I was surprised when I started to see these signs in front of Catholic churches. Still, I suspected that it all had to do with a diocesan fund raising appeal. I never got a chance to check the website since I always saw these signs while driving and couldn't remember the web address. However, the full story began to come out with a series of ads in our local paper, the Advance. A revival was coming to Staten Island!
According to these ads, the Redemptorist order was sponsoring a week-long mission to Staten Island in order to bring fallen-away Catholics back to the Church and to re-energize "our Catholic Faith". I was a little bothered that the phrase "our Catholic Faith" was put in quotation marks, as it seemed to imply that our Catholic Faith was an ironic, theoretical or even dubious concept, but I put it down to a bad copywriter. This was exciting!
This event was something of the order of being in Times Square on VJ Day or seeing the towers fall on 9/11. The Church was actually_doing_something- taking the initiative, taking action, being aggressive for the Faith. Never in my lifespan of some 30-odd years had I seen anything of the sort on Staten Island, or anywhere else for that matter. The Redemptorist Order was sending 35 of its priests (along with 1 Augustinian) to our Island parishes to conduct a week of preaching, reconciliation and revival. This seemed just what we needed. Staten Island is a place that has a large nominal Catholic majority, but the living Faith- with the exception of small pockets- seems on life support here. We've had several churches and Catholic grade-schools close because of low attendance. Sunday Mass at many parishes seem to be attended only by a sprinkling of senior citizens. The Catholic high schools seem well attended, but judging by the behavior of the students, it doesn't seem like much is being done there to impart the Faith in any meaningful way. The priests provide no leadership, the sermons we hear are universally abysmal, and outright public heresy is never corrected. With the way things are going, I can't see the Faith surviving for another generation. So I was extremely excited to hear that the Redemptorists were coming to town.In an unprecedented move for a purely religious news story, the Advance even gave the Mission front page, above-the-fold coverage. You can read the story here. I was a little disturbed at some of the things the priest heading the Mission chose to talk about though. With his great opportunity to reach a hundred thousand people or so, for some reason he chose to criticize the Church for not emphasizing God's forgiveness towards women who've aborted their babies. He spoke at length about those divorced and remarried Catholics who might still be able to receive Communion because their first marriage was before a justice of the peace. Bizarrely, he mentioned how he doesn't think that many people are angry at the priest pedophile scandals. Another Redemptorist interviewed compared the mission to a "pyramid scheme." OK, obviously our priests are clueless about public relations, but someone must have known what they were doing to get free publicity like this, and I was sure the Redemptorists would excel at the actual mission.
I wasn't at all familiar with their order, but after a little Googling, my admiration for them swelled. In the first place, they were founded by one of my favorite saints, St. Alphonsus Liguori, who wrote one of the most spiritually edifying books I've ever read, "How to Converse Continually and Familiarly with God" and who was an all-around giant of the Faith. Appropriately enough, his Redemptorists specialize in missionary activities, preaching and soul-winning. These guys are God's special forces. Of course it was up to God to decide whether their efforts would have any effect, but I was certain that I would at least get to hear some great preaching, for once.
I think I can tally on one hand the number of good sermons I've heard from Catholic priests throughout my entire life. I don't know the reason why our priests are such horrible- and I mean horrible- preachers. They have years of advanced education, so they have no lack of knowledge. They've dedicated their lives to Christ by becoming priests, so there shouldn't be a lack of motivation in their hearts. They have a friendly audience and ample opportunity, yet their preaching is, almost without exception, uninspiring, boring, senseless and really just plain stupid. They couldn't do a worse job if they were deliberately trying to destroy our faith and, unfortunately, I think that's the result of such universally abominable preaching. I think bad Catholic preaching is one of, if not the biggest problem in the Church today. Remember, "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (Rom 10:17). It's sad to say, but you will hear better preaching from any random fundamentalist you find flipping through the radio dial or on TV, not to mention the ones you can hear in your own neighborhood. I believe that's one of the main reasons why their pews (or at least rows of metal folding chairs) are filled with so many ex-Catholics. However, I was fairly certain that the Redemptorists would not let me down. After all, soul-stirring preaching is their stock in trade
I couldn't make the Monday night mission, so I attended on Tuesday night. I will leave the name of the church anonymous, so as not to implicate any specific people. The crowd was disappointingly sparse, and even more disappointingly elderly. This was obviously the regular Sunday bunch. Even though there were so few of us in the large church, we had arranged ourselves in the traditional Catholic seating pattern: as far away from all other people as possible. A 64 page booklet was passed out beforehand which included Scripture readings, Catholic prayers, a guide to examining one's conscience, etc. Good so far. Then it began.
The Redemptorist priest came out from the sanctuary with the parish priest and an altar girl. A large bowl of water was placed on a table in front of the altar. We started off with a hymn- a weird, feminine, operatic type of hymn that no normal congregation could ever possibly sing, so we all basically sat silently as the organist carried the load. ("Why Catholics Don't Sing" is an excellent critique of dreadful modern church music, by the way). That was par for the course at this parish, so I didn't think much of it. We then recited some unfamiliar prayers from the booklet we had received. The priest then prepared to read the Gospel text from which he'd preach, by swinging the censer around the pulpit. It was at this point when my antennae went up and the mission went downhill, because before he began to read he told us that we could all sit down if we wanted to. We were already standing, and as Catholics we are used to standing during the Gospel reading. It's our tradition and it shows our reverence for the words of Christ. It was obvious that the people were all very confused and disturbed by his unorthodox permissiveness. Why on earth would he tell us something like that? So he could pose as our liberator from oppressive church rules? So he could play the "cool" authority figure, like the substitute teacher who lets the students sit in a circle rather than in rows? That had to be one of the most asinine things I'd ever heard in church. We all remained standing for about 10 seconds, unsure of what the crowd would do, but as a few people began to sit down, the rest of us lemmings followed. I thought I would remain standing as a sort of protest against such disrespect for the Word of God, but I eventually lost my nerve and sat down too. I noticed one middle aged woman who remained defiantly standing though. I salute that brave woman and wish I had her courage. She showed that she had a steel backbone and the spirit of a Joan of Arc. Even though I believe in traditional gender roles and oppose women priests, that doesn't mean that I don't think women can lead. That woman preached a better sermon by her example than any speaker could have done, and I'll never forget it. It was certainly better than anything I heard that night.
The Gospel reading was the parable of the Prodigal Son, which was appropriate for that night's theme of reconciliation. Unfortunately, the sermon was the same twaddle I hear every Sunday, only longer. At least the priest's delivery was slightly animated, which is in contrast to the whispering monotone in which sermons are usually delivered in my parish. However, the content was the same utter dreck. I certainly understood all the words that were spoken, but they just did not meld together into any one cogent idea. It was disorganized, fatuous and just plain incoherent. I'll save my in-depth analysis on the subject of preaching for another time, but suffice it say that this experience was extremely disappointing and dispiriting. I found myself giving thanks that it didn't seem like there were many fallen-away Catholics or non Catholics present because they would certainly never come back after hearing that.
After the pulpit punishment, we sang some hymns, one of which was, incredibly, even singable. Then the priest made us all go to the center aisle where we had to shake hands or wink at the people from the other side of the church and then change sides with them if we chose. The point of this ridiculous exercise escaped me, but I think he tied it in to Republicans and Democrats "crossing the aisle". As I was sitting down, an old woman told me how nice it was to see a young man in church, since she doesn't see many these days. I thought to myself that it was no wonder young men don't go to church if this is what the church offers: effeminate, unsingable music, sermons that are nothing more than gibberish, spiritual slackness ("you can sit if you want to") and queer, touchy-feely, New Age rituals that focus on man rather than God. Many books have been written about the feminization of Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant), and this was a great example tonight. What healthy-spirited man could tolerate these treacly ceremonies, this overload of estrogen, this dearth of reverence and spiritual awe? What draws a man to religion is black and white ideas (good and evil), a clear, challenging call to action of some sort (e.g. this is how you please God, this is how you get saved), an adherence to tradition and immutable truths, a gravity and seriousness appropriate to the circumstances, a focus on something that is greater than ourselves (honor, principles, the Church, salvation, God), and a religious leader who has the masculine qualities of leadership. Instead, the atmosphere at Mass and Catholic events like this mission all too often feels like an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show. Am I being rude and abrasive by saying these things? Yes, but ask yourself why so many of our churches are made up mostly of old women and die hard loyalists like myself who nevertheless can barely get through Mass, even with a lot of teeth gritting and desperate prayer. Men, and younger Catholics in general, are rejecting the feel-good, happy-clappy church of the 60s generation and want something more substantial, more strenuous. We want our old Faith back.
The less said about the rest of this mission, the better. At one point, the priest held up a huge bowl of water like he was raising the Host and told us we were going to engage in a new ritual of sorts. All I could think of at that point was "Don't drop it!" because that would just make the priest and, by extension, the Faith into a laughingstock. He managed to place the bowl back on the table and explained that we were to come up and- I believe- bless ourselves with the water while publicly proclaiming some resolution, like "I will love you better, Jesus." This new fangled ritual seemed silly and unnecessary to me. We Catholics have such a rich devotional heritage. Why do the Redemptorists feel the need to reinvent the wheel? In keeping with the disorganized and fumbling way in which the mission was conducted, the priest interrupted the beginning of the water ceremony and mentioned that we'd also be having confession, which was good. However, in yet another unnecessary concession to unsought novelty, he explained that we didn't have to use the old-fashioned Act of Contrition we learned growing up but could use the updated version as found on page 22 in our booklets. As the people grudgingly began lining up to anoint themselves, I made my escape.
Needless to say, I didn't attend any other missions. I was curious but just too discouraged to go through that again. As I said, there were 35 priests on the Island, so I can't judge what happened at their individual missions. They all might have been wonderful. I'm simply relating what I witnessed, which was a disaster in my opinion. I can't imagine anyone getting anything out of what I saw that night. I don't report this with the intention of harming the Church, but helping it. I have a feeling that the priests running this mission (and priests in general) receive nothing but praise from the old ladies and therefore think that they're doing a grand job. Things really need to improve if the Church in America is even to survive, and that's not going to happen without some harsh feedback, self-examination, hard work and reform.