It was an Ash Wednesday at my all-girls' Catholic high school. The Sisters of St. Joseph, who ran the school, had devised a Lenten service in the cafeteria. Or maybe it was a "retreat." Anyway, we all inflated balloons and wrote our sins on them. Then we prayerfully popped the balloons. One of our feistier friends refused, and went around all day carrying a balloon with "LUST" written on it.
That was sometime between 1972 and 1975. We did more conventional Catholic things as well--the actual sacrament of Penance, for instance, or Mass. Being teenage girls, we were not prone toward taking much of anything seriously, but we took the Religion Department less seriously than most. Even then, the sisters tended toward do-it-yourself liturgies and social-justice crusades that did little to capture our imaginations. We dutifully created collages of multiracial faces for class projects and boycotted grapes and lettuce for the farmworkers. But in a time of convulsive societal change, the convent held no mystery or fascination for us. Not surprisingly, the numbers of women entering religious life began to plummet in those very years. Several sisters in our school left the order before we graduated.
All this has weighed on my mind throughout the furiously partisan reporting of the latest dust-up between the Vatican and America's "progressive" religious orders of sisters (incorrectly called nuns, by the way--nuns are cloistered). My own experience was much richer and more complex than the current media caricatures on either side. The sisters' greatest gifts to us, I will admit, had little direct connection to Catholic doctrine and practice. Rather, they were powerful witnesses to "sisters doing it for themselves," in the best sense of the term. Here were administrators, scholars, teachers and counselors who lived in a world that seemed utterly removed from male domination. Some of them were quirky and a few were downright dotty, but most were tough-minded and able, and some were unforgettable in their brilliance, caring, humor or strength.
Many of the sisters who taught me are still alive, and some are still teaching. Much of their ministry now centers on taking care of their own aging membership, which they do with compassion and heroism. To think of their being hurt, after a lifetime of selfless service, by the recent firestorm is painful to contemplate. But so is the reality that the leadership of many of these orders has wandered into some strange theological and ideological places, some of them barely recognizable as Catholic or even Christian. And now the male leadership of the Church, having set its own sterling example in the clergy abuse crisis, has called the sisters' leaders to account, setting the stage for yet more division and discord.
The whole mess gives me a headache, because after kidding fondly for years about administrative and liturgical "nun follies" (yes, I know, not technically nuns), I now find myself feeling very defensive about the sisters and distressed about the way they're being handled. More thoughts to come.
This past weekend, our beloved faith community, the Oratory Church of St. Boniface, was featured in a surprisingly admiring profile in the New York Times. I guess we're "progressive" enough to have bypassed the Times' Catholicism gag reflex, but we are also orthodox, liturgically traditional (and magnificent), and growing. Notably, we are a "parish of intention," drawing most of us from other, geographically defined parishes in the city and beyond. (The immediate environs are mostly office space, although new condos and hotels are springing up and sending us new members, too.)
All this raises, amid the good feelings, some questions about the idea of parish "hopping" or "shopping." The notion of a local parish is deeply entrenched, especially in New York City, where many Catholics still identify themselves by parish rather than neighborhood. [Example: I was born in Richmond Hill, Queens. A fellow Queens Catholic will inevitably ask me if I was born into St. Benedict or Holy Child Jesus. The answer is: the former.] So: Should one not "bloom where one is planted"?
And all I can answer is: We tried. God, how we tried, starting back in childhood. My dad, an adult convert, tried gamely to embrace post-Vatican II reforms, but he fell in love with the Church of Latin and incense. I can't imagine what it cost him to sit supportively while my "folk group" at St. Anastasia strummed their way through "Teach Your Children." Occasionally, to keep his sanity (and sanctity), we would venture afield for liturgical respite at a more traditional mass, or a parish rumored to have a beautiful pipe organ that was still put to good use. We once tried a semi-outlawed Tridentine mass out on Long Island somewhere; my dad was so orthodox that he insisted upon hearing a licit mass first because the Latin mass wouldn't "count."
Flash forward over the years. I have lived in many parishes. All had the most important thing: the true presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. Many also had dedicated and able clergy and reasonably welcoming communities. All had uniformly ghastly music, but we got used to it. (My dad's trick was to bury his head in his hands prayerfully after Communion, unobtrusively giving him the chance to place a finger over each ear and drown out the caterwauling.) We tried to "offer up" the mechanical homilies, the occasional lunatic outbursts of liturgical dance, the nun-led schemes to festoon the churches with hideous felt-and-burlap banners. In most parishes, I served as a catechist in some well-intentioned but futile Sunday-school program. But when we moved from one neighborhood to another, with every parish leave-taking, we felt as if we were taking our hands from a bucket of water.
Finally, my husband and I bought a house in Brooklyn. For a decade, we tried to bloom where we landed, to be the "fresh blood" that our fading, once-grand local parish needed, at least in its English-speaking community. (There were vibrant Spanish and Haitian masses, but we are neither Latino nor Creole-speaking.) Meanwhile, family illness and financial stress battered us. Every Sunday, we dutifully endured sermons (mostly scolding) from embittered and exhausted priests, or struggled to glean the garbled message from good-hearted missionary priests who barely spoke English. We had a baby while still caregiving for a host of frail elders. We were spiritually dying of thirst. If you had said the words "pastoral care" to us, we would have had not the faintest inkling what you meant.
And so we "hopped" one morning to St. Boniface, where a friend (a refugee from this same parish) said the music was beautiful. It was more than accomplished; it was infused with caring and awe. The welcome was immediate; there was even a coffee hour ("rather Protestant," my mother observed drily). And the homily was warm, articulate, and compassionate, drawn from the lived experience of the priest and delivered as I would speak to an old friend.That's it, in a word: Caring. Everyone seemed to care.
We came more often, for a spiritual booster shot, before returning to our sad, mostly empty home church. (No, I will not name it.) Our daughter was in a stroller, just old enough to start observing her surroundings when we'd say, "You're in church now!" I looked around at the handful of elderly parishioners, listened to the umpteenth rant that we were failing to give enough money, cringed at the wildly off-key leader of song performing her solo. I had prepared class after class of Mexican and Caribbean kids from struggling families to receive their First Holy Communion in this church. Our daughter had been baptised there, by a gifted pastor who burned himself out trying to save the place after years of neglect had brought it to the brink of insolvency. We were tapped out. Like the woman at the well, I felt like saying, "Give me this water to drink so that I don't have to come here anymore!"
Our decision to shop and then hop was a painful one, but one I cannot regret. Often, you can do things for your children that you couldn't do for yourself. And I couldn't bear to have my daughter think "Church" was those bare, ruined choirs. In the years that followed, the community at St. Boniface--not just the clergy, but countless friends--have buoyed us up, inspired us, and modeled Christ for us. I have laughed there (which would make our founder, St. Philip Neri, very pleased) and also wept there, and never have I struggled alone.
And this past Christmas, two of my daughter's friends in Catholic high school asked to join us for midnight mass. They loved it. If you know teenagers, you know that this is a miracle.
I am not certain how our geographic parish is doing these days; well, I hope. It is, at least, still open, although its school closed a few years ago. (Our daughter went to another Catholic parochial school nearby, since St. Boniface doesn't have a school.) We transplanted ourselves where we were able to bloom, in a parish that was itself dying until a visionary community rolled up its sleeves and got to work. And now I feel like Peter asking Jesus, "Lord, where else would we go?"
Prayer to the Risen Christ
Lord. help us to be thankful. Let the gratitude which we owe you and your Mother always accompany us from now on; let it become fruitful and perceptible everywhere in our service. Let us be people redeemed who really fill their whole life with your redemption, who accompany you everywhere, who seek to do your will, as you do the will of the Father.
Let us not only enjoy the fruit of' your suffering and redemption, but rather help us - beginning today - in our attempt to know you as our brother, our true redeemer forevermore in our midst. Help us never to forget that you are there, that you have answered our unfaithfulness with faithfulness, our disbelief with ever greater grace.
Let every day, whether hard or easy, become one which includes the explicit, or at least the hidden, joy of knowing that you have redeemed us and, in returning to the Father, you take us along. We ask you for your Easter blessing in which the blessing of the Father and the Spirit are contained. Amen.
“The Shroud is an image of silence. There is a tragic silence of incommunicability, which finds its greatest expression in death, and there is the silence of fruitfulness, which belongs to whoever refrains from being heard outwardly in order to delve to the roots of truth and life. The Shroud expresses not only the silence of death but also the courageous and fruitful silence of triumph over the transitory, through total immersion in God's eternal present.”
--John Paul II, May 24, 1998, pastoral visit to Turin
Image: Shroud of Turin, digitally modified photonegative
Prayer Before a Crucifix
BEHOLD, o good and most sweet Jesus, I fall upon my knees before Thee, and with most fervent desire beg and beseech Thee that Thou wouldst impress upon my heart a lively sense of faith, hope and charity, true repentance for my sins, and a firm resolve to make amends.
And with deep affection and grief, I reflect upon Thy five wounds, having before my eyes that which Thy prophet David spoke about Thee, o good Jesus: "They have pierced my hands and feet, they have counted all my bones." Amen.
Image: Crucifix, Basilica della Consolata, Turin