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.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Where have all the priests gone?

The Advance recently ran a front page article on the shortage of priests in Staten Island Catholic churches. Entitled "As Priests Vanish, Parishes Struggle", the article mentioned that in the diocese at large, which includes Staten Island, Manhattan, the Bronx and 7 upstate counties, we have a total of 1,710 priests serving 2,500,000 Catholics in 400 parishes. The median age of these priests is 61. The article then goes on to interview several Staten Island priests and relate how they cope with their duties and their loneliness. My thoughts:

1. The priests who provided quotes for this hit piece should have told the reporter to stuff it. They should have said they had no comment to make on this internal Catholic matter. What did they think would be the result of these embarrassing public revelations? The only possible outcome of such an article would be to make these priests, and by extension the Church, look pathetic, weak and contemptible. And that's exactly what happened. The priests came off like sad old shut-ins without friends, and the Church was made to seem like something so decrepit and worthless that one would have to be crazy to even be a member, let alone devote one's life to it in the priesthood. Way to go, Fathers. Lesson: you guys have got to get it through your heads that you have to use the media, not let the media use you. The media is not your friend.

2. The fact is that things are bad, yet our priests seem to be reacting to it with strange, bovine apathy. The article details a number of manifestations of the decline. The diocese is "...having to look really seriously at the viability of a church community...". We have 6 parishes staffed by only one priest. St. Paul's school is now looking for a tenant. Assumption school is being rented out to the Staten Island Mental Health Society. In one parish, the priest and the deacon "...rotate the baptismal schedule and first Friday communion calls" and the deacon "does all the wakes and all the cemetery services."! At Assumption, the priest admits nonchalantly that the church doesn't "...have a lot of weddings or funerals or baptisms...". The article even includes a dramatic photo of a priest walking down the aisle of a mostly deserted church at the conclusion of Mass. These symptoms describe a corpse in its death throes. We know what the problem is. What is this diocese doing to solve it?

3. The answer is absolutely nothing except hoping that we can import more African, Indian and Fillipino priests into this country. Now, the foreign priests are a Godsend, but they are not a long term solution in any way. I am thankful to them for saying Mass and ministering the Sacraments, but their "foreigness" and linguistic limitations are often huge obstacles to forming a healthy pastoral relationship with their flocks, as well as with evangelizing non-practicing Catholics or non-Catholic Americans. Their increasing numbers will only increase the gap between clergy and laity and harm the church in the long run. When we first evangelized them, one of the first steps of the mission churches was recruiting natives into the leadership roles of the clergy. That's a prerequisite for a stable, healthy, growing church. A foreign dominated clergy is a stopgap, not a solution.

So, what are our diocese's other plans? Well, according to the head of Priest Personnel, Father Thomas Devery, we should be praying for economic ruin. He explains that "...the downturn in the economy might have a positive side if it increases the number of vocations, as fiscal calamities have in the past." He goes on to say, "[w]e don't do well in times of prosperity.'" Now, I've heard priests say some really stupid things in my life, but this one really takes the cake. In its sheer, unparalleled brainlessness, this is one for the ages. Not only is it historically incorrect, but it is blasphemous in my opinion. What he is really telling the thousands of people who read his words is that the Catholic priesthood is such an undesirable profession that we need a national economic disaster so severe that it would make an $18,000 per year job that requires celibacy seem positively attractive to desperate men. I hate being rude about individual priests, but someone in the Cardinal's office should ensure that Father Devery is never again in a position to speak in public and embarrass our Church.

So basically what this article says is that our local priests are doing nothing to try and increase vocations, which tells us that they don't really care. It gives us a portrait of well meaning but complacent bureaucrats who are doing their best to persevere through a bad situation, but who lack the will/brains/courage to do anything about it except consolidate, cut and close. Well, here's my unsolicited advice.

First- ASK. It seems simple but it's the most effective way of getting things you want in this world, as any salesman, negotiator or small child will tell you. People instinctively want to help other people, but will usually not do so unless directly asked. All through the time of Bush's war, we've had a military recruitment crisis, yet never once did the President go on TV and ask for volunteers. I guarantee that with the moral authority of his office, patriotic men would have responded to his request in our country's hour of need. In a similar way, the Catholic Church doesn't ask its men to accept the burden and honor of the priesthood, even though it always laments the shortage. I guarantee that I could go to all the churches of the priests quoted in the article and never hear one of them preach a sermon about vocations, never appeal to the unmarried men of the parish to give their lives to God, never tell them that the Church wants them and needs them in the priesthood. Do they ever directly invite boys and men into the rectory to talk about discernment and vocation? Do they even inform their congregations about the steps to ordination? I have a friend who recently embarked on the road to the priesthood. That was something that he didn't really consider until he saw an ad for a discernment weekend in the local church bulletin and attended. The monastery that sponsored that weekend went to the public at large and asked for men. You don't get something in this world by doing nothing. Ask.

One diocesan program that seems noteworthy is When I went to see a movie a while back, I saw their very cool promo during the previews. The tag line was "The World Needs Heroes" and featured some very evocative and inspirational images of priests saying Mass, suffering martyrdom, leading a procession, hearing a prisoner's Confession, etc. The effect was great: it made the priesthood seem heroic, adventurous and challenging: i.e. something a man would want to do. You can see the video here. It's a great branding tool for the masses, but our priests also have to be doing the recruiting on a local, personal level as well.

Be visible and be involved. As unbelievable as it sounds, I've shaken hands with the parish priest of my small church almost every Sunday for the past 10 years, yet he doesn't even know my name and doesn't even care. I've noticed too many parishes like that. The priest may get to know the prominent members on the parish council or choir, but he's satisfied to smile and nod at the rest of the church for a few minutes after Mass each Sunday. It might not be possible to personally know every member of a really huge parish but a priest can at least try. And even if he doesn't become personal friends with me, it shows me he cares when he does extracurricular things for his people like the Bible studies, prayer groups, etc. that I've spoken of before. Boys and men will want to emulate a loving Father like that, who matters in the lives of his spiritual children. They will not want anything to do with a profession that is represented in their lives by a distant and anonymous placeholder who only does the bare minimum.

Be an example. I've spoken before about how our priests discourage us with their horrible sermons, AWOL leadership and generally apathetic and pusillanimous attitudes. No young man is going to want to go into the priesthood if he all he sees there are men who are soft and silly gladhanders, effeminate social workers, ecclesiastical bureaucrats and crypto-Protestants. In other words, believing, faithful men breed spiritual children. The last priest I really had a relationship with was Father D__ back when I was an altar boy in grade school. He could be a jokester, as Irish priests are wont to be, but when it came to the Faith, he was all business. I saw that when we were preparing for Mass, we were preparing for something very serious, and when we were at the altar he acted like we were involved in something divine. He was an ordinary man in a lot of ways, but he was also a priest who made his path seem eminently worthy of imitation because he showed that he walked with Christ in his life and knew his job was fantastic.

Get rid of the altar girls. The prevalence of altar girls is one of the main indications of how frivolous the modern American church is. Being an altar boy, i.e. an acolyte, is practically an internship in the priesthood. A boy sees what a priest does, he wears vestments and takes an active role in the Mass, second only to the priest's. The priesthood becomes familiar to him. I was an altar boy from 6th grade until my teens. And although we certainly didn't always behave like perfect little angels up there, I still felt I was doing something important, glorious and magical. If my path in life hasn't taken me to the priesthood, it's not because it wasn't made attractive to me or I didn't consider it as an option. But what about today's boys? The sanctuary is no longer a male preserve. The altar girl craze began in the 1980s, as feminists and radicals came up with a novel way of assaulting the all-male priesthood. Why else would you admit girls into the anteroom of the priesthood, if not to use them as a battering ram through the parlor door? And what has been the result? I hardly see altar boys anymore. When I do, they're always in conjunction with a female partner. The forced integration must leave the ones who are left with a view of the altar service as something sissified and effeminate. And that view must surely extend to the priesthood itself and the Church.

When our own priests take a defeatist attitude, as they do in this article, they call into question the very legitimacy of Catholicism and even of Christ. Is His Church so shabby that no one wants to be in it? Is our God so weak that He is letting His Church come to such a pass? But we know the fault is not with Him but with us. I was just reading about the great St. John Neumann. He only came to America because European seminaries were so full of priests that he couldn't be ordained! It was like that once and it can be that way again if we just go out and be fishers of men like Jesus told us to be.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Weekend Recollection or Collection?

Today's (1/2/09) announcement area of the Advance's religious section was something of an improvement over last week's. There was a grand total of one Catholic announcement, which I guess would be a 100% increase.
The item announced that the Rev. Clement Machado, who is apparently some sort of Catholic celebrity on EWTN (I don't watch too much TV), is leading a "Weekend Recollection" (never heard that term before) at the former St. Charles Seminary in Dongan Hills (now called the St. Charles Mission Center). The theme of the retreat will be "The Conversion of St. Paul" and will cost $75 per person for breakfast and- I assume- lodging over 2 and a half days.

Now, all things being equal, $75 for weekend lodging, breakfast and a speaker is not a totally unreasonable price in a secular context, but we're dealing with the Word of God here. I realize that a "workman is entitled to his wages" (MT 10:10) and that "they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel." (1 Cor 9:14). However, for someone to be forced to pay such a prohibitive price to hear a priest talk at a church-owned institution is more than little distasteful. Are not the poor entitled to hear Rev. Machado's edifying wisdom as well? The announcement said nothing about $75 being a suggested donation or that those who couldn't afford were still welcome to attend, although that may very well be the case. If Rev. Machado's travel expenses and honorarium really cost that much, then perhaps our local priests should stop importing out of town celebrities and put on some retreats of their own.

By the way, this isn't only a Catholic issue. The Advance recently had an article about evangelical celebrity Greg Laurie, who came to New York City and charged people to hear him preach. I don't think he even gave them breakfast.

But I sent you a rowboat!

We've all heard the musty old parable about the man who was stuck on his rooftop in a flood and kept praying to God for rescue. In succession he rejected help from people in a helicopter, a speedboat and a rowboat, explaining that God was going to rescue him. When he finally drowned and went to heaven, he reproached God for not doing anything to save him, but God replied that He had sent him a helicopter, a speedboat and a rowboat.

The modern Catholic Church seems to be like the man on the roof. We constantly bemoan our empty churches and whine about our fallen world, but we don't do anything with the instruments God gave us, apparently expecting Him to swoop down from the clouds and corral all the errant Catholics back into church and back on the right path. We have our minds, our mouths, our creativity, incredible tools of communication with newspapers, television, radio, the internet, etc., yet we do practically nothing. This came to mind after reading the religion section of the Staten Island Advance for the last 2 weeks.

Our local paper features 2 pages of religious news in its Saturday edition. It includes articles of interest as well as local announcements of individual church events. What a great tool our local churches have to publicize their activities and evangelize. However, in the 12/27 edition, not one single Catholic church on Staten Island had the initiative to submit a single announcement. Even if there weren't any spectacular events going on in our plethora of local Catholic churches, it shouldn't matter- the Protestant churches which monopolized the section had no compunctions about trumpeting such prosaic news as the topic of the next day's sermon. If I were an ordinary secular guy who was feeling an emptiness in my soul around Christmas, and I scanned that page, what would I think? First, my interest might be piqued by one of the sermon topics or events at these churches, thus leading me to attend. But secondly, I would come away with the impression that these churches want me and would welcome me. If I thought about the AWOL Catholic Church at all, I would come away with the impression that they do not want me and would not welcome me.

The next page was more of the same. It contained small ads for churches with pertinent information such as addresses and service times. Only one Catholic church saw fit to advertise there. All the rest were various Protestant churches (even the Episcopalians!). You'd think we lived in Alabama.

Why are we hiding our light under a bushel basket? Why are we so dense? Have we never heard of advertising? Have we never studied human psychology? Do we not want to tell people about our Faith? Do we want to die?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Catholic Church shopping, Part 1: Brick house

So after years of suffering in my ancestral parish, with a few equally unsatisfactory substitutes for when I sleep late on Sundays or travel, I've finally now begun my Catholic version of church shopping. Unlike the Protestant version however, I'm looking for more than emotional gratification, musical appreciation and social networking opportunities. (And if any Protestant observers here think that statement is uncharitable, I would advise them to talk to any one of the many evangelical/Pentecostal pastors in my neighborhood whose once-flourishing churches folded after their flocks defected to newer and hotter Christian-themed clubs.) Although social benefits and musical excellence would be nice, I'm primarily looking to be a part of a church 1. whose congregation takes their Faith seriously and who show it in their lives and worship, and 2. whose priest is orthodox in his Faith, intelligent enough to preach a halfway decent sermon and fervent enough to nurture the souls of his flock. How difficult that quest will be is a question we will explore together.

My first stop was a large brick church on the North Shore. Plainly constructed and comparatively unadorned, it is my guess that it was built by no-nonsense Irish immigrants in the early 20th century, although the almost Calvinist austerity of the place may point to a more modern architecture. The small foyer had a cozy side alcove with statues and candles. Rather bizarrely, there was also a glass doored confessional there right next to the entrance. If they want to discourage people from going to Confession, that would seem like a good way to do it. Even I would be embarrassed about confessing my sins in full view of and in earshot of every person that walks through the door. But that was merely incidental. I was there to see about the spirituality of the place.

I picked up some literature in the back of the church, and saw that there was apparently some life here. In addition to the standard volunteer opportunities you would find in any parish, such as altar servers and Eucharistic ministers, the announcement I read listed other groups that were active in the parish, like the Holy Name Society, St. Vincent DePaul Society, Legion of Mary, Senior Group, St. Joseph's Guild, CCD program, Senior Spirituality, Jr. Teen Center and Titan League Sports program. Interesting so far.

I was attending an afternoon Mass, which was the last of 4 Masses on Sunday. Surprisingly for such a later Mass, there were probably over 100 people there, which was another good sign. Unfortunately, most of the people I saw did the old "one quarter genuflection" and "sign of the blob". That is to say, when they reach their aisle, they place their right leg forward, bow a little and bless themselves by shaking their right hand sloppily in front of their faces, like Eli Wallach in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". I know it's a minor thing in context, but when healthy looking people can't be bothered to properly genuflect to their Lord and don't appreciate the holiness in the symbol of His sacrifice, it doesn't reflect well on their Faith.

The hymns were sickly sweet and unsingable, as usual, but that seems to be par for the course in American Catholicism these days. However, I did my best to belt them out, and got the "crazy man" stare from a couple of tweens in front of me. I once attended a church where the priest would stalk the middle aisle during hymns, singing artificially loudly and staring at people until they started singing. I understand his frustration but I disagree with his solution. My grade school nuns taught us that "singing is praying twice", but it's a sad fact that Catholics just don't sing. (again, I can't recommend Thomas Day's "Why Catholics Can't Sing" enough). It might have something to do with our history and ethnic cultures, but the torch songs and bland pop standards we're given to work with are surely at the center of the problem. I notice that most everyone joins in when we sing Christmas carols. But I digress.

As it was the first Sunday of Advent, that was the subject the Fillipino priest chose to talk about. I was a little on edge as he began by discussing the advent candles and the colors and such. Symbolism and church ritual are fascinating subjects to me, but I've heard some priests in the past give such things a disproportionate attention in their sermons. In a time of unprecedented spiritual deterioration in the Church, a focus on the peripheries of the Faith amount to navel gazing and dereliction of duty. That's like George C. Scott getting up in front of that big flag in "Patton" and lecturing his troops on the numerical symbolism of the stars and stripes. Happily though, the priest did move on to the subject of preparation for the coming of Christ, with Christmas being a shadow of His Second Coming, with a need for repentance and prayer, etc. The specifics escape me now a few weeks later, but it was a good sermon. It was very simplistic, as if intended for 8th graders, but it had substance and made sense, which was quite a new church experience for me.

So, my verdict for this one was that although I wasn't especially impressed, it seemed to have a lot of good points and may deserve a second look.