“A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning…”
Those are the words of Jeremias the Prophet. St. Matthew’s gospel tells us that they foreshadow King Herod’s murder of Bethlehem’s infant males following the birth of Christ, who Herod feared might usurp his ill-gotten earthly throne.
Holy innocents die for different reasons. In every generation. In every place.
A church — a very special church — by that name is scheduled to die in Manhattan’s Garment District.
Diocesan spokesmen, if they will tell you anything, will tell you that nothing at all has been settled. All is merely open for discussion.
Thus, it has been in every diocese, with every parish whose head already lays firmly upon the chopping block.
All such closings are tragedies. But this slated closure has already attracted city-wide and even national attention, from Capital New York to National Review Online to the famed Catholic blogger Father John Zuhlsdorf (blogging about it from Venice).
Most observers have focused on the fact that Holy Innocents — not only the frenetic Garment District’s oldest house of worship, but its oldest structure — is the city’s only church hosting a daily traditional Latin Mass, the Mass that defined Catholic worship for centuries, if not millennia.
The traditional Mass has recorded a significant comeback since Benedict XVI freed it via his 2007 apostolic letter, Summorum Pontificum, with younger parishioners, clergy, and seminarians particularly drawn to its grandeur, universality, and intense reverence. While two other Manhattan parishes (St. Agnes on 43rd Street and Spanish Harlem’s Mount Carmel) still host this “extraordinary form” of the Latin Rite, it is Holy Innocents that has, in a remarkably short time emerged as its vibrant spiritual center.
“Holy Innocents is a place where the New Evangelization is actually succeeding, and in its unique way!” says Fr. Zuhlsdorf, “New Evangelization meets Summorum Pontificum. It is the perfect combination, and it is working. Over the year Mass attendance has been steadily climbing. There is constant traffic in and out of this church as a spiritual oasis. Its location is ideal. Beautiful things occur at this church.”
Indeed they do. And yet, visitors might not at first find Holy Innocents beautiful at all. The oldest structure in the Fashion District is old. It is not fashionable. It wears its age not at all like the wardrobe of a grand dame of Fifth Avenue, but akin to a selection the shabby thrift shop its basement hosts. But, perhaps, that is part of its beauty. The wealthy do not particularly come here. Ordinary souls do. They climb its granite steps for Mass, to pray, to silently kneel before the Precious Host, to engulf themselves in magnificent Gregorian Chant, to remain overnight in prayer and devotion each First Friday, to offer 2,000 — two thousand — Hail Marys every Third Saturday, to confess their sins and to come away cleansed in a sense that those who never have cannot comprehend.
They are old here. They are young. There are poor and very poor, the wise and the addled. Many are Asian or Hispanic or Black. Many are certainly newcomers to this land but not necessarily to this faith. The meal served at 3 am following this Easter Vigil’s ceremonies and Mass featured not finger sandwiches but empanadas. They are people of one language on the altar but of many in the well-worn pews.
History lives here. Eugene O’Neill’s parents brought him here for baptism. The poet Joyce Kilmer found his way to faith here. The Crucifix found in Charles Bosseron Chambers’ famous painting “The Return” still graces Holy Innocents. A massive, recently-restored fresco of the Crucifixion by Constantino Brumidi (renowned for his work in the United States Capitol) dominates its sanctuary.
Processions through Times Square and Bryant Park are launched from here — the Word of Christ carried to the heart of The Beast, a more amazing sight. Far more amazing than whatever Holy Innocents’ property might fetch in Manhattan’s ongoing real estate bacchanal.
And there is also a shrine – to holy innocents. Not to the Holy Innocents of Herod’s day, but to our own. Historical scholarship indicates that Herod may have butchered as few as six. Abortion in our day “terminates” thirty-seven percent of all New York City pregnancies. Timothy Cardinal Dolan, who speaks of a “sacred responsibility” to “come to the assistance” of “the innocent baby in the womb,” now stands upon the verge of shuttering this shrine and this church.
“A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning …”
Mourn not for The Church of Holy Innocents; mourn for yourselves, New York.