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Compelling History Well Told

October 26, 2007

Compelling History Well Told

Following is the introduction that Cardinal Egan has written for Msgr. Thomas Shelley's "The Bicentennial History of the Archdiocese of New York."

The Bicentennial of the Archdiocese of New York is an occasion of both pride and humility. Certainly, we have reason to be proud of the multitude of parishes, schools, charitable agencies, and other institutions of faith and holiness that have come into being in the Archdiocese and contributed mightily to the welfare of Catholics and others as well in the cities, towns and villages we are privileged to serve. Certainly too, we have reason to be humble. For we recognize that all that has been achieved is ultimately a gift from God. Nothing has been accomplished, or could be accomplished, without His grace and His guidance.

Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley's "The Bicentennial History of the Archdiocese of New York" brings all of this to mind. His vivid and insightful telling of the story of the Catholic Church in New York amazes the reader with the wonders that have been achieved. Still, it reminds us that in all that we do, we depend utterly upon the loving providence of the Triune God. Keeping both of these perspectives before us will greatly enhance the pleasure of reading his splendid volume.

When people from every corner of the world flocked to this country, they had no idea what to expect. They had uprooted themselves from their native lands where conditions, if not favorable, were at least familiar; and after what was usually a difficult passage, they found themselves in a land that held promise for the future but was often both frightening and hostile. Where would they live? How would they adjust to a new language, new customs and new people? How would they earn a living for themselves and their loved ones? How would they continue to worship their God?

As Msgr. Shelley's history makes clear, it was the parish that provided Catholic immigrants with answers to most of these questions. The parish was the place where they could practice their faith and gain spiritual strength. It was the safe haven where they could gather and adjust to a strange, new world. The Mass, the sacraments, the clergy who came with them, spoke their language, and understood their needs, and the unique sense of community that the parish engendered all gave the newcomers a much-needed sense of security and belonging. Moreover, as populations shifted with the passage of years, the parish continued to be a very special blessing for Catholics, enabling generation after generation to hear the Word of God and live it with courage and self-confidence in an ever-changing and ever-challenging world. All of this Msgr. Shelley documents and illustrates with power and poignancy.

"The Bicentennial History of the Archdiocese of New York" focuses as well on three other key institutions of Catholic life that have served immigrants and all of the Catholic faithful over the past 200 years. New arrivals soon understood the value of education and wanted their children to have the best possible schooling so as to make their way in a daunting milieu. They insisted that that education offer the finest in academic training, of course, but also the best in spiritual and moral formation. Hence, with great courage and immense generosity, they created a Catholic school system that is admired across the nation and, indeed, throughout the world. In our own day, Catholic parents continue to sustain Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York with an ever-increasing appreciation of their educational excellence and the inestimable value of the religious instruction and guidance they give their students. As a result, as Msgr. Shelley explains, the Archdiocese rejoices in an expanding Catholic school system, which is the largest and certainly among the most outstanding in the land.

No less impressive have been the charitable works of the Church in New York throughout its 200-year history. The vast network of Catholic Charities agencies and programs that are in operation today originated with the refusal of the Catholic community from its earliest years to stand apart while others were suffering in want. Many of those who came to these shores to find a new life were desperately poor and in need of help even to survive. By the grace of the Lord, Catholic clergy, religious and laity came forward in great numbers to assist them with professional skill and total devotion, as they continue to do in our time for thousands upon thousands in need, both newcomers and others as well. In Catholic Charities undertakings and parish operations too, they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for widows and orphans, aid the mentally and emotionally afflicted, visit the imprisoned, welcome the stranger, and, in brief, fulfill with heroic self-sacrifice the injunction of our God that we hear and respond to the cry of the poor. Msgr. Shelley narrates all of this with charm and in remarkable detail.

Similarly in health care, the People of God of the Archdiocese of New York have much of which to be proud. They established hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and nursing schools to provide the aged and infirm with the best of medical attention; and they continue all of this in our time, guided and inspired by the Gospel of an all-loving Savior. "The Bicentennial History of the Archdiocese of New York" recounts the stories of these undertakings in each era and in each sector of the Lord's vineyard in which we have been called to serve. It is an exciting and compelling tale.

In this extraordinary book, we are inevitably and especially impressed by the saints and heroes who have played key roles in the drama of our Archdiocese. No less moving, however, are the accounts of the clergy, religious and laity who without fanfare or even notice made, and continue to make, the Church here in New York the wondrous community of faith that is it. As we enter our third century, we thank the Lord for all of them and commit ourselves to carrying their work forward with vigor and dedication. May the reading of this splendid volume strengthen and deepen that commitment.

"The Bicentennial History of the Archdiocese of New York" is published by Editions du Signe. Cost is $30. Those interested in purchasing a copy may contact their parish in the archdiocese or send a check for $30 made payable to Editions du Signe to: Mrs. Barbara De Jean, Editions du Signe, P.O. Box 1602, Sunset, La., 70507. Phone: 866-379-2352.

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York

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