I write to you this week from my family home in Louisville, Kentucky. We are just an hour east from Southern Indiana’s Archabbey of St. Meinrad where I wrote you last week while giving a retreat. I had the privilege of preaching to a group of Student Friars (studying for the Priesthood and Cooperator Brotherhood) and their “Formators” as they began a new academic year. When I give a retreat I go on retreat, because preparing the talks elicits an examination of my own life.
This time I spoke, and listened to myself speak, about Dominican Study, a topic immediate to those in a seminary, but significant at all times to members of the Order of Preachers. Dominican Friars accept study as their principal strenuous endeavor: St. Dominic gave it to us in place of the agricultural labor of the monks. In this he certainly included academic pursuits for those among his followers so inclined and equipped, but at the same time, he meant for all of us to assume study as a part of the “observance” of each day, along with community prayers, meals, and meetings.
Perhaps a discussion of Dominican study will help you understand the Friars assigned to the parish and how we plan to address our current situation.
Study’s high place in Dominic’s plan for our life tells you that Dominican Study demands more than acquiring information for projects and includes more that wrestling with thorny questions of theology and philosophy. The Dominican student approaches a text, most especially a text of Sacred Scripture, with reverence born of faith, for he expects the God who called him to the work of study to meet him there on the page.
Dominican Study demands both intellectual work and spiritual activity. We apply native talents and contribute the work of investigation and rumination, but God supplies the enlightenment that comes from the Holy Spirit. For instance, I can do an exhaustive study of the Birth of Jesus as presented in the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew, and yet when I return to the “page” each Christmas I find something new. My studies are a seed, but God continues to bring in the fruit. While we begin with the Scriptures, we extend our outlook to the whole living theological tradition of the Church, and then to whatever body of knowledge our assignments place in our path. Study of this kind lends transcendent energy to doctoral programs, Sunday sermons, and daily prayer.
Perhaps this makes the Friars of the Order of Preachers a unique haven for bookish men, but God does not let it stop there. He makes our inclination a platform for growth and uses the care we take over texts to teach us how to approach people and situations. This happens first in the intensity of community life, where we realize God has assigned our Brothers to us as a text in flesh and blood. Read them we must; they are utterly familiar and yet they continue to amaze and perplex. Preaching and pastoral work demand that we extend our sacred study of people along an ever-widening radius.
Now we have been given the assignment to form a new parish community and we will respond with study. We will observe and ponder you, your needs for worship and formation, your expectations for preaching and music, your understanding of what it means to be gathered by Christ with this group of people. We will also ask you to study with us; to take up for a time, the pattern of contemplative observation and considered response that will give our parish a true community life. We will read each other and God will give surprising answers.
Look for descriptions of Parish Study to come.
Here are some important changes to study:
We need to name here a man from whose sacred study many people have derived so much prayerful encouragement and comfort. This Sunday Daniel Sañez will play his last round of Masses at St Catherine’s. In his playing, technical proficiency and devotion have come together to nourish a congregation and inform its perception of the Sacred Liturgy. Daniel is a model for all of us who minister in Christ’s name. What a consolation to think that a whole diocese will now relish the beauty we have had all to ourselves.
We also are losing someone who for many years now has been the voice and face of St. Vincent Ferrer’s for many people. Yvonne Scally has been able to take advantage of an early retirement package offered by the Archdiocese. The security Yvonne will gain makes it easier to take the loss of joyful and supportive presence to all of us.
Please pray for Yvonne and Daniel at this time of great change in their lives. Please pray for all our employees who have been going through a very long transition.
Greetings to you all from the Archabbey of St. Meinrad, set in the gentle hills of Southern Indiana, not far from the Ohio River. Here, the Benedictine Monks have offered a great welcome to 26 Dominicans on retreat, and their preacher, yours truly. Watching another religious family in the Church be itself brings joy to my soul. While we Friars wander through the world, Benedictines put down roots in a place, build themselves into the landscape, and then open their doors in welcome. Scaffold-swathed Manhattan pushes constantly into a new phase, but here massive sandstone buildings crest the hills and they intend to stay until the Lord comes. At the apex of all this blessed reassurance stand the twin romanesque towers of the great Archabbey Church, and from these the bells summon.
All bells compel, but Meinrad’s speak with singular authority to the whole countryside. Every quarter hour they remind us where we are and what we should be about. But before Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer they ring for ten minutes, clarifying life’s priorities for any confused soul. This morning at 5:20 I took my coffee out to the Guest House patio and listened to them do their work. (I was respectful of their call but not answering it, since the Dominicans have their own prayer at a gentler, vacation mode, time.) It is a heavy August morning, and the darkness hangs on, promising autumn. The crickets know what is coming and they waste no time. From their minuscule throats they give the great bells a run for their money, or perhaps it’s a duet, inviting somnolent humanity to waken and hurry.
At the heart of the bells’ insistence lies invitation and summons. “We are telling you to rush,” they sing. Make haste through the dark to fulfill your vocation as God’s worshipper, and find what you need in His sustenance. They offer the same summons to monks walking to sing psalms and to outsiders stumbling to coffeemakers. “Learn from the crickets,” they sing, “Hurry, for the time is short: take advantage of summer’s light step, and hurry.” The litany from the towers hastens to reassure, “Hurry, but do not worry. You make speed to the One who knows you best and loves you most.”
From their high towers, the bells offer timely wisdom for our new parish. In the days since August 1, we have greeted newcomers at both of our churches, and I have been uplifted by the way Friars, Sisters, and Laity have welcomed them into our midst. Two tumultuous years in the Archdiocese have culminated in mergers and closures that have affected many people practically and spiritually. Some of those are now discerning a new church home.
To newcomers and long-timers alike, let me say that I hope this community will offer the welcome of the bells. Their sound reaches everyone in their vicinity, inviting, but not demanding a response. Since they ring each day, they speak to everyone’s spectrum of spiritual needs. The welcome of a parish should do likewise. It should first communicate safety, as the bells do when they sound out the time reliably all day long. But safety does not just insulate, it promotes.
The bells not only invite, they energize. After a long time of difficult church events our Parish welcome needs to summon people to take up their business with God. Some will need space to grieve a precious place or a beloved pastor. There will be some who carry anger with the Archdiocese and the Church. Others need to know they have a stable place to attend Mass and say their prayers. Still others will seek a welcome at the heart of parish involvement. At any one time, a community such as ours attracts involvement at different levels, and indeed, Catholic Christianity has always recognized this truth of human interaction with God.
So I hope a mark of this parish will be a welcome that encourages but does not intrude, so that in our midst the primary connection will always be between God and souls. When that happens, wonderful things cannot fail to follow.
The 2015-2016 Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) classes will be beginning soon.
To learn more about the RCIA program at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, contact Ms. Mary Schwarz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the RCIA program at the Church of St. Catherine of Siena, contact Fr. Jonah Pollock, O.P. at (212) 988-8300, ext. 182.
The other day I stopped in a neighborhood store and the kind lady at the counter said, “Father, all of sudden I see you walking past our window all the time.” I explained the new circumstances of life and ministry, and thought to myself that hurrying along from place to place is the pattern of life we inherited from St. Dominic. Tuesday of this week brought confirmation of this perception. Fr. Vincent Ferrer Bagan and I crossed paths as I walked from St. Catherine’s to St. Vincent’s to say a memorial Mass: he was traveling in the opposite direction to resume hospital visits after saying the 12:10 Mass at St. Vincent’s. To see my Brother striding purposefully to his next task renewed in a moment my commitment to a life of movement.
As we move through the day, so we move through life. For church people in general, and Dominicans in particular, movement offers one of the principal challenges of life. How do I as a contemplative person mine the riches of each moment, without clinging to it? How do I as a minister manage to be present to the people God places in my path, without hanging on to the familiarity of the encounter? How do I commit to making community with my Brothers, when assignments in and out change the community rapidly and suddenly.
I find answers in the kind of encounter I had with Fr. Vincent Ferrer on 67th Street. Built into daily life are icons of the whole of life, little epiphanies in which the mind grabs a normal moment and catches a glimpse of the very big picture. These moments anchor me and direct me at times of great flux. I find that if I live in the present then I am available to recognize these moments of clarity that flow from God’s providence. As I understand it, the concept of the “New York Minute” captures the great depths the present moment holds for those open to receiving it.
I know that when I am nostalgic for the past, or anxious about the future, the present bars me from its deep places. By contrast, I perceive the present when I ground myself in God’s Providence. If I take His care as my point of departure then He gives me glimpses of how He is orchestrating what looks like chaos to me.
With that forgoing as introduction, let me mention to you some movements that will affect our new Parish in its first weeks.
Between our two communities we hosted eight Student Brothers this summer. They came to New York to get ministerial experience, but they also enlivened our common life, and brought musical depth to our common prayer. They have left us to return to the House of Studies in Washington, and we are adjusting to the quiet.
Next week, Fr. Vincent Ferrer Bagan will follow them and begin graduate studies in music at the Catholic University of America. He has given us two months of compassionate ministry in the hospitals and gracious ministry at both of our altars.
St. Vincent Ferrer Priory will be welcoming the return of Fr. Albert Paretsky. After some years teaching Scripture in our Western Province, he will be sharing with us his insightful and erudite preaching. We are glad to have him back.
Within the next ten days, St. Catherine’s Priory will welcome Fr. Joseph Allen. Fr. Allen has just completed a long term of service as Pastor of our Parish in New Haven, CT. No doubt he will bring new energy to our whole apostolate.
As previously announced in St. Catherine’s Bulletin, Daniel Sanez will complete five years of making splendid music for us and take up a position as Director of Music at the Cathedral in Richmond, VA. This is a marvelous recognition of Daniel’s talent and dedication. I hope you can attend his recital after the Noon Mass at St. Catherine’s this Sunday, August 16. Also, please make plans to join us in wishing him well after the Noon Mass on August 30th, his last Sunday with us.
This week I had a great phone conversation with Fr. Jordan Kelly. Naturally, he misses everyone at St. Catherine’s a very great deal. At the same time, he has settled into his quarters at Providence College and is embracing the blessings of his well-earned sabbatical.
Finally, I should mention that I will be away from the parish from August 16 until August 26. I am privileged to preach the annual retreat for the Student Brothers of our Central and Southern Provinces. This will take place at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Southern Indiana. After that, I will cross the Ohio River and be with my parents in Louisville.
Last Sunday we friars threw ourselves into a new Sunday routine so as to adequately serve a united parish. We made some very apparent changes: Fr. Jonah Pollock celebrated Masses at St. Vincent Ferrer, while Fr. Innocent Smith and I celebrated at St. Catherine’s. Fr. John Devaney celebrated Mass at St. Vincent’s, and then moved east to care for people in the hospital. We also began to face more hidden challenges. Of significant priestly concern was, “How will I greet the people?” Here necessity generated surprising efficiencies. I discovered that I could say hello to people arriving at St. Vincent’s for the 5:30 pm Mass, then I could walk over and great people leaving the 5:15 pm Mass at St. Catherine’s. Hopefully this kind of planning will keep us all present to the whole community of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena.
As the brothers moved from place to place to preach, celebrate the sacraments, and meet new people, they received a hearty welcome from all comers. The spirit of the day gave tribute to the zeal and charity of the entire parish.
For me the most moving experience of the day was its most intimate one. Fr. Innocent, who serves his Brothers as keeper of the schedule, assigned me to say the 10:00 am Mass at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Fr. Vincent Ferrer kindly took me over and showed me how to transform the All Faith Chapel into a setting for the Mass. After he left I was alone in the room with my memories. In 1990, as a Student Brother, I did clinical training at Sloan and at NewYork- Presbyterian. During that summer I was assigned to the breast cancer floor at Sloan Kettering and two post surgical units at NewYork-Presbyterian. I then returned to the hospital ministry at St. Catherine’s as a young priest in the summers of 1993 and 1994.
These stints of service exerted a lasting effect upon my ministry. Each time I entered a room I realized I was bringing the Gospel into a unique environment, created not only by the diagnosis of the patient, but also by temperament, personal history, and family situation. Keeping this truth in mind, I approached the patient with humility, and was able to listen and respond. When some preoccupation intervened, people got stock phrases, and the emptiness of the encounter was palpable. No doubt this time in the hospitals taught me how to be present to a whole line of penitents, or to recognize when I had failed to do so and to ask why. All of this learning came to the foreground of my memory as I waited for my congregants this weekend.
Twelve of them appeared for our simple Eucharist. It was a a new thing, and an old thing, to preach about Christ to people who had walked in with IV poles and were much closer to the Savior’s Passion than I. What a privilege, though, to have the challenge of responding to people who want to receive Christ into the heart of their illness, or to know his companionship in their work as doctors, nurses, or caregivers!
The insight of this moment clung to me as I went back across the street to the solemnity and beauty of the Noon Mass at St. Catherine’s. Here too I found the chance and challenge of presenting the Gospel in a singular circumstance of time and place. When one deals with established assemblies of people, there really is no generic. Christ was truly present, presiding, and gathering souls on both sides of 68th Street. In the hospital and in the Parish Church people hungered for the Bread of Life. Those who respond to that hunger as priests have the joy of observing how many ways people use to express that longing and with what surprising accuracy Christ responds to them all.
That is why, for me, the formation of this new parish means a new call to grow in reverence for, and awareness of, people. In a special way this includes my Brothers who so joyfully share this new rhythm of life with me. They and I expect to grow through the challenge of serving the new congregation entrusted to our care.
We friars are meeting to develop initiatives for the new parish. We will be in touch about them soon. In the meantime, may the remainder of summer come to you as true rest.
Fr. Walter Wagner, O.P., Pastor
The latest bulletins from the Parish of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena are now available:
The Eighteenth Sunday of the Year
August 2, 2015
Last Saturday evening Fr. Jordan Kelly and I walked through St. Catherine’s Church. While we ambled, Daniel Sanez practiced (It did not sound as if practice was necessary!), and florists decked the church with the splendor of the season. Everything had coalesced beautifully for the parish’s Mass of Thanksgiving for 117 years of amazing life, and for five years of exceptional pastoring by Fr. Jordan.
Meanwhile, between the two of us the handing over had begun. Everywhere we turned there was someone for me to meet, an ongoing problem to be noted, or an achievement to be carried forward. Here was the tender, anxious moment of “traditio,” This Latin word captures the handing on that brings tradition into being. One could never describe such an encounter as a surrender, or an unloading, or even as professional due diligence, only the verb “entrust” captures what was happening. Think of St. Paul writing to the Corinthians about the Eucharist; “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread…” (1 Cor 12:23). Traditio plays a pivotal role in religious life: a brother hands over to another brother the fruit of his labor, the produce of his creativity, and the companions of his days. One man says to another, “here is five years’ investment of my soul, please receive it, love it, and foster it.”
How could this encounter fail to be painful in the giving, or overwhelming in the receiving? How could it not be a time of deep communion?
In my Dominican life I have been on both sides of this experience. When I am a recipient of tradition, it engenders in me a deep reverence for how a brother has brought his gifts and his temperament to bear in fulfilling a ministry. When I have been the one handing on, I perceive in a new way the depth and breadth of my commitment. When traditio takes place person to person, not just by memos or manuals, each man realizes the significance of his stewardship, and its smallness in the history of a community. Grasping that paradox gives one man the serenity to let go of something utterly precious and the other the docility to embrace the unfamiliar with dedication.
In these days, I can only wonder how much traditio has taken place between priests in the Archdiocese of New York as parish mergers lurch off the page into reality. How many moments of profound letting go and reception have closed and opened whole chapters of life in ministry? The emotions run high, but then clergy and religious are trained for these events and we expect to grow through the experience of them.
Much harder to instruct whole groups of people in the ways of traditio! Yet in the last weeks, it has been asked of parish communities on a large scale, and to all appearances they are figuring it out. On the day after Fr. Jordan and I walked through St. Catherine’s our two parishes held solemn liturgies of handing on. Each community recognized the singular wealth of spiritual gifts and practical talents entrusted to it by God’s love, and then took stock of how that patrimony had been fostered by loving hands for more than a century. Most importantly at such a moment, they recognized that this tended wealth is not ephemeral, but will be used by God in the new thing He is doing. The beauty and energy of July 26 at both parishes testifies to a spirit-filled life that no merger will snuff out, but which the merged parish will find is its most valuable resource, after God Himself.
As the new parish receives the rich legacies of its two predecessors, it will find much to treasure in the contributions of Fr. Jordan Kelly. His passion for every aspect of divine worship, especially music, has broadened and deepened the life of St Catherine’s in ways that will set a standard for our liturgical life going forward. He has given to many Catholic people a new sense of belonging that our new community must receive as an inheritance to cultivate. His commitment to the pastoral care of the sick challenges all of us to new levels of compassion. May what he bequeaths to us also be revealed to him as the wherewithal for a new chapter of life and ministry.