Sunday, December 27, 2009

Church Shopping Part VI: Sts Currier & Ives

The next congregation I visited was located within a historical village populated by restored 17th, 18th and 19th century buildings. The church itself was built in 1862 in the Romanesque Revival style and is a New York City landmark. The antiquity and charm of the church and its surroundings bring to mind sentimental scenes of Christmas caroling, riding in a one-horse open sleigh, and other images of old-time Americana, hence my nickname for the parish.

It is a beautiful brick church with wonderful stained glass windows. There were about 150 people crowded in at a noon Mass, with room for about 40 more. A young lady wearing a choir robe led the congregation in the entrance hymn of Adeste Fidelis- in Latin and English. She had a heavenly voice, one of the best I've ever heard. A good percentage of the congregation was even singing along with her, but that Catholic miracle can perhaps be explained by the fact that it was Christmas carols we were singing. People like and know those songs. The real test comes during the rest of the year, when most congregations usually sit mute during the hymns, and usually for good cause owing to the unsingable nature of most modern hymns.

The Mass proceeded without incident. There were only 2 things I shall comment on. The first was during the second reading. The reading was Col: 3:12-21, and the young lady reading it (not the singer) rather conspicuously omitted the last few sentences, which contained Paul's famous admonition for wives to be subordinate to their husbands. It made me wonder why these few sentences were left out. Is this a politically correct parish, where they dare not offend the feminists? Why do Catholic misalettes even offer a "short form" of this reading, or any reading? Are we ashamed of the Word of God? Are we looking for any angle to make the Mass go faster, even by 30 seconds? The whole thing was absurd.

The second thing I'd like to comment on is, of course, the sermon. The priest appeared to be Filipino, and spoke English with a bit of difficulty. He started off reiterating, almost word for word, that day's Gospel reading. That really gets under my skin. WE JUST HEARD THE GOSPEL! WE'RE NOT IDIOTS! WHY ARE YOU REPEATING IT??? As it was the feast of the Holy Family, he then went on to lament the disintegration of so many families today and attributed that state of affairs to the fact that families don't spend much time with each other nowadays. O....K....I suppose that is one cause of the problem. Would you care to offer a solution, Father? Since one of the conspicuous sins of our Staten Island community is crass consumerism, would you care to admonish us with the prophetic role of your office and declare that mothers should stay home to take care of their children, that fathers do not need to work like slaves to buy million dollar McMansions, 4 Escalades and every ridiculous gadget that Best Buy dangles in front of our faces? Unfortunately, he let a potentially edifying point remain undeveloped and descended into platitudes. He went on to tell us that the Holy Family is the ideal family because Joseph worked hard to support his family, Mary was holy, and Jesus didn't embarrass his parents by flaunting His divinity over them. I kid you not. Like pretty much every Catholic sermon I've ever heard, it was vague, meaningless and thus without any value whatsoever. I suppose I should thank God that it was merely banal, and not heretical or moronic.

Nevertheless, it seemed like a vibrant parish with good people. Perhaps I'll come back for a second look.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Church Shopping Part V: Roman Senate

The next stop on the tour was a stately North Shore church that resembles the ancient Roman Senate, - a high ceilinged rectangular building with an apse and slightly jutting columns against the walls. Except for primitive, 1960s-style Stations of the Cross, the decoration was traditional and admirable. It had beautiful stained glass windows and old fashioned statuary. There were banners on the walls, but unlike the felt rectangles bedecked with warm and fuzzy socialist slogans ("We are Church", etc.) you find in modernist parishes, like the Gymnasium, these banners displayed Renaissance art. Whoever decorated this church had some taste.

There were about 130 people, racially mixed, at a 12 noon Mass on a rainy Sunday. The processional set the tone for the entire experience of Mass at this parish. The organist asked us to join in singing a particular hymn, but did not tell us where to find it in the hymnal and then didn't even play the organ or sing anything. It was like something from Waiting for Godot. The snowy-haired priest looked like the priest from Everybody Loves Raymond. He used a cane and hobbled up the aisle behind his altar girl, looking like he was going to topple over at any moment. The first part of the Mass went by uneventfully, and then the priest limped over to the pulpit to give his sermon.

He had a surprisingly youthful voice and knew how to establish a connection with the congregation by looking at us and speaking somewhat conversationally, but not informally. Unfortunately, his sermon was as disjointed and banal as those of most other priests. He began by talking about an infomercial for an exercise machine he had recently seen which promised results with only 20 minutes of use each day. Father then mused how much spiritual benefit we would obtain if we devoted 20 minutes each day to God. That was a GREAT point- the next logical step would have been for him to expand upon it and tell us HOW to commune with God each day and gain those spiritual benefits. Sadly, his idea remained undeveloped and he abruptly veered off onto an anecdote from Grandma's favorite newspaper columnist, Irma Bombeck. She had written about an incident in church where she witnessed a mother admonish her child for smiling at the other congregants, which led Father to speak vaguely about our "God of Love" who wants us to be happy, and how we should be joyfully celebrating the upcoming birth of Christ. His peroration was memorable to me, as it included both a Scriptural quotation (unusual for a Catholic sermon!) and an insipid, sentimental misinterpretation of said Scripture. He said that when we go to Heaven, we want God to say "Well done, good and faithful servant" (MT 25:21) BECAUSE "You made my people smile"! That sermon certainly made me smile (for the wrong reasons) but I'm pretty sure that our eternal reward will not be based on our ability to amuse others.

The next portion of the Mass was even more entertaining. After his sermon the priest went to the altar and waited as one of the ladies went to the pulpit and read off the names of the winners of the church raffle! She then announced that there would be supermarket gift cards for sale in the foyer after Mass. Why are modern Catholics so clueless about...well, everything??? In what universe is it considered sensible, appropriate or reverent to interrupt a 2000 year old religious ritual in order to announce the winners of a game of chance and hawk products to the worshippers? Do they not realize the effect that has??

Recognizing the priorities of the parish, the ushers respectfully refrained from taking up the collection while the lady was announcing the raffle winners, and waited until the priest began to say the blessing over the gifts. The rest of the Mass proceeded with similar unsynchronized confusion- over when to stand and sit, silence during the responses, etc. What was most surprising was that the entire Mass lasted only 30 minutes. I'd never witnessed a Mass with a sermon last only a half hour. The rain on my coat hadn't even dried yet.

Despite all the bumbling, I left with a good feeling about this parish. I can't say why, because if I had witnessed some of these things at other parishes, with other priests and other people, it would have set me off. Maybe it was because I felt like the people and the priest were genuine, sincere, and faithful. I have no explanation for my positive reaction, but I liked the place.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Catholic Church shopping Part IV: the Gymnasium

I have written before about the next church I visited. This large parish on the South Shore has torn down its old church and is building a humongous modernist monstrosity in its place. For the time being Mass is held in the school gymnasium. There's really not that much to say. I didn't see any bulletins, so I can't comment on the life of the parish. It was a mid afternoon Mass and still drew a lot of people, perhaps 200. There is a large school connected to the parish, so in those situations I wonder if Mass attendance is mandatory for continued enrollment. The people certainly didn't seem like they wanted to be there. The altar was located at half court, against the wall, which gave it a theatre-in-the-round feel. The Indian priest gave a convoluted, uninspiring and unmemorable sermon. He spoke at length about what Hindus believed and said some vague things about that day's reading from the Book of Revelation. The music was played with skill by some musicians on the stage. and consisted of the post Vatican II second tier standards that grate on your nerves after a lifetime of hearing them. One thing I will remember about this church is that the congregation was perhaps the most slovenly group of people I have ever seen. Perhaps one or two older folks were dressed appropriately, while the majority were clad in jeans, t-shirts, sweatpants, shorts, and velour jogging suits (the uniform for Staten Island women) . The Gymnasium proved to be yet another disheartening experience for me.

As Sting sang, "Don't stand so close to me"



This photo in the current issue of Catholic New York accompanied an article about a diocesan pastors' convention. I've made sardonic references on this blog to the "traditional Catholic seating pattern" which means sitting as far away from everyone else as possible. This picture illustrates why no one has ever tried to tackle this pernicious habit of ours, which tells the world that we fear and dislike each other: if the pastors are doing it amongst themselves, why should the laity do any different?? Here we have a Mass for priests only, with the majority crowded in the back of the church, perhaps because they couldn't find a pew all to themselves, like the priests in the foreground. Maybe they're afraid of the non-existent swine flu plague. I've been to several churches recently that have canceled the handshake of peace due to swine flu fears. Maybe they'll cancel Mass next. What a joke.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Father and his boyfriend.

The Advance ran an obituary the other day for a priest, Rev. Daniel Cassiero, who had served in several Staten Island parishes and schools during the 70s, 80s and 90s. Passing away at the fairly young age of 66, the Advance detailed the various milestones of Father Cassiero's life and career. Towards the tail end of the standard obituary verbiage, the following bombshell was inserted nonchalantly:

"Father Cassiero retired from the VA in 2004 and moved to Albuquerque with his partner, Craig Stoebling. While there, he enjoyed volunteering for the VA pharmacy in Albuquerque.

“He served in a variety of ministries, where he was known for his humor and the quality of his preaching,” said Stoebling, his partner of 10 years."

Whoah.

Obviously, these 2 short sentences don't provide too much information, but I think the fact of a gay priest merits some notice and discussion. I have questions. When did he first break his vow of chastity? If it was during his time in the Church, is it possible that no one noticed that he had taken up with a "partner"? And if they did, why was nothing done about it? He served as an Air Force chaplain over the course of 9 years, with a brief interlude as master of ceremonies at St. Patrick's Cathedral. How did this young and obscure priest from the boonies of Staten Island obtain such a prestigious position? Why does the phrase "Lavender Mafia" come to mind? After retiring from the Air Force, he then became a public school teacher in Virginia. That seems very odd. What was the reason for his early retirement and subsequent career as a public school teacher? Why Virginia? He then returned to the Island and taught at a local Catholic high school. How did he explain his unusual career path to whomever interviewed him at Moore? After getting a Masters in social work, he then spent the remainder of his working life as a social worker with the VA. Why? Did he have a religious function there or was his position purely secular? How was that allowed by his superiors? What kind of priest was he? Was he the kind of priest who inspires young men to consider the priesthood? Or was he the kind of effeminate gay priest who repels young men from anything having to do with religion? If he was breaking his vows, and living an unnatural lifestyle contrary to the Magisterium, how faithful and orthodox could his leadership have been? What could his "quality" preaching have been like if his lifestyle was in such contradiction to basic Christian morality? I would be interested in hearing what his former parishioners have to say about that.

I went to the website of the Albuquerque parish that is burying Father Cassiero. The church describes itself as "a multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-cultural inclusive Christian Community." To be charitable, the wording may be unintentional, but "inclusive" is usually a euphemism meaning that "the rainbow flag flies here".

And again, to be charitable, the quality of journalism at the Advance has sunk to such horrendous levels that their inept grasp of the English language may have misrepresented Father Cassiero's business partner as something totally different. Judging from his Facebook page, I would say not though. (Note- the Facebook page has been changed- here is the original picture:
It took the sex abuse Gethsemane of recent years for the Church, led by Benedict XVI, to take positive action against the pernicious cancer of homosexuals in the priesthood. God willing, the Pope's directives will be effective. How many actively gay priests are still in the priesthood is anyone's guess, although I've heard too many high-pitched lisps and slack morality from the pulpit to think that the number is negligible. No doubt we'll see more reports in coming years of priests retiring to sunny climes with their boyfriends and an Archdiocesan pension. But let us not respond to these monstrous revelations with either resigned silence or meaching tributes to their sense of humor, their prize winning gardenias or the delicate skill with which they threw a tea party. Let us name them for what they are: liars, con artists, oath-breakers, deceivers, and a Fifth Column of corruption within Christ's Church.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Another hidden treasure on Staten Island

The Advance reported on a convent that I myself only recently found out existed on Staten Island. The "Sister Disciples of the Divine Master, a branch of the Pauline family" has a fairly large spread hidden on a small side street off of the top of Bradley Avenue. I only discovered it by accident and no one I know had ever heard of it until I told them. I had meant to investigate it and take some pictures but never had the chance. The large fence surrounding the property also seems to discourage snooping. However, the sisters are making an attempt to be hospitable and are opening up their chapel to visitors Monday through Saturday, 1-6. On the first Sunday of every month they also host a prayer hour from 3-4, followed by a coffee and cake social. The article states that they make a living weaving and embroidering liturgical vestments.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

St. Francis Seminary

In our continuing pictorial documentation of Staten Island's Catholic institutions, today we'll look at the St. Francis seminary, now known as the St. Francis Center for Spirituality (!) Located in bucolic splendor at the highest point of Staten Island, on ritzy Todt Hill, I really have little information about it except that it was once a Franciscan seminary. One source says that it has been there since the 1800s, although the main building looks somewhat more recent. It once encompassed 24 acres of beautiful woodlands that are very conducive to spiritual introspection and inner peace, but with the modern lack of vocations, the land was put on the market in the 90s. Fearing the ugly, generic overdevelopment that plagues the rest of the island, our environmental groups made a stink and pressured the state into buying and preserving the land, while the Franciscans retained ownership of the buildings.

Some Franciscans still live there. One, a Father Ed Holden (not sure if he's still there), used to have a weekly column in the Advance in which he answered religious questions from correspondents. The questions always seemed scripted to me, and the subject matter was usually frivolous ("will my cat go to heaven?"), but sometimes he ventured into quite unorthodox territory (praising Martin Luther, saying we should accept homosexuality, etc.). I was always embarrassed by his column. Another Franciscan who lived there, Fr. Stephen Valenta, was indicted in April by a Texas grand jury on the charge of "compelling" an adult female relative to perform a sexual act on him. The charge sounds bogus though, as the priest is 85 years old and physically impaired. I have seen no updates on the story from our local rag. The Franciscans conduct some very nice programs which are open to the public, although I haven't attended any. I have been to midnight Mass at their beautiful chapel though and was very impressed by the facility. Here are some pictures:

The main building:


St. Francis;


A hillside shrine:



The peaceful pond:


One of the stations of the cross meandering through the hills:


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Degeneration of the Jesuits

The Advance's religion section on 9/19/09 had an announcement about an upcoming workshop at the Mount Manresa Jesuit Retreat House. The one day "Mind, Body, Spirit Workshop" "is designed as an introduction to a holistic approach to total well being and will include talks on 'The Miracle of Dietary Supplements' from Dr. Jerome Charyn; 'Meeting the Noonday Devil,' with Fred Herron, and the interpretation of the art of Mandala, with Sr. Maureen Skelly, S.C.H. The day will also include yoga with Fr. Edward J. Quinnan, S.J. and tai chi with Victoria Drumbakis." A $40 donation is suggested.

This story really needs no commentary. The disloyal Jesuits are up to their usual subversion of the Catholic Church. Here we have a major Jesuit institution sponsoring a workshop on New Age, Buddhist and Hindu religious exercises and meditation techniques. Even if it could be argued that these are neutral activities, I would ask what business do the Jesuits have in devoting their time and resources to such things? Have they forgotten their mission to win souls for Christ? Or are they now in the life coaching and personal training businesses?

However, at least some of these activities are not neutral; Mandala is a meditative art having "spiritual and ritual significance in both Buddhism and Hinduism". Yoga as well is a meditative practice associated with Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. And to what is all this meditation directed? Certainly not Christ. These devotions were invented to draw the soul to Hindu deities or to at least put one's soul in an spiritual state conducive to the beliefs of those religions. If the Jesuits want to teach silly fat women how to de-stress, they should tell them to say the rosary. For crying out loud, their own founder, Ignatius Loyola, wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a landmark guide to spiritual discipline and transcendance. It is a major scandal that what was once our Church's premier order has not only turned to Eastern religion for answers but is leading the flock there as well. These wicked shepherds will have a lot to answer for on Judgement Day.

The motto of the Jesuit order is Ad maiorem Dei gloriam (to the greater glory of God). The question today is which god or gods the Jesuits seek to glorify? You Jesuits "..hast gone a whoring from thy God..." (Hosea 9:1); it is time for repentance.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Sacred Heart of Jesus dumped by Catholics

This is kind of a weird story about mixed-up Catholic priorities and general confusion in our Catholic institutions. This article talks about how the Archdiocese is putting pressure on Catholic school principals to stop half day Fridays in the Catholic schools. It has long been a tradition here that Catholic schools would take their students to Mass on the first Friday of the month, in keeping with the devotion to the Sacred Heart, and then be dismissed early. I remember the practice in grade school, and how much I enjoyed those days. I like attending a "special" Mass with all my classmates and then going home around 10:30. Since we all lived in the neighborhood and had someone at home waiting for us, there was no inconvenience: it was like a feast day.

Now, because a bunch of self-centered soccer moms find it annoying to deal with their kids a mere three hours after dumping them off at school, the Archdiocese wants to discontinue this age-old tradition. However, it seems like the tradition had been gutted long before this. Judging from the article, the schools apparently don't even take the kids to Mass anymore. They let the students out early so they can supposedly honor the Sacred Heart of Jesus on their own time! (Like that will happen). So basically, the kids go to school for 3 unproductive hours and go home. There are so many troubling aspects to this story, but I'll only address a few.

First, I find it extremely disturbing that the schools seem to have stopped taking the students to First Friday Mass a long time ago. Did it get to the point where parents were objecting to the fact that their kids were actually participating in religious activities during school hours? Have Catholics ceased to find value in devotion to the Sacred Heart? I don't understand why mandatory Mass attendance was stopped. Secondly, the current system whereby students are released early on Fridays, without having attended Mass during school hours, is a blatant deception on the part of the Catholic schools. After all, if the schools really wanted the students to be able to take advantage of the promises of the Sacred Heart, which involves receiving the Eucharist on First Friday, then they would allow them to come in later, not leave earlier, since weekday Masses are generally held in the morning! So, letting the kids out early without having taken them to Mass is an obvious con and is, in reality, simply some sort of perk for teachers or a bureaucratic shenanigan of some kind. It obviously has nothing to do with the Sacred Heart devotion. Third, the parents quoted in the article seem primarily upset about lost school hours and not getting their money's worth, not that their kids are being deprived of an immense supernatural benefit. This attitude seems typical among modern Staten Island Catholic parents. Materialist to the core.

What should be done is to reinstate mandatory attendance at First Friday Mass. It is a disgrace that the schools don't do this anymore. Jesus Christ Himself made very concrete promises about this devotion. We would have to be fools not to do everything in our power to abide by that. As for the half day, I think it is preferable that the custom remains. It sets the day apart as something holy, almost like a Sunday. However, I understand that for a lot of schools, where many students live at great distances and many mothers work, it may not be practicable to have half days. Therefore, principals should make a decision based on their school's special circumstances, but always keeping in mind that the spiritual aspect should take precedence.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Positive News

I was shocked to read this story about how the Archdiocese of Boston, MA is reviving the practice of Perpetual Adoration after 40 years. Yes, you read that right- in that city of over 600,000 people- in an archdiocese of over 1.8 million Catholics- in that Mecca of American Catholicism, the basic Catholic devotion of Perpetual Adoration has not been practiced in 40 years! It's no wonder that Boston has been electing baby killers and degenerates for the same period of time. It's no wonder that Boston was Ground Zero of the abuse scandal. It's no wonder that people can honestly speak about the "collapse" of Catholicism in Boston. Our brethren up there must be either immoral, amoral or just plain stupid. But I digress. I bring it up to thank God and give well-deserved accolades to the Guardians who keep the flame alive at Staten Island's Perpetual Adoration chapel at Alba House. I'm so proud that a remnant of Catholics in our little bedroom community can perform such a beautiful act of worship and sacrifice while mighty Boston had seemingly become the church that forgot Christ. Bravo!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The "Confession Crisis" and James 3:1

This isn't technically a Staten Island story, but I just have to comment on it. A Vatican big shot is complaining that the Sacrament of Confession has been in "deep crisis" for decades and he blames the problem on the faithful, who have become unable to distinguish between good and evil. I am just flabbergasted at the ignorance and arrogance of such an ivory tower pronouncement, which just goes to show how out-of-touch with reality our hierarchy is. I wonder if these cardinals and bishops ever have any actual contact with real people or real parish life, or do they exist in some amber-preserved, perpetual 1964, where they read Kung and Rahner and eagerly await the fruits of the aggorniamento.

The concept of sin has practically been banished from Catholic discourse in the United States. When was the last time you heard a priest even mention the word? All we hear from the Father Feel-Goods of the American church is pablum of the "God-is-love" variety. Even in connection with something like abortion, on which the Church is quite vocal in opposition, the women who murder their own babies are treated like innocent victims. And when blatant public sinners like Nancy Pelosi or John Kerry, who are accomplices in the deaths of millions of babies, receive Holy Communion from the hands of our nation's bishops, what are we being told about the need for Confession? Sin obviously doesn't exist, so what need is there for repentance?

This "crisis" is nothing more than another symptom of the dumbing-down of American Catholicism, which can be laid square on the doormat of the clergy. If you meet American Catholics under the age of 60 who know anything about the Faith besides how "accepting" God is, I'd bet the farm that most of them are either autodidacts or they were catechized by older, well-informed relatives. Our priests have simply abdicated their duties. Sheep naturally go astray, but it is the job of the shepherd to guard them vigilantly and, if necessary, to keep them in the flock with pastoral correction: sometimes by the sound of his voice, sometimes with the crook. Unfortunately, our shepherds are too distracted by things like ecumenical games, political causes (of the Left and Right), active dissension, aesthetic fripperies (church improvements, ecclesiastical accoutrements) or just the languid enjoyment of a comfortable sinecure.

As I pointed out, the priests are petrified of even mentioning things like sin, Hell or repentance anymore. However, Confession is still available at most churches for those "in the know". But even in this, look at how the priests discourage this Sacrament. In every single church I know of, Confession is only offered late on Saturday afternoons for, at most, a half hour! At some churches, the scheduled time is only 15 minutes! Just visit the links to Staten Island churches on the side of this blog. This is insane. First of all, I don't think Saturday afternoon is a very convenient time for most people. That's really the one day working people have to attend to their private affairs, whether it's home repair, banking, entertainment, family activities, etc. I'm not saying it shouldn't be offered on Saturday- it should, since we need to be prepared to receive the Eucharist the next day- but there should be other times it is available and certainly for longer than a half hour. Churches used to offer Confession before every Mass on Sunday. Other churches offer it during the week.

Our Lady of Victory in downtown Manhattan is a great example. Confession is offered every weekday from 8am to 9am, from 12 noon to 1:30 pm and from 5:00 pm to 5:30. These times make it very convenient for workers who want to go to Confession but who don't want to go out of their way on Saturdays to do it. In addition, the ample opportunity offered by this church makes me feel encouraged to take advantage of it. When a priest only offers this Sacrament for a half hour each week, it looks to me like he's only doing it grudgingly and I would thus feel uncomfortable and self-conscious about going to him. If the dearth of penitents is the excuse a priest gives for the paltry time he devotes to it, I guarantee that if a priest would actually start emphasizing the need for this Sacrament and explaining the benefit one gains from it, he would have his hands full hearing Confessions.

So, please spare me the laity-bashing. If we've gone down the wrong path, it's because our shepherds have been lax. "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more severely than others." James 3:1

My Eastern Sojourn

After leaving the Bunker, I serendipitously found myself driving by Christ the King chapel in Port Richmond. This little "mission chapel" is attached to St. Mary of the Assumption church, which is a about a mile away and which is now predominantly Mexican. I don't know why or when this little chapel was created, but it's always been fascinating to me. There's nothing else like it on Staten Island, to my knowledge. When we've built churches, we've built them big. The only small chapels we have are connected with a church, a school or a larger Catholic institution. However, this chapel was at least a mile away from a church and didn't look like it could fit more than 50 people. Was it perhaps built for the private use of a retired bishop or a wealthy Catholic family? Maybe some savvy priest snatched it up on the cheap from some insolvent Protestants? Whatever the story was, it's always had an allure for me, since I have never seen it open in my entire life. However, this Sunday it was.

As I drove by, I noticed a brown-skinned man walking into the building. I saw my opportunity and parked the car. I figured it was a Spanish Mass, since the neighborhood is heavily Mexican and I noticed on the sign outside that the chapel hosts some Spanish Masses. Nothing much really surprises me anymore, but I have to say that I genuinely experienced shock when I walked through that door.

Through a thick cloud of incense, I beheld a congregation of about 30 Indian people listening to a sermon by a priest bedecked in a robe that looked like something out of the Arabian Nights. Judging by the style of the women's saris, it was obvious they were Indian. The priest's language and cadence also seemed familiar to me from Bollywood movies. I unobtrusively chose the last pew, but only after I sat down did I realize that the church was gender segregated and I had sat on the women's side. I was feeling too self-conscious to get up and change sides though. I was the only non-Indian there and received more than one double-take.

However, I did not feel unwelcome. I assumed that these people belonged to one of the Church's Eastern rites, so I felt like I was still worshipping with fellow Catholics, despite the exoticness of the ritual. Believe it or not, the priest actually preached one of the better sermons I'd heard in a long time. Perhaps to accommodate the American guest, he alternated languages as he preached, just like they sometimes do in Bollywood films. He was passionate about his subject and spoke at length and at some detail about the cooperation of grace and free will in salvation. His sermon was a happy mixture of the theological and the concrete. I was halfway thinking about joining this church, as you just don't get this kind of adult-level discourse from the pulpits of American Catholic churches. The traditionalism of the worship was also gratifying.

The priest faced away from the congregation, as used to be done in the Catholic Church until the 1960s. I imagined that the liturgy was probably quite ancient, since I know it was Thomas the Apostle who evangelized India. It would be hard to conceive of all the problems of Latin rite experimentation taking place here. The very thought of altar girls, hippy guitarists, pandering liturgical democratization, clown Masses, et al would probably be unimaginable to these people. That's the safeguard of Tradition, that what is true and valuable will be preserved and passed down. We Latin Catholics turned the very heart of our faith over to revolutionaries in the 1960s and look what's happened to us. I would have preferred to receive the Faith of my ancestors than the experimentation of leftwing clerics.

The music was sung by the congregation a cappella. They were quite a bit off at times, but it didn't really matter; they weren't on American Idol. Their singing was an act of worship, and they all participated. Strangely enough though, the priest seemed to abruptly cut them off a few times, but I don't know why. Most of the liturgy, excepting the Our Father and a few other things, was in their language but that didn't really matter. I know the basic plot of Christian mysteries: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again; this is my Body, this is my Blood, etc. It's not necessary to understand every word in order to participate in worship. I am entirely unsympathetic to those whiners who never "understood" the Latin Mass. Everyone had a missal with a translation directly next to the Latin of the Mass. Geez, someone attending Mass every week of their life can't help but naturally absorb the Latin. I would think that by the time they were 30, a regular church-goer would be able to comfortably converse with Caesar Augustus. I think the anti-Latin partisans are just intellectually lazy or not actually regular church-goers. There are definite benefits to an unchanging, elevated liturgical language. Although I can't speak from real experience, I think I would even prefer to hear the Mass in Latin than the prosaic American tongue I hear in the agora.

There were certain things about this service I didn't understand. A man and woman went up to the front for what seemed to be a special blessing. As soon as the people received Communion, they began leaving the church or going into a side room for some sort of refreshments. So I asked an older man who exactly they were. And this was where I received my second surprise: he told me that they were an Indian Orthodox church!

Sure enough, a little googling confirmed that they were the Malankara Orthodox church. Over the years, I'd read many times about a Catholic church allowing a non-Catholic religious group to worship in our church, such as when their own church burned down. However, with so many abuses happening today, I wasn't sure if that was really allowed. I thought it was slightly scandalous. Although it's unlikely that any American was going to be converted to the Indian Orthodox church, it still smacked of indifferentism. Would I next see Protestants preaching against us from our own pulpits? So, I emailed the archdiocese.

I figured the head of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs would have the answer, and indeed, he was quick to reply that it was ok. I asked him if he could cite the relevant section of canon law or papal encyclical that allowed it, and he replied that he didn't know and said I should ask a certain other priest in the chancery office, but he gave me no contact info. I felt I was just getting a runaround, so I put my question to the experts-at-large on the internet.

Sure enough, an online priest quoted me numbers 137-142 of something called the Ecumenical Directory, a Papal document published in 1967 and subsequently revised a few times. In it, non-Catholic use of Catholic churches is permitted with the local bishop's approval. So, there you have it. It is allowed, but is it right?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Catholic Church shopping, part III: The Bunker

Although I was eager to sample a couple of churches this past Sunday, I had to choose only one since almost every place has the same schedule. So I randomly decided to go to a church on our North Shore that I will call "The Bunker".

The parish, which I believe has been around for over 100 years (although the present church was only built in 1968) is one of Staten Island's two traditionally Polish parishes. St. Stanislaus, which I've written about before, is the other. However, while St. Stanislaus is still made up mainly of Polish immigrants, this one seems to be pretty well assimilated and diversified by now. The only visible signs of its heritage were an icon of the Lady of Czestochowa and the names of some of the older parishioners in its meager bulletin.

The church was of modern design. I entered into a brown-paneled foyer almost totally devoid of adornment, with a ceiling so high that I felt like a bug trapped in a tall cardboard box. The bare pamphlet rack was the very picture of depressing, containing only the Sunday bulletin and a local exterminator's business cards. It can be guessed that there was no one there to welcome visitors. The oversized, cathedral-like doors to the church were shut tightly, further emphasizing the cold and unwelcoming atmosphere. When I passed through them, I beheld the ugliest church I have ever been in.

Imagine, if you can, a church without any windows- hence "The Bunker". Actually, there were rows of square-foot, frosted glass blocks lining certain sections of the floor, not that that alleviated the dismal atmosphere in the least. I mean, submarines have periscopes, but no one would claim that they make the vessel feel light and airy in consequence. And to be totally accurate, there was a single, enormous floor-to-ceiling semi-opaque window on one side of the sanctuary which had the aesthetic purpose, I suspect, of casting a dull light down upon the altar on Sunday mornings. However, because the church was insanely designed with Frank Gehry-like asymmetry, the window is hidden from at least 3/4 of the congregation. The church had an extremely high-pitched ceiling, which somewhat resembled that of the Air Force Academy Chapel, but whereas that place contains windows and ornamental variation, the ceiling of the Bunker was an exercise in flat, dark brown monotony, with row upon row of identically colored slats that seemed to go on forever. While the high ceilings of the great cathedrals convey the grandeur of God and a feeling of being under Heaven, this place made me feel like I was trapped in an inescapable pit. It gave the impression of being in a cavern, a feeling which was reinforced by the vast distances at play under the roof. I couldn't even see the people on the other side of this mammoth space. There were about 130 people attending Mass that day, spread out- in traditional Catholic style- as far away from each other as possible.

When I sat down, I read the 2 page bulletin and was surprised at how little activity there was going on in this church, especially considering that the parish operates a grade school and seems to have a lot of parishioners. (I wonder if attendance at Mass is a condition of enrollment). All of the announcements were for social events and entertainment: a dinner dance, a musical, a Chinese Auction. Not only that, but apart from cheerleading tryouts and a fashion show at the parish school, they were all happening at other parishes: I felt like I had walked into a morgue.

The people seemed eager to confirm that impression. I don't believe I saw anyone even pretend to sing a hymn. Hardly anyone even cracked open the misalette to follow the readings. The manner of dress ranged from casual to slovenly to Jerry-Springer-guest. The unshaven man in front of me, wearing some some sort of jogging outfit, even set a new record for irreverent "genuflection". I'm used to the "one-quarter genuflection" and the "sign of the blob" but this guy simply swatted some invisible flies away from the front of his face when he entered his pew. His 3 boys copied him exactly. The general feeling of boredom was palpable, especially among the men. They were yawning, constantly shifting their weight from one leg to another, sighing loudly, leaning wearily on the back of the pew in front of them, staring at the ceiling with undisguised impatience. Not that I didn't feel the same way, but their actions only served to further discourage the rest of us and, in addition, I'm sure their children were taking to heart how daddy really feels about church. No one seemed like they wanted to be there.

At the head of this somnambulistic ceremony, was a priest who made Bob Newhart seem like a dynamic and charismatic personality. Even if he had given the world's best sermon, his soft spoken, droning monotone would have made me want to pull my hair out. However, he did not give a good sermon. Speaking on the Gospel reading of JN 15:9-17, (Love one another as I have loved you), he blathered on with one vague generality after another. The closest he came to being specific was when he said that we should encourage one another. Please Fathers, give us some meat! Tell us how exactly to love one another as Christ loves us. What do we do? Why is it imperative? What does it all mean? Be specific. Be excited. Inform me, inspire me, build up my faith. Enough with the platitudes. Are our clergymen simpletons or do they just think we all are?

Two thoughts on preaching: first of all, priests used to have a saying: "Never underestimate their intelligence but always underestimate their knowledge." The horrible leadership of the American Church of the past few decades has left its flock spiritually disarmed. Our enemies are correct when they say that most of us are woefully ignorant about the basics of our Faith. That doesn't mean we're stupid. Teach us like Jesus taught. He spoke plain, hard truths to adults. Do the same.

Secondly, one of the best public speakers I have known once told me 3 rules for successful communication to an audience, and I've seen his teaching borne out. 1. Speak louder than normal. 2. Speak faster than normal. 3. Move around the stage. This third one may not be applicable to a priest, because the pulpit is a symbol of authority and I've always found it patronizing and pandering when priests would come down among "the people" to give their sermon. However, that doesn't mean that the priest can't be animated, look at the people, move his arms, etc. Public speaking is a completely different thing than talking on the telephone. You're a tiny little figure in front of a large room; you have to speak and act differently in order to get people's attention and be effective.

One last comic observation: the walls of the church were lined with about 20 enormous speakers the size of artillery pieces. They were the kind of speakers you would see on stage at an outdoor heavy metal concert. I thought for sure this was going to be one church where the priest's voice would come through loud and clear. However, in keeping with Catholic tradition of audio incompetence, it was a muffled, crackling and sputtering transmission that came through the sound system, like Father was broadcasting from the space shuttle and speaking through a handkerchief.

I tired to sit through the whole thing, but it eventually became intolerable. The lack of participation, the dreary priest, the oppressive architecture, the atmosphere of boredom and resentment became too much. When the "cool-dude dad" in front of me smiled approvingly on his two sons as they defaced the image of the church's patron saint on the front of the bulletin, I left.

Monday, May 4, 2009

First thoughts on new Archbishop

I have a generally favorable impression of New York's new Archbishop, based largely on certain stray facts I've picked up from the media, such as his authorship of a book defending clerical celibacy. However, now that he has begun his reign here, we can start judging him on his record. So far, I'm seeing positive and negative.

On the positive side, he has made a surprisingly strong statement of what on the surface seems like actual Catholic faith. According to the April 23rd issue of Catholic New York, he "...promised a ministry centered on renewal of Catholic practice in the Church, saying: 'On my first day as your archbishop I dream that we can reclaim Sunday as the Lord's day, anchored in our faithfulness to Sunday Mass, our weekly family meal with the risen Jesus.' 'For us Catholics,' he said, 'Christ and his Church are one."

I welcome such a sentiment. Besides the usual trials of existence in a sinful world, one of the Church's main problems in this age is the erosion of Catholic allegiance and identity, due mainly to the inculcation of an such an attitude from the clergy. When was the last time you heard a priest preach about the Church's divine authority or even speak the words "One, True Church"? In contrast to previous generations, most Catholics I know identify as such without knowing one good reason they should. This ignorance makes them ready prey for the ravenous wolves of the sects. Dolan's triumphal sentiment is a far cry from that of the outgoing Cardinal Egan, who seemed primarily concerned with the archdiocese's financial situation, and it is the complete opposite of Egan's predecessor Cardinal O'Connor, who preached open heresy and whose guiding spirit was a genial kind of multicultural universalism. Nevertheless, Dolan's words are just words. We shall see whether they will be translated into action.

On the negative side, I see that he's already done homage to the zeitgeist and participated in a seder sponsored by the ADL. He was even presented with a mezuzah, which he is expected to hang on his doorway (why didn't he reciprocate with a gift of a crucifix?). I've expressed my thoughts on these ecumenical stunts in a previous post. Needless to say, I'm not encouraged by this decision. It was not the action of a man who really believes that "Christ and His Church are one".

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Easter circus

The following account of my Easter Sunday experience did not take place at a Staten Island church, but I think it's relevant to our topic because so many Catholics across the country probably went through the same ordeal.

Visiting my family in the hinterlands, we went to Mass at a small church in the hills. As many churches do, all the Sunday Masses were combined into one for Easter. However, this was a physically small church, so the overflow crowd was forced to sit on folding chairs in an adjacent room where they hold bingo games and church dinners. We were able to see the altar and the rest of the congregation through a glass wall, but all feeling of sanctity was destroyed by our oppressively mundane surroundings and our physical separation.

Naturally, the people around me acted as if they were in a dining room. The women gossiped, the men chatted about sports, and the kids acted up. Yes, they quieted down a bit when Mass began, but the awkwardness was palpable. No one kneeled, no one prayed, no one bothered to sing a hymn because- well, how strange would it have been to start doing those things in that glass-enclosed meeting space?! After all, it wasn't like we were in church!

To top it off, the sound system wasn't working, so we couldn't even hear what the priest was saying. I don't know what it is, but it is a common factor in almost every Catholic church that I've ever been to that the sound system is absolutely atrocious. And in the few churches I've seen with relatively decent acoustic technology, half the priests mumble their words or haven't yet figured out how to even speak into a microphone. Not that we're missing much with today's preachers, but I'd still prefer to hear their vapid musings than watch a pantomime show. Contrast this situation with that of the sects, where even the smallest storefront church is wired with enough sophisticated equipment to host Metallica. Why don't Catholics "get" the concept of electronic amplification?

Eventually, an usher applied enough elbow grease to one of the speakers to get it to begin transmitting sound. I was sorry he did. The priest sounded like he just stepped out of La Cage aux Folles and, on a day when he had a rare opportunity to preach to a church full of once-a-year Catholics, he chose to lisp through a 1 minute sermon of breathtaking, record-breaking banality, in which he explained that the purpose of Easter was to make us "happy people". He proceeded to finish up with some cautionary jokes to the children about eating too much chocolate and getting a tummy ache.

He then announced with a big self-deprecating smile that he was going to bless us now, as if that were the funniest thing in the world (and maybe it was, coming from him). However, he couldn't find his aspergillum, so he ran around the altar laughing about this and kept repeating, "I can't find my broom, I can't find my broom", an undignified term for a liturgical implement used to impart a sacramental. When he finally found it, he went up and down the aisles playfully splashing people with the mischievous grin of a 12 year old boy brandishing a Super Soaker. It was obviously all just a big joke to him. Coupled with his effeminacy, his irreverence diminished the authority of his office, the sacredness of the sacramental action he was performing and whatever personal authority or dignity he ever had.

This vignette encompasses a host of issues that seem to generally plague the American Church today, including horrid preaching, lack of gravitas, frivolousness, clerical effeminacy, general incompetence, et al. I don't intend to discuss them all now. To sum it all up, the atmosphere became so unbearable that I was forced walked out of Easter Mass in disgust.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Passover at St. Teresa's

An "Interfaith Seder" took place at St. Teresa's Roman Catholic church Saturday night, with Catholics, Protestants, Moslems, Buddhists and Hindus participating in the Jewish Passover ritual in the church hall. The pastor of this parish must be a dedicated Judaizer since his church seems to host this event every year.

It's fine to understand other faiths and even to observe their worship for educational purposes, but the problem with these ecumenical stunts is that their guiding spirit, or at least the impression they impart, is indifferentism, i.e. the heresy that all religions are equally true or at least equally pleasing to God. How do these priests participate in these things with a clear conscience?

I realize that a genial latitudinarianism has prevailed in American public life, at least since WWII and especially in pluralistic New York City, but Roman Catholic priests- of all people- should realize the serious, serious implications of Christ's statement that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life and that no one comes to the Father except through Him. (JN 14:6) These kinds of actions make a mockery of our Faith. If you take Christ literally- if you take Christ seriously- the logical conclusion is that Judaism (or any other non-Christian religion) is a false religion and I wonder then by what logical gymnastics a Catholic priest can justify participating in their rituals and praying to their God.

Yes, I know that the "nice" people out there will say that the god of the Jews is our God as well. To a point, we can say that we all have the same deity, since there is in fact only one God who created the universe. But to take the concept too far is to have it degenerate into the kind of mush-brained universalism that politicians are forced to spout in a multicultural society. We should expect better of our priests. When different people attribute completely different characteristics, actions and desires to their version of "God", then they are in fact worshipping different gods. Moslems also claim to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as venerating our Bible, Jesus and Mary. Yet somehow I doubt that even the liberal Christians at this seder would claim that Allah is the same being as our Triune God of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, just because they happen to share some of the same characteristics.

By the same token, the Jewish god is not our own. Their God still honors the Old Covenant and regards the Jews as His Chosen People, contrary to so much of New Testament Scripture. His ethical law is an eye for an eye, not turn the other cheek. He never incarnated Himself on earth and sacrificed Himself on a cross to save mankind from sin. In fact, in the holy books of the Orthodox, the Talmud, Jesus was, among other things, a sorcerer who was condemned by God to be boiled in excrement for eternity. The Talmud also states the Mary was a hairdresser who got knocked up by a Roman soldier, Jesus' actual father. How could we pretend that we worship the same God? And why is it alway such a one-sided affair? When will the Jews be coming to Easter Sunday Mass?

I just happened to have a copy of the Haggadah (the Passover liturgy) lying around. From a quick scan, I don't see anything in it that would explicitly compromise a Catholic priest (such as praying for the coming of the Messiah). Nevertheless, there is no reason for these priests to be doing this. Is it strengthening the Faith of their flocks somehow? Is it bringing non-believers to Christ? I don't see how. On the contrary, it's imparting the message that religion is a matter of personal preference or ethnic tradition, which we should respect but not take so seriously as to let it "divide" us. Just as we would politely eat the exotic dish we might be served at a foreign friend's home, this Interfaith seder teaches us that we should be just as cosmopolitan when it comes to God. Whether we're praying to Allah, Jesus, Yahweh or the Great Pumpkin, we're all rapping with the same God, which is the only important thing. Apparently, relativism is the only objective belief we're allowed to have anymore.

Our late Cardinal O'Connor embodied this spirit during his reign here. He frequently preached that Judaism was as valid a path to salvation as Christ and publicly congratulated people who converted from Catholicism to Judaism. I don't want to be part of a faith like that. I want to be a part of the traditional Catholic Faith that recognized the centrality of Christ in human history and His absolute necessity in human lives. I just wish our priests felt the same way.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Be a Franciscan

The New York Post recently had an article about a Franciscan ad campaign on the subways. I'm glad to see that the "novel" idea of actively recruiting for vocations seems to be catching on in the Church, at least in NY. The advertising campaign seems to have been a success, as the article states that the Franciscans have had an unusually high number of recruits this year. The economic crisis may have encouraged introspection, but contrary to what the NY Archdiocese's bumbling director of vocations publicly stated (that the Church needs an economic crisis to recruit priests), only 2 of the 45 men who expressed interest were unemployed. The ads ask "Day Shift? Night Shift? How about a Life Shift", which is an excellent slogan. The website is worth viewing.

St. Charles Seminary/Mission Center

In our continuing series on Catholic institutions on Staten Island, we will now take a look at the former St. Charles seminary, now called the St. Charles Mission Center (whatever that means). Located in ritzy Todt Hill, the seminary is located on the palatial estate of famed architect Ernest Flagg. It was run by the Scalabrians, an order founded in 1887 to "maintain Catholic faith and practice among Italian emigrants in the New World". According to wikipedia, the seminary was operated from 1948 to 1966. The estate is also home to the Center for Migration Studies, a world-famous organization devoted to the study of international migration and immigration policy. Apart from that, I don't really have any more solid information, except that they host a modest Christmas sale every year and the buildings are spectacular. If anyone has more information, please leave a comment. Enjoy the pictures:

The entrance and guard house:


The main house and veranda:



The front view:


Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine:


Shrine to Jesus:


Lady of Lourdes statues in an old tower of sorts:


St. Jude statue. (Sorry, but the phrase "Beam me up, Jesus" keeps popping into my head):


Center for Migration Studies:


I'm not sure if the following buildings were part of the Flagg estate or the seminary but appearance and anecdotal evidence suggests that they were. This "chateau" is located directly across from the seminary:


An older person I know told me that in the 60s or 70s there was a swimming pool in the sunken area in front of the chateau. The local kids would sneak in there at night and sometimes get chased away by the seminarians.


This is my favorite structure and one which I'd love to explore. A medieval
tower on Staten Island:


Monday, March 2, 2009

Priorities

In my search for Ash Wednesday schedules on Staten Island, I recently came across a couple of news items that I feel reflect badly on our Island churches' sense of priorities. The first one is this story about how some island churches are celebrating Lent. It tells how the Methodist and Presbyterian churches are sponsoring a program called "Living Lent" which sounds like something that correctly focuses on the individual's spirituality in this season of relflection and repentance. In contrast, the Catholic church mentioned in the article, St. Rita's (no link- dead website), is sponsoring a "cultural series" every Friday night during Lent. The first lecture deals with the building of the cathedral in Milan. Future weeks will focus on "St. Paul, St. Terese de Lisieux and St. Thomas' missionary journey in India." Well, it's nice that they decided to throw in some religious subjects after the architectural lecture, but judging from the term "cultural series", I'm sure that all the attendees will receive will be a nice, interesting history lesson about those people. I remember when Catholic churches used to have Stations of the Cross every Friday night during Lent. I recall them as some of my most spiritually moving experiences.

The other story was from 2008. It reported that Our Lady Star of the Sea was celebrating its last Ash Wednesday in their current church, which was built in the 60s I believe. Because the parish has a lot of families, they planned to demolish the "old" 500 seat church and build a modern barn-church with a capacity to hold 1000 people. The cost will be 8 million dollars.

Now, I know that pastor there had a mania for new construction when he led a small parish on the North Shore, where Mass was held in the school gym and he was always agitating to build a "real" church. But I really didn't question his reasoning in this article until I read the user comments below it. Someone asked the obvious question why the priests simply couldn't say more Masses on Sunday if overcrowding was such an issue. Talk about cutting the Gordian knot! According to their website, 4200 people attend Mass every weekend. There are currently 8 Saturday and Sunday Masses. That comes out to 525 people per Mass. This means that one extra Mass on Sunday would solve the problem. Throw in another for safety. There are 5 priests on staff. Surely it's more cost effective for some of the priests to work an extra 2 hours a week than to spend 8 million dollars on a new church when you already have a perfectly good one. I won't even begin to get into what else the money could have and should have been spent on.

The extravagance might have been worth it if they were building a new Saint Chappelle or some other architectural masterpiece, but the new design is brutishly modernistic and resembles nothing so much as the waiting area of a bus station. In the minds of these "geniuses", the Port Authority is an appropriate design to emulate when designing a space where 2,000 year old rituals and religious mysteries are celebrated. I've been to more than a few other churches in Staten Island and New Jersey that have the exact same design, and the feeling of coldness and lifelessness in those places was palpable to me. Even a layman like me knows that form should follow function. In my experience however, function follows form as well. Physical surroundings often instill a certain spirit into the people who inhabit them. For example, housing projects that resemble prisons tend to breed criminality. Institutional architecture encourages institutional behavior. And churches that look like theatres, homeless shelters or warehouses often end up used for just those purposes.


or...


Friday, February 27, 2009

"Christian Unity" at the Basilica

I signed up for email updates from the Basilica and received an announcement about an interesting event there on January 21st. The Church was hosting an ecumenical prayer service to celebrate the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I had no idea what that entailed, but from my experience with this church, I knew it was going to be an extravaganza. I had to check it out.

When I arrived for the Wednesday evening service, the parking lots were closed and traffic was being directed by the NYPD. Upon entering the church, I was greeted by a Boy Scout and took a seat in the already crowded church. A group of middle aged men from a Catholic charismatic prayer group were playing guitars at the front of the church and singing typical "Christian contemporary" songs. The men were very talented, and the theme of their music was of course religious, but the incongruity of their surroundings (the crucifix, the altar, the holy statues and pictures) with their syrupy, happy-clappy torch songs just filled me with a vague feeling of disgust. I know a lot of people, including Catholics, really love the type of music that has been aptly dubbed "Christian schlock", but I just don't get it. Well, maybe it made the Protestants feel comfortable.

It was obvious they were well represented. I saw women in clerical robes, more African Americans than is usual for this mostly White parish, and rows of people sitting together who all had the same self-conscious, uncomfortable look on their faces. One lady however was standing with hands upraised and swaying to the music.

I opened the program and a small piece of paper fell out. It was a "Call to Prayer for the Churches of Staten Island" and explained that everyone there that night had received the same paper but with the name of different churches printed on them. The Church at the Gateway, a local Pentecostal megachurch, was the one I received. The paper asked that I pray for this church, its congregation and leaders. It recommended that I call this church to ask about prayer concerns, and actually attend a service at this church. This was rich! The Catholic Church was actually telling its flock to attend non-Catholic worship, where they will be exposed to heretical doctrines and proselytization. It might have even been acceptable if the paper had warned the Catholics that a non-Catholic service was not a substitute for our Sunday Mass obligation, but that would have obviously insulted the Protestants. Our Church preferred to lead its people into sin than do that. It was obvious that accomodation was the order of the night for the Catholic Church on Staten Island.

The song sheets contained exclusively Protestant hymns. Since most Catholic music these days is Protestant in origin, melody and spirit anyway, that was no culture shock for me. It was funny though- I suspect that the Catholics had a big hand in choosing the songs, because there were a lot of old Anglican or Methodist hymns on there, like "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace". It seems like Catholics are under the impression that Protestants still regularly sing classics like that, when they have actually moved on to more modern (and inferior) music. I felt embarrassed singing African American spirituals like "We Shall Overcome". It felt so condescending, like when the out-of-touch White guy on TV tries to connect with his normal Black friend by talking "jive". I can only imagine what the visitors thought.

The service began with hymns and prayers from the various Protestant ministers. The pastor of the Basilica and the elderly co-Vicar of Staten Island got up and welcomed the crowd. I believe they each opened with a lame joke. Why do so many Catholic priests seem like they missed their calling as ham comics? Jokes are fine occasionally, so long as they have a deeper point to make, and the priest moves on to serious ideas. Yet so many priests make the humor the centerpiece of their sermon and then perhaps throw in some vague filler about Jesus. The mysteries of the Faith are hardly fodder for comedy though. Serious occasions call for serious speech, but these guys felt like they only had to play the part of MCs.

Then came the time for the homilies. One Catholic and one Protestant would give a sermon. I figured that both sides were going to call out the big guns, wanting to put their best foot forward and make a good impression in front of the other side. The Catholic priest went first. He began by saying how much he hated the prophet Ezekiel,who was the author of one of the readings. Again with the jokes. He "explained" that he hated him because he was so great, such a hard act to follow, blah, blah, blah. He blathered on for a while in a timid little voice, saying nothing substantial, and finally sat down. I wanted to sink into the floor. Then an African American female minister got up. She too started out badly, stumbling over her words and sounding confused. But she soon found her groove. The sermon was none too deep, and I think she masked the shallowness of the message with the volume of her speech, but the passion with which she boomed out her simple message of trust in Jesus was more powerful than anything the priest muttered that night or probably ever. I imagine having someone burst your ear drums every Sunday probably grows tiresome after a while, but for the unchurched and for people who don't get spiritual inspiration on a regular basis- like Catholics- it was energizing. The priest even realized how he'd been upstaged, because when she sat down next to him after concluding, he turned to her with a sheepish smile and seemed to offer some self-deprecating congratulations.

Interestingly enough, the female minister was the only one to acknowledge that there are real, theological obstacles to Christian unity, when she admitted that she was "challenged" by "this place", meaning a Catholic church. The Catholics, by contrast, acted like all that was needed was social interaction, smiling and singing Kumbaya. In practice however, the Catholics recognize that concessions are needed, and seem willing to do all the conceding. In fact, the Protestants have everything to gain and nothing to lose by these sentimental events. We undermine our distinctive, so to speak, our claim to authority, by granting a type of equality to Protestant "churches". They, on the other hand, do not betray their principles by worshipping with Catholics or including us as fellow "Christians", because their ecclesiological theology rests on the relativistic concept of a "spiritual" Church made up of all different denominations and belief systems, rather than a visible Church in possession of objective truth and endowed with the charism of authority. When we engage in these kinds of ecumenical stunts, we lower the status of the Catholic Church and raise the status of Protestantism. It may make everyone feel warm and fuzzy, but it does no service to the Gospel. If we believe that the Catholic Church was established by Jesus Christ and is protected from doctrinal error by the Holy Spirit, then we are betraying the truth and countless souls by according equality between revelation and the theological anarchy of human opinion. We should not be praying for the success of these churches. We should be praying for their conversion and working to that end.

I later did a little googling and discovered that this "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity" had its origins with a group of Episcopalian Franciscans in New York who converted en masse to Catholicism in 1909. Naturally, one of their main concerns was Christian unity which to them meant unification in the Catholic Church, the One, True Church. They established this week of prayer, meaning that Catholics would devote this week to praying for Christian unity. The idea was later co-opted by liberal subversives in the church, who turned it into the compromised sideshow we have today.

This subversion of Catholicism was evidenced after the main sermons, when a husband and wife set of pastors snuck in a mini-sermon during their prayer period and preached open rebellion against the Catholic Church from a Catholic pulpit. The lady pastor, a angry looking woman, led the assembly in prayer for all the individual churches that we had been assigned in our bulletins. We promised to pray for the churches every day because, she hectored us, "...we're all one church, riiiight???". We then prayed the Protestant version of the Lord' Prayer, with its extrabiblical doxology, sang some songs, engaged in smug self-congratulation, said some more prayers and fled. My taste for the Basilica is growing bitter.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Alba House

And now for something completely different....

Although we have many beautiful, or at least interesting churches on Staten Island, one thing about the Catholic landscape here that has always fascinated me has been the large number of independent Catholic institutions sprinkled throughout the island. By "independent", I mean to say that they are not churches, their raison d'etre is something other than housing public worship, and they are not connected to any one parish, as are the Catholic schools. I refer to seminaries, convents, religious orders, shrines, retreat houses, charities, etc. Often housed in architecturally fascinating buildings, they've always had an air of mystery about them, existing as they do, away from the public gaze. I am going to pictorially document some of these institutions here, as they might be of interest to both locals and out-of-towners as a historical testament to Staten Island's once pervasive Catholic culture. Also, at the rate we're going, it might not be long before some of them are knocked down by condo developers, converted into group homes for the city or otherwise sold off by the diocese, so we'd better record their existence while we still can.

The first place we're going to visit is Alba House at 2187 Victory Blvd. It is a major Catholic publishing house run by the Society of St. Paul. The members of this order are known as the Paulines (not to be confused with the Paulists) and, as per the example of their order's namesake, their mission is worldwide evangelization utilizing all the communication tools available to modern man. As such, they are a major, multingual publishing and multimedia ministry. Chances are some of your Catholic books were published by them here on Staten Island. Their main building is this renowned structure, redolent of an alien mother ship, which was built in 1968, whether for the Paulines or some other purpose (Lex Luther's headquarters?), I do not know:



Another view:



This building houses an excellent book store on the first floor, where you can see the priests and lay workers preparing shipments in an adjacent room. I assume the other floor are devoted to storage and office space, but I can't say for sure. I went to a Lenten retreat here once, and can tell you that there is a well-appointed room on one of the upper floors for Mass or other gatherings. Other than that, I don't know. However, it does look like a really cool place to explore, especially the rooftop.

I don't know when the Paulines came to SI, but I assume it was some time before this modernist structure was built, since there is an older building in the rear which seems to be the priests' residence:




The residence is connected to the space ship by an elevated covered bridge:


Until recently, this imposing statue of St. Paul stood outside the convent/bookstore of the Daughters of St. Paul (a sister order) in the neighborhood of St. George. The lovely sisters had to move away because of dwindling numbers, so now their property is going to be used to house mentally handicapped people for the city, I believe.



There is another building on the grounds which looks like it was once used as a schoolhouse.



I don't know what it is mainly used for these days, but one section of the building contains a small chapel where Perpetual Adoration is held. You'll have to visit the place to see what it looks like inside, because I wasn't about to take pictures while people were praying.



There is also a beautiful little shrine here, which seems to be a very popular place for people to come pray and light a candle.



A detail of the shrine- statue of St. Peter:



A courtyard of holy statues:



Our Lord:



Our Lady of Fatima:



The Cross, surrounded by the Stations:



If anyone can contribute additional information about Alba House, please leave a comment.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Catholic Church shopping, Part II: The Basilica

The next stop on my church shopping itinerary was a church on the South Shore. I chose it because of a vague and distant family connection, but I had never been there and had no idea what to expect. Well, with apologies to Pliny the Elder, I must say "Ex Great Kills semper aliquid novi." What an abundance of surprises I encountered at what I will call "the Basilica."

Arriving about a half an hour early, because of my uncertainty as to the time required to get there, I was shocked to see massive crowds of people already streaming into the church and tons of cars jockeying for spaces in the multiple overflowing parking lots. Was this a basketball game or a Catholic Mass? People actually going to church? What marvel would I see next?

As I entered the church I was awestruck by the massive number of people attending. In a rather novel scene (for Catholic churches), the several priests and deacons were actually standing at the entrance greeting the throngs. I found such a practice commendable. As there was a bottleneck there, I had time to examine the foyer, where I found many useful pamphlets on issues people face, such as dealing with rejection, coping with loss, etc. There were also various posters and announcements detailing the many activities in the parish. I picked up a bulletin and was amazed at how much life there was here.

According to this bulletin, the church has over "7000 faithful families", "400 Lay Ministers in the Liturgical, Religious, Education and Family Life Ministries", 6 Masses on Sundays, regularly scheduled novenas, RCIA, Eucharistic Adoration, evangelization groups, senior groups, and tons of charitable endeavors. They have a "faith formation center and group", day care, religious youth groups, etc. The bulletin also contained more than just announcements. It had a mini sermon and a spiritually introspective "Question of the Week". I had already gotten more spiritual nourishment reading this bulletin than I had gotten from many years of Mass attendance at poorly led parishes. My subsequent glance at their website revealed even more religious and communal activities going on at this parish. I was simply gobsmacked.

When I finally found a place in the quickly filling pews, I beheld a massive structure. The building could be described as one big dome with 4 stubby extensions so as to form the shape of the cross. Its size leads me to call it the Basilica. It had a light and airy feel, with plenty of windows and a white and pastel blue color sheme. My guess is that it holds close to a thousand people. It was completely filled.

When Mass began, the priests and deacons led a ceremony at the back of the church. Apparently, a large group of RCIA graduates- both young and middle aged- were ready to come into the Catholic Church. (Real life converts!! Another novelty in a modern Catholic church!) Their names were announced by the priest and then each individual had to state their intention to join the Church. When that was concluded, everyone proceeded to the front of the church where the catechumens were seated in the first row and Mass began.

The music was performed by a large choir and pianist hidden in a section off the altar. Their repetoire seemed a bit too feminine and "un-churchy" to me, like in every other Catholic church, but at least they were technically very proficient. I even noticed people around me singing. (Another wonder!)

The sermon was unremarkably simple, but the priest delivered it with such an air of masculine authority, that it actually had an impact. This was one of those cases where it wasn't so much what was said, but how it was said. The priest acted like a man and spoke like a man. He exuded leadership with every word and gesture. Such qualities may explain why his parish seems to be thriving.

On the way out of Mass, there were young children handing out little cards to people and asking them to pray for the Confirmation class. I took one of the cards and on it was the name of one of the children who is preparing to make his Confirmation. It asked me to pray that he receive wisdom, right judgment, courage, et al. and that he will always realize the presence of God, etc. I thought that was a wonderful idea, and I've been praying for this boy daily.

I was so impressed with this church that I went back for Midnight Mass. This time it was standing room only. It was so crowded that I was actually overheating in my pew and having a hard time breathing. A few things that stood out for me: first, the choir was even more "artistic" this time. They put together some very professional numbers, some of them very modern. They even sang "Mary did you know?", which is a "Christian contemporary" hit. A precocious child sang a solo and three women did a very rarified sort of counterpoint chant of the intro to the nativity story (i.e. "a decree went out from Ceasar Augustus", etc). It was very interesting to listen to, but I was still a bit uneasy. I won't go so far as to say it was wrong, but it felt too much like a"performance". I want good music, but I don't think it's right when the music is so predominant that it overshadows the Mass and becomes the central focus of the entire act of worship. Too many Protestant churches, especially of the non-denominational variety, have fallen into that trap and had their services degenerate into little more than concerts. With our awful music, that danger was one thing we American Catholics haven't had to worry about for a long time! However, with this Midnight Mass, it just felt like the choir- I don't know- demanded a bit too much of my attention.

Again, the sermon was very simple and not what I would describe as great, but the priest spoke so well and with such authority that it was almost like he had a direct line to my heart.

Another thing I noticed were people actually being publicly reverent. In an alcove of the church I saw young women crossing themselves and bowing in front of what I believe was a statue of the church's patron saint or perhaps of Jesus. Lest anyone think that is a Pharisiacal act, done for personal glorification, I can attest that in the Catholic churches I have known, being outwardly moral or showing reverence for holy things- i.e. being a traditional Catholic- is looked at with curiosity or scorn, especially among the young. So I took the young ladies' outward reverence to be a very admirable thing and a very good sign about this church.

The church also offered refreshments afterwards, which I thought was a very hospitable gesture, even though I didn't attend. I think most churches do so after Midnight Mass, but I'm pretty sure it is a weekly practice at this church. I think such gatherings are good for fellowship among members but are also helpful in making newcomers feel welcome. In a lot of Catholic churches, a newcomer could be forgiven for thinking that he'd somehow donned a cloak of invisibility when he walked through the door.

So, in short, even though there were some things about this parish I didn't care for, on the whole I found it to be a thriving, well-led and fervent community of faith. I think every priest in Staten Island, not to mention New York City, should spend some time at this parish and copy exactly what its pastor is doing. I will continue my church shopping, but this parish is definitely in the lead at this point. I never expected I'd find a place like it, I'm very excited about it and could see myself joining if it turns out to be the winner.