Thursday, August 7, 2008


A few weeks ago I went to the closing of a Catholic church on the south side of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It was a church I had gone to for several years; but so long ago that only two of the people in attendance were known to me. They were old, as I have become myself. (Being inside myself, and feeling relatively good, I don't generally think of myself as old. I have to have the shock of beholding my contemporaries decked in the frost of impending mortality to grasp my own situation.)
If time was running out for us that morning , time had come to a stop for St. Joseph's Catholic Church. I sat in the soft gold light of the sanctuary, among the weeping people and their carefree, or sometimes puzzled, children and grandchildren. Over the years I have become fairly adept at suppressing my own feelings--certainly never letting them come to tears if I could help it. But I nearly lost it when one of the bells overhead tolled just once, a soft baritone "boom" in its own memory. (The economy being what it is, it is hard to imagine any other future for this church's magnificent bells than a future as scrap metal.)
St. Joseph's was built 95 years ago, during a time when the Church Universal was markedly NOT the Church Universal--as, indeed, it still is not. The early 20th century was, however, a time when the Catholics of Central Europe, and their offspring in Bethlehem and other immigrant communities, emphatically did NOT want to worship together.
So, many ethnic Catholic churches were built. Magnificent Romanesque-style St. Joseph's was designed to serve Bethlehem's Slovenian Catholic population. (The Slovenians were once disparagingly called the Windish; but not any more. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia resulted in Slovenia's gaining its national independence, which no doubt has helped its people gain greater respect among their neighbors everywhere.)
The Slovenian Catholic church here was not the only one to close July 13. Parishioners also bade farewell to St. John Capistrano (Hungarian), St. Stanislaus (Polish), and Our Lady of Pompeii (Holy Rosary). The former Ss. Cyril and Methodius, which had been Slovak, became the Church of Our Lord's Holy Incarnation.
The bitterness engendered by the church closings is not likely to go away soon, alas. Someday we may see the Church Universal among us; but not yet.

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