April 29 usually brings us the Solemnity of St. Catherine of Siena, but since it falls on a Sunday in the Easter Season this year we transfer the celebration to Monday, April 30. We will honor the day as an essential part of our Parish Jubilee with a Solemn Mass at St. Catherine’s at 5:15 pm, followed by a Pasta Supper upstairs in St. Dominic’s Hall. All of this will make for a very festive version of the welcome St. Catherine’s gives to people every day, and have given for decades. I can write about this with authority since I am one of those people. Over the course of three decades I believe that Patron and church, community, and ministry have worked to make St. Catherine’s a place of jubilee for me.
The Spirit of St. Catherine’s first touched me in December of 1988. Fr. Henry O’Brien the Pastor and Prior invited all of us Student Brothers and our Master to New York for a day. We left Washington at 6 am on a chartered bus and received his Jovial welcome by 10. Everybody got $20 and was sent off into the city unsupervised. For us this was a bonanza of time and money made all the more luxurious by the realization that the donor desperately wanted us to have a good time. We would return for the 5:15 pm Mass and a steak dinner for all the Friars in the city. Fr. O’Brien organized this jaunt every year. One year our bus broke down right on 42nd Street, back when it was still 42nd Street. The thought of our pious selves marooned in such a place still brings a smile.
A more challenging experience of parish and city when I lived at St. Catherine’s for the summer of 1990 and undertook a course in hospital chaplaincy. I was thrown in with an ecumenical group of men and women seminarians and together we wrestled with the emotional challenges of encountering the sick, the dying, and their families. These challenges came together in our “on call” hours in the emergency room at New York Hospital. But matched against all this intensity was the welcome of Fr. O’Brien, “Ya get the house allowance (an absolute fortune for us) and take a day off. If you don’t take it, don’t blame me.” By this time St. Catherine’s Priory had received no TLC for a long time and was referred to affectionately as “five floors of basement.” The dilapidation notwithstanding it was one of the most welcoming places in our Province of the Order. So for me there was a jubilee for wrestling with heavy emotions and then the jubilee of throwing on shorts to explore the city for a whole unbroken Saturday.
Three years later I was back at “St. Kate’s” for my first months of priesthood. That the newly ordained cut their teeth in the hospitals is of longstanding tradition, and a wonderful, challenging gift. During that summer I celebrated every sacrament but ordination. I also took my turn carrying the beepers. (In those days we carried one for New York Hospital and one for Sloan-Kettering. We had the beepers for 24 hours and when we had to celebrate the 12:10 Mass we handed them to Sandy Gaffney our receptionist of many years: she would pray over them to keep them quiet. I think it always worked.
These were the first weeks of being on my own, and I had the opportunity to figure out so much through successes and mistakes. I remember that I celebrated my first funeral at St. Catherine’s. It was for a patient who died of AIDS at Sloan-Kettering. For this man and his family, the welcome of our church was unqualified.
Many Friars could tell you a similar tale of St. Catherine’s gifts. My own particular jubilee at St. Catherine’s has been one of preaching. I preached my first Sunday sermon at St. Catherine’s and it was totally illegal. During my first stint of hospital work Fr. O’Brien walked up to me while I was doing dinner dishes and said, “Walter, this Sunday I want you to read the Gospel and preach at the 10 am Mass.” Now I was not a deacon, nor had I had a homiletics class, nor had I really studied theology, but I also wasn’t going to say no to Fr. O’Brien. So there I was three days later bowing to receive his blessing before reading the Gospel. No words of blessing came. As he made a huge Sign of the Cross over me he just shouted quietly, “RELAX.” Ten minutes later I was in love with my vocation all over again.
My next sermon at 411 East 68th was legit. I was by then a Deacon and Fr. O’Brien asked me to preach the Mass for our Student Brother Christmas invasion of Manhattan. With a whole crowd of “the Brethren” concelebrating, including the Provincial this was another moment of nerves that became a lifelong gift in my memory. Preaching every day, I do not usually remember homilies, but I recall each word of that one and I share the recollection with Sr. Margaret Oettinger (of the Hospital for Special Surgery) who was in the congregation that day.
Over the ensuing twenty-five years of priesthood St. Catherine’s kept her doors open to my ministry. I returned several times to peach novenas for the Shrine, and I was given several opportunities to preach which I will never forget. In 1994 Fr. Sylvester Willoughby asked me to preach the Seven Last Words on Good Friday. As I listen each year to the beautiful variety of our seven lay witnesses at the same service, I think back on that marathon and wonder both how I managed to do all seven words and how anyone persevered in listening to them. In 1998 Fr. Chris Johnson asked me to come from Providence College and preach the Mass for the Centennial of St. Catherine’s Parish, and then in 2010 he had me back to preach his 50th anniversary of ordination. All of these live in my mind as “peak moments” of fulfillment.
As I survey my history with St. Catherine’s, I recognize with gratitude a community, a church, and a city in which I was set free to become myself in God’s presence. My story is shared by the untold numbers of parishioners, patients, their families, doctors, and nurses who have brought life’s challenges through the open doors on 68th Street to be touched and transformed by God’s grace. As I behold our whole Parish at this time of Jubilee, I hope that this is the welcome we extend to everyone who darkens our doors. In effect, we preach Christ best when we enable others to take their place in the preaching, as they realize they are rich in spiritual gifts to share.
Come have some supper tomorrow.
Last week these pages introduced the content and significance of our upcoming Jubilee. You read that from April 28 until May 5 we will acknowledge with joy and solemnity the Work of God that is our common life and witness as a parish. With this letter I would like to invite us to make these eight days, a work of shared personal prayer.
I write you all the way back on April 12, so I hope you read these lines in a Springtime whose beauty has been magnified by our waiting so long for it to arrive. When nature wakes up it delights each sense with present beauty and holds out the promise of future growth. Spring freshness anticipates summer luxuriance. Likewise, these days make a pledge of something beyond nature; the liturgy presents us with Christ, risen from the dead to a life that utterly transforms body and soul. How is Christ visible to his followers as Himself and yet passing through locked doors? The Resurrected Christ promises an eternal, intimate engagement with the living God, and provides the sacramental life to prepare us for it. Mass, like Spring, anticipates the full growth of a heavenly life.
I hope that as you read the foregoing you recognized it as the faith that illumines your life, and the hope that gives it direction. Easter celebrates externally what the Christian heart perceives inwardly every day. So, in the light of the Paschal Candle let me ask you this question; don’t you want others to recognize, come to believe, and share life with us?
Our Jubilee will be more complete if it taps your Christlike longing for the souls of others. Please join us in eight days of prayer that more women and men would recognize that He lives and offers them life. For Dominicans this will be a prayer for the fruitfulness of preaching; that our words may connect to our time. To aid us we ask the intercession of two great preachers, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Vincent Ferrer. Our days of prayer will connect their two feasts, so this holy “Octave’ will begin on Saturday, April 28, the vigil of St. Catherine, and last until Saturday, May 5, the feast of St. Vincent Ferrer.
Catherine and Vincent each spoke with effective eloquence to their own troubled times. Together they are eloquent about the nature of witnessing to Christ. Man and woman, cleric and layperson, they testify in unison that each of the baptized has a call to be part of Pentecost, an event we look back to with love on its great feast, but which continues all around us as the Holy Spirit prepares us to speak about Christ to a secular age.
Both testaments give witness that God seeks to disclose Himself in every time, and in the disclosure make an invitation to a way of life that liberates the soul, lifts it to a higher way of living and perceiving, and prepares it for union with Him. Everything challenging about Christianity makes sense in the light of God’s project of moving each of us from one way of perceiving to another.
Today’s preachers must communicate Christ’s promise to an age in which many have no real exposure to the Bible or to church life. Yet Pentecost promises that the Gospel and the gathering of souls we call the Church are empowered to connect the Risen Christ to this time. Part of the persuasiveness of the Church’s preaching will be your desire that it connect in love to those who have never thought of coming inside a church.
The prayers of this Octave will be said at all of the Masses in our Parish of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena. In each of our two churches the shrine of the patron, Catherine or Vincent, will be the place of prayer for the Novena. Here you will find the holy cards of the Octave and slips for petitions. With these you can supplement the common intention of the Octave by naming a person or group of persons whom you hope will come to belief. You might also pray for the mission of the parish, and your own eloquence in Christ’s service.
The Dominican Shrine of St. Jude will organize this festival of prayer, but it speaks for all the Dominicans at this pivotal time. As we look upon the pastoral, educational, social, and artistic heritage of “the holy preaching” in the East Sixties of Manhattan, we feel challenged not only to maintain the belief of those we serve but to serve God’s work of bringing to belief those we would like to serve.
Thank you for assisting us by the priceless contribution of your prayers. Please pray that the persuasiveness of Pentecost may be upon the Church everywhere. Your prayers will be joined to those who join the prayers of the Shrine from a distance, the students in our own St. Vincent Ferrer High School, and the hospital patients served by the Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York.
As Pentecost approaches, may we all be grateful to have been gathered by the Spirit into Christ’s Body.
Since you read the Bulletin you know that two weeks from today this parish will celebrate two major anniversaries, 150 years of ministry by the Dominican Friars and Sisters in this neighborhood, and 100 years of service by the current (third) Church of St. Vincent Ferrer. We often apply the word “Jubilee” to events like this. I wonder though if we don’t need to recall formally what a Jubilee confers and what it demands.
The Bible commands the keeping of Jubilees in Leviticus, Chapter 25. Jubilee comes every 50 years as the most radical expression of Sabbath. We are most familiar with the weekly Sabbath when a day of worship and leisure is commanded. But the Law also mandated a “Sabbatical Year,” when crops could not be sown and the people were to live from the fruits of the earth. But after seven cycles of sabbatical years came the Jubilee in which all land returned to its original ownership, slaves had to be freed and debts remitted.
At root, all Sabbath practice testifies to God as the ultimate provider, and indeed the ultimate possessor. In the end, everything we have traces its origin to God’s work of creation. Even our capacity to work, to amass wealth, and to organize it fulfills what God gave. In the end, there is nothing we will not leave to His disposition. The command to practice Sabbath is the command to practice trust. Real leisure gets this point: if God has given, He will give. The truth of God’s nature gives work and worry, effort and excellence their true proportion.
Sadly, Sabbatarian rules have so often become a tool of religious oppression and a religious burden to be worked around. On the other hand, we could describe the whole ministry of Jesus as a restoration of Sabbath rest, as a practice, as an interior disposition, and as a life with God. The Sermon on the Mount offers the recipe for a Sabbath of the heart.
Since we try to ground the practice of our Parish in God’s Word, I ask what it means for us truly to keep a Jubilee. Naturally we would like to celebrate the achievements of the past and the strengths of the present. We seek, humanly enough, to build the morale and loyalty of our members. In the process we hope more of the world recognizes we are here with something to offer. But how much more potent will all this effort be if we but start with Leviticus 25.
A Jubilee will begin with us recognizing our Parish as a work of God in its origins and in its present. That means He gets the credit. This truth allows us to marvel at the providence that placed us in this neighborhood so rich in resources and so connected to the whole city. Ponder the buildings we inhabit, the art we pray with, the music that so often prays for us, and the people spirit-led to join us. We honor fifteen decades of gifts beyond expectation and devotion beyond deserving. Countless souls, lay, religious, and clerical have poured themselves into this part of Christ’s Body and concluded that they got more than they gave. Ours is the story of having what we could never pay for.
If this is true, then there is no room in our jubilee for entitlement, arrogance, or sense of superiority. The spirit of comparison would be alien to that of Jubilee. More fitting by far is to recognize the privilege of being gathered together into this wonderful work of His. To my dying day I will be amazed by the gift of my assignment to serve among you.
If we acknowledge God’s past goodness we will find the strength to open ourselves to the future. The God who gave will give. Of course, reflecting on the future of our church, or of any church, yields lots of worries. Reasonable enough! But the Resurrected Life of Jesus in us wins, and we do not let anxiety craft our policies, any more than we let defensiveness write our sermons. Instead, we tell others the story of His goodness and bet on it ourselves. In Jubilee we commend ourselves and each other to the Advent of His Kingdom, not foolishly, but because we see how much it has already come among us.
Our Jubilee gives us a vantage point upon past and future and then shows us ourselves as stewards of God’s unfolding work. What we celebrate is not the possession of a heritage, but the gift of a trust, to be received and handed on. It is here that we confront the Jubilee teaching about debt, this in several ways.
First, there is the debt of our failure in stewardship. The Sabbath rest of Jubilee days will never be complete, and openness to the future will always be qualified, if there is not first the acknowledgment of failures. Here I ponder calls not returned, questions not answered, needs not perceived, names forgotten, strangers not welcomed, resources wasted, appointments missed. I reflect on homilies below par, confessions heard with distraction, and chances for outreach blown. I remember benefactors and volunteers not acknowledged. Our parish like any institution, makes decisions that hurt people when they are not well thought out, and even when they are. Finally, in our case the work of the merger certainly caused pain to many. All of the above remains in my awareness and for my own contribution to our lapses I am most heartily sorry. But I also ask us to remember all of those who have ever been hurt or dis-edified among us, by any of us, over these many years. May God, who has been the true benefactor, prove the truest healer.
For a truly clear heart and happy Jubilee, we who ask mercy must give it. It will not surprise readers of the Bulletin to learn that those who minister (as clergy, staff, or volunteer) encounter from time to time the insensitive, the manipulative, the unappreciative, and the outrageous. It will be for us to take this chance to renew our undefended stance toward our service, trying to be open to all comers.
Pastors’ hearts break when parishioners do not get along. A Jubilee dream has those grudges disappearing as part of this amazing reset.
It comes as an extra gift that this Jubilee letter does not need to treat of financial debt. We are blessed to be debt free, having paid an outstanding obligation to the Archdiocese that came to light at the time of the merger. Further, our books show that no one is in debt to us.
Thanks for sticking with a long letter. This has been the “work” part of the Jubilee, but through these practices of acknowledgment we place ourselves in the stream of God’s goodness. This will make for an open face and an unaffected smile when the corks are popped. The God who gave will give.
“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5).
“An earthly father should resemble our Heavenly Father in kindness, rather than in severity.” – Verdi, Luisa Miller.
I send my Divine Mercy Sunday greetings from Rome, where I am participating with fellow Missionaries of Mercy from throughout the world (including Fr. John Devaney, o.p.) in a training session with our Holy Father Pope Francis to help us to become more effective instruments of God’s mercy in our work as confessors and preachers of divine mercy. It is proper to God to have mercy, and He shows His power most of all in being merciful and sparing us. Through His mercy, we are individually redeemed, but in a way that makes us “alive together with Christ.” We are saved not merely as individuals, but as members of the Church of God, the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ.
Over the past three years, I have been immensely privileged to be “alive together” with you while serving as Parochial Vicar at the Parish of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena. These three years of priestly service have been the occasion for so many moments of grace and communion, and I have been grateful to be along for the ride. To have the experience of celebrating baptisms, weddings, funerals–and every sacrament in between (save Holy Orders!)–has helped me to live out the gift of the priesthood in an affirming environment of life together in Christ. I am grateful to Fr. Walter and my Dominican brothers for their fraternal guidance and encouragement, to the staff and volunteers of our parish for their vital support, and to each of you for your patience and encouragement along the way. I am grateful to have been able to serve you and be with you, and I ask your
pardon for all my mistakes and faults, both those which I recall and those which my lack of self-knowledge has hidden from me. I ask for your prayers and mercy.
I recently learned from my Prior Provincial that I will be given a new assignment this summer. I will begin doctoral studies in liturgical theology at the University of Regensburg in Germany, where I will have the opportunity to work with a renowned liturgical scholar, Dr. Harald Buchinger. During the course of my doctoral studies, I will be living with the Dominican friars in Munich, where I will have the opportunity to continue to participate in pastoral ministry, assisting with Masses and confessions at the historic Theatinerkirche in central Munich. If you find yourself in Bavaria, please stop by! It would be a delight to show you our church, or to share a pint and a pretzel.
Our Provincial has assigned a wonderful young Dominican friar to join the parish staff as Parochial Vicar: Fr. Luke Hoyt, o.p. Fr. Luke was ordained in 2017 and spent the summer of 2017 working in the hospitals and assisting at our parish, so perhaps some of you have already met him. He will come to New York at the end of May, so we will have a month of overlap to compare notes before I depart at the end of June.
On Thursday, June 14, 2018, at 6 pm, I will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, thanking God for his many graces over these past three years. I hope you might be able to join us for that Mass and for a reception afterwards in the Lower Church.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Innocent Smith, O.P.