The colorful priest-sociologist, Father Andrew Greeley, used to comment that the Catholic Church was the most “grassroots organization in the history of the world.” He went on to explain that the heart of Catholic infrastructure was the parish, which was about as close to the people as you can get.
He’s right. When I arrived here as your archbishop a little over three years ago, the first thing Cardinal Edward Egan told me was, “The strength of this archdiocese is our 400 parishes and mission churches. That’s where the life is.”
To those observations I say, to use a Catholic word, bingo!
This, of course, flies in the face of the caricature of the Church as oppressively controlled by Rome. While our Catholic people love the Holy Father and cherish his mission as successor of St. Peter, they are hardly concerned about the intricacies of Vatican gossip, personalities of the curia, or the latest Roman controversy.
Nor, for that matter, are they absorbed about affairs of “the archdiocese.” I’m happy when they know my name, and don’t even mind if they call me “Cardinal Egan” or “Cardinal O’Connor.” Yes, I am humbled by their affection for their archbishop, and grateful for their support of our archdiocesan efforts (e.g., thanks to them, the 2012 Stewardship Appeal has gone over goal), but our great people, 2.8 million strong, are hardly talking about what goes on at 1011 First Avenue, the Terence Cardinal Cooke Center, which houses our archdiocesan central offices.
But do they ever love their parishes! When I meet them, they often identify themselves by the parish they came from or reside in now, or by the parish grade school they attended.
And they hardly talk to me about the causes and complaints mentioned in most Catholic journals and magazines. Nope. They’ll tell me, instead, about how they love their parish priests—even while they might suggest they not preach so long!—how they admire the sisters and religious brothers who are with them in their parishes, schools, religious education programs, and in their neighborhood efforts of welcome, outreach, and charity. They’ll share concern about their kids or grandkids not learning their prayers or the basic teachings of the faith, and they worry that Sunday Mass doesn’t seem as prominent anymore in the lives of so many. They’ll talk about parish festivals, building projects, basketball teams, or organizations, and kindly tell me they want me to visit. They’re uncomfortable with the one extreme in the Church who want to go back to the ’50s, and with those on the other side who want to radically change every teaching and tradition in the Church.
These parishioners love the Church, while still soberly aware of her flaws, and wonder why the Church they embrace, the Church so alive in their parish, is painted so poorly by what they read, watch, and listen to.
For them, the Church is Sunday Mass, baptisms, first communions, confirmations, weddings, anniversaries, feasts and funerals. Our Latino parishioners tell us that their parish church is like “the town square, their living room, the kitchen” where they meet God their father, Jesus their Lord, Mary their mother, and their brothers and sisters who belong to the same family of faith.
My greatest joy as your archbishop is visiting our parishes!
Over the last couple of weeks, for instance, I’ve visited parishes such as Sacred Heart, in the Bronx, where the magnificent church was jammed with parishioners from the past—now moved away, but who still assured me that “Sacred Heart Parish and School would always be my home”—and the present, who now claim it as their spiritual center;
Our Lady of Good Counsel in Manhattan, rightly beaming about their recently restored historic church, actually the site of the first Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) in the United States;
St. Clare in the Bronx, where, on a blistering hot summer weekday evening, the people packed their church for a festive Mass, then processed with me a mile through the streets to venerate the patron of Ponza, Italy—where the first parishioners came from—St. Silverio;
Sacred Heart Parish in Newburgh, again on a weeknight, the beautiful church full of grateful people celebrating a century of parochial life;
St. Stanislaus, Pine Island, where sturdy Polish immigrants built the church 10 decades ago—with the presence that evening of the first gentleman christened there, now 100!—and their grandchildren, many still hearty farmers in this famed “onion region,” praying, celebrating, eating, dancing, singing, remembering, and dreaming on that summer Saturday evening, radiant in their faith and the parish that has sustained it, cheering their beloved pastor, Father Joseph.
In all of these memorable visits, since they occurred during the month, June, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I praised God that the precious blood of Jesus, His grace and mercy, have flowed through His Body, the Church, in each parish, where our people are welcomed and embraced, the sacraments are celebrated, the faith is taught, those in need are served, and where God’s people find a spiritual family.
Yes, we relish our bond with Rome and her bishop, the Successor of St. Peter, our Holy Father—and know union with him is necessary for our Catholic faith;
yes, we savor our membership in the local church, the Archdiocese of New York, and—thank you!—embrace our archbishop, Timothy, “your unworthy servant”;
but, we love our parish, for there we meet Jesus in His word and sacrament, and in the people who are part of our supernatural family.