Priests from the Polish province of the Dominican order arrived in upper Manhattan in the late summer of 2003. In their consecrated hands, the Church of Notre Dame and the Catholic ministry at Columbia grew in holiness, a concept that must annoy diehard empiricists, because holiness can’t be quantified. It can’t even be identified with certainty through the bodily senses. Like love, holiness is hard to define accurately, and hence the reluctance to talk about it at all. Let me suspend my reluctance.
Being a teaching order, the Dominicans were well disposed to lead the Catholic community in the university neighborhood of Morningside Heights. And lead they did, by their demeanor as much as by their words. “Obviously, people came not because our grammar is so beautiful,” Fr. Romuald Jedrejko told me at a farewell event held for them in the rectory after the principal Mass on Sunday, their last at Notre Dame. Earlier in the week Krzysztof Poplawski, or Fr. Christopher, as we called him, the provincial of the Polish province, in town for the friars’ final week here, apologized for his English by telling of an American woman who once reassured him that she understood everything he meant to say.
The Dominican friars moved cheerfully in a world of cosmopolitan Catholic thinkers, if you’ll pardon the near-redundancy, cosmopolitan and catholic (Greek for “universal”) being nearly synonymous. At the invitation of the friars, Fr. Richard Neuhaus spoke on campus often and said Mass at St. Paul’s Chapel. Erik Ross, the managing editor of First Things, would come uptown to hear him. Impressed by the friars there, he decided, in fairly short order, to join them, to become one of them if they would have him. They would. In the spring of 2006 he left for Poland, resolved to become not just a Dominican but a Polish Dominican. He began to study Polish on his own while still in New York. He’s in Cracow now. They tell me he speaks like a native.
Robert George, George Weigel, Michael Novak, Maciej Zieba, Aidan Nichols, Peter Cameron, Joseph Koterski—the lineup of powerful Catholic minds, one after another after another, whom the Polish Dominicans introduced to Columbia students was scary. I mean for the other team. Avery Cardinal Dulles, a mentor of Fr. Neuhaus, was up in years at that point, and so for him to come down to Columbia would have been difficult, but no matter. A corps of graduate students and a Dominican or two would make the trip from Morningside Heights up to Rose Hill when he gave one of his McGinley Lectures there.
It was, as I now appreciate, a golden age, when the integration of fides et ratio was in the air we breathed and the water we drank. It’s what gave shine and color to the garden around the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the courtyard nestled between the church and the rectory. A garden! Who knew? It had been so neglected. Everyone just took its wild weedy look for granted until, shortly after the Polish Dominicans moved in, the space was tended and now a neatly barbered little lawn punctuated with shrubs and flowers lay where only yesterday that patch of litter-strewn urban wilderness had snarled and bristled. Now all of a sudden, for those with eyes to see, it was a living picture of the ordered vitality that marked the friars as individuals and, what’s more important, or at least interesting, as a fraternity of priests.
Serving at the pleasure of the Archdiocese of New York, the Polish Dominicans were asked to leave by the same earlier this year, in the spring. Parishioners sent letters to the archbishop and to Rome, to the prefect of the Congregation for Clergy. As is his prerogative, the archbishop hinted at but did not state the reasons for the friars’ departure. He mentioned money, that Notre Dame was in the red, although the books are closed and so it’s hard to guess how much of that debt the Dominicans inherited from a costly and controversial renovation project undertaken during the parish’s previous administration.
I might be tempted to get into the weeds about all that if there were any. The Polish Dominicans largely uprooted them, as is their style. They took vows of obedience. Now they would honor them. In this case, I think, they informally added vows of good manners, discouraging parishioners from firing off letters to the chancery and to the curia and, during the transition, working graciously with the diocesan priests who would succeed them, showing the new guys the ropes. To my mind, the archdiocese could ill afford to reject Polish reinforcements to its jurisdiction, but if the same thought ever crossed the minds of the friars they never expressed it.
Cardinal Dulles died in December 2008, Fr. Neuhaus a few weeks afterward. And so the breakup of the Catholic intellectual community that the Polish Dominicans gave so much life to had already begun. The apostles had Jesus for three years. We had the Polish Dominicans for all of eight, and, for five of those, the Polish Dominicans in conversation with Dulles and Neuhaus.
We never wanted any of them to leave. But God called them home—some to be with him and, in the case of the friars, some to their temporal home, Poland—leaving those of us left behind to mourn the loss of a Catholic culture such as we had never known and are unlikely to experience again unless we cultivate our memories of it and let them shape our effort to reconstitute it somehow. Whatever we end up making will be different, of course, so come, Holy Spirit. Surprise us again.
The garden is gone but not its fruits. To Erik Ross, now Erik Ross, OP, add Zane Torretta, now Gabriel Torretta, OP. Zane was a graduate student in the East Asian languages department, home of Theodore de Bary, another contributor to First Things, and writing his dissertation on something to do with Japanese comic books when he too came under the influence of the men in white. Three years ago he joined the Order of Preachers and is currently at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington. You may remember him from his articles in this space earlier this season, when he was a summer fellow at First Things.
To have brought, in less than a decade, two young men with a lot of upside, as the baseball scouts would say, to realize their vocations to the priesthood is a strong record for any ministry during this age of the priest shortage in the United States. That’s a new priest every four years, I’ll add, with a nod to the empiricists. Other souls have been touched and changed in ways less dramatic but, for all we can know in such matters, yet more profound. Some of them have written about it in testimonies that parishioners gathered into a book and distributed at church. You can read them here.
Holy Spirit, surprise us again.
Nicholas Frankovich is an editor at Servant Books, an imprint of St. Anthony Messenger Press.
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