By Msgr. John Powis
New York Daily News
Wednesday, April 23rd 2008, 4:00 AM
The Pope's recent visit to New York highlighted the vibrancy of the Catholic Church. In a city where change is the only constant, the church's success has hinged on its ability to transform itself as a way to remain vital.
Over the nearly 50 years that I have been a priest in the Brooklyn Diocese, I have seen the four parishes in Bushwick where I was pastor have a weekly worship attendance between 1,500 and 2,000 people. This, for me, is just one indication of how vital the church is even in the city's poorest neighborhoods.
Catholic schools, while struggling financially, continue to provide excellent education to young people all over the city, and thousands of low-income families receive financial assistance to keep their children in these schools. The church also continues to provide a variety of social services through various Catholic Charities offices, including seminars to aid families affected by the subprime mortgage crisis; orchestrating new construction of low-income housing; building low-rent apartments for the elderly, and operating Head Start Centers for preschool children from low-income families. Recently, 18 Catholic churches in Brooklyn put together a powerful coalition to assure that all new construction along the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront includes a substantial amount of affordable housing. The church also offers legal assistance to immigrants through Catholic Migration offices. Vital work, indeed.
Despite its extraordinary record, the church faces real challenges, some of which were raised by Pope Benedict during his visit.
There was nothing more important for the Pope than his meeting with the victims who were sexually abused by priests. But Pope Benedict must go one step further. Bishops still in charge of a diocese who regularly transferred abusive priests from one parish to another should be asked to resign.
Also, the critical shortage of ordained Catholic priests is making the work load of the excellent priests we have almost unbearable. While the church must support priests who seek life-long celibacy, it is time to rethink the tradition that celibacy be mandatory for all priests. It should start by ordaining as priests some of the married, well-prepared deacons of the church. It might also be time for Rome to at least permit discussion once again on the question of woman serving as priests. There are now 4,000 functioning parishes in the country without a resident priest. [emphasis added]
Pope Benedict's visit brought attention to the problems of the church, but his visit also must serve as a reminder that the church continues to remain a powerful force in the city, where there are signs that a new kind of grass-roots religious coalition is developing - one that includes some Catholic churches, some non-Catholic congregations, some synagogues and some mosques. This coalition is organizing to reinvent the concept of church and to rebuild key sectors of the city.
If you look around Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, you can observe some of the early success the church and its partners have had, including 3,000 affordable single-family Nehemiah homes in East New York and Brownsville, Brooklyn; 1,500 more Nehemiah homes in construction along Flatlands Ave. in Brooklyn; two extremely successful high schools with the Department of Education in Bushwick; a program to keep tenants in their rent-regulated apartments; the John V. Lindsay Park on the lower East Side; the 1,000 additional Nehemiah homes in the South Bronx, and a campus of four public high schools being built that is sponsored by this coalition and the Department of Education in the South Bronx.
The Catholic Church is involved in all these efforts. But this new concept of churches, congregations, synagogues and mosques working together may actually be more in sync with the unified religious spirit of the 21st century. And this partnership is necessary if the church is to remain vibrant and vital to its parishioners.
Msgr. John Powis is the retired pastor at St. Barbara's Catholic Church and a leader of the East Brooklyn Congregations.