Skip to Content


Over the heavenly gates will be a sign: “From the Wonderful People Who Brought You New York City, the New Jerusalem!”

By Print Preview

Preacher in New York glory. Sketch of Bronx pastor by Darilyn Carnes, background painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner in Brooklyn, collage by Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Preacher in New York glory. Sketch of Bronx pastor by Darilyn Carnes, background painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner in Brooklyn, collage by Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

When you're tired of London, the great Dr. Johnson observed, you're tired of life. More than two hundred years later, the same might be said of New York City. In fact, people have, in various ways, been saying essentially that about New York for more than two hundred years. In its fine introduction, New York Glory. Religions in the City touches on the ways visitors to New York from Europe and elsewhere have intuited, to their satisfaction or alarm, that the city betokens the future of the modern (postmodern?) world.

Lecturing in England on the religious and cultural situation in the United States, I was impressed by an Oxford don who politely dissented from something I had said but then quickly added, “From my years there, I concluded that America is so vast and so various that almost any generalization made about it is amply supported by the evidence.” And that, too, may be said of New York.

Shortly after being appointed archbishop of New York in 1984, John Cardinal O’Connor visited Pope John Paul II. The Pope greeted him with his arms spread and declared, “Welcome to the archbishop of the capital of the world!” This from the Bishop of Rome, to which, or so we are told, all roads lead.

New Yorkers are regularly reminded, and not always in the kindest tones, that New York is not America. They just as regularly, and happily, agree. One way in which New York is presumably not like the rest of America is that the rest of America is very religious while New York is determinedly secular. It is one of the great merits of the present book to challenge, sharply and convincingly, that assumption.

I have encountered sociologists who, with respect to America's religiosity and New York's secularity, speak of “New York exceptionalism.” My own experience of living here more than thirty years, reinforced by the stories and data in these pages, suggests that we should view such a notion with robust skepticism. In general, secularization theorists have done something of a turnabout in recent years. In the more militantly secular versions of eighteenth century Enlightenment and up through recent times, it was thought that secularization was something of an unstoppable juggernaut. As the world became more modern (i.e. enlightened), religion would either wither away or be hermetically sealed off from public life as a private eccentricity. Secularization theorists tended to be European and agreed with Max Weber that there appeared to be an unbreakable link between modernization and the “disenchantment” of the world. All is rationalized, specialized, bureaucratized, functionalized. In short, all is secularized.

Among those subscribing to this general theory, puzzlement was regularly expressed as to why religion, in maddeningly diverse ways, is so vibrantly alive in America, despite the fact that America is a modern, perhaps the most modern, society. The agreed-upon answer to this puzzlement was expressed in the notion of “American exceptionalism.” Today there is a growing consensus that it may be more accurate to speak of European exceptionalism, or at least of Western European exceptionalism. While Germany, France, and the Netherlands, among others, seem to be in thrall to a numbing secularization, around the world -- in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere -- there is a resurgence of religion, with all the cultural and political consequences that attend such a resurgence. This is the reality examined by Harvard¹s Samuel Huntington in his much controverted, but I think essentially accurate, “clash of civilizations” thesis. I am inclined to risk going a step further and say that, if the proverbial man or woman from Mars asked about the most important single thing happening on planet earth at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a very good answer might be the desecularization of world history. This is not, according to the textbooks still used from grade school through graduate school, how history was supposed to turn out.

The book New York Glory suggests that the myth of New York exceptionalism is as dubious as is the myth of American exceptionalism. As America is, with respect to religion, more like than unlike the rest of the world, so New York is more like than unlike America. But, of course, New York is also different. The difference, however, may be quite the opposite of what is usually supposed. The conventional wisdom for a long time was that the city is the preeminently modern expression of Weber¹s rationalized “disenchantment.” It seems to me more likely, however, that the raucously variegated disjunctions of everyday life in New York opens up spaces of enchantment -- both wondrous and bizarre -- unknown in more domesticated forms of human society. The city is a city of many cities, a world of many worlds.

My first parish assignment was to a medium-sized town of 15,000 people in far upstate New York. The life of that town was tight as a drum, predictable, rational, and in all its dimensions run by the rules of a family, a business, and an Episcopal church that had dominated it for generations. I and the small flock I shepherded were most decidedly outsiders. Then, still in my mid-twenties, I came to Brooklyn, New York, and plunged into the community activism that went with being pastor of a poor black parish in those days. Within months, I was leading demonstrations, testifying before the City Council, meeting with the mayor, and generally playing the part of a public person of importance in a way that would have been impossible in the upstate town of my first parish. A person of importance? It was partly true and partly a delusion, and the truth and the delusion were hard to separate. That is what is meant by saying that New York is a world of many worlds.

Everybody with a taste for it and a modicum of talent gets a chance to be important in New York. There are so many worlds in which to be important, or at least to feel important. It is the city of finance and business, of fashion and theater, of publishing and the arts, of hustling and fervent piety. This book is mainly about the last dimension of life in New York. Former Mayor Edward Koch frequently said that religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, is the glue that holds the city together. I don¹t know if that is the most apt image, but for many, if not most, New Yorkers, religion defines a place to be, a piece of the whole from which it is possible to view the whole through the eyes of enchantment. As the late Christopher Lasch wrote of the family as a refuge in a heartless world, so it is possible to view the religious communities described in these pages as such refuges. For many members of these communities, they may be that. Yet it is the case, I expect, that for many others religion provides the story line by which to make sense of, and to make livable, the whole.

I have sometimes suggested, less than half-jokingly, that over the heavenly gates will be a sign: “From the Wonderful People Who Brought You New York City, the New Jerusalem!” I add that those who in this life did not like New York City will have another place to go. I say that less than half-jokingly, but not very much less.

The editor notes, correctly, that Roman Catholicism in New York is very much slighted in the accounts provided here. I share his puzzlement as to why that should be. After all, somewhere around forty-four percent of all the people in New York claim to be Catholic, and it is a Catholicism of stunning variety. I am told that in New York the Mass is said every week in 32 different languages. (Some say it is 39 different languages, but I think they are counting somewhat similar Chinese dialects.) So the dearth of research on Catholicism is hardly due to lack of “color” or variety. And in many ways the presence of Catholicism in the city is religiously overwhelming. As comedian Lenny Bruce said back in the 1950s, “The Catholic Church is the church you mean when you say The Church.” In terms of public presence, no religious figure is in the same league as the cardinal archbishop. When gay activists decide to protest what they view as religion’s oppressive ways, the demonstration is, of course, at St. Patrick’s.

It not as though the media, theater, and entertainment worlds based in New York ignore Catholicism. On the contrary, at any given time there are half a dozen or more plays deploring or deriding (and usually both) the allegedly terrible things done to pupils by Sister Immaculata in parochial school, and sitcom and talk show jibes about Catholic guilt (usually sexual) are a staple. Yet academics in the social sciences seem to be paying little attention to the reality of Catholicism in New York. Perhaps it is like the elephant in the living room. Everybody knows it is there and has rather definite views about it, but there seems to be little to be done about it except to ignore it in the hope that it will go away.

Perhaps one reason for neglect is the academic vogue for minorities, preferably minorities of color. Catholicism is still viewed by many as huge and monolithic. Some even think of it as a pillar of the establishment in New York. At the same time, there is a vestigial suspicion of Catholicism as an alien immigrant force. In 1984, when John O’Connor first came to New York, the institute of which I am president held a number of dinners to introduce him to various leadership sectors of the city. One such dinner was with the movers and shakers in the media. This came in the aftermath of public controversy over the new archbishop¹s having challenged the public claim by vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro that Catholic teaching permitted support for the abortion license decreed by the Supreme Court in 1973. At the dinner, the then executive editor of The New York Times opined that, when John F. Kennedy ran for president, “the question of whether you Catholics belong here, whether you understand how we do things here, had been settled once and for all.” “But I have to tell you, Archbishop,” he said to O’Connor (who was not yet a cardinal), “in the few short months you have been here some of us are asking those questions again.” Whether you Catholics belong here. Whether you understand how we do things here. This in 1984. This to the religious leader of almost half of the population of the city.

I do not have a satisfying answer to the puzzlement about the lack of academic interest in Catholicism in New York. I do know that G.K. Chesterton was right when he said that Catholicism is ever so much larger from the inside than from the outside. There are such rich lodes to mine in research and writing. Based on my own experience in the Archdiocese and Brooklyn Diocese, I would love to see, to cite but one instance, a thorough examination of the Filipinos in New York. In the past half century, in parish after parish, the Filipinos have been a catalyst of change in charismatic renewal, catechesis, and the revival of popular eucharistic and other devotions. Then there are the many determinedly disciplined “renewal movements” -- from Opus Dei and Focolare to the Neocatechumenal Way and the Legionaries of Christ. Who are all these people, mainly young people, who are bent upon evangelizing the capital of the world and thus, or so they believe, changing the world?

Suffice it to say that New York Glory should be viewed as a beginning. Religion in New York City is a subject as inexhaustible as the human story itself. And were a definitive account ever to be written, it would immediately need to be rewritten. When I came here as a young man, I was showing a friend from out of town around. Pointing to all the construction sites where buildings were being torn down and others erected or rehabilitated, I said in my innocence, “This is really going to be a beautiful city when they get it finished.” But, of course, the finishing of New York City is an eschatological concept. Meanwhile, New York Glory provides overviews, assessments, and snapshots of a city on its way to the New Jerusalem.


Also read our reflection on Richard John Neuhaus. A new biography on a NYC priest in the public square.

Click image to buy New York Glory:











Or read its companion volume Asian American Religions. The making and remaking of borders and boundaries.

Click image to buy Asian American Religions:











Or read Randy Boyagoda’s new biography Richard John Neuhaus. A life in the public square.

Click image to buy Richard John Neuhaus:




Sign up for Journey newsletter!

Privacy by SafeUnsubscribe

Upcoming Features