When a lady complained to the great short story writer that her works “left a bad taste” in her mouth, Flannery O’Connor replied that what she wrote was not meant to be eaten. For the conventional palate, those often-macabre stories can be distasteful, but Miss O’Connor deliberately wanted to avoid the sentimentalism of much pious diction that eviscerated the sharp Catholic understanding of the human condition. That is why she could be acerbic about the parochialism which neuters Catholic apologetics. For her, “parochial” was the comfortable narrow-mindedness that suburbanized the Heavenly City and turned successors of the apostles into benevolent salesmen for annual charity appeals.
My one gripe with Miss O’Connor—and I parade it with a confidence born of the sense that deep down she might actually agree—is that “parochial” is not a bad word if one really understands a parish. Actually, what is parochial is anything but parochial: parochia is an existence outside the confined dwelling, and you might say that it means a family aware of more than itself. Use of it to mean something limited and narrow goes back no farther than the mid-nineteenth century, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary which, while not the Oxford English Dictionary, is reliable. The parish is an atom of existence, and everything in a parish, from baptisms to burials and all the joy and grief in between, is a microcosm of life, which by its authenticity is more compelling than any fictitious comedy or tragedy.
No one is more parochial than a pastor, and the pastor of a parish in the heart of New York City is most parochial of all. The amiably mindless Bertie Wooster was amazed that the great thing about New York is that as soon as you get off the ship, you are already there. He may have had in mind my parish, whose canonical boundary extends to the middle of the Hudson River. Anyone drowning past that point must appeal to Newark.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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These days, New York is the American epicenter of the viral pandemic; from a parochial point of view, my parish is the epicenter of the epicenter. As I write this, the USNS Comfort has just passed by, the same ship that was deployed the day after the attack on the World Trade Center. The Army Corps of Engineers has just completed an “emergency field hospital” with a capacity for nearly three thousand beds, just down the street from my church.
I have just returned from my first day there. Where flower shows and boat shows and comic book conventions were annually held, the scene has now become more somber. If this is parochial, such parochialism is as encompassing as the verses of Dante. That is true of most parishes everywhere, but the ubiquity of crises is part of Manhattan’s cultural signature. In happy halcyon days, New Yorkers tend to trample on another, but in crises they are one. In 1992, my church on East 43rd Street burned down; then there were hurricanes and blizzards and power blackouts, and the carnage of September 11, 2001; and now this strange virus has emptied our streets. Having been part of all that, I think of Abraham Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, who was present at the deaths of three presidents; I expect that, like him, I should not be surprised if society hostesses have relegated me to their “B” lists.
This is how we approach Holy Week, when the faithful observe the most important thing that ever happened. With a powerful shock this Lent, mortifications have been imposed by circumstances beyond human control and not chosen by the exercise of free will. There is a strange silence; I suppose it is much like when the influenza contagion after World War I killed 50 million worldwide, the equivalent of 200 million today. There is a picture in my rectory of the second pastor of my parish, who died at its end, having exhausted himself in ministering to the sick in the many tenements around here. I am the thirteenth pastor, but as a Catholic I am not a serious triskaidekaphobe. During the time of the “Spanish flu,” churches were closed. In Baltimore, Cardinal Gibbons obliged with the imposed civil regulations but objected that saloons and pool halls remained open.
Now everything is shut here, and the Passion will be more powerful because the veil of the temple is drawn, and only a cry from the Cross can tear it open. The holy apostles thought themselves bereft of the One they had hoped might be the Messiah. On the Mount of Olives, three of them slept a depressed slumber haunted by anxious confusion. In every generation, varying circumstances have given us the impression of being abandoned by the One who had promised to be with us always. Blaise Pascal wrote, Jésus sera en agonie jusqu’à la fin du monde; il ne faut pas dormir pendant ce temps-là: “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world. We should not sleep during this entire time.” The solemnity of those words was the freight of the confidence which tethers agony to victory.
In a book I wrote years ago, I remarked that modern communications have made popes more visible than ever, but a dangerous result is the impression that their significance issues from celebrity. Last Friday, Pope Francis stood alone in the dark and rain of a totally empty Saint Peter’s Square, and then blessed the whole world with the Eucharistic Lord. No scene in fiction could have been more poignant than the isolation of that moment. It brought to mind the dreary rain of the day Pope John Paul I was buried after his shockingly sudden death, prodding many to ask why this had happened to a man who had seemed a glimmer of hope just weeks before.
When Pope Francis was elected, there were naïfs who confused hope with optimism, and they expected a “Francis Effect” that would bring new life and vigor to a decaying culture. The decay has in fact worsened. Following some positive indications during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, church attendance has dwindled, and so have seminaries and convents. Between 2013 and 2018, on all continents save Africa and Asia, priestly vocations shrank about eight percent and there are 52,000 fewer women religious and 4,000 fewer male religious as a result. But as Pope Francis stood alone in Saint Peter’s Square, which was as empty as many churches in the West, and the rain poured, there was a magnificent sound to the silence. It was as if the holy Voice was saying once again—this time, to a generation that has come to think of itself as a substitute for God and as lords of a New World Order whose shrines are in Silicon Valley and Brussels—“You have not chosen me. I have chosen you.”
Without anticipating the present situation, I had written back then that the real strength of the Successor of Peter would be understood only when the millions of celebrity fans had melted away and the Pope stood alone. The telecast of the Pope standing alone on March 27, in what is now called “real time,” evoked the final scene in Robert Hugh Benson’s dystopian novel The Lord of the World. The Anti-Christ would try to destroy the Church, attacking the lone figure of a pope exiled in Nazareth as he holds the Blessed Sacrament.
On February 8, 1992, the future Pope Benedict XVI mentioned this book in a university speech in Milan, and he also quoted the 1920 encyclical of Pope Benedict XV, Bonum sane: “The coming of a world state is longed for, by all the worst and most distorted elements. This state, based on the principles of absolute equality of men and a community of possessions, would banish all national loyalties. In it no acknowledgement would be made of the authority of a father over his children, or of God over human society. If these ideas are put into practice, there will inevitably follow a reign of unheard-of terror.”
Pope Francis has called it one of his favorite books, mentioning it in 2015 and before that in 2013 when he said that Benson described “the spirit of the world which leads to apostasy, almost as if it were a prophecy.” Benson’s dystopian novel would have a utopian sequel, The Dawn of All, which at least in style is inferior. The conclusion of the first book is ambiguous, and there is only a description of the Anti-Christ about to attack the Vicar of Christ: “He was coming, and the earth, rent once again in its allegiance, shrank and reeled in the agony of divided homage.”
The Victorian novelist Bulwer-Lytton wrote many fine things, and in fact was more innocent of prosaic lapses than Wordsworth. He is derided only because one line of his has become a cliché: “It was a dark and stormy night.” In ways that circumstance has yet to disclose, that dark and stormy night when the Pope raised the Blessed Sacrament as the most parochial of pastors, with the whole world in his universal and immediate jurisdiction, was the harbinger of victory and not the whimper of defeat.
Now in the present contagion, Holy Week may seem to have been erased from moral conscience in an unprecedented way. A delivery man in surgical mask and rubber gloves has just delivered our palms for Sunday, but we also have instructions that they are not to be distributed for fear of infection, and that there will be no public procession.
Let us give thanks for this fast and mortification of custom. This will be a great Holy Week because we are positioned to share the confusion and ambiguity of the crowds in Jerusalem when that enigmatic figure with a sublime countenance entered the city riding on a shabby beast. In days of shock and sorrow, He is calling attention to what in languid hours we may have taken for granted or possibly did not really understand at all—namely, why Holy Week is holy. Are the churches closed? Are the people quarantined at home? “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
Photo: the USNS Comfort docked in Manhattan (Getty Images)