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.


Can I Change A Life? said...

This whole thing makes me sad. After your last post about the Basilica, I had some hope that you had found a home. I don't even know what to say.

I hope you have more places left to visit. I wish everyone had the kind of leadership the parish I attend has.

Friday night the priest gave a talk on St. Paul in the church basement, and the place was packed with people of all ages. Afterward I spent some time praying in the chapel. It was a memorable night.

The more I grow to love the Catholic church, the sadder I find it when I read of Catholicism diluted like this. I'm all for all of us getting along, but we should never concede the Truth. It's sad that what could've been an enormous opportunity was wasted.

I hope you have other places to visit.

Staten Pilgrim said...

Hello again! Well, as disappointed as I am, I still can't condemn the Basilica to oblivion. After all, there just seems to be so much good, holy fervor in the place. Usually, when a parish takes on a spirit of rebellion to the Magisterium, they quickly decline and rot. Perhaps it's just a case of the priest making a bad decision and going with the flow. Well, we shall see. My quest continues!

Can I Change A Life? said...

I like your response to my comment. You think through things well.