Welcoming the Outsider

Last week, I was on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, who has become a good friend this last year.  The Rabbi and I were among other religious leaders in support of legislation proposed by Senator Jeff Klein to tighten the laws punishing those who would vandalize or deface a church, synagogue, or mosque.

Rabbi Potasnik related the story of the arrival of his Jewish grandparents decades ago.  The neighbors who welcomed them most warmly, he recalled, were the sisters at the local Catholic parish.  Without the warm embrace of those nuns, Rabbi Potasnik concluded, his grandparents would have felt excluded, isolated, and unwelcome in their new neighborhood.

Doesn’t surprise me at all.  The Catholic Church in America has a well-deserved reputation of hospitality to outsiders.  That is readily understandable, since we ourselves were (and sometimes still are) considered aliens and foreigners.  In the 1850’s, for instance, prominent American leaders such as Lyman Beecher and Samuel F. B. Morse warned society about hordes of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Germany, the Italian Peninsula, and Poland.  These foreigners, Beecher, Morse, and company warned, were un-American, from a strange religion led by a fanatic in Rome, who wanted to impose their tyrannical beliefs on the United States, and even destroy  American democracy, by violence, if necessary.

We laugh at that caricature now, but it certainly made Catholics, at their best, embracing of newly-arrived immigrants and religious groups in our country and neighborhoods.

We Catholics are welcoming to the outsider, not only because of our own experience of sometimes being scorned in the past, but also because our faith teaches it.  As Pope John Paul II remarked during his visit to a mosque in Syria, “We are all members of the one human family, and, as believers, we have obligations to the common good, to justice, and to human solidarity.”  He and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, even went-to-bat for the Islamic community in Rome in their yearnings to build the first mosque in Rome.

And we Catholics are hospitable to newcomers, not just because we faced hostility and closed-doors in the past, not only because our Church teaches this value, but because we are loyal Americans.  Our beloved country is predicated on religious freedom, toleration, and the innate dignity of every human person, regardless of race, ethnic background, or religion.  And we New Yorkers have been a sterling example of making genuine the words of hope held out by the Statue of Liberty.

This is hardly “pie-in-the-sky,” but very timely.  We now have controversy surrounding the hopes of our newly-arrived Islamic community to build a mosque downtown, and to purchase an empty convent on Staten Island as a center for study and community life.

Legitimate and understandable concerns about these two endeavors have arisen, and it is good these are being aired and discussed.  Please God, such airing and discussion will be done with charity and civility, and reach a peaceful resolution.

Yes, it is acceptable to ask questions about security, safety, the background and history of the groups hoping to build and buy.

What is not acceptable is to prejudge any group, or to let fear and bias trump the towering American (and for us Catholics, the religious) virtues of hospitality, welcome, and religious freedom.

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18 Responses to “Welcoming the Outsider”

  1. What welcome words you offer us Archbishop Dolan. Welcoming in truth and in spirit – and I welcome their intent, as I hope others do.

    Thank you for the reminder of the context of history which is too often unlearned, which is often too easily disregarded. How frequently I will hear someone say, myself included, “But this time is different.”

    Catholic values mean that throughout time, in a universal way, our values are precisely *not* different.

    Jesus welcomed one and all, Jesus consorted with those who would one day work against him. We must always try – hard as it is – to do the same. I know that I struggle with this all the time. Your post is encouragement along the way.

  2. Irene says:

    Many of us choose to live in NYC exactly because of its diversity. I feel very lucky to live side by side with so many wonderful people of many faiths as well as nonbelievers. I hope New York continues to embrace this diversity and I appreciate your words of tolerance.

  3. Ralph says:

    Thank you Archbishop Dolan,
    Interesting historical notes re: Samuel F.B. Morse that I wasn’t aware of. I pass by on a regular basis his family home, “Locust Grove”, on Rt 9 in Poughkeepsie, now a historical site; I’m sure I’ll think of your column the next time I go by. I’ve been meaning to take my kids there for quite some time and you make me curious whether the biographical information presented includes his awful remarks about Catholics.

  4. catherine Gaffney says:

    What if you are protesting a mosque not because of the religion or people but because of the location. It is almost impossible to make people believe that is the reason for not welcoming it to midland beach. It cannot handle the amount of traffic and people. It is surrounded by all privately owned homes with elderly people and young children.It is not a fair thing to do. It is not being neighborly or american.
    If we have to respect the muslims freedom of religion then they should respect our
    quality of life issues.
    Thank you.

  5. John Collins says:

    No one can quarrel with the Archbishop’s words. There are however unanswered questions.
    Who authorized the sale? Can it be that the Pastor acted without the input of the Chancery?
    Did the Parish Trustees sign off on the deal? Were the parishioners ever consulted? Was it not their (or their ancestors’) money that paid for the convent? How is it, that soon after the sale, the Pastor left?

    These will remain open sores in this parish. Individuals in other parishes will be watching for answers.

  6. Mike Varriano says:

    As someone who has contributed a few thousand dollars to my Parish , Cardinal’s appeal, Peter’s Pence and various charities supported by the Church for the past 25 years, I am deeply disappointed that the Pastor did not consult his parishoners before this sale to a questionable non-christian organization was proposed. I have decided to withold all donations to the Archdiocese since I believe the Archdiocese needs to review it’s stewardship of donations and descions on how church assets are to be diposed of to ensure they are in compliance with Canon and US Law. I want to ensure that my donations will be used to support the Church’s mission of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. The pain and sense of betrayal this incident has caused in the Staten Island Catholic fellowship is immense. The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires. I have been praying to our Blessed Mother that you would heed our pleas and cancel this sale.
    From Civil Law compliance perspective, I have neither heard or read anything that this Church Asset sale is in compliance with the Office of Foreign Asset Control(OFAC) Compliance Regulations. The Office of Foreign Assets Control administers and enforces economic sanctions programs primarily against countries and groups of individuals, such as terrorists and narcotics traffickers. The sanctions can be either comprehensive or selective, using the blocking of assets and trade restrictions to accomplish foreign policy and national security goals. All U.S. persons (which by legal definition includes firms and non profits) must abide by these sanctions—this is the meaning of compliance. All U.S. persons must comply with OFAC regulations, including all U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens regardless of where they are located, all persons and entities within the United States, all U.S. incorporated entities and their foreign branches. In the cases of certain programs, such as those regarding Cuba and North Korea, all foreign subsidiaries owned or controlled by U.S. companies also must comply. Certain programs also require foreign persons in possession of U.S. origin goods to comply. Were any Muslim American Society(MAS) funds provided by Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (“SDN list”) which includes over 3,500 names of companies and individuals connected with the sanctions targets?A number of the named individuals and entities are known to move from country to country and may end up in unexpected locations. U.S. persons are prohibited from dealing with SDNs wherever they are located and all SDN assets are blocked. It is important to check OFAC’s website on a regular basis to ensure that your SDN list is current.
    Respecfully Submitted
    Mike Varriano

  7. Al Alonzo says:

    To address Mr. John Collins questions. As far as the sale being authorized, it isn’t clear who has authorization. It is also unclear if Rev. Fennessy acted with or without the input of the Chancery. It is also unknown who signded off on the deal. However, what is certainly clear is this: The community was not informed until AFTER the deal was made.; the ink had yet to dry on the paper of the proposed sale when Rev. Fennessy apruptly resigned and fled to an undisclosed location; The Archbishop flatly refused to go or send any of his representatives to the town hall meeting on the eve of June 8th.
    All you need do Mr. Collins, is to do a Google search for the key words: ‘Sale Convent Midland Beach Mosque Rev. Fennessy’ and you will see all the information there nessesary to make an informed decision.

  8. Irene says:

    Is there some way I can send a donation to the Staten Island parish that welcomed the Islamic community center? It seems like they are suffering an unfair backlash; I would like to support them.

  9. Mary says:

    The teaching of the catholic faith is that Jesus is our salvation. Our only way through heaven is through him he died for our sins so that we may enter heaven.
    And now the archdiocese is selling our convent building to an Islam group who does not believe Jesus is the son of God, but a mere prophet, to teach the opposite of what we believe as catholic Christians. So this is not a racial issue but for me a religious issue. How do you respect those in the Archdiocese these mere men who do not practice what they preach! Ask yourself please – What would JESUS do? Can you answer that question without hesitation and strong conviction without concern for the almighty dollar? As of now your actions speak otherwise. Your actions are allowing the Catholic Religion to die out. Fight in the Name of our Savior JESUS CHRIST as he suffered & died for you!
    You had every opportunity to sell this building for a lesser amount where religious beliefs were no more of a concern then what to eat for dinner tonight. Form an alliance for your Catholic Religion for the reason I hope you choose religious life to begin with. To spread the word of the lord Jesus Christ, – not the word of Mohammad!
    M.

  10. Mary says:

    I wouldn’t use the word “towering” in any discussion of Islam. The cautious withholding of hospitality and welcome makes a lot of sense to me given the location of Staten Island across from what we used to call the Twin Towers.

    Interfering with religious freedom is a strawman argument. It is absurd to suggest that some Catholics are against Muslims practicing their religion. Actually the reverse is probably closer to reality based on how certain practitioners of Islam “welcome” Christians and Jews.

  11. Bernice says:

    The people of Midland Beach are NOT prejudice. If you look inside our small community, you and the rest of the world will see WE are very diverse in cultures. This is a issue regarding public safety. We have many business on Midland Ave, Fr.Cappandano Blvd and Seaview Ave. The Mosque is not welcomed on Greeley Ave. There are private homes surrounding the property. You can’t park on your own street now. The convent housed 8 Catholic nuns not as many as 100 people cap. The MAS has said that the Mosque would be in use for 7DAYS A WEEK ranging from 8 AM to 9 PM on certain days. Shame ,Shame on the Archdiocese for not being more supportive and caring for its OWN Parish.

  12. Tom says:

    Archbishop Dolan,

    The same thing is being said now about the immigrants coming into this country from Mexico. The Arizona Immigration law is doing exactly what Beecher, Morse and company would be pushing for nationwide. Just the other day, I was listening to the radio driving to daily mass and the dj on the particular station came on and said “God Bless the great state of Arizona” and went on and on about the greatness of the immigration law. He then went on to say that anyone who disagreed with the bill is “un-America” and “the enemy”; he even went to the length of saying that the people who disagree with it should move to another country because they didn’t deserve to live here.

    I sent a message to the radio station asking, “Since when is it ‘un-American’ to disagree with someone?…Since when is it un-American to speak up for what you believe?” It is unimaginable that people would consider others as “the enemy” and “un-American” because they show compassion to people who have less than others.

    Most of the immigrants that come over to this country are very peaceful and simply want to better their lives and the lives of their families. However, because of the massive quantity of people that are here illegally, something does need to be done; but it isn’t feasible to send someone back home just for being in the US. Give them a chance to become a citizen. Give them a chance to enjoy the same liberties that we have: the opportunity to speak freely, the opportunity to worship the God who loves them freely. Deporting someone costs money! What makes more sense, showing compassion and making it easier for people to become American citizens or spending billions of dollars deporting people who will inevitably just come back to the US?

    I think we all need to ask ourselves: “What would Jesus do?”

    Thank you for your yes to Christ, Archbishop! May God continue to bless you in your priestly service!!

    Tom

  13. Scott says:

    Archbishop Dolan,

    The Lord give you peace!!! Thank you for your articles in the Catholic New York. I don’t find them to be too simple or pious. They remind me of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and how she would speak God’s word so very simple but with great love and piety. She is a great saint, so please keep up the good work of speaking God’s Word in simple and pious language.

    God bless,

    Scott

  14. Tom Saleh says:

    As a lifelong catholic I am deeply troubled by the anti Muslim sentiment I hear from the local community. The protest on SI about selling an unused convent to be converted into a mosque is the kind of lack of intolerance that terrorism welcomes and feeds on. The fact that the Archdiocese is not taking a leadership roll in eliminating this in the same way they would if this was an anti Semitic issue is unchristian. Remember Christ taught us to love all men especially our enemies.
    I am currently dealing with a vicious anti-Islam post made by one of my catholic employees by trying to reason with him and it is clear that his attitude is shared by many in his parish. We cannot standby and allow this to continue.

  15. Ellie M says:

    As it happens, I’ve just spent weeks defending Catholics against the bigotry that surfaced recently. To now see Catholic bigots in Staten Island is more than a little disheartenng. It’s wrong to judge ethnic and religious groups by the crimes of a few, and Catholics should know that.

  16. Michael Lynch says:

    Dear Archbishop Dolan,

    May the peace of the Lord Jesus be with you! I had the great blessing of hearing you speak today at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester on the feast of our patron, St. John Fisher. Your words calling us to faithfulness and sacrificial love were deeply moving. Thank you so much for coming to visit us and for your pastoral care for all the faithful. May the Lord fill you with every grace, and may His mother look after you with maternal affection.

    Your servant in Christ,

    Michael

  17. Frances Brown says:

    Dear Archbishop Dolan,
    Your statement in June about welcoming others is fine as far as it goes. However,
    the situation continues to escalate around the Islamic Center proposal for Park Place
    and we need more from you to affirm our support and understanding toward the moderate Muslim group that is a prime sponsor of the Center. It was disheartening to see the only Catholic presence with Mayor Bloomberg and others at his wonderful speech a week or so ago was Father Jordan from the Franciscans. I too respect the feelings of loss of many 9/11 families but it is the Church’s responsibility to educate and enlighten. The voices of hate and divisiveness have taken over in the absence of a clear message from leaders such as yourself. The Staten Island situation was a debacle; although the circumstances differ, the hatred expressed by Catholics was very disturbing and again there was ambiguity from the Archdiocese. Maybe it all needs a cooling off period but we look to you to speak out against the hate. Thank you.
    Sincerely, Frances Gautieri Brown

  18. Dee Pierson says:

    I thought the Archbishop was very clear, his remarks lead to no conclusion other than that we must be welcoming to the Muslims. Recognizing sources of temptation and pain that might lead to not welcoming does not make that a valid option. If the parishioners in the convent case want to be taken seriously when they say it is a matter of traffic through the neighborhood – at valid concern – they need to clearly and publicly disassociate themselves from those who do have racial or religious objections to the mosque. The bishop could, perhaps, be clearer about this in both mosque controversies. God’s love upon us all.