Faith in the Streets of Astoria

There is a curious quality of inwardness about the Christian Faith. At one of the seminars that I attended in Jerusalem during my Sabbatical, one of the speakers who was of the Jewish Faith said something like: “We, Jews, understand what Muslims are up to in their faith. They create social structures to live what they believe. But we still cannot understand Christians. For Christianity seems to be all about what happens in the soul.”

The need for a more inward and authentic faith is not new in Christianity. One can see this quest in the ministry of the Hebrew Prophets. Seeing people go through the motions of a kind of social faith (the externals of cultic worship and the compliance to outward shows of faith) Isaiah, Jeremiah and the other prophets kept calling the Jewish people to “rend your hearts and not your garments”.

Jesus spoke to the people of His time from this same tradition. He called the Pharisees “Whitened sepulchers” because they seemed to be faithful on the outside but were unfaithful in their hearts.

This tension is probably true in all religions. We go through the motions but our hearts are far from our words. Just think of how often we receive the Lord in the Eucharist with not even a glimmer of the awe necessary before this great mystery!

Much of the Protestant reformation had to do with getting rid of the externals (incense, candles, statues, feast days etc.) in order that we could center on the basics. Think of the difference between a Catholic Church building with its statues, stained glass windows, smells and bells and a simple Baptist Church with its whitewashed walls and stark Cross and pulpit. The reformation was a call to a more basic and internal faith. It looked down on outward manifestations of that faith.

So in Protestant theology we see the results of a second interiorization of the Christian Faith. Externals are not only unimportant in this context but they are actually discouraged and considered a throwback to more pagan times.

Now one may ask at this point what does this all have to do with our parish here in Astoria?  Well, to put it purely geographically, Astoria is in the United States and the United States was conceived as a nation by Protestant Christians (with some minor help from Catholics and Jews). So that culturally we have inherited this desire for interiorization and its disdain for outward shows of faith.

Now we can begin to understand why it goes against the preferences of many Catholics to engage in outward displays of faith like a procession through the streets of Astoria carrying a statue of Our Blessed Lady. At best, many American Christians would consider this display unnecessary and archaic but at worst would see it as Idolatry and superstitious nonsense that will actually turn off more people than it attracts.

Yet we process anyway. We process because the Catholic system is at the most basic an incarnational one. We need to make real through behavior what is at the base of things a spiritual and non-corporeal reality. This is the very basis of art. The artist incarnates (brings into visible or audible reality what is in his mind and heart). As Catholic Christians we believe that we are artists of the Spirit. We try to bring forth from our very souls the essence of what we worship and believe. So we love the Mother of the Lord. We use statues and incense and walking together to express our common experience of filial devotion. There is nothing bad about that. In fact it is quite beautiful. It often (when it is genuine and not simply an empty display) attracts people to the faith that is otherwise difficult to communicate.

This happened once to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. While she was a married woman and a mother she went with her family to Italy and witnessed a Corpus Christi procession through the streets of the town she was staying in. She was so impressed by the devotion of the people before the Blessed Sacrament that she decided then and there to become a Catholic. The incarnational aspect of the procession as it expressed the faith of the people touched her in a way that would not be possible otherwise.

But the key point is that the internal movement must be authentic in order that the external display may also be true and not hypocritical. The internalization of virtue must happen first so that the external act may give glory to God.

May God make our procession to the Holy Door of Mercy really an expression of our deep internal conversion of heart.

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