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


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.