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.


Steve Finnell said...
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Anonymous said...

I'll have to take a drive over to visit this church some time - I had actually thought my parish church in Richmondtown was the oldest on the island.

That homily sounds a lot like the ones I used to hear at a Protestant church (one of the old Reformation churches - not one of the newer charismatic ones) my parents belonged to: everything would be going great but all of a sudden the pastor would reel off in some strange direction from which he would never recover. Sometimes it's probably their own idea; sometimes probably something they read in one of those appalling modern Bible commentaries on the market.

By the grace of God I reverted from evangelicalism to Catholicism about 3 years ago (my parents and much of my family as well now), and by the grace of God, in spite of the many liturgical scandals the Church presents, I remain Catholic.

Some time in the future I'll post a testimony about my reversion to the faith. As you can guess, it involved, among many other more personal (some, I would say, miraculous) details, coming to terms with my discovery that sola scriptura was a pious fantasy - much like you've probably heard on Marcus Grodi's The Journey Home program (great show!).

Staten Pilgrim said...

We can't wait to hear your story!