For the first time since the church was closed on July 31, 2015, a letter was sent to Our Lady of Peace parishioners from Bishop John J. O'Hara and the Archdiocese of New York Office of Strategic Pastoral Planning. The Bishop's letter reiterates many of the points that were made in a meeting held on June 17 at the Church of Saint John the Evangelist: namely, that the Archdiocese is engaged in conversations and has been pursuing negotiations to sell Our Lady of Peace to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Meanwhile, 285 parishioners, neighbors, and local business people signed a letter to Cardinal Dolan asking him to suspend further negotiations while the Vatican appeals process continues. The letter, including 60 pages of signatures, was faxed to Rome and delivered to the Office of the Cardinal yesterday. A hard copy was sent to the Papal Nuncio in Washington, D.C. The overwhelming response from parishioners, neighbors and local businesses to the letter to the Cardinal, made it possible for leaders of the effort to save Our Lady of Peace to gather many signatures in a week's time, including during the July 4th weekend. The response demonstrated support for the recourse process itself, and the desire of many to reopen the church of Our Lady of Peace for public and private prayer, regular masses and the sacraments.
The Congregation for the Clergy issued an Interlocutory Decree on June 16, having accepted for further study both recourses against the Cardinal's decrees, the first changing the boundaries of Saint John the Evangelist and the second decree merging Our Lady of Peace with Saint John the Evangelist. A parishioner from St. Vincent Ferrer-St. Catherine of Siena also filed recourse against the boundary decree. The Congregation decided to combine the recourse submissions because they are interrelated.
Nevertheless, the Archdiocese of New York, by its pursuit of negotiations to sell the church, is attempting to circumvent the appeals process. Bishop O'Hara's letter holds out the possibility of a weekly mass in the Roman Catholic rite performed in the church after title has changed hands. The obvious question that should be asked is this: If it is possible to hold a weekly mass if the church is sold, why isn't it possible to hold a weekly mass right now? If a former priest of Our Lady of Peace can say a mass as a condition of the Coptic Orthodox obtaining title to the church, why can't he say a mass every Sunday now? If this is indeed possible, where is the so-called "priest shortage?" Why was Our Lady of Peace closed at all? Concerned parishioners were encouraged to write letters in response to Bishop O'Hara.
It is obvious that the Archdiocese is determined to sell the property. If the Coptic Orthodox Church is engaged in conversations to purchase a church from the Archdiocese of New York, there are many available churches that are vacant and are not in the middle of an appeal to the Vatican. It does not make sense that the Church of Our Lady of Peace is the only option, and is disingenuous to cloak the sale of the property of Our Lady of Peace in the vestments of ecumenism.
Pope Francis has worked, as have many of his predecessors, toward the goal of Christian unity. In 1973, Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria, Egypt, issued a Common Declaration from the Vatican. This was significant because Alexandria and the Oriental East broke communion with Rome and Constantinople in the fifth century. In 2000, Pope John Paul II traveled to Cairo to meet with Pope Shenouda III. At the first papal Roman Catholic Mass held in Egypt, Pope John Paul II said, ''dialogue and reconciliation will help to find solutions to the problems that still impede full communion.'' On the fortieth anniversary of the historic meeting with Pope Paul VI, Pope Francis met with Pope Tawadros II and gave an address. It was the first time since 1973 that that the Coptic Orthodox Pope visited the Vatican.
The parishioners of Our Lady of Peace are deeply mindful of the persecution of Christians throughout the world, and pray daily for peace at the rosary outside the church. They are aware that there are doctrinal differences between Coptic Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Such doctrinal differences cannot be resolved by taking title to one church on East 62nd Street in New York City. Those issues need to be resolved at the highest levels of diplomacy between the two faiths, as evidenced by the important steps taken at the meetings between the popes.
[The painting of "Our Lady of Peace" by Donatus Buongiorno was restored in 2009 and is situated above the altar.]