By Father Michael Panicali
When I was very young, my dad used to take my brother John and I to see what we would affectionately call “boats on the water” in Sheepshead Bay, a short drive from our Bensonhurst home. We were amazed by the beautiful boats and smell of the docks. Certain nights we would go to the lobster dock where you could pick out your own lobsters to bring home. At first, I thought this enchanting body of water was named “Ships at Bay,” until I learned that it is actually named for its odd resemblance to the shape of a sheep’s head (although I can’t see this likeness on any map I’ve studied.)
Providentially, my first assignment after ordination last year turned out to be in Sheepshead Bay, in the heart of the neighborhood that captured my earliest imagination, the wonderful parish of St. Mark and St. Margaret Mary. However, the Sheepshead Bay I know now as a priest, and as a 43-year-old man, is different from the one I knew in childhood.
Of course, places that once instilled awe in a young child tend to become mundane and not as mesmerizing in adulthood. But I’m referring to something far different than the lay of the land. The bay and boats are still there. The pungent fishy smell is still there. I’m pretty sure the lobsters are still there (although I haven’t been to the lobster dock in ages).
What seems to be lessening is the overarching sense of a supportive Christian community in this one-time predominantly Catholic neighborhood. While the parishioners of St. Mark and St. Margaret Mary make up a warm, welcoming, dynamic and spiritually vibrant community of faith and fellowship – and I count my blessings to be their priest and live in this extraordinary area – the changes the neighborhood has undergone in my lifetime are hard to ignore.
As more non-Catholics move in, and as I walk the streets and circle the bay in my collar, I feel more like a stranger in a strange land. While a priest might have at one time been stopped for advice, a conversation – any sort of interaction that affirms within him a healthy sense of belonging and importance to the community – today, I’m fortunate if I get a smile or head nod from a passerby. In fact, there were times I have been looked at strangely or even felt some derision (although with my Mets cap on, this might be more of an indictment of my beloved team than my collar.)
As I reflect on one year of priesthood, what has struck me most is the new reality in which a good deal of my brother priests and I find ourselves. The Catholicity of our neighborhoods has seen a sobering change. The Eucharistic and Holy Name processions that attracted flocks of devoted faithful ‘back in the day’ (my aunt, Sister Rosemarie Milazzo says she can still hear my grandfather Ciro’s tenor voice chanting ‘Holy God, We Praise Thy Name’ through Bensonhurst and Bath Beach,) seem to serve as much of a reminder that we Catholics are still here, as they are exercises in piety and devotion.
In what has been a remarkable year, I would be remiss if I did not call to mind what some have dubbed the reality of the ‘post-Christian world.’ It seems more and more apparent that we, the Catholic faithful, are increasingly on the outside looking in on a society that has no use for our piety, way of life and Christian identity. As a newly ordained priest, this speaks to the New Evangelization and the challenges of modern priesthood in a personal way. Being in the ‘trenches’ of priestly ministry seems to have taken on a different character. The trenches seem to be getting deeper.
That said, we cannot allow this reality to turn into a sob story. We cannot feel sorry for ourselves. Did St. Paul feel sorry for himself? I have to remind myself every now and then that we Christians are, inherent in our baptismal DNA, called to go against the grain of society. Ours is to be counter-cultural in promoting, living and being the love of Christ in a world that rejected Him first before it ever rejected us. Confident that He has won the final victory, we cannot give in to intimidation and a defeatist attitude.
Return a smile when no one has one to give me? That’s where I’m starting (though at times, I fail). That’s where it can start for anyone. To whom much is given, much is expected. As Bishop DiMarzio told my ordination class last June after we received our assignments: “Get to work.” These words not just meant for men in collars. The work is here and it is necessary, despite any obstacles or lack of support we may receive. Jesus Christ must be proclaimed today and forever.
A world without Jesus Christ is a world without hope – unrecognizable, within which our neighborhoods, communities, and our common humanity cannot truly flourish. For our sake and for those we must lead to Christ, we cannot lose sight of who we are, from Whom we came, and to Whom we look to return.
We’ve got to roll up our sleeves, and get to work.
Father Panicali is the parochial vicar at St. Mark and St. Margaret Mary parish, Sheepshead Bay.