When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano: Catholic Culture in America
Bottum, Joseph, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
The swallows would swirl through San Juan Capistrano, rising like a mist from the sea every March 19. Or so the legend goes. In fact, the blue-feathered birds sometimes reached California as early as mid-February, and when they arrived at the end of their long trek from Argentina, they would infest the place like happy locusts, plastering their gourd-shaped nests among the crossbeams and crannies, the nooks and corners--anywhere they could get their colonies to stick to the old stucco and adobe of the mission founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1776.
They were cliff swallows, Hirundo pyrrhonota, the woman from the local Audubon Society explained, speaking in the rapid, inflectionless voice of someone reading, for the sixth time that day, from a memo stuck to her desk with yellowing strips of cellophane tape. Lacking the deeply forked tail of the better-known barn swallow, Hirundo rustica, cliff swallows are known by their white forehead, buff rump, and short, squared-off tail feathers. They gather in large flocks, fluttering their wings above their heads in a characteristic motion while gathering mud for their nests. And they haven't returned to the Mission San Juan Capistrano--darting past the old Serra Chapel and flitting through the ruins of the Great Stone Church--for nearly twenty years.
Not that the mission hasn't tried to win them back. What's Capistrano without its swallows? All the mission bells will ring, / The chapel choir will sing, / When the swallows come back to Capistrano, the most popular song of 1939 told the nation, and for years after the swallows disappeared, you could see the groundskeepers out making artificial mud puddles with their green plastic hoses. In the 1990s, someone had the notion of hiring a local potter to fool the birds, and the mission is still dotted with clay nests: ceramic lures that failed to bring the square-tailed nest builders, Hirundo pyrrhonota, back to hear the bells.
There's a figure in all this, I think--a metaphor, perhaps, or a synecdoche--for the condition of American Catholicism. Its long history, certainly, from the Spanish colonial beginnings on. But, most of all, San Juan Capistrano seems an image for recent decades--because sometime around 1970, the leaders of the Catholic Church in America took a stick and knocked down all the swallows' nests.
They had their reasons. What was anyone to make of those endless 1950s sodalities and perpetual-adoration societies, the Mary Day processions, the distracting rosaries shouted out during the mumbled Latin Masses? The tangle and confusion of all the discalced, oblated, friar-minored, Salesianed, Benedictined, Cistercianed communities of monks and nuns?
The arcanery of decorations on albs and chasubles, the processions of Holy Water blessings, the grottos with their precarious rows of fire-hazard candles flickering away in little red cups, the colored seams and peculiar buttons that identified monsignors, the wimpled school sisters, the tiny Spanish grandmothers muttering prayers in their black mantillas, the First Communion gifts wrapped up in white like prepubescent brides, the mumbled Irish prejudices, the loud Italian festivals, the Holy Door indulgences, the pocket guides to Thomistic philosophy, the Knights of Columbus with their cocked hats and comic-opera swords, the tinny mission bells, the melismatic chapel choirs--none of this was the Church, some of it actually obscured the Church, and the decision to clear out the mess was not unintelligent or uninformed or unintended.
It was merely insane. An entire culture nested in the crossbeams and crannies, the nooks and corners, of the Catholic Church. And it wasn't until the swallows had been chased away that anyone seemed to realize how much the Church itself needed them, darting around the chapels and flitting through the cathedrals. They provided beauty, and eccentricity, and life. What they did, really, was provide Catholicism to the Catholic Church in America, and none of the multimedia Masses and liturgical extravaganzas in the years since--none of the decoy nests and artificial puddles--has managed to call them home. …