Saturday, July 7, 2012

Without Roots...

The sacred landscape is changing. I've written on this subject before. In an age of decline, the holy topography of the Catholic Church suffers through a radical revision, one which may have been overdue but is at times disheartening nevertheless.

As someone of Southern Italian descent, specifically Sicilian and Calabrian, I have witnessed the tail end of a once great ethnic experience of Christianity on American shores. The parishes that were once the hubs of Italians and Italo-Americans are either shuttered up, bereft of the their former ethnic inheritance, or reduced to certain cultural strongholds in the U.S., such as St. Leonard of Port Maurice in Boston's North End.

It wasn't too long ago that I could go to my great-grandparents' former residence in East Boston and walk the circuit of Italian parishes. Suddenly, in this past decade, one such parish has shut down and Holy Redeemer (the parish oral tradition has situated my great grandparents in, although Mount Carmel was closer) has largely lost its Italian identity. Certainly the language is scarcely heard. The tethers to my ancestry are slipping away ever so gradually and, when I think about it, it occurs to me that I ought to straighten out the matter of parish records sooner than later. It's only a matter of time until bureaucratic inefficiency looses those books in the process of transporting them from one parish to another. Such changes, be it acknowledging demographic shifts or just plane shutting down once viable parishes is inevitable. The Italians, like many ethnic groups, were only too happy to move to the suburbs and abandon their language as a demonstration that they had, after generations of poverty in the old country, finally made it. To be truthful, we've never been the most stringently religious observers in history - quite the contrary, really. So, it was only a matter of time before the parishes that were primarily cultural or ethnic centers entered a period of decline. Still, it is nearly impossible, from my vantage point, to gaze upon those lingering hallmarks of a era since passed and not cleave to them with the fervent hope they might not only resist the tide of attrition but indeed enter a new era of flourishing relevance. At some point, however, you have to accept things for the way they are and will likely continue to be. The wave of a uniquely Southern Italian Catholicism on American shores crested a long time ago - this is merely its wake settling back into calm water. Mount Carmel in Worcester, Massachusetts brings home the point.

Mount Carmel was once a hub of local Italo-American culture. It has now been subject to the ravages of ethnic dispersal and religious disintegration. The parish still advertises itself as Italo-American in origin if not essence, however while attending liturgy there one is struck by the noticeable lack of Italian language utilized in any liturgical context. The baroque facade and interior of the church has been deformed by ill-advised and artistically insensitive reforms following Vatican II, like walking into the Church of the Gesu and discovering it is now a McDonald's on the inside. Mount Carmel has not one trace of what made it unique and notable; it is now a typical anglo parish with the same godawful high church anglo hymns and organ accompaniment. The change in pastors further brings home the point. The now retired, and sadly walking off into the sunset of life, Fr. Bafaro was the proverbial "bull", a force of power who galvanized the Italian heritage of the parish and succeeded in engage this ethnic heritage with the social justice issues of Worcester, Massachusetts. To this day, if you speak with anyone who was active in the parish over the last ten to twenty years or if you speak with anyone familiar with the Catholic advocacy for the poor in the city over the same time span, Bafaro's name elicits respect, if not admiration. The current pastor lacks the dynamism of Bafaro which, to be sure, isn't to be unexpected. Typically, a strong persona is replaced by someone a little more tempered and one can only guess if parish finances have necessitate a new approach. There is some suspicion, mind you, that Mt. Carmel is a hypothetical candidate in the event further parish consolidations in the city are necessary.

In the history of Mt. Carmel and the decline of ethnic Italian parishes, Fr. Bafaro's time may well have been a last gasp, a brief resurgence before the tide of cultural assimilation fully washes away the parish's memory. It's any one's guess what happens after that. Best case scenario: another ethnic group makes the parish their own, thereby leaving persons of Italian descent an opportunity to at least visit a location of cultural importance. Worst case scenario: it continues in the direction of becoming your standard issue American parish; at that point, Mt. Carmel loses the unique qualities that justify keeping its doors open.