Saturday, January 25, 2014

Celebrating Saint Paul

Today the Church celebrates THE CONVERSION OF SAINT PAUL THE APOSTLE (the event recounted in Acts 9:1-22 and again in Acts 22:3-16 and Acts 26:2-18). This is the patronal solemnity of the Paulist Fathers. It is also the 28th anniversary of my Final Profession as a member of the Paulist community. That Final Profession took place at Saint Paul's College, Washington, DC, in the last such ceremony to take place in the 1956 Chapel (now the Saint Paul's College Library).

This year, I am celebrating the feast (and my profession anniversary) at the Paulist Mother Church, the Church of Saint Paul the Apostle in New York City. At the invitation of the Mother Church's pastor, I celebrated the 8:30 a.m. parish Mass this morning. For 155 years, we Paulists have ministered here in this parish in the heart of this city - the life and mission of both the Paulists and the parish being intimately tied together here, both blessed by the patronage of St. Paul the Apostle, whose conversion we celebrate today.

For more than a century, the spiritual center of this parish has been its big beautiful church. Within Stanford White’s golden dome above the High Altar is a verse from the Divine Office for St. Paul's feast: You are a vessel of election, holy apostle Paul. The response, Preacher of Truth in the whole world, is inscribed in the mosaic on the floor at the foot of the sanctuary steps. Communicants coming to the altar rail in years gone by would have regularly seen that mosaic, designed in 1920 to highlight the symbols of St. Paul’s apostleship – the book, open to St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians at the verse, To me, the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ, and the sword, the symbol of St. Paul’s martyrdom. Then, at the west end of the south aisle, over the altar dedicated to St. Paul, is Robert Reid’s evocative painting of Paul kneeling calmly and confidently awaiting his imminent martyrdom. Above and below are the famous words from his Second Letter to Timothy: I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course. I have kept the faith! A retired senior Paulist in residence here once movingly described how in his youth, trying to discern what to do with his life, he had meditated in front of that altar and that picture.
The glorious event we commemorate today – the decisive turning-point in Paul’s life – is portrayed above the main entrance to the church in a monumental frieze (photo) by Lumen Martin Winter (who also designed the equally monumental tomb at the east end of the north aisle, in which Isaac Hecker was re-buried in 1959). That event transformed Paul into a disciple of Jesus and an apostle on equal footing with the others, an apostle sent to make disciples of all peoples and nations without exception. That mission is the theme of the other floor mosaic, at the main entrance of the church, which recalls Paul’s preaching outreach to the Greek world in 1st-century Athens.

Not through words alone but by being the kind of building that it is, this beautiful church (informally known in his day as "Hecker's Basilica") teaches Paul's story and the story that Hecker's vision invites us all to make our own.

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