Sunday, December 29, 2013

Catholic Church Shopping, Part XIV: The Sardine Can

I have attended the Sardine Can a few times. I call it such because it is inevitably packed to the rafters with a standing-room-only-crowd. It is the oldest Catholic church building in Staten Island and is located in what was once a sleepy maritime village on the southern part of the island. The village has been mostly obliterated and its original inhabitants scattered to the four winds first by a devastating brush fire in the early 1960s which displaced 500 people and destroyed 100 homes, and then by the construction of the West Shore Expressway, the Verrazano Bridge and subsequent overdevelopment. Now, one can spot a humble older house here and there, nestled in between the McMansions and endless vistas of attached townhouses. White flight from Brooklyn and the North Shore of Staten Island has made this neighborhood extremely popular and its 19th century church extremely well attended. I could just as easily call it The Death Trap, as its single small exit would make it a tomb for hundreds in the event of a fire.

In any case, it's a charming edifice, with beautiful stained glass windows, traditional Stations of the Cross and other iconography. Its congregation appears to be mostly Italian American. For some reason the parish is officially combined with a booming, opulent parish a few miles down the road. Even though this parish is always packed, one doesn't get the impression of any special fervor. No
one really sings, or genuflects, dresses appropriately or shows any interest. The back of the church is full of gossiping adults; the foyer is full of tweens and teenagers tapping away on their phones or video games. Many people flee right after Communion. The rotating cast of priests never say anything worthwhile. The sermon last Sunday was memorable though, but for all the wrong reasons.

The priest, a handsome bearded man who couldn't have been more than 40 and who spoke with a theatrical voice and articulate delivery, gave a sermon on the Gospel story of how Jesus' divine paternity was revealed to Joseph in a dream, thus convincing Joseph not to divorce Mary after he learned of her pregnancy. The centerpiece of his entire message was that Joseph had not intended to divorce Mary because he thought she was unfaithful- that would have meant that Joseph did not trust Mary and that would have made him cynical, an unthinkable fault- but that he was going to divorce her because he thought she had been raped by a Gentile during her visit to Elizabeth, which would have rendered the child non-Jewish under the Law of the time, making their marriage illegal as well. According to the priest, this compelled a devout man like Joseph to divorce Mary, as much as he no doubt didn't want to.

No trace of this fanciful construction is found in the Bible at all. It was entirely a figment of this priest's imagination. Even if it could be argued that it was so, I am at a loss as to how there is any lesson in it that would be relevant to us today. I don't know anyone who ever faulted Joseph for wanting to divorce his pregnant wife whom he never had relations. In any case, how does this story edify us or inspire us to be better Catholics? This was truly one of the most bizarre sermons I've ever heard, which was a shame since the priest was a very good orator, with a persuasive and passionate delivery.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Where crucifixes go to collect dust

The Times reports that a warehouse on the grounds of Mount Loretto is the final resting place for sacramental and liturgical objects from closed churches around the archdiocese. The article notes that it was only in 2004, when a bishop walked into a bar and noticed an object from his first church decorating the shelves of the drinking establishment, that the archdiocese thought about crafting some regulations about how to dispose of crucifixes and vestments and other holy objects that were no longer needed.
(What a poignant commentary on the short-sightedness of our hierarchy. If someone had opened their eyes to this glaring issue, we would be spared the sight of 1st degree relics being sold on ebay and Brooklyn hipsters using Catholic chalices for candy bowls.) The article also notes that this policy became especially significant when the archdiocese reneged on its 2007 promise not to sell any closed parishes to developers.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Catholic Church Shopping, Part XIII: Meh

I attended Mass today at a mid-island parish founded in 1914. The age of the church building was uncertain. It looked old from the outside, but the interior had some modern elements. Overall it was quite attractive, with beautiful stained glass windows and traditional Stations of the Cross. The mass was attended by about 200 people. About 65% seemed to be in their 60s and 70s, 25% in their middle age, with the rest a smattering of young families, which was surprising since this parish also has a school. The priest was American and quite young, perhaps no more than 35, so I was eager to hear him speak. Although it was obvious that he had faith, he really said nothing of any consequence. With tomorrow being the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he noted how Mary needed to be extremely holy in order to bear our Lord, and that we all need to let God into our hearts this Christmas season. That was it. It wasn't a  stupid sermon; it wasn't heterodox; it was just extremely disappointing. The choice of music was uninspiring, rather than banal. The parish has a Bible study and some brief hours of Eucharistic adoration and novena which are, no doubt, attended solely by senior citizens, judging by the makeup of the congregation. Still, it seemed like the church was thriving, at least by the low standards of anemic modern American Catholicism. They paid off their debt and they were able to send over $8,000 to the Filipino typhoon victims. But when all the seniors die off, who will pick up the slack?

To me, this parish is at a place where a lot of failing parishes were 20 years ago. By the numbers it is successful. A stable neighborhood has resulted in a school with enough enrollment to pay for itself. The number of parishioners are enough to sustain the parish and throw a few nice parties a year. The people are cheerful rather than spiritually fervent in any way. Then the old folks start dying off. The young people go to high school and college, move away from home and fall away from the faith. If they marry at all, they marry late and artificially limit their families. Of the few that retain the faith, they will live somewhere else. A certain percentage of the retirees start moving to New Jersey or Florida. And then all it will take will be a city social service agency placed nearby, or a few dark faces moving in, and the neighborhood will quickly "change," and this model parish will then resemble St. Peter's or Immaculate Conception or St. Mary's. We've seen it all happen before.

The Catholic Titanic

In a brutal address to representatives of Staten Island parishes, the Rev. John O'Hara, former pastor of St. Teresa's and now archdiocesan director of strategic pastoral planning, told the assembly that the Catholic Church on Staten Island would "go down faster than the Titanic" if her parishes didn't maximize efficiencies and save money by cooperating, consolidating and closing bleeding churches. Specifics seem to be unavailable at this time. Under the Cardinal's "Making All Things New" initiative, all island churches are now grouped in six clusters based upon the criteria of demography and geography. The churches in each cluster will have to figure out how to survive.

The initiative is the brainchild of a consulting firm called The Reid Group, whose representatives were present at the aforementioned meeting. The Reid Group seems to consist of a bunch of slick lawyers and accountants who have made a great living off of the carcasses of struggling Catholic dioceses nationwide. Their modus operandi seems to be to swoop in with their experts and studies and reports and figure out how to close unprofitable parishes in the nicest and most professional way possible. The employment of such a group is a stark sign that the hierarchy of this archdiocese is hopelessly blinded by a carnal mentality that only sees the problem as one of dollars and cents, and hobbled by a defeatist spirit that can only propose retreat upon retreat as the only solution.

Even the words that greet you when you visit the website of The Reid Group are negative, depressing and hopeless in the extreme: "Change is in abundance! Pick up any newspaper or magazine today and there is a good chance that you will find a news article about change. Managing change well will not alleviate loss, but will lessen some of the pain of loss." With friends like these, who needs enemies?

There was not one word in Father O'Hara's speech or in the gloomy words of The Reid Group about the spiritual aspect to our problems. We- the Church- are suffering because we have rejected the Father, abandoned Christ and lost the Spirit. The long and short of it is that with extremely few exceptions, we- the ones who still for some reason attend Mass and superficially adhere to the Church- do not live our lives like we really believe it. If we really believed,  we would not only live lives that would be an example to the world, but we would be fighting aggressively for the lost sheep of the Church. Instead, we live and think exactly like the world and we confirm the sinners in their sin with our tolerance and our silence.We are in desperate need of a revival. Who will show us the way?

Father O'Hara's Titanic metaphor was apt. This ship is going down. However, the crew of the Titanic at least tried to save the ship before it sunk; the crew at the helm of the Church have been actively punching holes in the hull of the ship, demotivating the passengers and mindlessly twiddling their thumbs for 50 years. And now our leaders and their opportunistic consultants are spending their time and our money figuring out how to merely slow the decline and let the Church die as painlessly as possible. That is not a solution. This disaster started with the priesthood; and the reaction must begin in the priesthood. But a revival of the faith isn't going to originate with men who, in the midst of this utterly unprecedented crisis, are preoccupied with amnesty legislation or who blather syrupy platitudes or tell jokes from the pulpit week after week. This spiritual revival won't originate in men who think it's a good idea to invite a female Methodist minister to preach to a Catholic congregation, such as happened today at Blessed Sacrament. We need saints who believe, really believe with all their hearts, that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Light, and that He established the Catholic Church as His One True Church. Being animated in the spirit of the Church Militant and becoming saints is the only way this dying body of cowards, hypocrites and cultural Catholics will be resurrected. Anything less and we're left with the ice cold and degenerate social club we have today. May God send us saints, we humbly pray.

Come Rack! Come Rope!

The Advance ran an article today about the Catholic opposition to Obama's Health Care mandate, in which several Staten Island clerics are quoted making some pretty strong comments about the mandate's unconstitutional infringement on Catholic religious freedom. Monsignor Edmund J. Whalen, principal of  Farrell High School, even declares that the Church will resist the mandate "to the limit."

I have two comments:

1. In addition to pointing out how this law is a blatant and illegal violation of our constitutional rights, our bishops and priests should be preaching about why artificial contraception, the root of so many other sins, is evil. But we never hear a thing about it. In fact, the flock both overwhelmingly uses contraception and thinks it's fine. Is it any wonder they don't understand what all the fuss is about? The bishops are saying that we oppose the mandate because it forces us to violate our religion, which is true. But more to the point is the fact that opposition to artificial contraception is a part of our religious belief because artificial contraception is evil. Why is that angle ignored?

2. To what "limit" exactly is the good Monsignor referring? The exhaustion of all legal appeals, or something further? Monsignor Whalen, of course, is only a local priest. What exactly is the strategy of our leaders, the bishops, should we lose this lawsuit? Will they shrug their shoulders, tell the flock that they gave it their best shot, and then prove their loyalty to divine America by burning incense at its altar and obeying this immoral law? I pray to God that will not be the case, but we are not being told what to expect. This is a watershed moment in the history of the Church. The regime in charge of this once great land of liberty is telling us that we must betray our Faith. We simply cannot obey. The bishops must prepare us for the worst, and clearly tell our enemies that we will never cooperate with EVIL. The bishops have to tell the flock that we will therefore need to prepare ourselves for persecution that could mean the imprisonment of Catholics and the loss of our churches, but to be comforted by the fact that it is better to be an outlaw than an apostate; it is better to disobey Obama than turn our backs on Christ, and that the blood of martyrs is always the fertilizer for a stronger and purer Church than before. Michael Voris recently produced an excellent, excellent, must-watch critique of this issue and Cardinal Dolan's lack of leadership. Click here.