Sunday, December 27, 2009

Church Shopping Part VI: Sts Currier & Ives

The next congregation I visited was located within a historical village populated by restored 17th, 18th and 19th century buildings. The church itself was built in 1862 in the Romanesque Revival style and is a New York City landmark. The antiquity and charm of the church and its surroundings bring to mind sentimental scenes of Christmas caroling, riding in a one-horse open sleigh, and other images of old-time Americana, hence my nickname for the parish.

It is a beautiful brick church with wonderful stained glass windows. There were about 150 people crowded in at a noon Mass, with room for about 40 more. A young lady wearing a choir robe led the congregation in the entrance hymn of Adeste Fidelis- in Latin and English. She had a heavenly voice, one of the best I've ever heard. A good percentage of the congregation was even singing along with her, but that Catholic miracle can perhaps be explained by the fact that it was Christmas carols we were singing. People like and know those songs. The real test comes during the rest of the year, when most congregations usually sit mute during the hymns, and usually for good cause owing to the unsingable nature of most modern hymns.

The Mass proceeded without incident. There were only 2 things I shall comment on. The first was during the second reading. The reading was Col: 3:12-21, and the young lady reading it (not the singer) rather conspicuously omitted the last few sentences, which contained Paul's famous admonition for wives to be subordinate to their husbands. It made me wonder why these few sentences were left out. Is this a politically correct parish, where they dare not offend the feminists? Why do Catholic misalettes even offer a "short form" of this reading, or any reading? Are we ashamed of the Word of God? Are we looking for any angle to make the Mass go faster, even by 30 seconds? The whole thing was absurd.

The second thing I'd like to comment on is, of course, the sermon. The priest appeared to be Filipino, and spoke English with a bit of difficulty. He started off reiterating, almost word for word, that day's Gospel reading. That really gets under my skin. WE JUST HEARD THE GOSPEL! WE'RE NOT IDIOTS! WHY ARE YOU REPEATING IT??? As it was the feast of the Holy Family, he then went on to lament the disintegration of so many families today and attributed that state of affairs to the fact that families don't spend much time with each other nowadays. O....K....I suppose that is one cause of the problem. Would you care to offer a solution, Father? Since one of the conspicuous sins of our Staten Island community is crass consumerism, would you care to admonish us with the prophetic role of your office and declare that mothers should stay home to take care of their children, that fathers do not need to work like slaves to buy million dollar McMansions, 4 Escalades and every ridiculous gadget that Best Buy dangles in front of our faces? Unfortunately, he let a potentially edifying point remain undeveloped and descended into platitudes. He went on to tell us that the Holy Family is the ideal family because Joseph worked hard to support his family, Mary was holy, and Jesus didn't embarrass his parents by flaunting His divinity over them. I kid you not. Like pretty much every Catholic sermon I've ever heard, it was vague, meaningless and thus without any value whatsoever. I suppose I should thank God that it was merely banal, and not heretical or moronic.

Nevertheless, it seemed like a vibrant parish with good people. Perhaps I'll come back for a second look.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Church Shopping Part V: Roman Senate

The next stop on the tour was a stately North Shore church that resembles the ancient Roman Senate, - a high ceilinged rectangular building with an apse and slightly jutting columns against the walls. Except for primitive, 1960s-style Stations of the Cross, the decoration was traditional and admirable. It had beautiful stained glass windows and old fashioned statuary. There were banners on the walls, but unlike the felt rectangles bedecked with warm and fuzzy socialist slogans ("We are Church", etc.) you find in modernist parishes, like the Gymnasium, these banners displayed Renaissance art. Whoever decorated this church had some taste.

There were about 130 people, racially mixed, at a 12 noon Mass on a rainy Sunday. The processional set the tone for the entire experience of Mass at this parish. The organist asked us to join in singing a particular hymn, but did not tell us where to find it in the hymnal and then didn't even play the organ or sing anything. It was like something from Waiting for Godot. The snowy-haired priest looked like the priest from Everybody Loves Raymond. He used a cane and hobbled up the aisle behind his altar girl, looking like he was going to topple over at any moment. The first part of the Mass went by uneventfully, and then the priest limped over to the pulpit to give his sermon.

He had a surprisingly youthful voice and knew how to establish a connection with the congregation by looking at us and speaking somewhat conversationally, but not informally. Unfortunately, his sermon was as disjointed and banal as those of most other priests. He began by talking about an infomercial for an exercise machine he had recently seen which promised results with only 20 minutes of use each day. Father then mused how much spiritual benefit we would obtain if we devoted 20 minutes each day to God. That was a GREAT point- the next logical step would have been for him to expand upon it and tell us HOW to commune with God each day and gain those spiritual benefits. Sadly, his idea remained undeveloped and he abruptly veered off onto an anecdote from Grandma's favorite newspaper columnist, Irma Bombeck. She had written about an incident in church where she witnessed a mother admonish her child for smiling at the other congregants, which led Father to speak vaguely about our "God of Love" who wants us to be happy, and how we should be joyfully celebrating the upcoming birth of Christ. His peroration was memorable to me, as it included both a Scriptural quotation (unusual for a Catholic sermon!) and an insipid, sentimental misinterpretation of said Scripture. He said that when we go to Heaven, we want God to say "Well done, good and faithful servant" (MT 25:21) BECAUSE "You made my people smile"! That sermon certainly made me smile (for the wrong reasons) but I'm pretty sure that our eternal reward will not be based on our ability to amuse others.

The next portion of the Mass was even more entertaining. After his sermon the priest went to the altar and waited as one of the ladies went to the pulpit and read off the names of the winners of the church raffle! She then announced that there would be supermarket gift cards for sale in the foyer after Mass. Why are modern Catholics so clueless about...well, everything??? In what universe is it considered sensible, appropriate or reverent to interrupt a 2000 year old religious ritual in order to announce the winners of a game of chance and hawk products to the worshippers? Do they not realize the effect that has??

Recognizing the priorities of the parish, the ushers respectfully refrained from taking up the collection while the lady was announcing the raffle winners, and waited until the priest began to say the blessing over the gifts. The rest of the Mass proceeded with similar unsynchronized confusion- over when to stand and sit, silence during the responses, etc. What was most surprising was that the entire Mass lasted only 30 minutes. I'd never witnessed a Mass with a sermon last only a half hour. The rain on my coat hadn't even dried yet.

Despite all the bumbling, I left with a good feeling about this parish. I can't say why, because if I had witnessed some of these things at other parishes, with other priests and other people, it would have set me off. Maybe it was because I felt like the people and the priest were genuine, sincere, and faithful. I have no explanation for my positive reaction, but I liked the place.