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The Francis Landscape

Encyclicals, politics, and touring Western New York’s Catholic art

Did Pope Francis really mean it—that unregulated financial capitalism is bad? That’s the question that the business media are momentarily amusing themselves with. From the Financial Times of London to the Wall Street Journal to the neo-liberal secularists of Manhattan, Washington, and cyberspace, lots of columnists are becoming theologians as they endeavor to dissect the latest papal encyclical.

Some are saying that the new pope’s essay is an aberrant, idiosyncratic utterance by a jaded Jesuit critic of crony capitalism from Argentina, where crony capitalism has horribly screwed up an immensely rich and diverse economy. Others are connecting the strands, the many lines of argument, from recently former Pope Benedict, who only this past January criticized unregulated financial capitalism—and from John Paul II, the Polish pope, whose Centesimus Annus in 1991 endorsed labor unions and economic justice and excoriated excesses of wealth-accumulation even as he denounced statism, too.

Centesimus Annus, for those of us who were mediocre students of Latin, translates to “hundredth year,” meaning that it was an anniversary essay. The anniversary? Why, the pope who endorsed the anti-Soviet Solidarity trade union movement in the shipyards of Gdansk in Poland was writing his own commemorative update of Rerum Novarum, the work of a previous pope, which also focused on the topics of economic justice for working people.

The Western New York ideology tour

This is the deep Catholic literature of critique of capitalism. It happens that this critique is written in concrete in Western New York—literally in concrete, in the sgrafitti of Josef Slawinski, in the churches of Polonia, in the few surviving edifices of the German Catholics, and in the shrine to the Fatima visitation that Italian priests of the Barnabite order built in Lewiston. Take it from your humble Episcopalian (lapsed) correspondent: Invisible to the secular eye, but all around this region, the very ideas presented in more than a century’s sequence of papal writings about economic justice can be visited, seen, photographed, and introduced or re-introduced to kids, Millenials, and to forgetful Boomers, too—most of whom are as clueless as their younger relatives about why this stuff exists.

This would be the apt season to take this particular tour, especially because Pope Francis denounced consumerism, too.

Must-see Catholic arts sites in WNY

Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima (1954)

1023 Swann Road, Lewiston

Corpus Cristi Church (1900)

199 Clark Street, Buffalo

St Adalbert’s Basilica (1891)

212 Stanislaus Street, Buffalo

Church of St Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr (1886)

123 Townsend Street, Buffalo

Blessed Trinity Church (1923-1928)

317 Leroy Avenue

Church of the Assumption (1915)

425 Amherst Street, Buffalo

So start at the Fatima Shrine in Lewiston, which for the month of the Christmas consumerist orgy has a fetching, corny, yet withal quite pretty setup of outdoor lights along paths and fountains and the many exterior statues. The interior space of the basilica there includes two chapels that flank the monumental, curious, demanding sgrafitto Peace by Slawinski, which he completed on-site in 1974. Here in Western New York, the Polish-born Slawinski created a very extensive oeuvre using Renaissance techniques, including the sgrafitto version of fresco—painting on wet cement, and carving it, too—that is technically distinctive, but also very determinedly political. The Catholic messages about labor, wealth, power, science, and life and death are all there, in compellingly elaborated detail. If his work were in a European tourism destination rather than off in a far-flung Buffalo exurb, masses would have seen it. Think Diego Rivera. Think Thomas Hart Benton.

The 20-minute drive from Lewiston to Buffalo and up the Scajacuada could get you more Slawinski—at the Church of the Assumption on Amherst, and at the Calasanctius mural behind Butler Library on the Buffalo State College campus, and in Erie County Medical Center’s lobby, site of his sgrafitto triptych Buffalo’s Polonia. But Slawinski is not the point of this tour. We are not suggesting another lionization of the individual genius, the Catholic Richardson, the Catholic Wright. The issue is Catholicism itself. So let’s plunge right in to the abandoned, struggling, stranded Catholicism of Buffalo’s largely Catholic-free, post-sprawl, post-globalization East Side.

The Catholic abandonment of our city was well underway before the latest two popes criticized under-regulated financial capitalism. Back in Buffalo’s industrial age, in the mid-1960s, all the forces of bankers, politicians, and he local Catholic hierarchy itself were coming together to leave behind a century’s investment in places like the stunning, pop-up-out-of-nowhere terra-cotta and ceramic facade of the Blessed Trinity Church on Leroy Avenue.

It’s a few blocks from Fillmore Avenue. The neighborhood has been poor for 40 years, solidly African-American for 30 years. The place has the architectural historians gaga because the ornamentation is so overwhelming. It was constructed over the course of five years in the mid-1920s, and it is not only in the interior, but also, remarkably, distinctively, on the exterior, that visitors can see the apostles, icons, symbols, mouldings, color—all on display to the people in the parish who used to live there in the sturdy American housing that the American industrial age let them have, because just down the street from them, American capitalism used to produce radiators, Chevrolets, Curtiss-Wright airplanes, plated metals, and the rest of the materiel that made us, once, a generally rich society, with the wealth far more spread around than now, and far less concentrated. The message of Rerum Novarum, which was, centrally, that the just society shares the wealth of capitalism, is written on the face of that church because that Catholic notion, from the top Catholic of them all, used to be policy here in the country that prohibits any establishment of religion.

And it was written into the streetscape. Yes, Western New York was briefly the home of some of the mid-19th-century Protestant perfectionism that flourished in the Finger Lakes region, but only briefly. And yes, between 1794 and 1838, when the Buffalo Creek reservation hosted the Haudenosaunee council fire, the Gawi’io of Handsome Lake was recited here. Mormonism from east of Rochester passed through here on its way west, spiritualism on its way south to Cassadaga. But this was, and remains, a resolutely Catholic place.

This is especially so for the Poles, so the next stop on the tour must be the Dyngus Day zone. From the German church on Leroy, Polonia’s religious architecture is best accessed down the long, formerly Olmstedian parkway known as Fillmore Avenue, which pierces what Olmsted knew as Humboldt Park, long since renamed Martin Luther King, Jr., Park. And this circumstance of change is—sort of, kind of—about the Christian message itself, which has been Limbaughed into a stew of angry cognitive dissonance. Is it the advent of black Protestants that changed what was once a space of prosperous working- and middle-class residences and commerce into a center of persistent poverty? Of course not: The African-Americans came here for the same reason the others came. Not so very long after they came in large numbers, it was the reorganization of capitalism, from North American industrial to globalized financial, that changed the landscape for all of us. How weird it is that, if our tour takes place in midafternoon on any weekday, we could travel down Fillmore Avenue to the accompaniment of Rush Limbaugh, who recently criticized Pope Francis’s encyclical as “communist.” In the hands of the modern-day Protestants who amplify Limbaugh’s message, the central tenets of Christian morality—which concern economics, not sex—have been utterly abandoned, just as the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo pretty much abandoned the East Side of Buffalo.

But not individual Catholic congregations.

Polonia, Catholicism, ideology

The cluster of Polish churches in the Broadway-Fillmore area continues to serve an in-migrant constituency. Specifically, Corpus Cristi on Clark Street, which the Franciscans left to the Poles of the Pauline order—an aggressive policy of re-Polonization accompanying or even driving the resistance to abandoning a place.

That’s the church directly to the east of the Broadway Market. To the north and east a couple of blocks, near a former church that is now a mosque on a street named for the Pole who defended Christendom from the armies of the Muslim caliph, is St. Adalbert’s almost-shuttered basilica. To the west, the big church that is still open, still being used, still lit, colorful, redolent of incense in every season but especially bright at Christmas time, is great big Saint Stan’s, just around the corner from the Miczkiewiecz Library on Fillmore at Peckham, just down the street from the old Central Terminal, all of them curiously, defiantly alive.

These places are outposts of the sensibility in Pope Francis’s encyclical. They are not suburban big-box churches, where the current iteration of Protestantism is unrecognizable as Christianity to those of us who grew up on King James language and a New Testament that lectured us to be charitable to rather than angry at the poor, and certainly never let us in on any secrets about magical money-creating prayer-cloths, “gospel” business practices, or “biblical” multi-level marketing. These East Side Polish parishioners? They’re not especially saintly about the poor in the immediate vicinity of these cherished buildings. There’s no visible bridging of cultural gaps between the remnant European immigrant workers and the new American immigrants to this now post-industrial neighborhood. Yet the poor of the neighborhood are not strangers to these churches. The better-off suburbanites that drive in and out on Sundays are not just hanging on to their old definitions by coming into the old neighborhood to be Catholics. They are reasserting what that identity consists of.

And there are contradictions, too, and it gets complicated to explain, especially to Millenials. Pope Francis’s encyclical, Pope Benedict’s remarks before he retired, Pope John Paul II’s pro-labor reiteration of Rerum Novarum all gave the chatterers of the business-press reason to rejoice—because as devastating as globalized financial capitalism has been to Catholic spaces, neighborhoods, communities, and individuals, the Catholic critique does not mean outright rejection of capitalism.

That is because, still, of the anti-communism that shaped Catholicism in the 20th century. Unknown to all Millenials, we only recently emerged from the bipolar world of evil communism versus virtuous capitalism. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. The Soviet Union became Russia a couple of years later, and the Catholic countries got out from under the “evil empire,” the phrase Peggy Noonan wrote for Ronald Reagan’s use. Since the fall of the Wall, everybody’s attention has been on Chinese economics, on the terrorism the media portray as the central expression of Islam, and on money, big money, insanely big money, as the new measure of everything.

The Slawinski murals, the church architecture here, the landscape of once-solid city neighborhoods with once-solid Catholic institutions, were all obsolete by the time the Cold War ended. But in the last phase of that war, as the first phase of globalization began, there were confusing developments. Pope John Paul II criticized and undermined Liberation Theology in Central and South America, thereby giving political aid and comfort to the brutal oppressors who murdered priests and peasants trying to achieve economic justice in ugly kleptocracies. Why did the anti-oppressor John Paul II throw the Spanish-speaking priests to the neofascist wolves? Simply, bluntly, because the anti-fascists included communists. So even as he celebrated the Solidarity movement in Poland, whose resistance brought down the communist regime, and even as he praised labor unions, and reiterated the old notion of shared prosperity, he drew a line. The Catholics criticized capitalism, but they hated communism.

Communism? It is entirely, utterly obsolete. There is only neoliberal internationalism, and some of us old scolds on the sidelines, even some Gospel-quoting Leftists showing up on social media now and then. And that is probably why Pope Francis’s critique of capitalism is so out of context. There’s no white vs. black contrast. So the symbols, architecture, and shrines of the Cold War era, the era of labor unions and of a rising median household income in this country, only get toured, if ever, by curiosity-seekers.

Perhaps Catholicism can make a comeback as a movement for global economic justice. It’s been fun to watch highly, determinedly secular humanists give Pope Francis attaboys for having slammed the financial elites. Progressives and everybody else are disgusted by apologists for priest-pederasts, like the moral idiot of a Polish cardinal who recently suggested that it’s the child’s fault when a priest rapes him. Progressives expect that Francis will shut that guy down, because they like what the new pope says about ending the demonization of gays. Nobody here pretends to being a biblical scholar, but one doesn’t recall reading of Jesus bashing anybody on any sexual issues, only old Leviticus way away back in the Old Testament. Though there was old Saint Paul, who didn’t like girls much.

Anyway. Western New York should stand up and give Pope Francis a high-five. We have a new offering for cultural tourists: our formerly Catholic selves. Our native architecture, our vernacular genuine self as a region, is, largely, Catholic. With the concrete and the bricks and the stained glass come a message, one that some money guys and their apologists ridicule, but a good one: that we’re all in this together. Looking around, it’s clear that we used to be; looking around, perhaps it’s not entirely too late to get there again. At least for a visit.

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