Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Catholic Life After the Ivy League: Memories of St. John the Evangelist, Stamford

In his first of three articles, Stephen Schmalhofer, the former blogger of "For God, For Country and For Yale" wrote on Catholic Life in the Ivy League: Memories of Yale University and St. Mary's, New Haven. Now in his second article, Stephen turns to his time in Stamford, Connecticut at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist.

NLM Guest Article by Stephen Schmalhofer

After Yale, I moved to Stamford, Connecticut. The Gothic towers of Yale fade and glass paneled corporate dreadnoughts rise along the horizon. St. Mary’s in New Haven rests on a leisurely campus; St. John the Evangelist stands on a city block across from a billiards bar and next to the studio of The Jerry Springer Show. Highway I-95 cuts off downtown office buildings from the beautiful coastline. During the workweek, the city population swells as employees of investment banks, brokerages, insurance companies and law firms commute in via train and then disappear after happy hour. A sign off the exit ramp reads: Stamford - The City that Works! All work and no play might make Jack a dull boy. But all work and no pray brings on a dullness of soul. Labora without the Ora. Diligent employees might see the hour of Compline pass by at their desk but cubicles make poor hermitages.

At Yale, daily Mass was an easy luxury as an infinity of hours opened up following football season. In Stamford, it was a necessity. Morning at St. John's was an austere delight, a long pause to catch my breath before the day. Pension fund managers sat next to pensioners. Both looked for strength to get through the day. The gift of the generations exposes the folly of a "Youth Mass." To be ever ancient, ever new requires a meeting of the ancient and the new. Vigor is treasured next to frailty; brashness must be tamed by humility, and naivete firmed by maturity. The weariness of old-age is lessened by an encounter with fitful energy; the sight of unclaimed potential softens life's regrets. A steady grasp assures trembling hands that old traditions will not slip away.

With kids and careers, traffic and trains, parishioners at St. John's are starved for silence during the week. At morning Mass, silence entered into my day. Chesterton was right: "The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive." As a child learns his prayers from his mother, so the parish's patron, St. John, drew lessons as he beheld his new Mother. She, who more than any other person who ever lived, understood that trivialities are shouted but great things are to be pondered silently in our heart.

On Sundays, there was an embarrassment of riches. The sacred music, at the time under Scott Turkington, was arguably the best in New England. Professional skill mixed with devotion to push the choir's chant and polyphony beyond performance and into truly sacred music. Such a precise army of altar boys emerged from the sacristy, one wondered whether Monsignor took the basilica's allegiance to Rome a bit too seriously. Were these acolytes or a revival of the Palatine Guard? The ars celebrandi was of such high quality that there is little to note. One simply found the Mass. The black was read and the red was done.

Reversing the trend of crowded altars and empty pews, the priests of St. John’s found a path around extra concelebrants and "Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion." In a remarkably reverent gesture, the other priests of the parish emerged from the sacristy in stole and surplice to distribute Holy Communion. It ensured that every communicant met Christ in sacrament and priest.

I saw a parish alive and young! Large families filled entire pews. Why did they come? They could have walked down the street to the shopping mall, driven New Canaan's leafy roads, or hopped a train into Manhattan. They came because they were prepared. Instead of an incoherent jumble of activities, the priests of St. Mary's offered weekly Greek and Latin classes, a Patristics study group, and a monthly journal of Catholic thought. If you seek a barometer for the health of a parish, look no further than the availability of Confession. A justice system is judged on declining recidivism rates. The confessional is a sort of reverse prison as frequent visitors signal an improving moral sense. Repeat offenders are becoming repeatedly less offensive. At St. John the Evangelist, confessions are heard before every Mass, every day.

Our heritage is rich and no one can doubt that many things were unjustly set aside. The temptation is to pull old traditions too quickly out of mothballs. An unknown Velasquez discovered in a musty attic is not rushed to the museum wall. It is meticulously examined, and carefully installed. Only then is it proudly displayed. St. John's restored elements of Catholic life to their proper prominence. Eucharistic processions, the veneration of relics, the celebration of feast days are not gimmicks to draw more inside. The pews are already full. Their priests never impose, only propose to ready participants. The challenge is one of reinvigoration versus reenactment. A quiet Cardinal reminded us that "[t]here is no return to the past. A restoration understood thus is not only impossible but also not even desirable. The Church moves forward to the consummation of history, she looks ahead to the Lord who is coming. If, however, the term 'restoration' is a recovery of lost values, within a new totality, then...this is precisely the task that imposes itself today."

Stephen Schmalhofer studied history at Yale University and formerly blogged at "For God, For Country and For Yale." He resides in New City where he works in finance and is a parishioner at the Church of Our Saviour.

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