Monday, October 17, 2011

Sacrament in the City

The city that never sleeps had yet to wake up as I walked toward Mass along West 71st Street this morning. There was little traffic on Broadway as I crossed in the dark toward the Church of the Blessed Sacrament before 7 am. When I arrived in front of the church, a mini-Notre Dame de Paris, with one portal, not three, wedged into a city block, the front doors were locked. The rain spat down without much interest. I noticed a homeless shelter beneath the church. Then I huddled beneath scaffolding next door and read a few pages of The Father’s Tale, Michael O’Brien’s new novel of a father in search of his son.

Passersby did not make eye contact. Each walked alone. Finally, a woman, Filipina maybe, stopped in front of the church and waited. Then a sacristan who proved to be a priest, the celebrant, unlocked the door and waved the woman in. I followed.

The church, built in 1918 after the parish outgrew its first building, is gorgeous. A massive crucifix, to which my iPhone photo does little justice, hangs above the altar. Three tapestries behind the altar represent Melchisedech blessing Abraham, the Crucifixion, and Abraham arriving at the site of Isaac’s sacrifice. Organ pipes line the rear of the nave above the entrance, and a program of classical music suggests that organist Gregory D’Agostino gets as much play as possible.

There were only 20 congregants at Mass, which amazed me. Our parish in suburban Boston, in a town of 40 thousand, draws at least 50 at 7 am each morning. The city doesn’t sleep, and it doesn’t pray either, I thought. When the priest’s homily ran long, on a theme of social justice that was certainly justified by the Gospel reading (Luke 12:13–21), I thought some more. Father Chateau’s homily would have been so short, Mass would be over by now, and Father Barnes would have made something else entirely out the parable of the rich farmer who built a bigger barn. Greed, greed, greed, seemed to be the only theme of this homily, and I tuned the priest in and out.

But then the Mass. And the elevation. Never have I seen a priest hold the Blessed Sacrament so long before his eyes, without moving, five, ten, fifteen seconds. Not even in the old video of Padre Pio celebrating Mass have I seen such a thing. Then again with the chalice. It was mesmerizing. It was real. When I went forward to receive Communion, the priest held the host before his eyes again and looked through it into mine. Greed? What greed?

As I left the church, I noticed two men, presumably from the shelter downstairs, asleep now in the back pews. Outside, the city was awake. A jack hammer called me toward Broadway. I stopped for eggs and pancakes and watched the New York flow, so many pale people making so little eye contact. I wanted to get back to the country as quickly as possible, but I am here visiting my daughter, and we have agreed to have supper together tonight after her long day.


On the way back along 71st Street to her apartment, I passed one of New York City’s “vest pocket parks.” Septuagesimo Uno (“71”) is such a mini-park, little more than an alley held back from development between two towering apartment houses. Of course it was locked shut and the signs warned against all kinds of misbehavior. But I thought that here, as on the other side of Broadway, there is at least a refuge—not always easy to enter but worth the visit.

As Michael O’Brien is reminding me, and as I am trying to remind my daughter, the Father is always in search of us, even when we do not look him in the eye. I returned to my daughter’s apartment for a quiet day of reading.

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