Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Catholic Life After the Ivy League: The Church of Our Saviour, NYC

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. In his second, he continued with recollections of Catholic Life After the Ivy League: Memories of St. John the Evangelist, Stamford. We now move to the third and final article wherein we turn to the present and the Church of Our Saviour in New York City.

NLM Guest Article by Stephen Schmalhofer

In few other places does the Church remain so prominent a force of charity, so public a teacher, so steady a font of grace and so vulnerable a target. In New York City, the churches are dressings on wounds of loneliness. In a city jammed with humanity, millions live as strangers, locked away behind headphones and dark sunglasses. The culture can be stiflingly secular, distractingly materialist, deafeningly loud, and restlessly in motion. Silence, and contemplation are not often valued unless you are willing to exchange Adoration for yoga class. Despair is the city’s greatest struggle and Kierkegaard was right. "The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair." The soul receives little attention as citizens pace themselves through endless days, especially the twinkling young graduates who arrive to work in the tall towers. The danger is that it is hollow, all feasting and no wedding.

St. Patrick's Cathedral is a fine landmark, a flag planted on behalf of the Catholic Church in America. St. Vincent Ferrer is otherworldly, if the other world is Ars or Ambricourt. St. Jean Baptiste is a luscious feast for the eye. Holy Innocents has Brumidi's Calvary. St. Paul the Apostle is a hulking barricade. But if you seek, as I sought, the parish and pastor of New York City, you would do well to walk to the Church of Our Saviour on Park Avenue.

The proximity to Grand Central Terminal and a busy Sunday Mass schedule ensures that many members of the congregation are in transit, on their way in or out of the city. The words above the sanctuary welcome them: "LORD IT IS GOOD FOR US TO BE HERE." The structure only dates back to 1957. At completion, it was celebrated in the New York Times primarily for its air conditioning, the first in a Manhattan parish. While modern church builders often seem embarrassed by the ecclesiastical nature of their projects, the Church of Our Saviour was built with pre-conciliar confidence. Few features are more triumphalist than the two six-ton marble columns that stand guard inside the sanctuary, each seventeen feet high and more than two feet in diameter.

Enriching the interior of a church does not require catalog shopping, or inuring to cultural demolitionists more inspired by an Apple Store than Bernini and Borromini. Recent collaboration between Fr. George W. Rutler, and artist Ken Woo proves the aesthetic achievement that is still possible, perhaps only possible, at the parish level. Woo's icons link parishioners with the communion of saints providing the justification for the Church of Our Saviour, not Your Saviour or My Saviour. As a devoted Anglophile (and Francophile), Fr. Rutler directs worshippers of the goddess Diversity to consider the host of peoples that thrived under Pax Brittanica. Yet, his parish reminds everyone that if the word diversity retains any meaning, it is found on their icon filled walls. Only under Pax Catholica do you find Peter the fisherman and Theresa of Calcutta alongside Kings Edward the Confessor and Louis IX. Only the Church is universal enough to hold both Archangels and Joan of Arc. The iconography is a bridge between East and West, between the mysterious and the explicit. This bridge is extended as St. John Chrysostom provides the General Intercessions for Sunday Mass. We approach in icon, Scripture, Sacrament and Sacrifice the "Lord, our God, whose power is beyond compare, and glory is beyond understanding; whose mercy is boundless, and love for us is ineffable."

On liturgy, I should let the pastor have the first word: "Liturgy should be chantable, reverent, and expressive of the highest culture we know, without self-consciousness." But it is Blessed John Henry Newman behind those words and his description of a gentlemen is an excellent lesson for hyperactive liturgists: "He never speaks of himself except when compelled...[h]e respects piety and devotion... [he] seems to be receiving when he is conferring." On the left transverse of the church, a handsome marble bust completes a shrine to Newman, the first in North America. To make room, the pastor replaced a reconciliation room, which looked "more like an occasion of sin than a shrine for its absolution."

The gifts he receives from talented and generous parishioners are plentiful. Thomas Vaniotis and Samuel Howard are MCs of the highest quality. Every Sunday they lead a crew of veteran and novice altar boys and men with patience and reverence. They might not have all of the GIRM memorized but their retention rate must be above 95%. The remainder is supplied by their mastery of Fortescue. As Director of Music, Robert A. Prior achieves weekly excellence that rivals the maestros at the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

The parish attracts many devoted worshippers and even lukewarm Mass-goers quickly find new appreciation for their weekly obligation. I briefly served Mass and during Communion, I noticed how most of the communicants receive on the tongue. My simplest explanation is that basic human decency does not permit one to approach the step of the altar, to pass through a wisp of smokey incense, to meet the Pantocrator's knowing eyes and then casually receive the Blessed Sacrament.

It would be impossible to praise the Church of Our Saviour without recognition of the unique gifts of the pastor. For those who know Fr. Rutler only by reputation, your first encounter might be surprising. Allusions are often made to John Henry Newman, but Paul of Tarsus might be the better athletic match. A regular boxer, the pastor supplements his study of the Queen of the Sciences with the Sweet Science. His boxing and his preaching rely more on cutting jabs, swift footwork, and inexhaustible preparation than bulky blows and wild swings. I do not envy Fr. Rutler's eventual biographer. Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Oxford, and the Angelicum. New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rome. Convert, priest, pastor, and chaplain. Boxer, painter, firefighter, and writer. He is the hub at the center of an infinity of personal spokes. I owe my fianceé and many friends to acquaintances made through the Matchmaker of Manhattan credited with over 400 weddings.

The children of God are demanding. We want our priests to be tireless and generous, inspiring preachers and reverent at the altar. We forget them during good times yet seek miracles during disaster. We don't expect them to have any relevance outside the sacristy. We prefer to reinforce our stubborn beliefs in secular echo chambers. We worry about stock market gyrations and electoral posturing. The priest on Park Avenue offers another view. When he counsels, he does so with a wisdom and long view of history, leaning on the Church of Rome, not the Club of Rome. It is a Crisis of Saints. When Macauley's traveler from New Zealand begins to sketch among the ruins, it is likely that he will do so with a Rutler Tenth Edition in his backpack.

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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