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.

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