end condominiums, Mass will be celebrated in English and Latin.

On Sundays at Our Lady of Guadalupe, surrounded by a car wash, wrought iron fence and cracked parking lot, Mass is celebrated in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole to accommodate the migrant worker community that makes up the majority of the parishioners.

The difference between the Catholic faith’s practice at Ave Maria and Our Lady of Guadalupe is a direct example of the church’s broad umbrella in America and across the world. The 65 million adherents to Roman Catholicism in the United States make up the largest single body of Christians in the country.

Not surprisingly, within the faith there are groups with contrary interpretations of Catholicism. Not surprisingly, those groups have contrary opinions of Ave Maria, one of the highest-profile projects involving American Catholicism in decades.

Tom Monaghan, the multimillionaire founder of Domino’s Pizza and the visionary behind Ave Maria town and university, has had visibility in the Catholic community since the 1980s, said Greg Erlandson, publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, one of the largest national Catholic newsweeklies.

The same year Monaghan purchased the Detroit Tigers baseball team in 1983, he started a foundation to support the Catholic Church.

He became interested in Central America, including the political struggle in Nicaragua between the Sandinistas and the Contras, with whom Monaghan intellectually sympathized, and its related religious conflict between liberal and conservative factions within the Catholic Church.

In 1988, Monaghan’s profile rose when he weathered calls by the National Organization for Women for a nationwide boycott of Domino’s prompted by Monaghan’s aggressive anti-abortion position.

His view of Catholicism and role as a major philanthropist solidified after a much-publicized sleepless night spent reading a chapter about pride called “The Great Sin” in a book by author C.S. Lewis. That night, Monaghan decided to give up his jets and Bugatti automobiles and no longer would conspicuously consume.

In an interview, Monaghan emphasized that he’s not a theologian, and when he expressed his views on religion they were simple and direct.

On priests: “The reason to be a priest is to help people get to heaven.”

On marriage: “I think marriage is a commitment for life.”

On the direction of the Catholic church: “The tide is changing. Young people are learning there’s more to life than just BMWs and fun. There’s the life hereafter. That lasts forever. It’s either real good or real bad.”

But Monaghan’s financial resources and ambition have provided him a platform to promote his brand of Catholicism in a way most others could never dream.

“Monaghan is a very interesting, complex person,” Erlandson said. “He doesn’t fit into a normal category within the church. Obviously, he’s an amazing entrepreneur and has a strong business sense. But he’s not exactly using a lot of polling data to figure out what other people want when he does things.”

A look at some polling data suggests that an Ave Maria movement within the Catholic faith might not be as widespread as some of the publicity has suggested.

William D’Antonio, a professor at Washington D.C.’s Catholic University, co-authored a study called American Catholics Today, a comprehensive examination of American Catholic opinion. D’Antonio’s findings put support for those who would be interested in “hard core, traditional, conservative” Catholicism — those who claim to support the Church’s teachings on all matters — at 7 to 12 percent of American Catholics.

That percentage, according to D’Antonio’s data, will decrease as commitment to the church and Catholic identity falls as older generations die off.

“As the world gets more and more complex and different networks within the faith develop, it will be interesting to see how this group will react,” D’Antonio said. “We wait with interest.”

Still, if D’Antonio’s figures are correct, 7 to 12 percent of American Catholics is between 4.5 and 8 million people. That’s a solid foundation, particularly considering the power and connections held by some in that group.

The Rev. Joseph Fessio, who until last spring was Ave Maria University’s provost and now is the school’s theologian-in-residence, has been cited as one of the American clergy members closest to Pope Benedict XVI. Fessio studied under the then-Rev. Joseph Ratzinger in the 1970s in Germany. Through his publishing house, Ignatius Press, Fessio is the primary publisher of the Pope’s works in the English language.

The Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., is run by a Church-sanctioned conservative organization called Opus Dei. The Center’s former director, the Rev. John McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest, is best known for his high-profile conversions to Roman Catholicism of economist Lawrence Kudlow, journalist Robert Novak and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a presidential candidate who has attracted Monaghan to his campaign team.

The Center’s current director and also an Opus Dei priest, the Rev. William Stetson, has known Monaghan for more than 20 years.

Stetson said Ave Maria will appeal to those with “sound, solid Catholic principles” and the “sector of Catholics very committed to the teachings of the Church.”

“It’s a marvelous thing that (Monaghan’s) using the wealth that God gave him to further the efforts of the Catholic Church,” Stetson said.

The official church, specifically in the form of the local hierarchy, seems to be taking an approach that would best be described as wait-and-see.

The Diocese of Venice in Florida, which has jurisdiction over 10 counties and 235,000 Catholics in Southwest Florida, has welcomed Ave Maria into its boundaries, but also has kept a distance.

Bishop Frank Dewane, who was installed last July, has yet to officially sanction either the oratory or the university.

Without diocesan approval, Ave Maria’s oratory cannot be called a “church” and therefore Catholic sacraments like baptisms, weddings and funerals cannot be performed without special dispensation from the bishop.

Ave Maria University officials, at least as far back as 2004, have made clear their wish for the oratory to become a church.

“We’re just patiently waiting,” University President Nick Healy said.

Furthermore, Ave Maria cannot even call itself a “Catholic university” — as it does on its Web site — without diocesan approval.

“It’s not a Catholic university,” Diocese spokeswoman Adela Gonzales White said. “It’s a private university in the Catholic tradition.”

That means, at least for now, the closest church, and the parish to which Ave Maria residents will belong, is Our Lady of Guadalupe in Immokalee.

Inside the church’s rectory, the Rev. Ettore Rubin, keeps a copy of the Nov. 21, 2002, Naples Daily News, which announced the coming of Ave Maria to Southwest Florida.

“We are open to interaction and any type of collaboration,” Rubin said. “I feel happy to have the presence of Ave Maria here in the neighborhood.”

The university has purchased an advertisement on the back of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Sunday bulletin, promoting daily Mass, sacred music and lifelong education.

But Rubin said he and other priests in the diocese had concerns about the impact of Monaghan’s “very conservative” interpretation of the Catholic faith.

Rubin believed ultimately the official church would have the biggest influence on how rank-and-file Catholics see Ave Maria.

“It’ll all work out,” he said. “The last word will be from the Catholic authorities in this country and from Rome.”

© 2007 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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