The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

“The way it goes in America”

As we get ready to celebrate another 4th of July, another Independence Day, Peggy Noonan has offered us a reminder of what it means to be an American, and it involves a story about Brooklyn and a priest:

I was at a wake for an old family friend named Anthony Coppola, a retired security guard who’d been my uncle Johnny’s best friend from childhood. All the old neighborhood people were there from Clinton Avenue and from other streets in Brooklyn, and Anthony’s sisters Tessie and Angie and Gloria invited a priest in to say some prayers. About a hundred of us sat in chairs in a little side chapel in the funeral home.


The priest, a jolly young man with a full face and thick black hair, said he was new in the parish, from South America. He made a humorous, offhand reference to the fact that he was talking to longtime Americans who’d been here for ages. This made the friends and family of Anthony Coppola look at each other and smile. We were Italian, Irish, everything else. Our parents had been the first Americans born here, or our grandparents had. We had all grown up with two things, a burly conviction that we were American and an inner knowledge that we were also something else. I think we experienced this as a plus, a double gift, though I don’t remember anyone saying that. When Anthony’s mother or her friend, my grandmother, talked about Italy or Ireland, they called it “the old country.” Which suggested there was a new one, and that we were new in it.


But this young priest, this new immigrant, he looked at us and thought we were from the Mayflower. As far as he was concerned–as far as he could tell–we were old Yankee stock. We were the establishment. As the pitcher in “Bang the Drum Slowly” says, “This handed me a laugh.”

This is the way it goes in America. You start as the Outsider and wind up the Insider, or at least being viewed as such by the newest Outsiders. We are a nation of still-startling social fluidity. Anyone can become “American,” but they have to want to first.

I suspect a lot of us — more and more of us, in fact — know priests like that. Priests who came from somewhere else to live the faith here, and are now mastering the intricacies of the mass and the sacraments in a new and alien language, but in a place that has always been glittering with promise: America. Bless them.

And yes: God bless America.

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posted June 29, 2007 at 8:16 am

The same goes for the Church, Greg. My involvement in RCIA has shown me how people from all walks of life show up at our doors because we have something they seek. It isn’t that we have it all and wherever they were had nothing. No, far from it. They bring the best of their faith tradition and incorporate it into ours. Sounds kind of familiar…What is particularly interesting is their apprehension when they start attending mass. They all feel like outsiders – afraid they will do something wrong, that they will stick out like a sore thumb. Quite often, however, the person next to them, the one they are afraid will ‘find them out’ was just received into the Church three or four years ago! Of course, that is only true if they are sitting in the front few pews. We all know the back is reserved for the ‘Cradle Catholics’!In my experience, most people are not ‘convinced’ to join the Catholic Church because of our doctrine. They are called to join because of some intangible sense of welcome. Time and time again, I hear them say they feel ‘home’. Of course, that will only be true if the assembly of the faithful live up to their obligation to make present the Mystical Body of Christ!

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