Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Where Does God live?

New York Times: In quiet rebellion, parishioners keep faith

At first, this story seemed a poignant example of church architecture's emotional pull. Images of parishioners lovingly shoveling walks and dusting Stations of the Cross are designed to pull on the heartstrings. I'm just as disgusted as anyone at the Archdiocese of Boston's scandalous ineptitude, so I can understand the parishioners' frustration. It breaks my heart when alienation and hurt drives Catholics away from the Church.

But then I mulled on the situation some more, and I began to wonder. "We are not protesters, we are vigil-keepers," a woman testified. Vigil means waiting, keeping watch until the dawn. What exactly are these people waiting for? I'm assuming for the Archdiocese to reinstate the parish. This multi-year vigil is a display of devotion and resistance usually associated with repressed Catholics in communist countries. What are the people of St. Francis fighting for? What is being threatened?

Not an historic building - it's recent and rather bland-looking. Some seem to be fighting to preserve the past - but memories of first communions and weddings won't fade away without the building. I live across the country from the site of my baptism, but that doesn't invalidate it. Really, what these people want is their own way.

There is a marked self-centeredness in the parishioners' comments.
"The God I believe in doesn't do things like this."
"I've gotten a lot closer to my faith and my God keeping these vigils." (emphasis mine)
These statements imply a faith that only the individual can define and thus an ethics independent of and even in spite of, church leaders. Such individualism is quite modern and not unlike contemporary wishes that the Church were more like a democracy. Pope Benedict XVI once wrote that we do not make the Church. Jesus made it, and we preserve what he gave us. The people of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini seem to eager to call all the shots.

Such sentiments also obscure the fact that St. Frances is part of a larger church, a larger community of believers. What if the money from the parish sale was meant to help some other laypeople like them? What if it could pay teacher's salaries or patch a church roof or care for elderly nuns in a nursing home? Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. The Archbishop making parish-closing decisions is not Cardinal Law, the inept and corrupt administrator who got Boston into this mess.

Put in perspective, this parish's suffering is pretty light. All over the country, Catholic schools are closing and parishes are consolidating for financial reasons. These won't be the first people to have to change their Sunday Mass location. Have they been deprived of the sacraments? Has their faith been attacked as invalid? No, there was just a forced change in geography.

All in all, this story illustrates the dilemma underlying my big church architecture project. Is it God's house or a house for God's people? St. Frances Xavier Cabrini seems to be the latter. God doesn't need a building or statues or a shoveled sidewalk. He can reside everywhere, in fact He lives in the tabernacles across town. These parishioners have misguidedly pinned their faith identity on a pile of bricks and mortar, not the Body of Christ it represents.

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