Sacred Places: Saint Bernard Catholic Church
In the year of our Lord 1521, Martin Luther, priest, was called before a deliberative body of the Holy Roman Empire to defend statements opposing his elders, Saint Peter, and Christ’s Church on Earth. At issue, Luther’s unique justification of opposition to the Church’s majesty. Luther supposed his opinion superior to the wisdom of all those who proceeded him, claiming that his reasoned conscience was the Word of God, saying at the conclusion of his defense, “…it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” From Luther, the first Protestant (protestor) and first Empiricist, these many centuries of Christian fracture, bloody revolution, charismatic excess and sincere devotion.
In the same year, half the world away, Ponce De Leon harbored at an island in western Florida (Florida, from Pascua florida, “Easter in Flower”, name given to the place by PdL), and there, as legend supposes, he named the island for the Mother of Christ, Maria, and her sister, Anna (Anna Maria Island), a story possibly true because true to events of the time … Ferdinand II, PdL’s patron, expelled Islam from Spain only 29 years earlier and was claiming known and discovered lands for Christ. Perhaps more likely, the island was named by its first settler, the anti-Catholic, Madison Post, for his wife Maria and his sister-in-law Anna. *
Either way, on long, thin Anna Maria Island you will find aging beachgoers in traditional shorts and polos, wide-brim hats and floral patterns, you will find opinions of America’s 60s revolutions, both in support and in reserve. Most on the island are agnostic, some are spiritual atheist, some are personally inspired by God, everyone is busy in getting and spending, and the few Catholics of the island will be found at Saint Bernard Catholic Church. Saint Bernard … you will remember Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, co-founder of the Knights Templar who preached Crusade against Islam in hope that Christendom preserve Jerusalem. Then too, the fictional Saint Bernard was Dante’s final guide in Paradise who showed to Dante a flower, a Heavenly rose of layered petals, metaphor for the “rank upon rank of great souls”. Seems appropriate that a church of a Crusader state named for Easter in a city that recalls Saint Mary should receive the name, Saint Bernard.
The new Saint Bernard Catholic Church building (SBCC founded 1956, two buildings preceding) is typical of Progressive outpost churches, moderny in the local style, plopped in the center of an asphalt parking lot and surrounded by the backside of houses. The church building is pleasant in the modern way, comely, and might be a restaurant or veterinary hospital if not for the telling Cross on the roof summit. When first seeing the church on a weekday morning, I was pleased to find a wealth of cars in the parking lot, and was surprised when walking though the typically unceremonious entrance (stuffed as is usual with brochures and bric-a-brac) to find a solemn space, artsy-craftsy though honest with little of the Progressive pretense. And here at Saint Bernard Catholic Church were sincerely devout parishioners who arrived early for rosary and contemplation.
While advancing my rosary touch by touch, cool colors of light from the inarticulate windows crept along the tile floor, and after some little time an energy stepped through the door; a sinewy strong priest who bolded himself to the altar and without fuss directly spoke the liturgy. “Here is a man,” I thought, “strong Crusader, proper son of Saint Bernard.” We attended. I do not recall readings of that Thursday morning, though I shall not forget Father John Belmonte’s homily, a catechesis on Beauty, sacred places, modern buildings, modern art, iconoclasm, and defiance of the ugly. Father John began, “The British Philosopher Roger Scruton,” continued, “Sacred places are the first places to be destroyed by invaders and iconoclasts”, expanded, “Beauty is the glue that holds cultures together,” and concluded, “How will you know that you have rejected the false, the ugly, the unholy? You will be filled with gratitude.” The homily entire is shared, below.
Following worship, the faithful arose and left, I lingered, as is my custom, though I too was soon called back to the day-after-day. At the exit porch I found Father John with an old friend, a lady parishioner who had not seen Father John for quite a while … seems Father John was a guest. I paused to speak. Soon, inspired by the sermon, we began to consider the Saint Bernard Catholic Church building. Seems the building wanted a painting, yet the color was undetermined. The church is a storm-worn yellow that many would like to cover in a gray-muted-beige to better integrate with the community of encircling houses. Here, I thought, is a metaphor of the Progressive Catholic Church, follower rather than leader, conformist to material culture, its fashions, failures, faults, and foibles. As you know, the Pope in Rome considers fashionable Progressive fad to be one with the Holy Spirit, an opinion that my conscience will not allow. God help me. Amen.
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I asked Father John for a copy of the homily, which he lifted from his pocket and handed me. Walking to the car through the encircling parking lot I recalled the Church of Old, centered in town, its steeple confidently directed to Heaven, its façade remembering Christian architectural tradition, and the buildings of the square, the town hall, the store, the handsome houses each looking to the Church for leadership, purpose, and style. Here, edging the expansive asphalt were houses directing backsides at the new church. “Hum,” I thought, “space enough for the sale of lots suitable to handsome houses that will look to the Church in respect, and with the sale of lots, funds to beautifully reform the church, to reclaim for the Church its place at the center of civilization.”
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Saint Bernard Catholic Church: Sacred Places
Homily by Father John Belmonte, Thursday, 23 March 2023
The British Philosopher Roger Scruton provides us with a modern or post-modern twist on our Lenten readings. Scruton says this, “Sacred places are the first places to be destroyed by invaders and iconoclasts, for whom nothing is more offensive than the enemy’s gods. The iconoclasts like to replace old gods with new, to disenchant the landscape and to mark the place with signs of defiance. This iconoclast spirit can be seen in a great many modern building projects—not only in the faceless curtain walls of new building types, but in the bleak intrusive windfarms that are eating up the landscape, or in the postmodern blemishes deliberated inserted into settled urban schemes.” To disenchant the landscape and mark the place with signs of his defiance. You may have a different opinion about modern churches. Modern buildings. Modern art.
Our readings today center on the choice which each one of us has in relationship with God. The Hebrew people made a choice to build a molten calf. They used their free will to opt for idolatry over God. They knew God. They had just witnessed God’s powerful action at the Red Sea. Nevertheless, they chose to say no to God. As Sir Roger Scruton says, they “replace old gods with new, to disenchant the landscape and to mark the place with signs of their defiance.”
In the Gospel Jesus speaks of his rejection by the people. Jesus claims that people do not have God in their hearts because they failed to recognize the Son. The people have chosen to say no to God’s invitation, an invitation to life. Others who come in God’s name have been accepted, but not Jesus.
Many times the decisions we make are an option for or against God. We are asked to make a choice which means we can accept or reject God, the one who is the source of all good. At other times, as in the first reading, we make decisions which create false gods. When we opt for power, wealth or prestige at the expense of God, then we have created false Gods in our lives.
So what is an antidote to our poor choices? To the iconoclast in us who rejects God, who builds molten calves. Sir Roger says it is beauty. “Beauty is the glue that holds cultures together. It links us with a sense of profoundness and awe. It transcends individual places and ages.” I don’t know what you gave up for Lent. But consider instead setting aside the ugliness of sin and embracing beauty. Consider rejecting the iconoclasts of our culture who disenchant our landscape, literal and spiritual, with signs of their defiance. In these days of Lent, embrace the beauty of prayer in your soul. Consider the light shining through the stained glass. Contemplate the face of the Blessed Mother. Allow your heart to be moved by sacred music. How will you know that your prayer is genuine? How will you know that God is truly present in your heart? How will you know that you have rejected the false, the ugly, the unholy? You will be filled with gratitude. Gratitude to be God’s son or daughter. Gratitude for God’s creation. Gratitude for the gift of life and eternal life.
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* In 1896, the first child born at the settlement was named Anna Maria.
Featured image, Saint Bernard Church, Holmes Beach, Anna Maria Island, Florida, courtesy SBCC.
For more on the Houses of God, see The Beautiful Home: American Sacred Architecture
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