Sunday, June 7, 2009

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?

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