This past summer, I decided to be a tourist in my own city. A born-and-bred New Yorker, however, I have learned in my nineteen years to avoid crowded sights such as Times Square and Midtown like the plague if I wish to keep my sanity. I discovered a new way to enjoy a piece of New York’s cityscape: church hopping. Churches, ornate and unapologetically enormous in a city well-known for its expensive real estate, are numerous, aesthetically pleasing, and perhaps best of all, free for everyone. Rich, poor, bold, meek, native, or foreigner—all are welcome to the physical manifestations of New York’s strong Catholic community.
I have used the word “strong,” but it is perhaps not as strong as it once was. Catholics leaving the Church for a non-religious life, or even one of atheism, is no longer news. Feeling isolated from the Catholic Church’s traditional stances or simply no longer interested in the banalities of a life of prayer and weekly Mass, many American Catholics are not as “Catholic” as they once were generations past. The Archdiocese of New York, which administers to New York’s Catholic churches, schools, and the community at large, has responded accordingly. Four years ago, the Archdiocese launched its “Making All Things New” campaign, a euphemism for closing churches and combining parishes to cut costs in the face of a dwindling base of support among New Yorkers. Sunday Mass at the Church of St. John the Martyr, where I cried as a newborn baby, drew in my coloring books in the pews as a toddler, and altar-served as an awkward pre-teen, became a thing of the past when the church shut its doors in 2015. However, it remains standing and intact, a silent beacon of what once was on New York’s Second Avenue.
Currently a college student, I am the product of the Archdiocese’s Catholic school system. I attended a small all-girls high school educating the youth in the tradition of St. Dominic. The school building, formerly a rich art collector’s mansion, blends in with the other fancy-looking buildings on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. At the school, my class of thirty-nine girls and I prayed daily in our polo shirts and knee-high socks. Every morning we recited a pledge, through which we promised to “search for truth through study, reach out to others by preaching and just actions, and enfold [our lives] in prayer.” That pledge was not entirely kept by all of us. A lot of my friends became self-proclaimed atheists, and I witnessed many engaging in a very “non-Catholic” lifestyle as they grew into young adults—premarital sex, recreational drug use, and Sunday mornings spent sleeping in rather than attending Mass. Many are supporters of legal abortion and gay marriage. They will denounce a conservative or the Republican party along with its supposed Christian values in a heartbeat.
I put quotes around my use of the term “non-Catholic” because that is likely what a lot of people might call their kind of behavior. In America’s increasingly divided political environment, Catholics are often pigeon-holed into certain groups and clumped together as a bloc that views abortion as murder, homosexuality as sinful, and premarital sex and birth control use as tickets to eternal hellfire. I, however, am hesitant to label these friends of mine as non-Catholic and to describe the Catholic Church as so, for lack of a better word, intense.
As a weekly Mass-goer, I of course have heard every now and again the priests’ sermons that bolster the Church’s stance on contemporary issues like abortion and euthanasia. That is part of the experience. Yet, most of the sermons (or homilies, as us Catholics call them) do not touch on any hot-button issues and are not in themselves political. Perhaps one in every fifty I have heard had even the slightest semblance of a political message.
With the church of my childhood permanently closed, I have explored other churches within the Upper East Side. I attended Mass at two different churches late August, and the priests at both churches, to my surprise, seemed to have something political to say this time around. Both priests, without hesitation, denounced the march of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville and Trump’s response to the movement in their homilies. These priests—usually soft-spoken, apolitical, and always at least half-smiling, seemed almost angry as they critiqued the Trump administration. Siding with “racists” and “bigots,” to use the words of one priest, was the equivalent of living a life completely ignoring the way God wants us to live. The priest referred back to the First Reading of the Mass from the Book of Isaiah, which told the story of the palace master Shebna who ignored God’s wishes as he became a vain and corrupt leader. We must not become like Shebna, he argued; we rather must embody the life of Jesus Christ in our daily lives to be true followers of the faith. That means we simply cannot side with the “racists” and the “bigots” while calling ourselves Catholic.
I listened to this homily while sitting alone in a pew in the magnificent Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue. It was my first time in that church, and it is truly a sight to behold. The church, constructed in the 1850s, is a living reminder of the kind of status the Church once had, with its bronze doors, granite and marble columns, elaborate mosaics prepared in Italy, and wonderfully crafted stained glass windows. I could not imagine the Archdiocese building another one of those churches in the city today, even if it had the base of believers. Its influence and wealth simply are not what they once were.
Although a symbol of the Catholic Church’s past life, the church is also a symbol of the present Catholic Church—a Church that is too often misunderstood. The priest’s booming voice during that homily was a reminder of the true values of a follower of Jesus Christ—the real heartbeat of the Catholic believer. Jesus himself was not a political man. He was not a man of wealth. He instead was born to a lowly woman in an inn among farm animals. He answered to the tax collector whom the community despised and encouraged him to live a life of humble poverty. He physically touched and healed the lepers who were shunned by the common folk. He preached a life of helping our enemy when no one else would, of forgiving those who have hurt us the most, of not only acknowledging, but loving the poorest and most vulnerable in our societies.
That is what I learned in my twelve years of Catholic school. I learned that Catholics do not and should not fall into the neat category of “Republican” or “conservative” just because the Church is adamantly against abortion and gay marriage. Those political positions in no way encompass the foundational meaning of the faith. The Church, to offer concrete examples, is actually against the death penalty because it views the life of even the worst criminal as sacred and claims that an individual is more than the worst thing he or she has ever done. It supports admitting as many immigrants and refugees as possible into the United States because it views them as people who are in need and are searching for a better life. It never, ever sides with corporations or the interests of the rich man. After all, the gates of heaven opened for Lazarus, the poor man on the street with sores on his skin, but not for his nameless rich neighbor who never batted an eye in Lazarus’s direction. The Church’s fuel does not come from denying rights to a minority; it instead comes from loving one’s neighbor, from forgiving those who have wronged us, from praying to a merciful God, and from following in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus’ teachings and miracles came from a place of boundless and impartial love—the politicized interpretations of these acts came later.
My high school classmates may not be the typical Catholics in the way the average person may judge their lifestyles, but I am confident that they have been ingrained with this true message of the faith that they will take with them for the remainder of their lives, even if they oppose the political positions of the Church in the twenty-first century. Politics is inconstant, but the basic principles of the Catholic Church have been the same for two thousand years.
As for the churches themselves: I welcome anyone, religious or not, in New York and beyond, to simply step inside of a church one day instead of walking past them like you may do the neighborhood Starbucks or the dry cleaners. It does not have to be a Catholic one. Although religious in nature, churches are architectural marvels, oftentimes more to behold than a skyscraper, that have no price of admission. They are quiet places to think. They are places to worship. They are also symbols of an ever-evolving faith that is trying to preach its loving message in a toxic and divisive political atmosphere. They are whatever you want them to be, as long as you enter with love and an open mind.