Our Lady of Pompeii could pass for City Hall if it werent for its adjoining tower, raising a cross for all to see over Sixth Avenue and Father Demo Square in the West Village. Even then, theres hardly an outward sign that this is a Catholic Churchthat is, until one opens the heavy, unmarked wooden door.
What this church leaves ambiguous on the exterior it makes clear once one enters. The visitor is transported from the gray outdoors to a colorful space inhabited by a dozen statues of Mary and other saints; these were donated by Italian parishioners when the church was built, in the early twentieth century, when Fr. Antonio Demo was pastor. The parish was founded in 1892, in a chapel on Waverly Place run by the Missionaries of St. Charles. The congregation moved to Sullivan and, later, Bleecker Street before finding a home in its current church, with its adjoining school, convent, and rectory.
About eighty parishioners, varied in age and dress, sat scattered in the pews for the 12:15 Mass on Sunday, February 7. This is the most popular Mass in English at Our Lady of Pompeii. Although originally an Italian parish, today this congregation is quite diverse: A Mass in Italian was celebrated immediately before this one, and Brazilian and Filipino Masses were to follow, one after another, during the afternoon.
A slowly sung Holy, Holy, Holy welcomed the celebrant, Fr. Romy Montero, to the altar. It may have been sung too slowly, perhaps, but the words resonated when we heard the first reading, from Chapter 6 of Isaiah, in which seraphim are stationed above the throne of the Lord, and one called to another and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. As it happens, the tabernacle at Our Lady of Pompeii is centered behind the altar, with one sculpted angel at each side and two more above.
The reading from Isaiah continued: And I said: Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! One of the seraphim flies to Isaiah and touches his mouth with an ember: behold, the angel tells him, your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven. And then: I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said, Here am I! Send me.
The scriptural message on this Sunday focused on this very image: the unworthy person going forth, despite his unworthiness, to serve Godto stand up and follow his call. The message, first expressed by Isaiah, echoed in the reading from St. Pauls Letter to the Corinthians and in the passage from the Gospel of St. Luke, in which Jesus calls Simon, James, and John to be his disciples. Unfortunately, this beautiful message was hardly audible: The speakers in the church sounded as though they were unearthed in Pompeii itself.
The deficiencies of the sound system may explain why few laughed when Fr. Montero started his homily with a joke: A senior citizen, driving on a highway, gets a call from his wife on his cell phone. Be careful, she says; the news reports say theres a driver on your highway who is driving against the traffic! The elderly driver replies, You wouldnt believe it! Theres not just one; there are hundreds of cars driving the wrong way!
Then Fr. Montero paused and said, Its scary to go against the flow of traffic, isnt it? Jumping into the gospel story, he noted that It was scary, too, for the fishermen gathered on the shore of the lake, when Jesus told them to do something quite unconventionalto put out again into the deep water and cast their nets anew after a night of finding no fish. They were obedient, and it paid off. They caught so many fish that their nets started to tear from the weight. Then, when Simon, their spokesman, said to Jesus, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord, Jesus did quite the opposite; he replied, do not be afraid, and called Simon and the others to follow him as fishers of men.
We, too, must be obedient to Gods call, said Fr. Monteroeven when it means doing the unconventional thing. In the reading from Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of himself as unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But the truth is, how we see ourselves doesnt matter. What matters is how God sees usand what he calls us to do. What matters, stressed Fr. Montero, is that were attentive and obedient to his call.
Fr. Montero then named a person who, despite the conventions of his time, took an important stand: Pope Paul VI. In 1968, in the encyclical Humanae Vitae , he stood boldly against new contraceptive technologies and predicted that their use would lead to a breakdown of marriage and family. Fr. Montero then read his Village audience some statistics on divorce, cohabitation, and other such matters that showed how Paul VIs predictions, while poorly received by the culture of his day, have indeed come to pass.
Not only must each of us strive to heed Gods personal call, Fr. Montero concluded; we must also pray for our priests, that they may speak with bold conviction to their parishioners on matters of truthand so be true leaders and fishers of men.
In closing, let me offer a suggestion as to how someone, perhaps, might answer such a call. While the historic structure of Our Lady of Pompeii is in pressing need of repair (posters in the rear of the church show exactly how parishioners tithing is much needed and well spent), I would say one item is in particular need of support. The fuzzy sound system over which the word of God is read desperately demands repair or replacement. In the words of Sundays first reading, I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Were all called to replybut, first, we must be able to hear the voice.
City: New York
Neighborhood: Greenwich Village
Address: 25 Carmine Street
Web Address: n/a
Main Service: 12:15 p.m.
Pastor/Chief Liturgist: Rev. Giancarlo Massari, C.S. / Rev. Romy Montero
Physical Aesthetics of the Church: 8 (out of 10)
Precision, Reverence, and Aesthetics of the Service: 7 (out of 10)
Precision, Reverence, and Rhetoric of the Sermon: 9 (out of 10)
Music: 4 (out of 10)