It was a Sunday in late January. It was my first visit to New York and I was staying with a buddy at his place near Brooklyn College. The sky was waxing purple with sunset, and a day that had included pizza (which fell on my pants), a boat ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan (invigorating), and violin music in Central Park (awesome) was finally winding down.
We stepped out of Central Park, shivering a bit now that temperatures had tumbled from the fifties to the thirties, and walked twenty-five blocks down Fifth Avenue. First we passed foreign consulates; then we passed shops that looked like they would have gladly accepted my yearly salary in return for exactly one shoe. We crossed left at 51st, squeezed in under a scaffolding, and entered St. Patrick’s Cathedral just in time for 5:30 Mass.
I’m shy. I wanted to sit in the back somewhere. My buddy is not shy. He dragged me to the front pew, which was miraculously still empty at 5:29. We claimed it. A gilded altar canopy, studded with tiny heraldic emblems, loomed directly ahead.
A few feet away, I saw the spot where Robert F. Kennedy lay in repose in 1968. A few more feet in another direction, and there sat the throne of the archbishop of New York. And, way off to one side, I saw a flat-screen TV playing an endless loop of digitized cathedral photos for the benefit of wandering turisti.
The young, green-clad priest preached about Christian marriage. He said that Christ had changed marriage into something better than it was before he came. He said most married people needed to have more children. He said fruitful marriages were the nuclei of the social order, which would collapse without them. I wanted to raise my hand and remind him that Jesus, unmarried, had wandered from his nuclear family, who thought he was insane, to travel around with at least twelve other guys and a bunch of women to whom they were not attached.
Still, I was expecting this kind of homily. We were in Cardinal Dolan’s house. The Gospel was the wedding at Cana. It was Respect Life Sunday.
The part that threw me was the rock-climbing.
Father said that in his wedding sermons he enjoyed comparing marriage to extreme sports. I raised my eyebrows. Father, with his carefully parted hair and painstakingly modulated voice, did not immediately strike me as an extreme sports kind of guy. Specifically, he said he preferred the image of rock-climbing. It’s strenuous work, you’re tied together for safety, the view at the top is great, etc.
Here I began to cringe. Over the years I’ve endured the facile and occasionally dreadful metaphors of many clergymen: the spiritual life is like a basketball game, and priests are our coaches. Mass is like a wake, so we dress up for the dearly departed relative. God’s love is like a fire hose, a dump truck, and Niagara Falls all at once. I could go on.
But what I mainly noticed about today’s several-minute digression was that Father never slipped into a reverie about personally rappelling off the face of a cliff or gazing down from a summit. His bullet points, written on a sheet he kept glancing at for reminders, very much came across as a list of things he had looked up, or been told, about rock-climbing. In other words, the priest was teaching authoritatively about intimacies he didn’t have in terms of extreme sports he evidently didn’t engage in.
My buddy and I had spent much of the weekend discussing complicated relationships from hard experience, so we felt very put off. After Mass we retired to a restaurant that, according to a sign sitting on the table next to the Parmesan cheese, had once been patronized by the mobster Lucky Luciano. In between mouthfuls of pasta, we wondered what it would mean for our generation and its religious discontents if such priests continued to multiply, to become men of trust who are assigned to cathedrals.
My fellow CTA 20/30 member, Kate Childs Graham, recently published an excellent NCR column. It collects hopes young adults have for the next pope. Personally, I fantasize about a pope who, in collegiality with all the bishops, re-examines the priesthood. You cannot preach or teach meaningfully unless you live fully. If you are content to cordon yourself off with an altar rail, if you habitually speak of places you have never been, then expect this generation to follow other guides and seek other vistas.