September 6, 2001

413 in 3 Boroughs and 7 Counties

It is now well over a year since I had my first press conference as the new Archbishop of New York. As I was leaving the auditorium in which the conference had been held, a young reporter cornered me, pad and pencil in hand.

"What exactly is this ‘Archdiocese of New York’ about which you were speaking?" he asked.

I was not sure whether he was truly seeking information or just trying to be provocative. In either case I was happy to reply.

"It’s 413 communities of faith – parishes, if you like – gathered around 413 altars so as to become holy and lead others to holiness as well," I told him.

"That’s all pretty complicated," the reporter shot back. "How about an exegesis?"

"Exegesis" is hardly the kind of word one expects from a reporter. Hence, suspecting that my interrogator was more than ordinarily informed about matters religious, I stopped to chat with him. If he truly wanted an "exegesis," that is a step-by-step commentary of my definition of the archdiocese, I told him, perhaps I could be helpful.

"Over the months to come, I will be making rather formal visits to the 19 ‘vicariates,’ or clusters, of the 413 parishes of the Archdiocese from Ulster County on the north to Staten Island on the south," I explained. "At the conclusion of each visit there will be a Vespers service, in which I will be giving a sermon. The theme will be that definition. Call my office at the Catholic Center for dates and places. We would be delighted to have you with us."

Whether or not he ever came, I do not know. If he did, here is the substance of what he heard.

The Archdiocese of New York is essentially a community of 413 parishes in that sector of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which serves the three boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, and the seven counties of Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange, Dutchess, Sullivan and Ulster. These parishes are communities of faith, which is to say communities of men, women and children who have heard what the Lord has revealed and both assented to it in their minds and embraced it in their hearts.

They are, however, rather unusual communities. For that to which they have assented, that which they have embraced, that which – in simplest terms – they have come to believe, is often quite beyond what anyone unfamiliar with the teachings of the Church might have guessed.

Just two examples will make the point.

First, these communities of believers gathered around the altars of their parishes actually hold that every human being, even the most dishonorable and unappealing, is fashioned in the image of God and is therefore deserving of the greatest measure of respect as the noblest of the Lord’s visible creation. Because of this, they further maintain such things as the life of every human being, at every stage of its development from conception to natural death, is precious beyond measure and may never be legitimately snuffed out for any reason whatever.

Quite a belief! But here is another even more surprising.

These parishioners are actually convinced that the Creator in heaven so loved his children on earth that he sent his Divine Son to become one of them, so that He might die the most ignominious of deaths to ransom them from their sinfulness and gain for them eternal happiness.

These are the kinds of things these members of the 413 communities of faith believe – wondrous things, marvelous things. And impelled by such beliefs, they come together in their parishes to adore their God, to thank him, to beg his care, and to seek his forgiveness of their sins and faults, around altars where their priests lead them in the most beautiful and powerful prayer that anyone could ever imagine.

That prayer is called the "Mass." In it the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of the Father in Heaven, to ransom us from our sinfulness by his death on the cross is repeated in an unbloody manner. It is, however, the selfsame sacrifice. For the One Who offers it, the Priest, is Jesus Christ himself with the parish priest standing in his place as an instrument in his hands; and the One Who is sacrificed, the Victim, is likewise Jesus Christ – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – hidden under the appearances of bread and wine.

A parish, of course, prays in other ways as well. It prays, for example, in the celebration of the Sacraments of baptism, penance, confirmation, and the anointing of the sick. It prays in such beautiful devotions as the Rosary, novenas and the Stations of the Cross. However, it prays most vitally and powerfully at Holy Mass, doing what the Son of God Made Man on the night before he died commanded his followers to do, namely, repeat his one and all-sufficient Sacrifice until the end of time.

Small wonder, in the light of all of this, that Catholics so love and esteem their parishes.

Still, there is more to the definition of those 413 communities of faith that are the Archdiocese of New York. Our parishes believe together and pray together with a very specific purpose in mind – God’s purpose, holiness. They believe and pray so that they and everyone who crosses their path in life might be holy, for the glory of God and the salvation of immortal souls.

"Holiness" is, of course, a familiar word and a word with a number of definitions. The one proposed in the 19 vicariate meetings is as follows. We are holy –

– When we are just, that is, ever willing to recognize and respect the rights of others;

– When we are charitable, that is, keenly aware of the suffering and pain of others and anxious to offer relief and understanding;

– When we are truthful, that is, committed to speaking only what we know to be reality;

– When we are clean of heart, that is, respectful of our bodies and pure in the sight of our God; and

– When we are prayerful, that is, comfortable with and accustomed to conversing with the Lord, convinced that he is ever at our elbow, ready to listen to us and speak to us.

This holiness, then, is what we seek in our parishes. It is essential, though, that we seek it not only for ourselves. If we truly understand what we Catholics believe, if we truly appreciate how and why we pray together, if we truly strive to be holy, "as the Heavenly Father is holy," we have to know that whatever holiness we achieve is to be shared.

We leave our parish churches to live our parish-nourished holiness at home, at school, in the workplace, indeed, wherever in the Providence of God we happen to be. Our living of it, if it be authentic, however, cannot help but have a salutary effect on all whose lives are touched by ours. No one is able to live justice, charity, truthfulness, cleanness of heart, and prayerfulness without leading others to ask why and in due course to discover the answer – the one Lord and Savior who calls us all to be holy.

Jesus Christ told us to be witnesses to him and his Gospel in the world. St. Paul showed us how to do it, as did millions of holy men, women and children – canonized by the Church and not – down through the ages. Above all else in life, we yearn to join that number; and our parishes are there to strengthen us in our witnessing.

This is what parishes are all about, and this is what the Archdiocese of New York is all about. For the Archdiocese of New York is, first and foremost, its parishes.

One evening as I was leaving a vicariate meeting in one of the upper counties, an elderly couple stopped me on the way to my car. "Now we understand better why we love our parish so much," the husband announced. "You made it very clear, and we won’t forget what you said." His wife nodded in agreement. "But there is something you left out," the husband went on. "You forgot to say that there can be no parishes without priests, and you forgot to add that here in the Archdiocese of New York we have the best priests in all the world." His wife nodded again.

I put down my suitcase and shook the hands of the couple, promising to add to my sermon in the remaining vicariate meetings what the husband had suggested.

"Now," I said, "there is something I would like to ask of you." My priest secretary came over to say that we should be on our way. I told him I would need a few more minutes.

"At every Mass," I said rather solemnly, "tell the Lord we urgently need more priests here in the Archdiocese of New York. Tell him that the archbishop worries more about this than anything else. Tell him of your love for your priests. Tell him that without priests there will be no Mass and no parishes. And tell him that you will personally speak to every young man whom you consider a good prospect to ask that he prayerfully consider handing his life over to the Lord as a priest of the Archdiocese."

"Whoa!" cried the husband. "Whoa, nothing!" replied the wife. "The Archbishop is right, and the two of us better get to work on all of that ‘telling.’ "

The traffic was unusually heavy, as we made our way back to Manhattan, but somehow I did not seem to care. For I had a warm feeling – a kind of piously self-satisfied feeling – that my God was in for a lot of "telling."

If we truly understand what we Catholics believe, if we truly appreciate how and why we pray together, if we truly strive to be holy, ‘as the Heavenly Father is holy,’ we have to know that whatever holiness we achieve is to be shared.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York