Recently, His Eminence Cardinal Sarah stated that, “watering down the faith will not attract young people to the Church!” He is very correct in the appraisal of the best way the Church attracts youth to the Catholic faith.

Growing up in Gray’s Ferry in Philadelphia, they knew the best manner of attracting young people to the faith and that was through active participation in the life of the parish. Saint Gabriel Parish boasted a large school and was staffed by both priests and religious that were committed to not only the youth of the parish, but to the success of the local community.

One of the things I miss the most about living away from my old parish of Saint Gabriel is the convenience of living in the walking proximity of the local parish. Suburban living for all the positive points associated with it has great drawbacks as well. Paramount to the flaws of living in a place outside of the city is the fact that one needs to drive to the Catholic Church to attend Mass, participate in activities and actively participate in the life of the parish.

Growing up in Gray’s Ferry we all walked to King of Peace, Saint Gabriel, Saint Anthony or Saint Aloysius parishes and we really thought little about the walk, because at the time we didn’t know any better.

The parish in those days was the spiritual and educational hub of our lives and many of the social activities in all the parishes in Gray’s Ferry revolved around the parish. The parish sponsored C.Y.O. activities, baseball leagues, football leagues, bowling leagues for adults and youth alike. The enclave of the parish is indeed the fundamental building block of the Catholic faith and allegiance to one’s Catholic parish gave the people of Gray’s Ferry their unique and characteristic identities as not only Catholics but as individuals that lived and participated in the development of the faith.

Scores of faithful priests and religious ministered to Gray’s Ferry effectively and they were part of the Gray’s Ferry family because they held positions of great esteem in our local parishes. It didn’t matter how everyone felt or thought about the teachings of the Catholic Church, you respected your parish priests and religious sisters because they were the visible presence of Christ among us in the parish community. Unfortunately, the Diaspora that has left Gray’s Ferry does not have the same interaction with their new parishes not because the faith is different, but because the parish is no longer the integral component of all aspects of life with life in contemporary suburbia.

My personal greatest memories of living in Gray’s Ferry all revolve around the life of the Catholic parishes that made up our little enclave in Philadelphia. Saint Gabriel Parish had a yearly carnival, they had weekly bingo and they had social activities on New Year’s Eve, Saint Patrick’s Day, and Valentine’s Day where there was no better Beef and Beer available in the City of Philadelphia.

In recognizing Cardinal Sarah’s discussion on the way, the Church needs to attract the youth of the world to the Catholic Church, there was no better example of Gray’s Ferry to attract strong Catholics to participation to the faith and to develop vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.

If the Church wants to strengthen the participation of the youth to the life of the Church, it needs to develop and maintain a strong spiritual and social interaction between the local parish church and the people of that same parish. Even though most of us have not lived in Gray’s Ferry for many years, we all still consider each other as a quasi-extended family that is uniquely affiliated with the spiritual and social activities that enriched our lives in Gray’s Ferry.

The ability to walk to Mass in Gray’s Ferry allowed us the greatest participation in the life of the parish which was for us, the “heartbeat, “of the neighborhood. Gray’s Ferry’s particular brand of Catholicism gave us weekly participation in the Mass, complete with a High Mass that included a choir, weekly devotions to Mary with the Sodality, followed by Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament highlighted with clouds of sweet incense that on recollection always brings me back to Gray’s Ferry and my days as an altar boy and as a seminarian studying for priesthood.

The parishes in Gray’s Ferry had May Processions, 40 Hours Devotions once a year, (especially unique to Philadelphia having been established by Saint John Neumann,) We had yearly Novenas, preached by a Redemptorist priest and they were filled with members of the parish because they offered a change of menu from the weekly preaching of the priests assigned to the parish. They even had a table that sold small religious medals and pamphlets in the vestibule of the Church. If the Catholic Church has lost anything in the modern world it has lost the intimacy of the local parish as the center of our spiritual and social lives which integrated the Catholic faith into both youth and adults in activities peculiar to their ages and interests.

In Gray’s Ferry, the priests and female religious were active components to our daily lives. The priests of the parish helped coach basketball or umpired baseball games. When report cards were distributed each quarter, it was either Father Kerwick or Father Shoemaker that distributed them to the trembling children with an I.H.M. looking on and watching for any misbehavior in the classes. The parish priests often wandered around in cassocks and the most casual dress of any of the parish priests was a starched white shirt without a clerical collar. Female religious in those days looks like female religious in blue habits, starched white bibs and so on. One could also never forget at Bishop Neumann High School, the Norbertine Fathers in their unmistakable white habits that made everyone realize that they were priests or religious brothers dedicated to education. Often, when staying late as a student at Bishop Neumann, if you were there around 5pm, you could hear the Norbertine priests chanting the Liturgy of the Hours in the school’s chapel, adjacent to the community’s priory. All these things established the faith and developed strong Catholic roots in Gray’s Ferry that continued through many generations of the faithful that lived in our neighborhoods and celebrated the faith in Gray’s Ferry.

The Church in Gray’s Ferry was instrumental in scores of vocations to the priesthood and religious life as well. Many of the priests that served in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia grew up in Gray’s Ferry, many of the male and female religious grew up in Gray’s Ferry. They became Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Sisters of Christian Charity, or Norbertine fathers attached to Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, Pa.

Whatever occurred in the Gray’s Ferry area developed generations of lifelong faithful Catholics that went on to vocations as married couples, priests, brothers or female religious and it was all rooted in the local Catholic parish.

Educating Catholic youth as well was a charism of both the priests and religious alike that ministered in Gray’s Ferry. They had help as well from the famous interrogatory methodology of the Baltimore Catechism that required answers to what many of us considered unanswerable questions. Examples are, Who made you? Why did God make you? What was His purpose of making you? I am certain that the answers are still in the deeper recess’ of all of our brains. Even Confirmation had the period of interrogation of the candidates, when the Bishop would ask children questions to determine if they were ready for the Sacrament of Confirmation.

In finishing, perhaps it would behoove (an old I.H.M. word,) Cardinal Sarah to ask some of us that experienced Catholicism in Gray’s Ferry about how the faith was developed, rooted and propagated in our local parish communities. I am certain the answers would astonish him, not because our Catholic experience was something extraordinary in Gray’s Ferry. It would astonish him because the Catholic parishes were the glue that held the Catholic Church in Gray’s Ferry together, passed on to generations of Catholics that have a strong love of the Church and the Sacraments as the foundation for their continued faith in the Church and Her life…. Gray’s Ferry style!

 

 

 

 

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