If transcendence is the mark of religious feeling, midtown Manhattan’s St. Francis of Assisi Church triumphs. On first glance the interior seems gaudy, if not kitsch: There are gilt-trimmed columns, and an elaborate pastel fresco towering above a marble wall backdrops the altar. But on reflection, these adornments seem more like icons of spring, of rebirth. This sense—that one can go to church and leave more directed to God and to oneself—emanated from nearly every aspect of the 11 A.M. Mass on Sunday, May 2.

The service was led by Fr. Stephen D. Mimnaugh, OFM, a parochial vicar of the parish and, like the other priests at this church, a Franciscan friar. The sermon focused on doing God’s good work on earth. “Have love for one another,” was the homily’s theme, inspired by the Gospel reading from St. John, in which Jesus gives his followers his New Commandment: “love one another. / As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. / This is how all will know that you are my disciples.”

The sermon could easily have taken on a harping tone, and, at first, it seemed as if it might. Taking the pulpit, Fr. Mimnaugh began by discussing the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, in which St. Paul, on his journeys, urges disciples to persevere in their faith, even as they undergo hardships. “Paul spoke to a mixed group in Antioch, in Turkey,” he said, drawing the scene. His tone was slightly shaky, and he sounded slightly affected—a man wanting to give the impression of his own frustrations. These first few minutes were unimpressive: Guidance by irritation does little to inspire. But he had a destination in mind and continued: “Paul was cast out and stoned. Many of Paul’s disciples may have thought the Gospel would have been irresistible. It was not.” Fr. Mimnaugh looked out to the worshippers and then descended the stairs from the pulpit. Whatever was affecting him seemed to be leading him.
Here the sermon immediately changed: It began, for the first time, to come through with meaning. Fr. Mimnaugh began to tell a story about walking through Union Square the day before. He described stumbling on a demonstration against Arizona’s new immigration law. His tone shifted again; now he seemed relieved, and even more himself. Mimnaugh is an Irish name; momentarily, he sounded like Conan O’Brian. He explained, indirectly, what seeing the demonstrators was like. “I’ve been known to cry,” he said, self-deprecatingly, with a smile. Then he came back to the readings. “These people needed to demonstrate for simple justice,” he implored. “If this is a fundamental issue, how well are we doing on that aspect of John?” He paused, like a man who knew he now was being heard. “Love one another. It’s a tall task.”

The sermon transitioned immediately into the Nicene Creed. To the left of the pews stood a memorial made of wreckage from September 11—a reminder, especially in this church, of how world and church can collide. Fr. Mychal Judge, a friar at St. Francis of Assisi and a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department, died at Ground Zero as the first tower fell. The themes of Saturday’s demonstration and the mention of downtown may have brought back memories of the day. For Fr. Mimnaugh to confront the divisive Arizona legislation with such earnest supplication to his congregation showed confidence. And the congregation was clearly stirred. The people seemed relieved that their parish—and Church—still possesses purpose and the power to lift people up to realize it.

Those who wish to be taken to this sober yet exuberant plane would do well to spend their Sundays at St. Francis of Assisi.

Information:
City: New York
Borough: Manhattan
Neighborhood: Midtown West
Address: 135 West 31st Street
Phone: 212-736-8500
Website: www.stfrancisnyc.org/
Religion: Christian
Denomination: Catholic
Main Service: Sunday, 11 A.M.
Pastor / Chief Liturgist: Jerome Massimino, OFM; at this liturgy, Parochial Vicar Stephen Mimnaugh, OFM

Articles by Sam Petulla

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