Sunday, March 20, 2011

Catholic Church Shopping, Part XI: Asymmetry

 I next visited another North Shore church of modernist design, which was only completed in 1990, although the parish has been around since 1966. It is not to my taste. The stained glass windows are cartoonishly juvenile, the seating pattern is sort of a half circle, and the shape of the church is- how should I put this?-something that could only have originated in the nightmares of some deranged mathematician.

A lady with a beautiful voice led the singing from the pulpit. No one sang. They all just sat there like dumb brutes and did not even pick up a missalette. It was embarrassing. The priest, who was assisted by two altar girls, was a thin, neat looking fellow, who did a good job of almost hiding his nervousness. I'm not sure what his name was, but there is a priest at this parish who is a filmmaker. I wouldn't be surprised if that was the priest I heard, as he wove a very detailed and vivid story through his homily about how he ordered Chinese duck for dinner on the first Friday of Lent. Rather than actually suffer a little for Christ, he decided to eat it anyway, figuring God would forgive him. The next day he took a hike along a river, and had his conscience twinged by the beautiful sight of a group of ducks swimming in the water. Then they flew away and pooped on his head, in an act of revenge I suppose. He then clumsily segued from that into a story of a lady he visits in the nursing home, who cannot speak. He then wrapped up these two stories by explaining that fasting during Lent is actually good for us.

This was an abysmal sermon, allayed somewhat by the good quality of the sound system, mirabile dictu. What was remarkable about this Mass was what he did after the reading of the Mass intentions. One of his altar girls brought up a handful of post it notes from the back of the church. On them were written the special intentions of the parishioners. The priest read each and every one of them aloud. There must have been 50, and they took about 10 minutes to read. "For my brother's operation, pray for him", "that my daughter will become the girl she one was", "that my son will find a job", "that my graddaughter will break her addiction", "that my husband will pass his tests", "for my grandson, who has Lyme Disease", "for my son, who has cancer", etc. I was taken aback and blown away. These were real-life concerns of real people. This was truth in all its rawness. People were hurting and longing and hoping. They needed help. They needed prayer. After having to endure so much phoniness in church for so many years, so much forced participation, fake communalism, ersatz music, so many asinine and out-of-touch sermons...this much raw authenticity almost brought tears to my eyes.

The rest of the Mass was unremarkable, except for the fact that as soon as Communion began, a mad rush to parking lot ensued.

Catholic Church Shopping, Part X: Ho-hum

The next stop on the tour was a place that, at least at one time, was an Italian National Parish. Its church is a modernist design, built in 1988. Some of the stained glass windows aspired to representational art, as opposed to cartoonish or abstract figures, but their Jesus looked like he came off the cover of a 1970s record album. With his long hair, world-weary gaze, and slightly ticked off expression, He looked like all He wanted to do was pack up His guitar and His dog, move to Colorado and sing Gordon Lightfoot songs. I went to a 9:00 Mass and was shocked to see about 200 people present. Not all of them were senior citizens, although the preponderance were grey-heads.

The organist was a large, bald fellow who resembled Kevin Malone from "The Office". He had a wonderful, deep singing voice, although the songs were none too memorable. He was accompanied by a large choir of tween-age girls, who had to wear extremely ugly lime-green choir gowns. In a first for any choir I've ever known, they seem to have been too shy to actually sing loudly. Even though they had a microphone and a large group, they whispered their lyrics almost to the point of inaudibility. That was too bad, since they would have sounded beautiful. Hardly anyone in the congregation sang, or even pretended to pick up a missalette.

The priest was Filipino. I wasn't surprised, since in my experience the junior priests and the foreign priests with bad accents are usually given the early morning and late afternoon Masses, so the pastor can focus all his energy on the main performance: 10:30 Mass or thereabouts. Actually, whenever a pastor has a subordinate to order around, he usually has him say most of the Masses, no matter how bad his accent. In any case, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this foreign priest was actually quite well spoken. He made a point to enunciate his words, so that I probably understood a good 80%. That day's Gospel was the one in which Jesus says that the people who only say "Lord, Lord" will not enter his kingdom, but only those who do the will of God the Father. The priest gave a solid, if unspectacular, sermon.

He did challenge us to examine our lives and question whether our works are pleasing to the Lord, but still, for such a very important topic, I felt that he could have went a little deeper and gotten a bit more specific. After all, most of us are spiritually complacent. If we ever deign to examine our souls, we will almost invariably pronounce them up to snuff. Conscience has a way of being rationalized away.  That is when it is the priest's duty to say, "Have you broken the First Commandment, in this, that, and the other specific? Have you broken the Second Commandment, etc. Ok, you've kept all the Commandments? Then you've done nothing more than your duty! Do you proudly proclaim your Faith in Christ, in word and deed? Do you evangelize? Do you give to the poor? Do you volunteer? How about the Beatitudes? How about the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy?" Even the Pope says that priests need to start preaching on "uncomfortable" topics. I almost feel that discomfort needs to be the primary emotion conveyed, to ensure that an effective sermon was given. We are in barbaric spiritual warfare in this life, but we are fat, lazy and ignorant. However, what we usually hear from the pulpit is supportive and congratulatory.

The priest could also have pointed out that this Gospel passage is a devastating proof text against Protestant Sola Fide. Still, I was pleased to hear a priest at least say something of substance for a change.

By the way, this church's history is intertwined with that of the adjacent Catholic high school, which was once Staten Island's premier co-ed institution of secondary ed. In recent years, this school has built a professional looking football field and really ramped up its worship of the sports idol. To that end, I think it has made an effort to recruit star athletes, whether Catholic or not. (One of its star football players, who was killed in a drunken driving accident last year, had his funeral service in a nearby Pentecostal megachurch.) I found myself taking the bus with these sterling examples of Catholic students last year and listened to them curse and fight and disgrace themselves with obscene discussions the entire trip. To top it off, when they came to their stop, they called the female bus driver an f***ing b***h for no reason whatsoever.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Positive news: Priests for Life save Baby Joseph

Father Frank Pavone of Staten Island-based Priests for Life has managed to bring Baby Joseph out of the Canadian death clinic and bring him to a U.S. hospital where doctors still abide by the Hippocratic oath. Way to go, Father Pavone!

The Gymnasium Transformed; or, Our Lady of White Flight; or, St. Slovenly's; or The Gravedigger of St. Peter's

I've written before about the South Shore parish which recently knocked down its old church and built an eight million dollar mega-monstrosity in its place. I paid them a visit a few weeks ago, and it was as disturbing and disorienting as the architectural drawings promised.

The first thing that strikes the observer is the overwhelming, callous massiveness of the thing. Situated near an intersection in a quiet, suburban neighborhood, it seems to revel in its gaudy, unnecessary obtrusiveness. If they just wanted to increase the seating capacity, they didn't have to build something like this. They didn't have to erect this giant, brick middle finger, which seems to be flipping off passing motorists, the other Catholic parishes on SI, and the world in general, while boasting about its large endowments, mad skilz, and uncommon prowess with the ladies, like some stereotypically hyperbolic rapper. Indeed, if this thing were a person, it would be wearing a velour track suit, a diamond-encrusted American-flag belt buckle, a hubcap-sized gold medallion around his neck, puffing on a giant cigar and blowing smoke in your face. That attitude might appeal to the My Cousin Vinny demographic on the South Shore, but it doesn't say much for the taste or judgment of the people who approved this construction. It achieves size without grandeur.

The architects claim that it was built in the "architectural tradition of basilicas, with a high main nave and lower side naves or transepts". If that was their intention, I think they failed miserably (and I think the pretensions of the pastor are evident in the church's description as a "basilica", but that's a separate subject). As can be seen in the next picture, the transepts are hardly much lower than the nave, despite how it looks from the outside. One simply feels like they are in a big round room.

Besides which, why bother to claim this spurious continuity with the architectural tradition when what you've created is such an obvious dislocation from that tradition? From its cartoonish and abstract stained glass windows (some of which were designed by a local Episcopalian priest, who, by the by, lives with another Episcopalian priest in a magnificent, landmarked Victorian mansion on a North Shore hilltop), to its felt banners, its amorphous shape, its light and feminine atmosphere, to its enthronement of the priest/M.C. at the center of the sanctuary area with the subsequent banishment of the Tabernacle to the side, this church is the embodiment of "the spirit of Vatican II", and a rejection of the past. A Pentecostal megachurch? Maybe. A Brooklyn reception hall? Ok. But a basilica? Nah. Only in the most superficial way could it be interpreted as part of the Catholic architectural heritage. Can anyone conceive of Good Friday happening here?

Notice the throne. Notice the Tabernacle. Who are we worshipping?

Whatever its architectural shortcomings, the place was packed when I attended. There must have been 500 people there, dressed in their Sunday worst, as they did on my first visit. I even saw some people in shorts, due to the unseasonably warm weather. It was kind of sad to think of all the suffering North Shore parishes and Catholic schools, like St. Peter's, when this place was engorged with parishioners and surplus cash. Not too many decades ago the South Shore was a sparsely populated backwater, where a congregation of this size would have been unthinkable. But then Black faces began moving into traditionally White North Shore neighborhoods and everyone fled below the Expressway as fast as they could. The exodus from Brooklyn added impetus to the population shift. So, the Church must follow its flock. 

The priest was a tall, thin man, who almost looked like he could be a brother of the pastor. The Gospel that day was from Matthew, where Jesus told the disciples that even a person who lusted after a woman in his heart had committed adultery, or that a person who called his brother a fool will be liable to Gehenna, etc. It is a very important and deep Gospel reading. He chose to read the short form of the Gospel. As a digression I must ask WHY we even have short forms of Scripture readings. Unless one is saying Mass on a sinking ship, I see no reason to even make truncating the Word of God an option. Are we so eager to get out of Mass 30 seconds faster? Are we scared of the politically incorrect parts of the Bible? I just started a petition on this subject:  Please sign it if you agree with me. Anyway...

The priest started off by insulting Catholic girls. He spoke of a class he taught, in which a girl mentioned that she reads the Bible with her boyfriend. The priest quipped, "Obviously she wasn't a Catholic girl!". The audience guffawed. I thought that joke was distasteful. The rest of his sermon was ok. It was obvious he fancied himself a good speaker. Maybe that was why he shortened the Gospel. However, while he did a good job of rephrasing Jesus' words in contemporary terms, and made some incisive points, he said nothing, to my mind, that touched our individual consciences or spurred us to holier life or more transcendent understanding. If we sin simply by our thoughts and words, then shouldn't we confess the evil intentions we allow our minds to entertain? How do we bring our thoughts under control and consecrate our lives so as to achieve greater holiness? Hmm? Well, I guess we got some jokes instead.

A large choir, situated to the right of the altar, supplied the music. It was led by a nicely-dressed young cantor, who had to gesture to the seemingly confused choir about when to sit, stand or sing. Again, another architectural gesture to the zeitgeist. Choirs used to be hidden in the older churches, and for a good reason. This is not a concert. The music is an aid to prayer, not the main attraction. 

I apologize for the length of this posting, but there was so much to comment on here. A few more interesting items: this is a "tithing" parish. I have never heard that concept used in the Catholic Church. There's a lot of activity in this church. There is a Miraculous Medal Novena, volunteer snow shovelers for senior citizens, Eucharistic Adoration, RCIA, a 50+ club, a bereavement ministry, contemporary choir, separated and divorced ministry, book group, Adult Faith Formation group, a singles group, and a group for children and teens coping with loss or a painful family situation. On the iffy side, one can "memorialize" some of the Episcopalian priest's icons for only $10,000. There is a prayer group (probably charismatic) who meet for prayers of "praise, singing, centering and intercessory prayer". Centering prayer is a well-known New Age meditation practice from the 1970s, characteristics of which were condemned by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Lenten news

Ash Wednesday is next week. It is the day which begins a cold and rainy season of moral introspection and penitence; it is one of the two High Holy Days for A&P (ashes and palms) Catholics, when the missing millions come back to church to score a freebie; and is is the kick-off of an important season of ecumenical silliness for Catholic clergy, when they will pray with Jews for the coming of the Messiah, and invite Protestant sects into our churches to teach us what the Gospel really says. The following paragraphs detail some of the Ash Wednesday events that have been advertised in the Advance. Some seem worthwhile; some seem outrageous. Judge for yourselves. But one note to my Cultural Catholic readers- remember to get your ashes as late in the day as possible, so as to avoid the embarrassment of publicly acknowledging your allegiance to Christ and membership in His Church.

  • Father Benedict Groeschel will come to St. Francis seminary (sorry- St. Francis Center for Spirituality, guffaw) on Ash Wednesday. Starting at 6:30, Confession will be heard, followed by a Mass and distribution of ashes. The article says that Mass will be followed by a "conference" on the subject of "The Call of the Gospel". A free-will offering is requested.
  • The disobedient, and apparently entrepreneurial, Jesuits of Mt. Manresa are also sponsoring an Ash Wednesday event. Entitled "An Ash Wednesday Evening of Reflection", for a mere $30 per person, you will get dinner, Mass, Confession and they'll throw in some ashes for free. By contrast, Alberto's on Bay St. is only charging $29.95 for 2 entrees, a bottle of wine and dessert for two. You can also purchase a $50 gift certificate there for only $25. Wow!
  • The disobedient Jesuits at Mt. Manresa are also sponsoring Taize prayer programs every Friday during Lent. Taize was the French "ecumenical" monastery founded by a Protestant, Roger Schutz, in 1940. While Taize is currently headed by a Roman Catholic layman, and "Brother" Roger did receive Communion from the hands of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, he never did renounce Protestant theology or formally join the Catholic Church. He apparently wanted Taize to be a bridge between the Catholic and Protestant worlds, sort of how the Anglican church sees itself to be. So, while there may be nothing overtly offensive in a Taize prayer program, surely the disobedient Jesuits at Mt. Manresa could have found something indisputably and genuinely Catholic to offer during Lent. Perhaps the Spiritual Exercises by the Dead White Male who founded their order?
  • Our Lady of Mount Carmel - St. Benedicta R. C. Church will be hosting an ecumenical prayer service every Thursday evening during Lent. Four Protestant ministers and one disobedient Jesuit from Mt. Manresa are scheduled to speak. 
  • A confusing article here, from the usually incomprehensible SI Advance. St. John's Episcopal and St. Mary's Catholic church (whose school is being closed down) are cooperating on ecumenical events this Lenten season. I think it says they will be having a joint Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner, Ash Wednesday distribution of ashes, and Bible studies. Can ecumenism save a dying parish? Is the answer to declining membership more doctrinal compromise?
  • St. Rita's is kicking off the Lenten season with an opera performance of Verdi's Requiem. I suppose that one could make a tenuous connection between the Requiem and a Catholic memento mori, but surely there could have been something better to do. I'm sure most people will come simply to hear the beautiful music.
  • For a free-will offering, you can attend a Lectio Divina on March 16th, at the St. Francis Center for Spirituality, which will include Confession, Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, prayer and Scripture reading. 
  • Also, Melissa Lanza, author of the book "In His Presence," will speak on Tuesday and also March 22 and 29 at Mother Franciska House of Prayer . The suggested donation is $10. I could buy the book on for $12.29.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Captain Fantastic at St. Clare's

I received an email from St. Clare's announcing that the St. Clare Musical Theatre is putting on a show this Saturday at 8PM. They will be performing Elton John's Greatest Hits. This is kind of an odd and inappropriate choice for a Catholic grade school, in my opinion, as Sir Elton is an open homosexual and one of the world's most prominent gay activists. His tunes are kind of catchy, in a flowery, queenly way, but are very much associated with gay culture and lifestyle. I think of the movie Hamlet 2, in which the fictional Gay Men's Chorus of Tucson did an extraordinary rendition of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." So, while his songs might not be so offensive, I have to wonder why he was chosen, and if perhaps there might have been a better choice, considering the venue.