Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

July 16, 2008


CATHOLICS IN NEW YORK, 1808-1946 is an exhibition theme at the Museum of the City of New York. It will continue until December 31, 2008. Concurrently a series of panel discussions is being held, the first of which, "Growing Up Catholic" was held last night. Panel members discussed how a Catholic childhood shaped their identities and their work. Here is something of what was said. I did not take notes and apologize if I in any way erroneously mischaracterize the views of the participants.

JIM DWYER (NYTimes columnist) spoke of living on East 96th Street. He attended St. Ignatius School some thirteen blocks to the south. This became a center for his educational, sacramental, and athletic activities. He found Holy Week services impressive, the passage of Jesus from Palm Sunday to Easter, the purple veiling of the statues, and the brilliance of the Easter "Gloria". He was influenced by the striving for perfection that marked the Jesuits.

MARY GORDON (author) had a Catholic upbringing, remembering her First Communion and the concern of some as what type of pocketbook was the gift for the occasion. She told how she was turned off by the constant focus on chastity and concern for sexual purity. She felt that she and her fellows were vulnerable politically and this was taken advantage of by the Church in advancing political issues, especially in the time of the Cold War. The two individuals who stood out in her memory were Cardinal Spellman, "a piece of work", she said, and Bishop Sheen. She did not care for the political understanding that Spellman had of his role. About Bishop Sheen, she recalled his writing on the blackboard - "What he wrote was meaningless to me", she said. "I only sensed he was writing something and then he swished out." She said that her father being Jewish, Good Friday cast a somber mood on her household. Curiously, one of my colleagues here at the retirement residence said that her father was a convert and became a strong public voice for Catholicism. All this apparently after her childhood. My colleague knew Mary Gordon as a parishioner at St. Joseph's of Yorkville, where she attended Mass.

OSCAR HIJUELOS (author) found the religious influence in his life coming from his mother. He found that for him religion was something of the heart and the emotions, considering himself "a lapsed or collapsed Catholic" with one foot remaining in the camp.

TIM REIDY (journalist, editor) experienced a throughly Catholic education but this was followed by Princeton University, with a broadening of intellectual boundaries. Formerly with "Commonweal" and now with "America", he thought that it important that there be "an alternative voice" in church, not faith, issues.

MAUREEN WALTERS (author) was difficult to hear because of microphone problems. She was outspoken about women's place in society and in church. She felt that the church
was currently even further reducing the status of women in its affairs.

Some panelists commented on growing up in a rather closed world that only opened up in later life. One said she had never spoken to a non-Catholic until much later than childhood. One said that the Church had had a bad, I think she said "evil", effect in its preoccupation and teaching on sex. She said preaching on sex should be put off "for a hundred years".

In a well-handled discussion period, several very positive views were presented about Catholic upbringing. I made the observation, that although much older than the panelists, I found my Catholic identity, at least from highschool on, heavily influenced by the articulation of faith in writings, poetry, and art generally, giving as examples GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson and a host of French thinkers and writers like Jacques Maritan, Francois Mauriac, Leon Bloy, and Paul Claudel. Mary Gorden responded that those named were great figures of another time, but their like were not readily found at present. My experience did not appear to have been their's.

About two hundred persons were in attendance, a preponderance of them, women. It was a pleasure to meet at this event a number of my former parishioners from St. Joseph's of Yorkville and Epiphany. Observations from readers of this blog about the formation of their Catholic identity would be most welcome.