Foundations in Faith

May 15, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 19
Foundations in Faith
Sophie Pantoliano, June Green and Emma Baker stand outside their church, Holy Trinity in Syracuse

By Kristen Fox / SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
In past decades, the Roman Catholic Church has seen a numbers of changes. The Second Vatican Council brought dramatic reformation in the ritual and theology of the church. More recently, the church has faced a shortage of priests along with parish reconfigurations and church closings. Countless parishioners, though, have journeyed with the church and its changes, all the while maintaining a strong faith and loyal devotion to their parish community.

Raymond and Bernadette Schultz, parishioners at St. John’s Church in Utica, are two of these people. The parish family at St. John’s has always held a special place in their lives; each was baptized in the church and, 42 years ago, they were married there. St. John’s has also provided the spiritual foundation where they raised their two sons. While they can remember growing up in a church much different from the one the younger generation has grown up in, they said that St. John’s has always been a “beautiful parish rooted in deep faith and tradition.” “I have seen the St. John’s of today, as well as when the church was in its hay-day –– and throughout the years, it has remained with all of its significance,” Bernadette said. “It has always been such a vibrant parish.”

Raymond said that when he was young, holy days were observed with great solemnity. One of their family traditions was attending Midnight Mass with their children, but back then the service wasn’t held at midnight; it was at 5:30 a.m., Raymond pointed out. He said that the Easter morning celebration of the past was more reverent and solemn than today’s.

Emma Baker, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church in Syracuse since she was baptized there 71 years ago, said that she misses “the marvelous holy day processions” that she participated in when she was a young girl. On the May crowning, she recalled that all the girls would wear pink ribbons in their hair and carry pink roses in a basket. As they walked down the aisle, the girls would kiss the rose petals and drop them. “It was such a beautiful tradition,” Baker said. “It would be nice to see it alive today, but things change.” Like the Schultzes and Baker, most elderly parishioners remember a different kind of church following the Second Vatican Council, which opened on Oct. 11, 1962 and created a new attitude in the Catholic Church. Symbolically, it is best remembered for the decisions to change the choreography of the Mass, directing priests to face the assembly and allowing Mass to be said in English (vernacular) instead of Latin. Changes were also made in the other aspects of Mass –– altars were moved out from the wall and guitars were brought in to replace organs.

June Green, also a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church, said that she has seen the church grow and change following the Second Vatican Council. “It was a tremendous change, but I believe that it was made for the better,” Green pointed out, “it opened things up more for the people.” Green said that it makes her a bit sad that the new generations growing up in the church will not experience some of the older traditions, such as holy day celebrations and the exposition of the Eucharist on First Fridays. There are many parishioners would like to include some of the more traditional practices in today’s Mass. Philip Gerchman, a parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church in Johnson City, said that he would like to see the return of the Latin Mass. He said that he enjoyed hearing Mass in Latin when he was a young boy. “All you have to do was follow along in your Latin Mass book to know what the priest was saying,” Gerchman said, adding that he still has his Latin missalette from when he was a child. He also said that he would like to see the return of the practice of kneeling at the altar rail when receiving Holy Communion. “It is much more respectful to kneel when receiving our Lord,” he stated. Raymond also said that he would like to see things that were practiced prior to the Second Vatican Council brought back, such as Friday adoration. He believes that this is a vital part of parish life.

“One thing that I remember about St. John’s was the tremendous devotion to the Blessed Sacrament,” Raymond said. “This explicit devotion to the Eucharist is necessary, although I am not sure if it is possible to bring back to all the parishes. The Eucharist is Christ and the devotion is a very meaningful activity.”

Change, though, can also be a good thing. Green noted that she has seen three priests come through Holy Trinity while she has been a parishioner there, including current administrator Father Charles Vavonese. She said that she looked forward to each of them and noted that all three had something new and vibrant to bring to parish life at Holy Trinity Church. “Sometimes people can be fearful of a new priest and what he will bring to the table,” Green said. “But it has been my experience that each priest has something wonderful to give to their church and teach their parishioners.”

Through changes that accompanied the Second Vatican Council, the church was still the place to which people turned to sustain faith. Baker said that her religion and the parish community at Holy Trinity have carried her through challenging times in her life. She recalled her mother passing away when she was 11, leaving her father to take care of her and her four sisters. It would have been easy for her father to stray from his faith, Baker said, but instead, he set an example for his daughters on the importance of religion. She remembered her father taking the family to Mass each Sunday, where she and her sisters would sing in the children’s choir. Then, she said, everyone would return home where her father would cook them Sunday dinner. “He did everything my mother would do but iron,” Baker quipped.

“My father taught my sisters and I a strong sense of faithfulness and spirituality,” Baker added. “Whatever happens, your faith will pull you through. The Lord does provide.” These values are some of the things that Baker passed on to her own five sons. She and her husband, who passed away a year ago, saw four of her five children graduate from Holy Trinity School. The doors to the school closed before her youngest son could graduate. The parish family has also been a place where people have turned to for support. Gerchman said that as a young man he remembers being part of the St. Joseph’s Society when he lived in Pennsylvania, working as a coal-miner. The purpose of the miner’s soceity was to provide moral and death benefits as well as assistance to widows and orphans of mining victims, Gerchman said. Being a Catholic Society, the men also had to attend Mass regularly and receive the Sacrament of Penance, especially during the Easter season. Failure to do this would result in expulsion. Gerchman recalled that members were obligated to attend a funeral of a fellow deceased member or be penalized by paying a fee of one dollar, which he noted “was a lot of money in those days.” He said that fee went to support the family of the deceased. In these ways, the society looked after people both spiritually and physically, Gerchman pointed out.

“The St. Joseph’s Society would come together in prayer, but we would also look after one another’s families if there was a death of a fellow miner,” Gerchman said. “The church provided the foundation for all aspects of life.” Some parishioners are unsure if the parishes they hold so dear will survive the decline in the number of priests and church closings. Raymond said that he remembers a time when there was a church at the end of the every block with three or four priests ministering to one church. He understands, though, why this isn’t the reality today. Raymond said that the changes haven’t made the church less of an institution, it is all part of demographics. “There is not a beehive of activity surrounding the church like there once was. With things like school closings and job layoffs, people move out of the area,” stated Raymond. “It is difficult to watch as the numbers in the pews decrease, but it is part of the times.”

Raymond added that to help ensure that the generation of today will see their church as the vibrant institution he and his wife remember, it is important to reach out to the youth. “In order for survival, we must get out to the youth and give them faith. This is something that we have moved away from in the past years,” Raymond said. “We must make sure that they are getting to Mass and that they participate in things such as parish retreats and missions. We need to reach, keep and appreciate them.” Gerchman said that he looks ahead to the future of the church with hope and optimism. Each summer, he is eager to attend the Blessed Sacrament Parish Family Picnic to socialize with old acquaintances. While there, he said he sees many families who are raising their children in the parish. If he could pass on one thing to these young families growing in a different church, he would tell them to always stay faithful. “Trust in the Lord and go to Him with all your troubles,” Gerchman said. “He will always hear you.”

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