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Never on Sunday?

My friend Kenneth Woodward, former religion writer at Newsweek, has sent me abriefnotice that I am happy to pass on. It reflectsKen's love of exposingthe secular blinders at my former employer, The New York Times.I have a different view of the matter, especially in this instance, but frankly Ken's jabs are salutary, and defensiveness is uncalled for. The Times can take it. I reserve my own comments for below.Ken writes:For the past couple of years, or for long as it has existed, Ive been readingreligiously, you might saya short weekly column in the Sunday New York Times Metro section called Sunday Routine. It features a tightly edited interview with a locally prominent New Yorker about how he or she spends Sunday. I read it because it is a revealing peephole into the newsroom culture of the Times.Last weeks interview was with Dennis Walcott, chancellor of New York Citys Department of Education who lives in Queens. What makes the piece striking is that Walcott is the first person featured in this column who, in my monitoring of it, has ever acknowledged going to church. Among the three accompanying photos there is even one of a robed Walcott singing in his church choir, as if in proof of his odd Sunday habit.To be sure I may have missed one or two other New York notables whose Sunday routine includes church. And of course a lot of the chosen are Jews who may have worshipped on the Sabbath. But the column recalls to mind an ad campaign some years back The Times ran to promote its Sunday edition. It showed a handsome couple, perhaps married, coffee in hand, lounging in bed reading different sections of the Sunday paper.Which raises the question: are prominent New Yorkers not likely to be the kind of folks who worship God on Sunday? Or does the choice of whom to feature in Sunday Routine say something about the culture of the people and paper doing the selecting? Is it the mirror or the lamp?Check Walcott out here. It could be years before church appears as a part of another New Yorkers Sunday Routine.

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I know for a fact that in this column's profile (within the last two years) of one of our parishioners, Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs, it mentioned that she attends Sunday Mass. I can also recall another recent column of a man on the Upper West Side, I believe, which said that he went to Mass at Holy Trinity.

One reason why I enjoyed Ken's observation is that I have had exactly the same reflex, checking out "Sunday Routine" to see if anyone goes to church. And in my experience, they almost never do. But ....First of all, while there is a lot to be said (or imagined?) about the "newsroom culture" at The Times, I don't see what this has to do with it. Is Ken suggesting that the writers of these short features actually suppress the fact that their subjects go to church as unseemly? Frankly, to the extent that the reporters are so secular, they would find church-going as positively exotic and highlight it. Second, Ken's been missing a few beats, as he acknowledges. On April 8, Brian d'Arcy James, an actor who played Shrek on Broadway and more recently some character on the NBC show "Smash," not only reported going to church but to 9:30 Mass at Holy Trinity on West 82nd Street. And recently Walt Frazier, Knick Hall of Famer and now a TV basketball commentator, confessed that along with spending Sunday doing crunches and yoga stretches and planning his wardrobe, he sometimes goes to the 9 a.m. service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. But if Ken isn't exactly right, these are still pretty rare exceptions to the rule. My own view is his other thesis: New York City notables are just not very apt to be church-goers. As a matter of fact, New York City non-notables are probably not very apt to be church-goers. I think that this has far more to do with the times than The Times.

Ken Woodward is on target about the Times and its readership. Just look at the comments section for any article relating to the Church.

Perhaps, if the Christian churches could find a way to induce a larger percentage of the cultural elite to attend church on a more-than-very-occasional basis, there would be better communication and fewer conflicts between Christian churches and the cultural institutions that the elite dominate.When I was a young adult, I directed a choir for a few years at the student chapel (in those days, not a Newman Center) at Northwestern. There were some cultural-elite types who worshiped there: some public figures, writers, journalists, professors, a nice little cross-section of moneyed North Shore types, as well as undergraduate and graduate students, whom I suppose were the budding cultural elite. Such faith communities, when they are planted and able to flourish, can serve as valuable connectors, istm.

Another one he missed: Vanessa Williams. The headline was "Singing at Mass, Then on Broadway."

I also skim this column to see if anyone goes to church! What does that say about us? Anyway, there was another one, Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, who said she and her family went to Ascension, which is on the west side nearish Columbia.

"Such faith communities, when they are planted and able to flourish, can serve as valuable connectors, istm."But wait a minute! Catholic churches abound, even those with more than a modicum of attendees. They are there. All people have to do is come. Do you really expect these churches to reach out to someone? But the churches are there. All people have to do is come. Of courese, if and when they do, how will they be received? Oh, complain, complain, complain. They are there. All people have to do is come.

Jimmy Mac - you mean, as in evangelize? Parish, er, perish, the thought!FWIW - I wasn't thinking only of Catholic parishes. I've read that, at one time, New York had a social hierarchy of Protestant denominations that more or less mirrored the class structure of the city.

That ad bothered me, too. But then again, I see Catholic little leagues playing ball on Sunday mornings.

Some years ago the Times had an article about "the Church of Craft". That's the real name of a group whose members get together on Sunday for the express purpose of making things. They don't have a group project, everyone just does his or her own thing in the one big room. As I remember, one person was making a Charlie Chaplin doll. Apparently being creative is to them a "religious" experience even though there is no God involved. For them there is a complete dissociation of church and God. Only the words "religion" and "church" are connected for them.My question is: why did the reporter apparently not think that this was a strange use of the term "church"? Have New Yorkers, including the NYT staff, generally dissociated Sunday church-going from religion and, perhaps, religion from God? If they have, it might explain why the writers of the Sunday features don't even wonder about church attendance -- for them church attendance isn't about anything very important.

Time perhaps for the Pharisee praying with the lowly Publican.... While I regard Sunday's Lord 's Supper as a lifeline I hesitate to categorize people. One day a wonderful Uncle of mine, not a churchgoer listened as other members of the churchgoing family were saying hateful things about others, uttered: "Church people." In Matthew 25:36-41 there is no mention of missing Church as a problem. There is a tricky conundrum here. it is a good question whether there is any rhyme nor reason here.

I think that this has far more to do with the times than The Times.

No doubt. Yet, by choosing to focus on Sunday, the traditional day for Christian family worship, I think the paper must intentionally be saying, See, even Christians in our very contemporary and cosmopolitan and sophisticated city seldom bother with that stuff any more. (If they chose Saturday, they might highlight how few observant Jews there are left.) Of course, many observant Catholics now prefer to "get it out of the way" on Saturday afternoon. As you say, it's the times. God's become a bother, a scheduling problem, a nuisance, or a bit of a luxury.

Please, let's not get too serious here, about The Times, elites, parishes, and so on. On any given Sunday, somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of Christians do NOT go to church. That's too bad in my view, but it's not just New York or the elite or The Times. And historically speaking it may not be too unusual, though I'm not sure of that. Perhaps what's interesting in the case of "Sunday Routine" is that the individuals featured no longer feel obliged to fake it. Wendy Kopp at Ascension? What Mass? We're at 11 a.m. Mollie used to be a lector there before she moved away last year, and Michael Peppard is usually there with Christiana and their daughter. A good portion of dotCommonweal, in other words. Of course, the cardinal has just reassigned our pastor and the whole parish is shuddering with that reminder of how little we really have to say about anything. Sorry, I'm getting serious.

I would bet that figure is about right in certain demographics, nationwide, a guesstimate, but I don't know who has good data.The "pastor issue" is a very hard one and is too serious, meriting its own blog. We live in that fear also. The pool of talent is not deep.

John Sexton, NYU President, was another Mass attendee as described in that feature.

I had forgotten about Wendy Kopp (that one took me by surprise) -- that feature is here. And here's Brian d'Arcy James, and here's John Sexton. Looks like Ken has some happy reading to keep him busy this Sunday!

At least they could have someone feeling guilty for not going to church.

Nancy Pelosi was a fellow parishioner of mine but to hear Church 'elites' savage her why would any 'elites' show up?

Joe Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy clan, insisted that his children attend Mass every Sunday. JFK used to apologize to those who were surprised that he rarely missed Mass saying: "It is a thing with my father." Further, during the JFK days there was hardly a week that the Boston Pilot, the diocesan newspaper, did not promote the Kennedys.

"At least they could have someone feeling guilty for not going to church."My personal experience as a non-attender is that those who don't go, aren't.

"Never on Sunday?"I usually take my children on Saturday evening- the rest of the world always has so much scheduled on Sunday. Endless children's birthday parties, outings, etc (like tomorrow, my kids are signed up for some day long Fleet Week celebration). Which makes me wonder what everybody is doing now on Saturdays.

A few years ago, Judy Collins mentioned going to Evensong at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.In general, though, the perception is correct -- not too many prominent people at church in NYC on Sundays.

Quick question is it inly NYC and the NYT? What about DC? Philly?LA? Chicago?

The whole idea of church going is somewhat passe' except on GEB, the new comedy show. As Catholics, we no longer point out various movie stars, athletes, political leaders or CEOs as church going people. The image of lying around with all the Sunday papers astray is probably more accurate. Too bad and it says a lot about the quality and impact of the ordinary Sunday worship experience.

I loved Bill Mazzella's recollection about JFK's odd "apologia" for attending Mass to people Kennedy owed no explanation, much less any kind of an apology to, the elites. (How does "the snoots" sound in cases like this? LOL.) We mustn't JFK felt it necessary to sell his Church out in a speech given to Baptists in Houston shortly before he was elected. No wonder Jackie said he was a "lousy Catholic." Somehow, that little zinger, if it was overheard by Boston's hierarchy at the time, especially its Boston Pilot, made darn sure it was to be buried on a sandspit between Cuttyhunk and Long Island. There's no mystery why the Pilot gave the Kennedy's the blind eye and gushing support, notwithstanding Jack Kennedy's glaring character faults, which the Boston hierarchy and clerics connected to both Beacon Hill and Mass.' Federal political structure were willing to deliberately ignore. This was THE time when the Irish felt their moment had come and nothing, not facts, of course, were going to be strewn in St. Jack's way. Never mind that JFK never did anything for his state in the House, Senate and eventually the White House; a fact his own brother Ted, however, wasn't afraid to let him off the hook for.Just imagine what Joe Kennedy would've done with "Citizens United" in his toolbox. Frightening: After all, how many of Chicago's [quietest and coldest] would've turned out then?

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About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.