Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Blast From the Past

I did something this week that I haven't done in many, many years: I went to a big ecumenical service.

When I was young in the Order - say in the 60's and 70's - these things were the staff of life. This is a heavily Roman Catholic area and there were lots of religious communities around. We used to see each other a lot. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was widely observed, and we had big services to promote it. We invited each other to community celebrations and anniversaries. We had parties with each other. The local Catholic and Lutheran and Methodist churches were friendly and we knew the clergy, many of whom came here for retreat and or rest time. The scene was very alive and active and full of hope. Christian unity seemed just around the corner.

As you know, it's a very different scene now. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is hardly observed at all now, if anyone even remembers that it exists. The Christian Brothers moved their novitiate away from West Park, and that building is now vacant. Their property is looked after by a couple of retired brothers whom we never see. The Cabrini Sisters now have one sister at their school. The Redemptorists closed their seminary and used the building for a novitiate and then moved their novices to Toronto. The place is now a conference center, run by a handful of priests and brothers, whom we hardly know. The Marist Brothers, with whom we shared parties and conversations, continue to exercise their retreat and summer camp ministry on the property next to us, but we don't see each other much, with the exception of one brother who is a distinguished spiritual director, whom several of our brothers see. Our only really active relationship is with the Redemptoristines, a community of contemplative nuns about 3 miles from here, and who are, miracle of miracles, even smaller than we are. We have an affectionate and good friendship with them, and our lives go along together: we share anniversaries, and important services and educational opportunities. They even sometimes come to our Bach Vespers.

The parish scene has changed as well. The increasing conservatism and hard-line course of the Roman Church has made associating difficult. We haven't been invited to one of the local parishes in years. The Lutherans and Methodists with whom we were so friendly have disappeared as well - we're all having more trouble maintaining things now and priorities are different. Their place has been taken, interestingly enough, almost entirely by clergy and lay people from the Reformed tradition - Presbyterians, the Reformed Church (whose Dutch ancestry makes them quite strong in this area) and the United Church of Christ. But these are mostly not local friends but people who come to our guesthouse from various localities, both far and near, drawn by the sense of spirituality that we offer. Still, the relationships are good, and we value them. But we are in an ecumenical winter.

Then all of a sudden, right out of nowhere, comes the Church of St Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, wanting us to sing Vespers for them. What is this about?

It turns out that what it's about is that this past year as been The Year of Paul in the Catholic Church. (Did you know this? I hadn't heard of it until a month ago). The close of this year of celebrating the heritage of the Apostle Paul was last Monday, the feast of St Peter and St Paul, and after a year of special Masses, seminars, lectures and discussions, they wanted something special to close the year with. They thought a sung service of Evening Prayer would do nicely. But who would sing it? They wanted it to be chanted. Only they didn't know anyone who chants. No one they knew had any ideas either. The official position of the Roman Church is that Gregorian Chant can only be done with Latin words (something of a surprise to Anglicans, who have been singing it in English for a couple of hundred years), so their liturgical music tends to be simplified and modernized. It wasn't what they wanted. Didn't anyone know some group that chants?

Their new organist and choir director is, of all things, an Episcopalian. Not only that, but he's someone who is very familiar with Holy Cross and has been here from time to time. Yes, he said, there is a group who chants, and who does it well. But they are Episcopalians. Would that do? God bless the Paulist Fathers, they didn't even hesitate, they just got their organist to call us up and invite us.

So off we went in our van last Monday to sing Vespers at the Church of St Paul the Apostle, which is near Columbus Circle in New York. It is a huge church and very beautiful. It also provides quite a comment on how the religious scene has changed for all of us. It used to seat 2,000 people and had simultaneous masses, upstairs and downstairs, on Sunday mornings, every hour on the hour. Now they have renovated it and it seats more like 1,000. It has a beautiful baptismal pool and a free-standing altar, and lots of open space. They also now have one mass on Saturday afternoon and two on Sunday morning. The congregation seems to be largely from the Philippines.

They were the heart of hospitality. We were welcomed very warmly and after we had done some rehearsal time we were given a very nice tour of the church, complete with a history of the Paulist Fathers. Then we shared supper with the resident community in their refectory and then had Vespers.

And Vespers was no small thing, either. When Episcopalians say they don't know how many are going to turn out we mean is it going to be 20 or 25? When the Paulists say it, it turns out to mean how close to 1,000 is it going to be? And it was reasonably close, as it turned out. The church wasn't packed, but it was comfortably filled. And they sang very nicely, too, and joined in the chanting with ease. We chanted the Psalms and the Canticle, then sang the Magnificat. The sermon was by Fr Jim Kowalski, the Dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine. They don't do things small at St Paul the Apostle! The whole event was warm and lively, and people seemed delighted to be there and were most complimentary about our singing. The reception afterwards was quite splendid, with wines (and alternatives) and bountiful food. In many ways it felt like the good old days. It felt like we were truly fellow Christians on the path to God, and that we could enjoy going there together.

And now, what of the future? Well, I'm always looking for the next opportunity to seize, so before we left I had a few minutes with the organist and said that he should keep us in mind if they needed more chanting. And I told him that my agenda was that, with the ecumenical movement in its present doldrums, I thought that any connection that felt real and lively was worth cultivating, and that this one did. He couldn't have agreed more and was grateful. Will anything happen? I don't know. It's a delicate situation right now. But if there's any opportunity for us to love one another (or even to like one another, or even to just know one another) I'll take it.

And... one of the people who was at the service was so intrigued by our existence that he came to the guesthouse this weekend to find out what we are all about. You never know.

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