Monday, March 14, 2011

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.

No comments: