September 30th, 2017
St. Patrick’s Cathedral is an impressive structure, taking up an entire city block. Its neo-gothic architecture and soaring spires are worth seeing. However, it might not be worth going to Mass there.
While Jules, Tracy, Rose, Karin, and I were finishing up our Soviet-style lunch at the Ukrainian restaurant, Jules suggested that we all go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and take in one of the seven Masses that they celebrate every day. Karin had shown interest in visiting St. Patrick’s, and Jules had initially thought Karin and I would make the excursion on our own the following day, a Sunday. However, since we were already within subway range of the cathedral, and it was kind of on our way back to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, he reconsidered and thought that we might as well check out the church after we were done eating. Everybody agreed with the revised plan.
Jules was raised Jewish, but he is currently a secular humanist, so I don’t think that he was expecting to receive any kind of religious epiphany during the service in the cathedral. He was going there as a favor to us, and we are grateful for that. Tracy, according to Jules, is some flavor of Protestant, so I don’t think she was expecting much either. Rose is Catholic. Karin was raised Lutheran, but converted to Catholicism sixteen years ago. I am a cradle Catholic with strong Buddhist tendencies. We were a rather odd group to be attending Mass at St. Patrick’s.
I think we entered the church off of Madison Avenue. There were plenty of tourists in the cathedral, besides us. There was also a wedding going on. We sat down in a side pew to watch. It seemed strange for people to have a wedding while being surrounded by milling crowds of strangers on the periphery of the event. I asked Jules how much it would cost to have a wedding there.
He said drily, “More than you can afford.”
Once the wedding was over, preparations for the next Mass began. I was intrigued by the ushers. They had professional ushers there. The man on our side of the church was over six feet tall, and probably tipped the scales at 300 lbs. or more. The ushers all dressed like characters from “Men in Black”. They had ear pieces like the Secret Service agents. The guy on our end looked more like a bouncer than anything else.
There were also cops in the church, officers from the anti-terrorist team. They made the liturgy slightly less spiritual than it might have been. Perhaps the police were necessary as a safety measure, but they made everything a bit less friendly.
The Mass itself was celebrated in a professional manner. It was technically perfect, but somehow soulless. The church was crowded, but there was no sense of community at all. We were surrounded by strangers, who seemed quite content to remain strangers. The Mass is supposed to provide a sense of connectedness. At some level, the participants should all feel like members of the Body of Christ. It wasn’t like that in the cathedral.
At one point, just prior to the beginning of the service, Rose remarked to me,
“I couldn’t believe that right at the entrance to the church there were vending machines.”
“Yeah, there were these vending machines where you could get a commemorative Padre Pio coin.”
I told her, “That’s the sort of thing that started the Reformation.”
I left the Mass feeling underwhelmed. It had felt more like a tourist attraction than a religious event.
The next morning Karin and I went to Mass again, but this time we went to St. John the Evangelist Church, just a couple blocks away from Jules’ house. Bergenfield has a large Filipino population, so many of the pews were filled with members of that community. There were also quite a few whites and Latinos. The church was full, like St. Patrick’s had been. However, in this church it felt like the people belonged together. People interacted with each other. People sang. People cared.
At St John’s we were at a Mass. I’m not entirely sure that we were at St. Patrick’s.