Tag Archives: Staten Island Ferry

Building a City

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Tower of Babel. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 16th century

After the deluge, God renews a covenant with creation, and the descendants of Noah begin to fulfill God’s command “to increase and multiply and fill the earth.”

But then something else happens: human beings, desiring to be together, join in building a city. A common origin and language draws them together, not just as families or clans, but in a larger society. They look for human flourishing in a city. (Genesis 11,1-9)

Unfortunately, they overreach. They want to get their heads into the heavens and so they plan a tower into the sky. Like Adam and Eve reaching for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they want to be like gods, “presuming to do whatever they want” God says. Their tower becomes a Tower of Babel. It collapses and they’re scattered over the world, leaving their city unfinished.

It’s important to recognize that the Genesis story does not claim God’s against human beings building a city. The bible, in fact, sees the city as a place favorable for human flourishing. In the Book of Jonah, God values the great city of Nineveh. Jesus sees Jerusalem, the Holy City, cherished by the Lord, the place where he dwells. The Spirit descends on his church in the city. The Genesis story sees the city as good, but it can be destroyed by sin and human pride..

The picture at the beginning of this blog is a painting of the Tower of Babel by the 16th century Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s situates Babel in Antwerp, one of the key seaports of the time. Its shaky structure suggests it’s too ambitiously built. Still incomplete, it may not last. So the painter offers a warning against ambition and not caring for people, especially the needy.

It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis encourages mayors from cities to plan well. Commentators say the pope, conscious of a rising isolationism that’s affecting nations and international bodies today, sees cities to be agents for unifying peoples. They’re important places for humans to flourish. The United Nations also sees cities as key resources in the challenge that comes with climate change.

The picture at the end? You don’t have to be told. A great city. Still, its greatness will be judged, not by its big buildings or businesses, but how it encourages human flourishing.

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What Happened to the Native Peoples?

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For the injustices against the native peoples and the land God provided here.

“Lord, have mercy.”

The native peoples are often forgotten in the story of the “discovery” of America. Our heroes tend to be the settlers who came on ships, built towns and cities, explored the land and gave us what we have today. But it came at a price.

If you ever visit New York harbor by way of the Staten Island Ferry look towards the various shores where once the native peoples fished, hunted and traded in large numbers. The water was fresher then, fish and shellfish plentiful, the air cleaner, the earth less damaged by human activity.

The National Museum of the American Indian is located in the old customs house across from Battery Park near the ferry. It’s a good place to remember the native peoples in the story of America. The Europeans traded with them; they were their guides into an unknown land; they provided many of the foods that fed growing populations in Europe and America. Their respect for the land was greater than those who came after them.

A young Indian woman, Kateri Tekakwitha and a Jesuit priest, Isaac Jogues, are figures to remember here. They represent the clash of civilizations that occurred when Europeans and native peoples met.

Europeans brought disease.  Smallpox  disfigured and partially blinded Kateri Tekakwitha, a young Mohawk woman who lived along the Mohawk River past Albany, NY. The native peoples had no immunity to small pox and other diseases. Three out of ten died from it. By some estimates 5 million native people lived in North America when the first Europeans arrived. Within a hundred years there were only 500,000. Besides disease, the major cause of their diminishment, the native peoples also suffered from wars and greed.
Museum of American Indian

 

At the museum, besides Kateri Tekakwitha remember Father Isaac Jogues, the Jesuit missionary who, while attempting to advance peace-keeping efforts with the Mohawks at Ossernonon (Auriesville) was killed by a war party on October 18, 1646. Previously, in 1642  Jogues had been captured by this same tribe. He escaped in 1643, fled here to New Amsterdam (New York City) and then was put on a ship for France by a kindly Dutch minister.

The French missionaries came to the New World out of the turmoils of the Old World expecting a new Pentecost among the native peoples here, but it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, disease and political maneuvering made the native peoples suspicious of  foreigners and the seed of the gospel fell on hard ground.

Letters back to France from the early Jesuits–marvelously preserved in “The Jesuit Relations”–often express the missionaries’ disappointment  over their scarce harvest, but it didn’t stop them. They were well grounded in the mystery of the Cross.

The Indian woman and the priest persevered. We forget how difficult it is when civilizations clash– like now.

 

Jesus, the Teacher

 

This evening at our mission at St. Theresa’s Parish in Staten Island, NY, I spoke about Jesus, the Teacher. I like Rembrandt’s drawing of Jesus preaching to a crowd. For one thing, the crowd around him seems to represent all ages, shapes and sizes of ordinary humanity. Jesus’ disciples, like Peter, James and John may be there, but they don’t seem to stand out. Maybe some of his enemies are there, but they don’t stand out either. They’re all there listening, except maybe the little child on the ground playing with something he’s found. And Jesus teaches them.

Did Rembrandt find these faces in the people of his neighborhood, ordinary people? If that’s so, this crowd could be us.

Luke’s gospel seems a lot like this painting to me. In much of Luke’s gospel Jesus makes his way from Galilee to Jerusalem, and as he goes his way he calls everybody to follow him. Some women from Galilee follow him. He calls Zachaeus, the tax collector, down from a tree to join him. Follow me, he says to a blind man begging in the same place for years. He called people in every shape and form, sinners, tax-collectors, everyone.

It was not just to see him die that he calls them to follow him, but to go with him onto glory. “Come with me this day to paradise, “ Jesus says to the thief on the cross. Our creed says he descends into hell, which means he goes to those who have been waiting for centuries for the redemption he brings. He calls to all, to them and to us, to follow him.

What does following Jesus mean? I spoke of two things. Jesus said to follow him we must take up our cross each day. He also said we must become like little children. He taught us about spiritual childhood.

 

 

 

 

No Nest, No Den

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We’re reading from the 9th chapter of Luke’s gospel this Sunday. (Luke 8,51-62) Jesus has completed his mission in Galilee, in the small towns around the lake, and sets out for Jerusalem. That’s how today’s gospel begins:

“When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled,
he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”

Luke doesn’t describe a journey from place to place. Rather, Jesus gathers disciples on the way. He’s not making this journey alone, or just with the twelve. He’s calling many others to experience with him the mystery of his death and resurrection.

It’s a hard call. You have to go through tough places, Jesus says, like the Samaritan town that he and his disciples passed through, where you’re not accepted. You may not feel powerful or secure. If you follow me, Jesus says, you won’t have nests like the birds or dens like the fox. You’ll meet circumstances and difficult situations that may seem unreasonable.

But don’t worry, by following Jesus you’ll made the journey.

Last week I had some visitors from Australia and I took them on a tour of downtown New York, to visit a saint who once lived on Wall Street. She’s St. Elizabeth Seton, Mother Seton; she lived with her family on Wall Street and a number of other places downtown in colonial times. One of the last places she lived in New York City is on State Street, right across from the Staten Island Ferry. A church honoring her is built over that house.
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She’s a good example of what it means to follow Jesus, according to today’s gospel.
1.Elizabeth Seton 1797

I took my visitors on the Staten Island Ferry to show them where the quarantine stations were in the harbor. Mother Seton’s father, Doctor Richard Bayley, was New York City’s first health officer and his job was to isolate and care for people with diseases like yellow fever who were coming into the country on ships from overseas.
Quarantine 1833

In the summer of 1801, his daughter described the conditions at the quarantine station at Tomkinsville, Staten Island, where she was staying with her father. A boatload of Irish immigrants with yellow fever had just been taken off a ship:
“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801) Her father contacted yellow fever himself then and died shortly afterwards.

Through her life, Mother Seton experienced hard things like that. She was four years old when her mother died, and her father quickly remarried. Her stepmother never had much time for her, but neither did her father, a good man absorbed in his work as a doctor and away a lot.

She describes how lonely she was as a child. What kept her going was looking up into the clouds and believing that God was her father and he loved her.

Her fortunes changed dramatically when as a young woman Elizabeth Bayley met William Seton, one of the wealthiest young men in New York. They got married and had children and became part of New York’s high society. Alexander Hamilton was a neighbor, George Washington lived down the street. They were on top of the world and blissfully happy.
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William Seton was one of the venture capitalists of his day. He was into banking and shipping. But as we know venture capitalists can go bankrupt as well as make millions. That’s what happened to the Setons. They went bankrupt, he died of sickness and his wife became a widow with five kids.

Elizabeth Seton went through a spiritual crisis. She was attracted to the Catholic faith, but the Catholic Church then was looked down on by New Yorkers. She lost most of her friends when she decided to become a Catholic. She had to leave New York and go to Maryland where she began a school and a religious community of women, the Sisters of Charity.
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Her school was the beginning of Catholic Parochial School system in the United States and she’s honored as our first native born American saint. In the new United States Catholic Catechism for Adults she’s presented as an example of how our search for God takes place. Sometimes we’re on top of the world, other times we’re like birds without nests and foxes without dens.

Sometimes we may think that the gospel is an old book about things from long ago. But if you look at it with yourself in mind you can see how it applies. There are times when our lives are transfigured, as the lives of the disciples were when Jesus took them up the mountain. At other times we are not sure where we are. Sometimes we can feel like we’re going through a Samaritan town where nothing makes sense. To follow Jesus is like that.

Saints like Elizabeth Seton are good guides too. Take a look at them. They’re better guides to life than movie celebrities, and more real.