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Holy Family of New Rochelle NY Closed To Talk of Wars
HOLY FAMILY CLOSED TO TALK OF WARS
By Nick Mottern | Church Visit #24
On a grey, chill Sunday morning, December 13, 2009, Martha Conte, Theodora “Ted” de Soyza, Nora Freeman, Debbie Kair and I visited Holy Family Catholic Church in New Rochelle, NY, in the latest of our bannering visits to urge the religious community in Westchester County to become aggressive in opposing the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
We hit a rock, except for two parishioners.
The Holy Family congregation meets in a huge yellow brick ark of a building, Italian in architectural style. The nave of the church, where the congregation sits, has a low flat ceiling of natural wood panels and massive wooden beams, decorated with fine red and green lines and flowers, creating a sense of sanctuary. This feeling is enhanced by large, arched, extremely intricate, stained glass, windows.
On walls are bas-relief sculptures of various scenes leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion known as Stations of the Cross. In one of the walls next to the altar is a sculpture of Mary, Joseph and Jesus - the Holy Family – in a manger scene. On the altar were four, very tall candelabra, and over the altar is a crucifix with, as Nora pointed out, a nearly life-size, very life-like sculpture of Jesus in pain, spiked to a cross.
The sense of the building is that of ancient tradition, a feeling reinforced by the liberal use of incense during the ceremony. The church’s website says the building “is comparable to a basilica.” But the church is not ancient, although, like many, many ancient Catholic churches, it was built out of the devotion of working-class people.
“From the small group who gathered for the first Mass on August 10, 1913 in a store front that had been a butcher’s shop,” the church’s website says, “ we have grown into a large parish serving over 1,400 faithful each week.” The website’s message, signed by the pastor, Msgr. Ferdinando D. Berardi, goes on to caution:
“However, let us remember that we are not to rely on buildings or institutions but in the Spirit that unites us as a family and emboldens us to witness to the Gospel and so serve Our God and His people.”
On the morning we visited, there were about 200 parishioners, including about 20 African-Americans, participating in the 10:30 am Mass.
We sat on the right hand side of the church, close to the front. The choir of about 18 men and women sat directly across from us on the other side of the church.
Debbie suggested that we stand with the banner during the prayers of confession, early in the service, and that we remain standing when the prayers were completed.
We raised a banner that said:
4,371 US SOLDIERS KILLED-TENS OF THOUSANDS WOUNDED
1 MILLION IRAQIS KILLED-MILLIONS DISPLACED
Much of IRAQ and its CULTURE have been DESTROYED
The US has spent $3 TRILLION - $4 BILLION from Westchester
JOIN US TO HELP END THE WARS!!
We had been holding up the banner for about two minutes when an usher approached me and told us to leave. I asked my colleagues whether I should ask him if we could stay if we lowered the banner; it was agreed. “If your purpose is to worship, you can stay,” he said. We folded the banner and returned to our seats.
The sermon, delivered by Rev. George K. Nedumaruthumchalil, noted that Advent, the time leading up to Christmas, which marks Jesus’ birth, is a time in which people “rejoice in hope.” “We should be happy today,” he continued, “not because things are going well”, but “simply because the Lord is near.”
He continued that the Apostle Paul tells us to face our problems, and we need to “turn all our worries into prayer and inner peace will come to us.”
During the general prayers, Deacon Raymond Hall prayed for: “our troops separated from their families”; those wounded in war”; “our military brothers and sisters; and “those killed in war.” The last grouping I took to include all killed in war.
At the point in the service in which those attending greet each other, we shook hands with people in the pews around us and were treated in a polite yet friendly way.
Debbie suggested that we leave the church just before the end of communion so that we could hold up the banner outside the main door of the church and have the chance to talk with people as they departed.
The first person to approach us was a man in his late 30s or early 40s who said of the Afghanistan war: “We’re so far into it, it seems like it will never end.” This man seemed to be deeply troubled and perplexed by the wars. He was unsure of what should be done, but he thanked us for coming.
The second, a balding man in his 50s, said he sang in the choir, and: “I support you 100 percent. If you had been asked to leave, I would have left.” He thanked us for coming and departed.
Then Monsignor Berardi came angrily out of the church and down the steps. He was dressed in street clothes, having not participated in the service. He told us that someone had come to him and interrupted his breakfast to tell him that there was a disruption in the church. He said he was afraid someone had taken ill only to find out that we had raised the banner. “It’s not the proper place to do this,” he said. I asked him what would be the proper place, and he said: “I don’t know.”
I asked him whether there had been any statements from the pulpit about the Afghanistan war, and he said: “That’s politics.”
The usher who had addressed us, who was wearing a tie decorated with an illustration of Sylvester the cat chasing Tweety Bird, who wore a Santa hat, stood by the monsignor. At one point he told us: “You are hurting your cause.”
Monsignor Berardi asked us to move across the street and not stand on the sidewalk at the foot of the church steps. Debbie told him that the sidewalk is public property and that we had a right to be there. He argued the point and then went back into the church with the usher, having not been able to dislodge us.
As we folded up the banner to leave, a black woman in her 30s told us that she was a theologian and that we should not have done what we did. She said we should use blogs or some other form of communication to get our message out but not come into the church. We told her that we had used blogs, letters to the editor and visits with elected officials and that we felt that religious institutions should speak out. I told her that our visits were inspired by similar church visits made during the civil rights movement by James Foreman. She said she had to take her mother home, and we departed.
As we were leaving in Debbie’s car, a New Rochelle police car arrived, driven by a lone officer. I asked Debbie to stop our car so I could ask the policeman whether someone at the church called him; and he said there was a report from the church of a disturbance. He asked Debbie for her driver’s license, whether we were from New Rochelle, whether we attended Holy Family and whether we would be back to New Rochelle. Debbie told him that Ted, who had left us shortly after we came out of church, was from New Rochelle and attended the church, that we did not know whether we would be back, and that we had to be on our way.
During the service and after, I sensed that the model of Catholicism being upheld by Monsignor Berardi is one in which the Catholic Church has been known to steer through wars and social convulsions, avoiding direct, continued conflict with governmental authority. The Church message of this model is solely one of personal comfort and salvation, in line with a passage from the sermon we heard: “The peace that God gives, nothing in the world can give.”
This is a model of accommodation to political and military misdeeds. This model has no place for clergy who behave like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when in 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City, at a gathering organized by Clergy and Laity Concerned, he challenged the US government on its pursuit of the Viet Nam War.
But there is also Salvadoran Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, who departed from his history of orthodoxy after the assassinations of poor people and priests by the Salvadoran military, which received support from the US. On March 23, 1980, he said in a sermon directed at Salvadoran soldiers:
“Brothers, you are from the same people; you kill your fellow peasants…No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God...I implore you – I command you in the name of God: stop the repression.”
The following evening he was shot and killed by an assassin while conducting Mass.