Christian mission is not to preach Christ, but to be Christians in life.
—Fr. Alexander Schmemann
The new evangelization is hardly different from the old. It resides, as it has from the first century, in the lived witness of individuals to a risen Lord—to the sacramental character of the world, of time itself, and of each other’s place in it. It inhabits right relations between persons. And it endures in confession of inexhaustible sorrow over failure in those relations.
For generations in New York, the calling of the Church took up residence in its schools. The Sheen Center is a monumental white flag signaling defeat in the Church’s ordained mission to the young. In its place is a misnamed “mission to the arts.” By offering itself as a trendy landlord to the arts, the Archdiocese is furthering the momentum of its own displacement. Inflated reverence for the arts is something to be countered, not accommodated.
Louis Bouyer, writing thirty years ago, looked on the dilation of culture—our art-and-culture syndrome—as a symptom of deep degeneration, the herald of a “monstruous civilization” emptied of meaning. More recently, Louis Dupré expanded on the theme: “Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, absorbing traditional religion as a subordinate part of itself.” That subordination, sweetened by the word mission, is the very basis of the Sheen Center.
The pathos of prelates bent on becoming players in the art scene is disheartening. The New York Archdiocese is no reincarnation of the Hapsburg courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Philip II is long dead. So is the character of the patronage he represented. Threatened orthodoxy will not be buttressed by an estimated $177 million renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral nor the undisclosed millions of the state-of-the-art Sheen Center.
St. Pat’s is no more “America’s parish church,” as Cardinal Dolan calls it, than New York is the “capital of the world.” The cathedral is a tourist attraction at the fag end of New York’s Museum Mile. And it is dressing up for the role at the expense of less glamorous, more humane undertakings.
Remember the 2011 closing of Rice High School. Run by the Christian Brothers, it served the city’s young black males with notable grace and efficacy. Bankrupted by lawsuits in the wake of the sex scandal—none having anything to do with Rice—the order was forced to close the school. A fraction of what the archdiocese has spent polishing St. Pat’s or creating the Sheen Center could have been gifted to sustain the work of Rice. The building is now a YMCA.
The ambiguously named Sheen Center—“Martin? Charlie? Michael? Who’s this Fulton dude?”—is anxious to be agreeable to all comers. It is on record as being progressively open to performances that might raise eyebrows among those stick-up-the-spine traditionalists. It only shakes a finger at “anything that is hateful about one group of people.” (We People of the Book can trust, then, that cordiality toward the Religion of Peace will be never be shaken.)
Its own supine, politically correct courtesy puts the Church at odds with itself. It is caught, like Buridan’s ass, between two bales of hay: outreach to the religiously minded and edgey downtown appeal to the secular, liberal theatre scene. Who will ultimately evangelize whom remains to be seen.
The Sheen’s plush performance space for dance and theatre troops is rationalized as a decoy to lure the faithless to the fold. We are to greet the scheme as a spare-no-expense preface to the Kingdom where heating and lighting systems come from God.
Earthier enticements, though, have already run the other way. In March, Msgr. Michael Hull was pastor of Guardian Angel and executive director of the Sheen. At the end of April, on Divine Mercy Sunday, he announced from the pulpit that he was leaving his flock to get married. According to a priest familiar with Hull, he and his young bride—formerly an intern at the Sheen—are living now in Venice.
Well, the heart wants what the heart wants. By Woody Allen’s reckoning, Hull’s sentimental truancy is just another New York story. Less neighborly, however, is the incongruity of his lavish renovation of the fourth floor rectory of Guardian Angel within the last year. The parish is small, hardly prosperous. Yet the renovation was designed by an associate at Richard Perry Architect, an upscale firm that serves deep-pocket clients. A visitor to the rectory called it “mind-bogglingly beautiful.” Did Hull acquire a taste for living large as Cardinal Egan’s protégé? All that can be said is that the renovation raises questions about funding.
Funding of the Sheen Center remains another mystery. Neither the Sheen personnel nor the office of the chancellor, Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo, will disclose the cost of the project. How much was covered by private donation? What percentage was Archdiocesan monies? What is the combined cost of the salaries of the senior staff? Will an annual report become available? The chancellor’s office, which oversees budgetary matters, refers questions to the communications division. The spokeswoman at that end stonewalls: “We have no information at this moment.”
How can that be? Surely the chancellor’s office has records from Cost+Plus, the cost management firm hired to vet proposals from the chosen team (the award-winning Acheson Doyle Partners, architects, and Harvey Marshall Berling Associates, theatre design and acoustics)? Again: “We have no information at this moment.”
The Sheen Center owes existence to the assumption that our predicament results from bad art and a failure of education. A fashionable, art-conscious version of continuing ed is the cure. (Hull had a phrase for it: “dynamic dialogue between artist and audiences.”) Pére Bouyer had a clearer eye. He understood our descent into post-Christian culture in terms of the old adage: Corruption of the best is the worst of all. He wrote:
It is not ignorance of Christianity among those who were never evangelized, nor its negation by those who were never able to accept it, but rather by the betrayal of Christianity by those who received the Gospel and were brought up as Christians.
Recognition of the mote in our own eye precedes evangelism, new or old. And it helps to stay mindful that every genuflection by the Church to secular idols—under the pretext of promoting the gospel—ends as Vigo Demant foresaw: a proclamation of secularism in a Christian idiom.