The Catholic writer John Zmirak went back to his favorite Catholic haunts in his native New York during Holy Week, and published this beautiful but deeply melancholic reflection on the loss of the world he once knew. Excerpt:

St. Vincent Ferrer Church on Lexington and 66th, the most exquisite church I’ve seen in America — a gothic Christmas tree of pious, exquisite ornament. Every mural, carved marble or painted wood altar, each stained glass window in this church built by mendicants, points to a beauty that transcended my teenage dreams. It schooled my senses, united in them the true, the pleasing, and the good. It taught me the Church’s treasures far transcend the elegant shops along Madison Avenue, the brutal towers that rule our sky. There are little statues there, sections of window, that recall me to crises and consolations I shouldn’t share with strangers. The harmony of its artworks, works of luxurious love, formed and healed my soul. Will “they” ever let us build churches like this again? Or will Catholics hard-wired like me to need, really need such things have to salve their souls in museums, then sit through dismal, Cub Scout-style ceremonies in monstrous Sam’s Club cathedrals? So starved, will we drift away?

And with all the force and fear of my own mortality, I wonder: Am I the last of a dying breed? I’ve the grace to believe that the Church will see through to the end of time. But my kind of Catholic may well vanish from the earth, and I’m too merely human to see what will take my place. Thanks to the sickening betrayal of innocent children in the past and innocent priests of the future by deluded or venal bishops, the faithful of the future will be largely bereft of priests, of beautiful churches, of reverent liturgy; and the Church will be publicly powerless, too disgraced to defend the innocent, a target for ridicule and abuse. Those Catholics will pick through the ruins left by a major persecution. Only this time, like some addict, we will have done it to ourselves.

No, this is not another sex abuse scandal post. John’s essay reminded me of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with Catholic friends in my neighborhood who are trying to figure out how we small-o orthodox Christian fathers can build up the kind of Christian community that will allow us, our children and anyone who cares to join us to live out the faith and the virtues in community. One of us is a cradle Catholic who has spent his life in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and has a view of the Catholic church and its lived traditions in this area that the others of us — all once or present Catholic converts, and all from elsewhere — don’t have. He said to us the other day that parish life used to be a lot more vibrant and workable because ties of ethnicity, class, race and neighborhood that once held parishes together and gave them their cohesion are now gone, and they’re not coming back. So, now what holds parishes together, and makes them feel like places that have a purpose beyond being where random people who happen to identify as Catholic turn up on Sundays for a religious service?

This is a view of Catholicism that often surprises converts and even younger cradle Catholics from more western locales. It used to startle and delight me when I would hear Catholics of a certain age in New York meeting each other and identifying each other by the parish they went to, e.g., “I grew up in St. Barbara’s” and “We were in St. Joseph’s.” But the world that made that kind of life possible no longer exists, for better and for worse. This is not, it hardly needs to be said, simply a challenge for Catholics. It’s true for all Christians, and indeed for all religious communities in America today.
In trying to figure out the answers, I keep falling back on the idea that real religious community requires shared belief. Some churches keep themselves together by de-emphasizing potentially controversial, divisive doctrines … but that being the case, what is the parish for? Does it worship anything other than itself? If there are no strong bonds of shared belief among the members of the community, there will be less of a commitment to that community, and it will not hold together in hard times. Plus, your attempt to keep the nominal members of the community in the pews may well drive away the more committed members, whose spiritual needs won’t be attended to. Bottom line: you cannot have a religious community without a creed.
On the other hand, there is the matter of grace and charity, and indeed love. Not every member of a religious community may share the convictions of the majority — but do they believe enough? How much mercy and patience should be shown to those who believe, but who need help with their unbelief? How should this affect the overall direction of the parish church?
Reading John Zmirak’s poignant lament for a world gone by, I am reminded of Churchill’s remark about how we make our buildings, and our buildings make us. More broadly, our places — not only the church buildings, but the physical locations where we live and move throughout our days — form us, and they form our communities. And those communities form the churches. Right? How come it’s all falling apart, and all seems to be in flux? How can you tell real community from false community — or is that a distinction without a difference? Is community even possible without shared memory? Screenwriting teacher Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington said the other day:

People really don’t know the story anymore. With a group of twenty-somethings not long ago, I threw out an introductory comment, “Well, you all know the covenant with Abraham…” They just looked at me. I said, “You know, the sacrifice of Abraham…” This was a group of twenty-somethings did not know what I was talking about.
It’s amazing how the stories can be lost in one generation. But I think they have been. So we have an obligation to make sure that the stories of salvation history are handed on. And the screen is the preferred method of receiving stories among the people of our time. So somebody had better be telling our stories so they are not lost.

Communal memory has to be renewed in each generation. Is it? Nicolosi-Harrington says it hasn’t been. Camille Paglia has said the same thing about many of her students. What’s going to happen is people are going to forget why they ought to care, and ought to let these narratives shape their lives and inform their conduct. Without a community committed to keeping these memories alive, and without the places and structures to serve as repositories of communal memory, how does it live on?
I’ve got no answers here. Or not many, anyway. You?

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