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Monday, March 29, 2010

The Traditional Latin Mass in South Philadelphia

A Burlap Church No More: Celebrating The Traditional Latin Mass In South Philadelphia

Sunday, March 28, 2010 (Published in The Weekly Press and The Philadelphia Bulletin)

This past Sunday I made my way through South Philadelphia to attend a Traditional High Solemn Latin Mass (TLM) at St. Paul’s Catholic Church at 10th and Christian Streets. The last TLM I attended was sometime between my 11th and 12th birthday. I’d grown up with the TLM, so its passing then was not a pleasant time for me. Though I was captivated then by the Second Vatican Council, I didn’t want the Council to do anything to the Mass, so when the changes began—it took about a year for the liturgical reformatting to take effect—I’d brace myself whenever I went to church. 

“What are they going to change this week?” I said to my parents.

Believe it or not, I’d stay awake at night and worry about what was happening to the Mass that I loved. Growing up, the nuns would tell us over and over how wonderful it was to be Catholic because no matter where you went in the world—from China to the South Pole—the Roman Mass would always be the same. They kept repeating that refrain as if it was the selling point of Catholicism, as if it was the one reason why the whole world should become Catholic.

With the passing of the TLM, I disappeared into the secular world for a few years, wearing my agnosticism on my sleeve like all good party members, carrying a book of Sartre in my knapsack. Cynical, know-it-all youth-- that was me, us, everybody; even the way “we” flipped our long hair when we talked told the world that we knew everything and had it all figured out. But over time, especially on Sunday mornings, whether in Cambridge, Baltimore, or Colorado, I’d think of the Grand Lady of Liturgical Ceremonies, the Mass of all Ages, and a strange feeling of peace and comfort would come over me. I’d wonder how “she” was doing, now that she’d been brought up to date and given a new lease on life.

So I walked into a Catholic church one day. It was a modern church in the round, one of those theater churches, and around the bare altar in the center of the circle were burlap banners. I looked in vein for statues, pictures, crucifixes, anything from the not-so-old days, but all I saw were more burlap banners.

I went home and wrote a story, The Church of Burlap, and convinced myself that it was just as well that I’d taken another direction because this wasn’t the sort of thing that I could tolerate for long.

“Good-bye Church,” I said. “You were pretty once upon a time, but something happened…” 

Years passed, and I ventured back, always trying to find something about the new liturgy to love, my eyes scanning the scene for something to value, hoping to be won over, to be convinced, to be converted. Again and again I’d leave disappointed, wondering how and why it all happened.

But then something did happen. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a Latin Mass motu proprio, allowing Catholic priests to celebrate the TLM anytime and anywhere they wanted without the permission from bishops. This was good news, because bishops—modernist bishops anyway—were the problem. Previously a priest had to request permission from his bishop to say the TLM, a cumbersome process that often got bogged down in webs of delay, obfuscation and sometimes outright rejection.

“That Mass is not the current form,” these bishops would say, as if the Grand Old Lady herself, the Mass of the Saints and Tradition, had somehow become heretical or suspect or was somehow an occasion of sin. Ah, yes, the modernist bishops were certainly unique, with their miniature miters and potato sack vestments; they seemed to go hand-in-hand with the secularized nuns in pant suits and fem-Nazi hair.

The Catholic Church has survived greater disasters, such as the iconoclastic controversy and the Arian heresy in the 3rd century. When you’re 2,000 years old, you’ve seen it all.

Things did begin to change, and they are changing now.

When I walked into St. Paul’s I noticed the quiet that precedes a TLM. It’s Quaker Meeting House quiet, not the gabfest that precedes many Novus Ordo Masses in some churches. (Speaking of quiet, a friend of mine, a sometime communicant of Saint Agatha and Saint James at 37th and Chestnut Street, tells me that before and after Sunday Masses there the congregation literally goes wild with talk and ‘shout outs’ to friends. He says he’s considering not going to that parish anymore because of the noise). When Fr. Gerald Carey, in traditional Fiddleback vestments, entered the sanctuary with acolytes carrying candles for the traditional Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, the time machine in my head did double flips. Then the Latin hymns started up and out came the incense. I felt the peace that I’d felt so long ago—yes, the transcendent lift started to take hold. 

The TLM has been a 12 Noon staple at St. Paul’s now for several months, and Fr. Carey tells me that on good days he gets as many as 120 people. I counted about 110 people of different ages. There were also about eight to ten young acolytes serving at the altar. 

“The Traditional Latin Mass has had a slow comeback,” he says. “But it’s always been part of the heart of the Church, but I think that the Holy Father would like it to be even more so, maybe because of the ways in which the Ordinary Form of the Mass has been handled.”

Fr. Carey is much more respectful of the Novus Ordo Mass than I tend to be (the NO Mass is also offered at St. Paul’s), but it’s easy to see that he feels passionately about the TLM. As they say in show business, he’s a natural at it. The morning I attended most of the people sat towards the back of the church as if to “read” the stand/kneel/sit cues of the people in front. A sturdy pamphlet, Saint Paul’s Mass Book for the Traditional Latin Mass, is distributed to all congregants. The pamphlets allow congregants to read the English translation while being “lifted” by the music and chants. 

Everything in the TLM seems focused on God, on the mystery of sacrifice that the Mass purports to be, since both priest and people face the same direction. I found myself relieved on several occasions that this was a far less “talky” Mass than exists throughout all of Center City. This was less a Mass about “instruction,” handshaking and creating a theater-style reception atmosphere than it was about a “surgical” focus on what happened in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

Although Father Carey may not like me saying this, there’s no comparison between the two Masses. The Extraordinary Form is Mozart, while the Ordinary Form is definitely bottom shelf Insane Clown Posse. 

“All the Italians in this area of South Philly are now in New Jersey in Washington Township,” Father Carey said. “We really don’t have a big Catholic community like we used to have, years ago.”

Years ago, when there was a large Catholic community here, St Paul’s would offer 8 Masses on a Sunday. The parish was about to eliminate the 12 Noon Mass when Fr. Carey brought in the TLM at that time. 

Because St. Paul’s is the only Catholic church near Center City with a TLM, people travel from Drexel Hill, Bensalem and Port Richmond to attend each Sunday. News (and popularity) of the Mass has also attracted former parishioners of St Clement’s Anglo Catholic in Center City, and congregants from Saint Jude’s SSPX chapel in Eddystone, Pa. 

Fr. Carey cares for two South Philadelphia churches, the Church of Saint Mary Magdalen of Pazzi as well as St. Paul’s. On Palm Sunday, March 28, there will be a blessing and distribution of palms at 12 Noon at St. Mary Magdalen’s, and then a procession through the streets to St. Paul’s for the 12:30 Solemn High Traditional Latin Mass.

It promises to be a stunner. 

With the Italian market around the corner, and cafes down the street, this event seems like the ideal way to prepare for Holy Week and Easter. 

Although Father Carey thinks that the Latin Mass motu proprio should have happened in the 1970s, he’s very grateful that the “Mass of the Ages” is finally making a serious comeback. “There are still Catholics who walk in here during the 12 Noon Mass and think that a UFO landed on them,” he says. “There are young Catholics in their 20s who have no idea that we used to receive communion kneeling at altar rails. Some don’t even know what a Latin Mass is. They’ll say, ‘What’s that?’ Some will walk in off the street, see this Mass, and be in a state of shock. One person asked, ‘Is this a private affair?’”

Father Carey says that when he distributes communion —there are no lay Eucharistic ministers in the Extraordinary Form—he sometimes sees people crying as they kneel at the altar rail. (Pope Paul VI was against communion in the hand).

When the Mass ended about an hour and fifteen minutes after it had begun, I was
feeling pretty good. In fact, I was feeling so good that I walked into Center City before heading into Starbucks for coffee (and some reflection), and then Macy’s to window shop. In Macy’s, I encountered a Roman priest in a wheelchair. 

“Are you a Catholic priest?” I gently inquired.

The priest nodded his head and waited to hear what I had to say.

“Father, I’ve just been to the most beautiful Traditional Latin Mass at St. Paul’s in South Philadelphia. It was a work of art. It was beautiful--I am thoroughly won over. Why did they ever change that Mass?”

“Don’t ask me,” he said, “I’m a traditionalist….I already know it’s a beautiful thing. Yes it is!”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI

Hardly a day goes by without another rash of (Catholic Church) sex abuse cases flooding the news. It’s a disquieting development. The large number of cases recently reported from Ireland was bad enough, but then came Germany and Brazil.

I feel sorry for Pope Benedict XVI. He no sooner gets through apologizing to one group (the people of Ireland), before another case erupts. A recent New York Times report on the situation gave extensive coverage to the Pope’s apology to the people of Ireland, but then seem to ask the question: Can’t the pope do anything but apologize?

To me it seemed like The Times was suggesting that the Pope do something melodramatic, like “solidify” his apology with an offer to sell half the Vatican and then give the money to the families of the abused teenagers, or go out personally as an apostolic vigilante to help “arrest” other offending priests. Perhaps The Times wanted the pope to publicly flagellate himself after a Mass at St. Peter’s.

Verbal apologies, it seems to me, don’t mean much to people these days. When Tiger Woods apologized to his fans and business partners for his reckless personal behavior (an apology to his wife would have been sufficient) his fan rating went down. “It wasn’t enough,” many people said. “We want more.” Well, what did people want Tiger to do-- chop off a hand or undergo castration to prove that he was truly sorry?

I wish the editors of The Times had come out and said what they want the pope to do rather than complain that he isn’t doing enough. After all, the sex abuse cases we are hearing about now happened 20, 30 and 40 years ago, well before this pontiff’s reign, and years before Catholic seminaries had classes in human sexuality or psychological testing prior to admission. The vast majority of abuser priests in the news today were admitted to the seminary immediately after high school. This was the age when the Church cultivated young vocations by canvassing parochial schools and encouraging 7th and 8th grade boys to become priests.

I know this to be the case because I was there. In my own Catholic grade school in Chester County not a month went by when the nuns didn’t invite members of different religious orders to “lecture” the boys. The idea was to get us to sign up after the 8th grade. The push-- the pressure—to sign up was tremendous. In fact, I was set to enroll but because I couldn’t decide which order to join, I procrastinated and eventually lost interest.

In those days, one simply entered the seminary after grammar school without any experience in intimate human relationships. Today’s average seminarian is in his late 20s or 30s, an age when the applicant has probably experienced something of “life.”

In contrast to other cities in the United States, Philadelphia has done a pretty good job handling clergy sex abuse cases. The Archdiocesan Website even has a Web page devoted to lists of priests who have been accused and removed from duty. Another thing: Catholics in the riverwards, as far as I can tell, seem to have a healthy perspective on the scandal. They have not deserted their parishes because of a few bad apples, and they certainly don’t go around calling out to random priests they see on the street—“Hey, you abuser, you!” such as I have witnessed in New York City.

The world was a different place 20, 30 or 40 years ago, meaning that the way the Church handled priests accused of abuse—by moving them from parish to parish after a therapeutic slap on the wrist and forced solitary prayer—was not considered abnormal treatment. Serious study on sexual abuse did not begin until the early 1980s, but before that few knew that slapping an abuser on the wrist, or telling him to take a month-long cold shower, would not do the trick. In today’s world, of course, we know that abusers suffer from a chronic condition similar to drug addiction, and that “one stop” treatments do not work.

It might help to remember that 40 years ago it was a common practice for psychotherapists to have sexual affairs with their patients, something that is considered highly unethical today. Today such behavior would be grounds for a suspension of the psychotherapist’s license. But 40 years ago, few people cared.
While all clergy abusers, both Catholic and non-Catholic, need to be dealt with fairly, the media also has responsibilities. First, it needs to bone up on the definition of pedophile and ephebophile. The term ‘pedophile’ priest is in most cases inaccurate, since pedophile strictly means a prepubescent child, while ephebophile refers to teenagers. The vast majority of abuser priests were involved with teenagers, so they are not strictly speaking, pedophiles.

Happily, I suspect that we have seen the last wave of clergy abuse cases now emerging from Germany and Brazil. But this “quieting down” won’t be because the Latin Rite will abolish celibacy or anything like that—after all, married men, in the secular world, constitute the bulk of molesters—but it will be because there’s been a closer look at seminarians and less of a PR drive to sign up just “any” boy who wants to wear a Roman collar.

Thom Nickels

Saturday, March 20, 2010

My Visit with Composer George Crumb and his Famous Actress/Singer Daughter, Ann Crumb

A lengthy interview with Ann Crumb will be published in a future issue of ICON Magazine. Here we see George Crumb at work.

My Visit with Composer George Crumb and his Famous Actress/Singer Daughter, Ann Crumb

A lengthy interview with Ann Crumb will be published in a future issue of ICON Magazine.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Just Your Normal Little Home Invasion

The recent rash of home invasions in the Northern Liberties area made me value my home’s new front door. The steel-enforced door with its wide angle viewer peep hole offers a view of the street that’s a lot like looking through a fun house mirror. People standing in front of my house appear closer than they really are, so the peep hole acts as a pair of binoculars. Faces appear somewhat misshapen but someone standing up close to the door, directly in front of the hidden peep, gets full X-ray exposure: I can literally count every pore and blemish on their face.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, eager Mormon missionaries, and door-to-door Verizon FIOS salespeople all get their Cecil B. DeMille close-up when they come knocking. Of course, a peep hole is no guarantee that your home won’t be invaded. If you see a face that looks “nice,” you’re still likely to be fooled, since the devil often comes disguised as an angel.

Home invasions are not funny occurrences by any means, and I wouldn’t want to minimize their seriousness—in fact, I can think of nothing more terrifying than being told to lay face down on the floor with your hands tied behind your back, and to “wait.”

This is why the two “men” responsible for the recent Northern Liberties home invasions need to be apprehended.

If you’re wondering why I put the word men in quotation marks, listen up: In surveillance camera photos of the suspects’ one can see that one of them looks very much like a woman. This is more than a casual resemblance. Everything about the formation of the eyes and the eyebrows on this person is definitely feminine. In discussing this fact with a friend, we both agreed that the news media should play this up by fixating on the fact that one of the suspects is a) either a woman, or b) a petite pretty man who looks like a woman. Why is this important? Well, given the aggressively masculine character of most street thugs, such a comparison would irritate the thug no end, since that mindset often considers “injuries” to one’s masculinity as the “crime of crimes,” certainly way above real injuries they might inflict on innocent people during the course of a home invasion.

Being labeled “the Hermaphrodite Duo” might then cramp their style and cause them to get caught sooner than they’d be caught otherwise. As they say in old crime dramas: whatever it takes…

While I have great faith in my peep hole, I’m not so sure about con artists who might appear at the front door as “angels.”

Not too long ago, as a seller of some items on Craig’s List, I invited someone into my home as a prospective buyer. He was to pick up a number of art works I was selling. Instead of completing the sale this person demanded my wallet, and then, when the $30 that I handed him wasn’t enough, forced me to give him my debit card and password.

“I only need $100.00,” he said, trying not to appear greedy. “I won’t take anymore. I’ll bring the card back and show you the ATM receipt.”

“Why don’t I just write you a check,” I said, throwing in another layer of absurdity.

“You can cancel a check,” he said, apparently forgetting that one can also call the bank and cancel a debit card. “How would you like your cat thrown out of my car along I-95?” he added, getting tough.

Classy guy, I thought, wondering how much crack had acidified his brain.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said, handing him a recently cancelled debit card from the back of my wallet, “Take the damn thing, withdraw the money, but leave the cat alone.”

It never hurts to exaggerate nervousness in situations like this (those old college acting classes come in handy), and so I let my hand shake as I wrote out the bogus password to the dead card.

Had I been a Clint Eastwood type I suppose I would have hit him on the head with a kitchen spatula, but fights like that only tend to ruin furniture and break glass. Dead heroes may get great eulogies, but they’re still dead.

The minute the invited invader left I called the police. Sweet justice, I thought, but no—I was about to receive another shock. Because I had invited the invader into my house rather than being the victim of a forced entry, there was some question as to whether I could press charges. Further communications with the local Police District also proved futile.

What’s even stranger is that recently this same invader telephoned me after months of no contact and wanted to know if I had anything more to sell.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Philadelphia Sin Tax on Soda

Warm weather days are coming, and those frosty Big Gulp sodas are going to cost you if Mayor Nutter gets his way. The mayor’s proposed 2 cent per ounce tax on all sugared sodas, iced tea and chocolate milk drinks, means that the cost of a small can of soda will go up 32 cents. The price of a 2-liter bottle will increase by $1.35.

This means that even during those big sales when ten 2 liter bottles of Pepsi or Coke go for $10.00, with the Nutter tax you’ll wind up paying $23.00 for 10 bottles of soda.

A fair bottle of champage costs $23.00, and so does three small bottles of wine.

The mayor’s answer to the City’s current 150 million dollar deficit is to tax the already struggling consumer. But the madness doesn’t stop at soft drinks. In an even more twisted proposal from Nutterville, the mayor wants to impose a trash collection fee of $300.00 per household-- this despite the fact that city taxes already cover trash costs. The additional $300, then, is really a just an increase in property taxes.

The big question now is: Will City Council let the mayor get away with it? Not only that, will Council realize that it’s not the average Philadelphian’s fault that the city is 150 million dollars in the hole? After all, did the average Philadelphian create the budget deficit? Put the blame on the financial managers in City Hall, the “movers and shakers” of the city’s money. It’s not just to impose a huge tax burden on Philadelphians in the middle of a depression.

The humane thing to do in a depression, of course, is to cut costs, not raise them.

Many have asked, if the soda tax goes through, what’s next? Will there be a tax on doughnuts and bagels? Or how about taxing cheese steaks and hoagies, and putting a triple-whammy levy on French fries? The mayor could also work with Septa to get transpiration rates raised so high ($5.00 a ride) that Philadelphians would be forced to walk off its obesity problem.

Legislators across the nation are using the nation’s obesity problem as the reason for instituting a soda tax. Soda taxes are the current rage, even though poor people constitute most of the nation’s soda drinkers. Philadelphia already has some of the highest taxes in the nation. An increased tax burden will likely cause many people to leave the city, creating an even bigger deficit for future mayors.
Antifat Yale psychologist Kelly Brownell believes that junk food junkies should be hit where it hurts—in their wallets. “I recommend we develop a militant attitude about the toxic food environment, like we have about tobacco,” he’s on record as saying. Brownell wants to ban all high calorie foods and all kinds of sodas from schools. Several years ago Big Brother Brownell suggested federal legislation to tax all unhealthy foods. The so called “Twinkie Tax” never became law.

Brownell has his allies. William Dietz of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) says a soft drink tax would be “the single most effective measure to reverse the obesity epidemic.”

That’s not true. There are lots of food items that lead people to put on extra pounds, from potato chips to Dunkin Donuts.

The proposed tax, if approved by City Council, will not be collected as a sales tax but as a business privilege tax. The mayor wants it this way because to do a straight sales tax would mean his plan would have to get approval from the state legislature. In the end, retailers would be responsible for raising store prices across the board to compensate for the loss.

While sugared soft drinks are bad for you—the sugar composition in soda is 33% higher than in cookies and ice cream, according to the CDC —that doesn’t mean that the soda tax in Philadelphia has to be ten times the amount of the soda tax in Chicago, or thirty-five times Pennsylvania’s beer tax.

Visit any WAWA early in the morning and you will see as many people around the Big Gulp soda machine as hover around the coffee counter. Drinking soda with breakfast, in my book, is insanity and déclassé, but darn if I’m going to get up on a soap box and convince Big Gulpers that coffee goes so much better with breakfast than that cold sugary stuff.

You can’t force people to change their taste buds.

By the same token, as Philadelphia writer Buzz Bissinger noted, you can offer suggestions. “I have a novel solution for those who are fat,” Bissinger says. “Put less in your mouth.”

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ban Pit Bulls from City Neighborhoods

The recent death of Fishtown (Philadelphia) resident Christine Staab, caused when a six-year old family pet, Jade, a pit bull, attacked her during a family argument, confirmed for me that pit bulls are dangerous and have no place in the home. Although the “value” of the pit bull is defended by many in our doggy-centric world, the death of Staab convinces me that all urban pit bull owners, if a city-wide ban is ever enacted, should be required to purchase special insurance against attacks on strangers or other dogs.

Pit bull bans are now cropping up all around the country. From Massachusetts to California, towns and municipalities are weighing options to ban pit bulls and other vicious dogs from being sold or bred. Recently, Pit bulls, Dobermans and Rottweilers were banned in New York City housing projects. The sponsor of the bill, Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Queens), said, “Finally someone is realizing that potentially dangerous animals have no place in a confined urban space.”

New York City animal rights activists are up in arms about the ban. Pit bulls, they say, are just like any other dog. If a pit bull is raised in a peaceful environment, it will be kind and gentle. If a pit bull turns into a killer, blame the owner.
But judging from the number of pit bull attacks reported nationwide, it would seem that most people who have pit bulls do not raise them in a peaceful environment. In New York City and in some parts of Philadelphia, for instance, it’s not uncommon to see thug types parading their pit bulls around in large spike collars. The obvious message here seems to be: “My dogs are my muscle. We are both bullies. Beware!”

Katherine Houpt, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell, writes in her book, Domestic Animal Behavior, “Different breeds have genetic predispositions to certain kinds of behavior, though that can be influenced by how they are raised. The pit bull is an innately aggressive breed, often raised by someone who wants an aggressive dog, so they’re going to encourage it.”

In other words, overly aggressive people tend to love overly aggressive dogs. In my book, that’s a recipe for a fight.

The pit bull is descended from the old English bulldogge, a staple in early 19th century dog fights. The Victorians put an end to bloody bull fights in the 1830s, but breeders went on to engineer a cross between the bulldogge and one of the powerful terriers of the day. This produced a smaller dog, an ideal candidate for organized dog fights both in the United States and England. The new breeds, called the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier (England), have very high pain thresholds. It has also been noted that these dogs can withstand longer and harder fights than almost any other dog.

“Pit bulls are junkies,” says the science writer for [England’s] The Economist. “Most dogs beaten in a fight will submit the next time they see the victor. Not a defeated pit bull, who will tear into his onetime opponent. The dogs may be junkies, seeking pain so they can get the endorphin buzz they crave.”

A pit bull, after all, doesn’t bark or growl before it attacks. It just springs into action. In yet another schizophrenic twist, the pit bull can be marvelously playful one moment (kiss! kiss!) and then, for no apparent reason, pounce and kill.

The Staab household, according to news reports, had a total of 6 pit bulls. While just having one pit bull would be an issue for most people, owning six pit bulls, to me, definitely threatens a neighborhood’s quality of life.

Owning six pit bulls should be against the law. Owning one pit bull in the city should be as hard to do as owning a donkey or an orangutan.

What was most shocking to me after Staab’s death were news reports of the incident in which different reporters came to the defense of pit bulls, as if trying to ward off potential criticism from animal rights activists, or “be nice” to diehard pit bull lovers. Once again, readers were subject to the myths and lies about pit bulls: that they are cute dogs if raised properly, and that they are just the same as any other dog.

Wrong-- they are about as much like any other dog as I am like the moon.

Thom Nickels