New Evangelism?

Christian mission is not to preach Christ, but to be Christians in life.
—Fr. Alexander Schmemann

The new evangelization is hardly different from the old. It resides, as it has from the first century, in the lived witness of individuals to a risen Lord—to the sacramental character of the world, of time itself, and of each other’s place in it. It inhabits right relations between persons. And it endures in confession of inexhaustible sorrow over failure in those relations.


Mathias Gruenwald. Head of a Crying Angel (c. 1520). Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

For generations in New York, the calling of the Church took up residence in its schools. The Sheen Center is a monumental white flag signaling defeat in the Church’s ordained mission to the young. In its place is a misnamed “mission to the arts.” By offering itself as a trendy landlord to the arts, the Archdiocese is furthering the momentum of its own displacement. Inflated reverence for the arts is something to be countered, not accommodated.

Louis Bouyer, writing thirty years ago, looked on the dilation of culture—our art-and-culture syndrome—as a symptom of deep degeneration, the herald of a “monstruous civilization” emptied of meaning. More recently, Louis Dupré expanded on the theme: “Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, absorbing traditional religion as a subordinate part of itself.” That subordination, sweetened by the word mission, is the very basis of the Sheen Center.




The pathos of prelates bent on becoming players in the art scene is disheartening. The New York Archdiocese is no reincarnation of  the Hapsburg courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Philip II is long dead. So is the character of the patronage he represented. Threatened orthodoxy will not be buttressed by an estimated $177 million renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral nor the undisclosed millions of the state-of-the-art Sheen Center.

St. Pat’s is no more “America’s parish church,” as Cardinal Dolan calls it, than New York is the “capital of the world.” The cathedral is a tourist attraction at the fag end of New York’s Museum Mile. And it is dressing up for the role at the expense of less glamorous, more humane undertakings.

Remember the 2011 closing of Rice High School. Run by the Christian Brothers, it served the city’s young black males with notable grace and efficacy. Bankrupted by lawsuits in the wake of the sex scandal—none having anything to do with Rice—the order was forced to close the school. A fraction of what the archdiocese has spent polishing St. Pat’s or creating the Sheen Center could have been gifted to sustain the work of Rice. The building is now a YMCA.


Vincent Van Gogh. Sorrow (1882). Museum of Modern Art, New York.


The ambiguously named Sheen Center—“Martin? Charlie? Michael? Who’s this Fulton dude?”—is anxious to be agreeable to all comers. It is on record as being progressively open to performances that might raise eyebrows among those stick-up-the-spine traditionalists. It only shakes a finger at “anything that is hateful about one group of people.” (We People of the Book can trust, then, that cordiality toward the Religion of Peace will be never be shaken.)

Its own supine, politically correct courtesy puts the Church at odds with itself. It is caught, like Buridan’s ass, between two bales of hay: outreach to the religiously minded and edgey downtown appeal to the secular, liberal theatre scene. Who will ultimately evangelize whom remains to be seen.


Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, past production of the Voyager Theatre Company, a client of Sheen.

The Sheen’s plush performance space for dance and theatre troops is rationalized as a decoy to lure the faithless to the fold. We are to greet the scheme as a spare-no-expense preface to the Kingdom where heating and lighting systems come from God.

Earthier enticements, though, have already run the other way. In March, Msgr. Michael Hull was pastor of Guardian Angel and executive director of the Sheen. At the end of April, on Divine Mercy Sunday, he announced from the pulpit that he was leaving his flock to get married. According to a priest familiar with Hull, he and his young bride—formerly an intern at the Sheen—are living now in Venice.

Well, the heart wants what the heart wants. By Woody Allen’s reckoning, Hull’s sentimental truancy is just another New York story. Less neighborly, however, is the incongruity of his lavish renovation of the fourth floor rectory of Guardian Angel within the last year. The parish is small, hardly prosperous. Yet the renovation was designed by an associate at Richard Perry Architect, an upscale firm that serves deep-pocket clients. A visitor to the rectory called it “mind-bogglingly beautiful.” Did Hull acquire a taste for living large as Cardinal Egan’s protégé? All that can be said is that the renovation raises questions about funding.

Max Beckmann. The Disillusioned (1922). Staatliche Museen, Berlin.


Funding of the Sheen Center remains another mystery. Neither the Sheen personnel nor the office of the chancellor, Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo, will disclose the cost of the project. How much was covered by private donation? What percentage was Archdiocesan monies? What is the combined cost of the salaries of the senior staff? Will an annual report become available? The chancellor’s office, which oversees budgetary matters, refers questions to the communications division. The spokeswoman at that end stonewalls: “We have no information at this moment.”

How can that be? Surely the chancellor’s office has records from Cost+Plus, the cost management firm hired to vet proposals from the chosen team (the award-winning Acheson Doyle Partners, architects, and Harvey Marshall Berling Associates, theatre design and acoustics)? Again: “We have no information at this moment.”

The Sheen Center owes existence to the assumption that our predicament results from bad art and a failure of education. A fashionable, art-conscious version of continuing ed is the cure. (Hull had a phrase for it: “dynamic dialogue between artist and audiences.”) Pére Bouyer had a clearer eye. He understood our descent into post-Christian culture in terms of the old adage: Corruption of the best is the worst of all. He wrote:

It is not ignorance of Christianity among those who were never evangelized, nor its negation by those who were never able to accept it, but rather by the betrayal of Christianity by those who received the Gospel and were brought up as Christians.

Recognition of the mote in our own eye precedes evangelism, new or old. And it helps to stay mindful that every genuflection by the Church to secular idols—under the pretext of promoting the gospel—ends as Vigo Demant foresaw: a proclamation of secularism in a Christian idiom.

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Letters from Ireland

Among letters responding to recent posts are two from Dublin. One is from a parish priest uneasy with Rome’s Disneyfied wedding fest and its predictable press response. One of the uncountable shepherds of a stumbling contemporary flock, he writes to say:

The last two weddings I had were of couples with a child - and the vast majority now cohabit before their nuptials. The apparent attempt to spin this with details released to the press was puerile and offensive —not to mind a breach of confidentiality of those concerned.


Jan Bulhak. Evening Light. From series on Vilnius in the 1930s).



Previous reflection on the movie Calvary, prompted words from a teacher at the Scoil Talbot National School, Condalkin, Dublin. His summary of the religious temper of contemporary Ireland is bleak. And his final sentence is an unspoken indictment of the sensitivity-saturation that cripples adults in transmitting stories of a suffering redeemer:

Just to say from an Irish reader in Ireland of your reflection on ‘Calvary’ that yours is the first review I’ve seen that has noticed the obvious links with the story of Calvary!

The film came out here much earlier in the year and the mainstream film critics I read and heard and saw did not see what it was about. My guess is it’s because the vast majority of the population nowadays do not know the story of the Passion in any detail at all. I thought it was an amazing film, one that challenges everyone. . . .

I know it sounds dramatic, and I’m not a fan of making dramatic comments, but it is true. Most people in Ireland no longer go to Mass. It’s been many years since most have; and even on Christmas these days the churches aren’t packed out like they used to be. Attendance is still plummeting — older people dying, not being replaced by younger people. I’d say most people are of course aware of the [Passion] story, but definitely do not ‘know’ it.

Post-primary religious education had been wishy-washy for many years . . . . And so most adults in Ireland have relied on their memories of primary school classes and their understandings as children of the story. And since the Passion is obviously quite violent, primary school teachers may not really engage as deeply with it as they might with other stories with Jesus.


Amico Aspertini. Teacher with Students (early 16th C). Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

The writer included a link to Help With the Tough Questions, an online resource created and maintained by primary school teachers for their own use in the classroom and for as many other Christian parents and educators who might find it helpful. It is rich trove of quotations on a broad range of topics from the nature of Jesus, the saints, and suffering, to prayer, animals, and the necessity of gratitude. Much more. 

This from Fr. Eamon Devlin, CM, suggests the sensibility that informs the site’s approach to religious education in lower school:

Children do no need explanations so much as they need someone to open up their gift of wonder. All you have to do is bring God into their sense of wonder.


Jean Baptiste Greuze. Idle Boy (18th C).Musée Fabre, Montpelier.



Note: It was Fr. Devlin, Provincial of the Vincentians in Ireland and England, who intervened earlier this year to stop the proposed auction of letters between Jackie Kennedy and Vincentian Fr. Joseph Leonard. The letters, considered Mrs. Kennedy’s unwritten autobiography, have been returned to the Kennedy family.

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Weddings, Papal and Otherwise

Would Lena Marie and Walter still be together if they had been married by the pope?


Thomas Theodor Heine. Bride-to-be Admiring Herself in Mirror (1898). Simplicissimus. Munich.


Lena was the first of my old high school friends to marry. From wedding march to wedding cake, the nuptials were grand. Preliminaries, too, were imposing—the showers, the parties, the trousseau. Yes, a trousseau! A chest of linens with trim crocheted and tatted by Aunt Philomena, nightgowns hand-smocked and embroidered by Cousin Lucy back in La Spezia. Family silver. More.

The ceremony was moving, the homily inspirational; cast and setting were as dazzling as solemnity permitted. Bride and groom were Ave Maria-ed and Mendelssohned to kingdom come. (Though we would not have phrased it that way then.) At the reception, Uncle Anthony, a diocesan priest on Lena’s side, said elaborate grace and delivered a certificate of papal blessing—on parchment—to the new couple. With a prayerful flourish, Walter’s aunt followed with rosaries hallowed by the pope himself. Husband and wife left to honeymoon, their troth pledged in stone.


Anonymous. A Royal Marriage (c. 1850). Pictures of English History. Routledge & Sons, London.


Around the time of their first anniversary, the wedded pair invited friends over to their Fort Lee apartment. Dinner done, Lena suggested that Walter show guests the way back to the George Washington Bridge. And, while you are at it, please take out the garbage. A good-natured host, Walter obliged. While he was gone, Lena skipped out with the contractor who had installed a swimming pool on the roof of their condo complex. Their getaway had been cleverly plotted, laudably executed. The two decamped to his ancestral home in . . . Caracas or Costa Rica? I forget.

Walter never saw it coming. Last we heard, he eventually remarried. A quiet, civil ceremony in Borough Hall. He had had his fill of church weddings.


Solange Gautier. Bride Running from Toad Groom (early 20th C.).

I have not thought of Lena in years. Why do I remember her now? It is something to do with the three-ring wedding that ran for one performance at St. Peter’s last week. The press was euphoric. Here, finally, was a pope scraping cataracts off the blurry eyes of a sclerotic Church. In poetic terms: He hath abolished the old drought/ And rivers run where once was dry.

Yahoo News served the predictable headline: “Pope Breaks Taboo by Marrying Couples Living ‘In Sin.”” ABC News was giddy at witnessing a Catholic Spring sprung by a with-it, transformational pope:

In another signal that Pope Francis’ Catholic Church is not your mother’s Catholic Church, the transformative pontiff married 20 couples at the Vatican on Sunday, some of whom had lived together and one who had a child out of wedlock.

Yes, you read that right. Couples who had lived together, couples who had sex before marriage, even one with a grown child were married in the Vatican by the pope himself.

Yes, you read that right. Media Wunderkinder think something new and startling occurred at St. Peter’s. In reality, Francis did no more than is done every week in parishes around the world by nameless priests in charity toward their own parishioners. These twenty couples were each presumably shriven and eligible for marriage. No rules were broken; no protocols discarded or overruled as far as we know. What good priest would not take grateful joy in welcoming couples to marriage, most especially those who already have children?


Heinrich Aldegrever. The Wedding Musicians (16th C.) Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Perhaps that is why this matrimonial extravaganza leaves me cold. However much the Catholic press purrs over yet another instance of beautiful symbolic action, this one falsifies existing reality. It was staged for media consumption in full understanding of how the media was likely to receive and report on it. The show encourages recognition for the generosity of working parish priests to accrue to Francis himself. It is an image-enhancing spectacle that creates a mirage of the Church by which consumers of “news” deceive themselves about pastoral clemency and concern pre-Francis.

In light of the easily anticipated press response, last Sunday’s spectacle was tantamount to theft. It was a moral theft that appropriated standing credit for compassion from legions of unrenowned, conscientious priests; and it laid the spoils at papal feet. Worse, given the way the press was ordained to recount it, the orchestrated expo can only further weaken already feeble inhibitions against cohabitation or child-bearing without marital commitment. (No big deal. The pope gets it.)

Francis is keenly attuned to the way things play in the press. It was he, remember, who let others distribute the Eucharist at Mass to avoid all possibility of being photographed giving the sacrament to a public sinner. Marrying forty strangers chosen as if by a casting director for theatrical expedience—magnified by the pomp and panoply of St. Peter’s—extends the celebrity-life of the papacy on the illusory chance that showboating is a stay against cultural demoralization.

We are all dancing with the stars now. But ultimately, that dance ends like any other, in exhaustion.

Note: Just arrived in this morning’s email is the latest broadcast from Sandro Magister’s Chiesa. It details the clash between supporters of change and defenders of existing doctrine regarding the divorced and remarried. One proposed change is to permit recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation “even without absolution.”

My assumption, then, that all the couples married at St. Peter’s were “shriven” might not necessarily be warranted in each instance. In that case, media excitement would be more justified than it had seemed. What remains, though, is the circus atmosphere surrounding the use of these couples as symbolic pawns in a contest yet to be resolved. The publicity itself serves to weaken standing prohibition against cohabitation and extra-marital child-bearing. A rule so publicly at issue does not encourage observance. On the contrary, it assists the pressures toward nonobservance.

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Calvary, the Movie

The movie Calvary is a stunning meditation on the Christian story. If you have not already seen it, you might want to save this until later. Every review is a spoiler to some degree. But this is less review than reflection on a film, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, that rises to the power of the 1951 Diary of a Country Priest. The earlier French film, adapted from Georges Bernanos’s novel by the towering Robert Bressson, has had no equal until now.


Like its predecessor, Calvary is the story of a good priest tending a hostile rural congregation. Narrative follows the diary structure, time condensed into the seven days Father James has left to live. His anguish is psychological. The attacking cancer is not within him; it festers in the maimed heart of a villager made desolate by the aftershock of sexual abuse in childhood.

The movie opens in the confessional. A man slips in to whisper the secret of his abuse: “I first tasted semen when I was seven.” Jolted, the priest responds: “That is certainly a startling opening line.” He gains his self-possession and proceeds with pastoral calm. A brief back-and-forth elicits intent from the murderer-in-waiting: “I am going to kill you because you are innocent.”

Conversations are terse, crackling with a bitter wit as hard and native to the Irish as the megaliths of Sligo. The economy and mettle of the dialogue have prompted reviews to call Calvary “a black comedy.” But it is nothing of the sort. It is mythic, not comedic. It is the primal story of innocence betrayed. Betrayal corrupts in countless ways. Here, innocence once defiled contorts in lust for vengeance. An offering must be made. The blood of a lamb must spill to atone for the wounds of a desecrated soul.

Something primeval drives this levied sacrifice. Its primordial character is underscored by a camera which keeps scanning Benbulbin (Binn Ghulbain), the mythic rock formation shaped hundreds of millions of years ago. Its high, imposing plateau rises over Sligo like a Neolithic altar, a slaying stone as old as time. As original as sin itself. This is Yeats country, the setting of Irish legends and home to “the dark folk who live in souls/ of passionate men, like bats in the dead trees.”




For all their contemporaneity, the cast of characters share resemblance with the old narrative device of personification: the Faithless Wife (aka Infidelity), the Man of Science (Atheism), the Cuckold, the Poor Rich Man, the Gay Bachelor. As types, they bind the contemporary narrative to ancient storytelling tropes. The bachelor’s rent boy is a slithering, elfin embodiment of malevolence, a deviant leprechaun. At the same time, he is totally believable as a victim-turned-predator.

Father James wears his cassock throughout. It serves as both a badge of office and a subtle gesture of defiance in the face of the scandal-induced disaffection that sundered the unity of the term Irish Catholic into two uneasy halves. Though the drama is steeped in the sour repercussions of scandal, the Church is treated with uncommon kindliness. Sympathy for this clear-eyed, stalwart priest stands bail for sympathy with the Church itself.

To short circuit any speculation, Father James’ heterosexuality is established at the outset by the arrival of his daughter. A widower and a recovering alcoholic, he entered the priesthood late. His daughter Fiona visits in the wake of a failed suicide triggered by too many failed relationships with men. She is an intelligent, winsome exemplar of the Magdalens secular culture creates and discards with casual cruelty.

The priest goes about his week ministering where he can, exploring options for escape, suffering the burning of his church and the slaughter of his cherished dog. Among the tormenters lining his Way of the Cross stands the man intent on killing him. Which one is he? Father James addresses the gauntlet of contenders with: “There is too much talk of sin and not enough about virtue.” Adapted to phrasing congenial to contemporary audiences, his words echo the merciful injunction that has followed us down the centuries: “Go, and sin no more.”

His Gethsemane is a barroom; Golgatha, a lonely stretch of beach along the wild Atlantic. Finally, the morning of his execution comes. Our priest kneels beneath a crucifix and prays silently. We do not need to hear his prayer. We know what it is. We have listened all our lives:

Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not my will but thine be done.

Walking to the beach to meet his killer, the priest flings into the sea a gun borrowed for protection. Some might call it suicide; others, obedience unto death. It is his final decisive act. In the doing of it, the man transforms into Him Whom he contemplates and serves. He calls his daughter from a public phone to leave her a last indelible word, an indirect mandate: “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”

Not until the final scene is the priest’s fatal decision grasped as an illumination, with nothing absurd about it. It is a moment of perfect clarity into the Christian meaning of atonement. The call to expiation is a terrible beckoning. But this priest answers it in full and bloodied trust in the works—unglimpsed behind the veil of the mystery of evil—of a forbearing God. All inklings of barren suicide dissolve in the glance exchanged between the grieving daughter and the killer—tentative now, shorn of bravado. The scene goes by in a blink. But the soundless purity of that instant holds a foretaste of redemption.

Bernanos was right: Grace is everywhere.


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Sheen Center Pre Partum Blues

The single New Testament reference to anything that comes close to the arts is that messy episode with Herodias’ daughter. Was it dirty dancing? Or “natural” dance, precursor to Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the pioneers of improvisational movement? Either way, we know how the program ended.


Adolph Gustav Mossa. Salomé (early 20th C.)

There are better reasons to be uneasy about the efficacy of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Art and Culture as the zenith of evangelization. History is full of mischief. The Center has already suffered two blows before the ribbons are cut.

Expensively architected and stage-designed, the state-of-the-art center lost its scheduled executive director. Msgr. Michael F. Hull—erstwhile pastor of the Church of the Guardian Angel in Chelsea, Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Joseph’s Seminary, and ardent member of MoMA—has gone missing. The journalist who had interviewed him in March for The Wall Street Journal tells me that the monsignor “left the Church.”

To clarify, I phoned the rectory at Guardian Angel. The resident priest who answered said: “I know nothing of his whereabouts.” A call to Dunwoodie elicited only the comment that Msgr. Hull was no longer there. Was there anyone at the seminary who could answer a few questions about the Center itself? Who has taken on directorship in the monsignor’s absence? After a lengthy pause, the receptionist offered to connect me to the Center’s press office. Unable to put the call through, she told me to email. Next, I tried the phone number listed for the Center. It connects only to a ticketing service. (“Have your credit card ready. If you are calling about Ticket Mania’s Gold Club . . . .”)

Immersion in the arts can have unintended side effects. Conversion can go both ways.


Louis Boilly. The Effect of Melodrama (1830). Musée Lambinet, Versailles


Bishop Sheen, as he was known, was a great evangelist, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century. His humanity, graceful wit, and scholarship—carried so nimbly—were matchless gifts to broad audiences. He was a captivating performer whose radio and television ministry instructed and enlivened generations. His own bearing no less than his words testified that peace of soul does not come from man himself. To this day, the Emmy award-winning priest has no equal.

Yet that is not necessarily why the Center was named after him. Other names are better known to the demographic most likely to frequent the downtown theater scene. But the archbishop, elevated to Venerable in 2012, was expected to be canonized soon, possibly as early as next year. With his remains buried beneath the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the new Center would serve as a fashionable annex to the shrine St. Patrick’s would become.

That could explain why the archdiocese initiated a colossal and costly cleaning project of St. Patrick’s. The interior is nearly invisible under miles of planks and scaffolding that will remain into 2015. The narthex has been outfitted with two crass dispensing machines that spit out souvenir medallions. Add a glitzy billboard for tourists too jet-lagged to recognize which attraction they are standing in. Insult follows with wee-bitsy votive candles that burn only for as long as it takes to deposit two dollars in the mite box.

It is a short walk from those vending machines to suspicion that the bazaar was triggered by anticipation of pilgrims to St. Fulton Sheen’s tomb. But there’s the rub: It was announced at the beginning of this month that the cause for Archbishop Sheen’s canonization has been suspended. It is a sad, unedifying story of clerical politics. Fr. Roger J. Landry, over at The National Catholic Register, covered the battle of the bones in detail. His commentary deserves to be read in full. 


Achille Beltrone. Theatre on a TransAtlantic Liner (1919).


Bishop Sheen was a virtuoso in distinguishing between the anodyne of his era—psychoanalysis—and the true source of the soul’s freedom from unease. His essays, particularly “The Philosophy of Anxiety” and “Psychoanalysis and Confession,” have not aged. Were he writing and speaking today, it is tempting to think he would address that other false god of our time: art-and-culture, a compound word that tallies up to money and religion at the same time. 

The Center expects to become self-supporting. Which means it expects to make a profit as an institution for rent. Described by its own in-house consultant Nick Leavens as simply “a new off-Broadway arts complex,” it will function as a hub for the circulation of tax exempt monies. Playbill quotes the press release:

Companies who have already signed on to use The Sheen Center include The New York International Fringe Festival, Strange Sun Theater, /the claque/, Terranova, Wingspan Arts, MorDance and Voyager Theater Company.

The Sheen Center will also house four spacious studios of varying sizes, which will be available for rehearsals, meetings and classes, among others. The Studios at The Sheen Center will be available for rent seven days a week. Art gallery space on the main floor will feature a full rotating schedule of exhibits. It will also be available as a space for intimate receptions.

The  complex stands on the site of the defunct parish of Our Lady of Loretto which became a Catholic Charities shelter for homeless men more than seventy years ago. The name of the Center’s largest performance space, the 250-seat Loretto Auditorium, nods to the displacement of the Bowery homeless by the city’s expanding arts-and-culture scene. In gutting the old structure, rebuilding, and outfitting it to create an arts center, the archdiocese mimics the trajectory of the country’s declining manufacturing sector.

All across the country, old mills, factory buildings and processing plants have been repurposed as some combination of studio, exhibition, or museum space for contemporary art. Think of Mass MoCA, the converted factory complex in North Adams, Massachusetts; or DIA, once a thriving Nabisco plant that supported working class Newburgh. These and hundreds of lesser known arts-related renovations stamp the landscape of post-industrial America.

Following suit, Sheen Center is the archdiocese’s monument to post-Catholicism.

Max Oppenheimer. Salomé (1919). Private collection, Milan.


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