Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Cathedral for the World

In our local liturgical calendar, today is celebrated as the feast of the Anniversary of the Dedication of New York's Saint Patrick's Cathedral, perhaps the most famous and most visited Catholic cathedral in the United States.

When the Diocese of New York was created in 1808, it had one church, Saint Peter's on Barclay Street, dedicated in 1786. Thanks to the Napoleonic Wars, New York's first bishop never made it across the Atlantic. So it was Boston's Bishop John Cheverus who dedicated the first Saint Patrick's Cathedral (now a Basilica) on Mulberry Street in 1815. It was New York's fourth bishop (and first archbishop), John Hughes, who planned the construction of the present magnificent structure on 5th Avenue at 50th Street. His intention was "to erect a cathedral in the city of New York that may be worthy of our increasing numbers, intelligence and wealth as a religious community" and "a public architectural monument of the present and prospective greatness of this metropolis of the American continent." Designed by architect James Renwick, Saint Patrick's was formally opened by Hughes' successor, John Cardinal McCloskey, in 1879. It was finally consecrated by Archbishop John Cardinal Farley on October 5, 1910.

According to archdiocesan historian Thomas Shelley, in those early years "two parishes set the standard for the rest of the diocese, the new cathedral and the Paulist Church of St. Paul the Apostle." 

The combination of its neo-gothic grandeur (modeled on the cathedral of Cologne, Germany) and its accessibility at the heart of midtown Manhattan have made Saint Patrick's a constant stopping point for both resident New Yorkers and visiting tourists. When I was a boy, it was just a given that when the family went downtown to, for example, Radio City, we would "make a visit" to Saint Patrick's, a visit that was itself a unique amalgam of religious devotion and domestic tourism. That habit has lasted into adulthood and even old age. That is certainly a tribute to what a special place Saint Patrick's is - especially for us New Yorkers, for whom it is everything that Archbishop Hughes hoped and predicted. 

When we celebrate the dedication of a church, we obviously celebrate a place, a very special and sacred place set apart unlike any other. We also celebrate a people, the people the place represents. And we celebrate a relationship, the community connection that binds the people together.

All churches are special places, of course. As a priest, I am very fortunate to have served in two very different but especially beautiful and historic churches – Saint Paul the Apostle in New York and Immaculate Conception in Knoxville, TN, the Victorian Gothic “Mother Church” of that city. There are, of course, many beautiful churches and many styles of churches, each with its own richness. There are ancient Roman basilicas, rugged Romanesque churches, great gothic cathedrals, and beautiful baroque churches. (Unfortunately, there are also any number of ugly churches to be seen - sterile modern structures, whose standard-issue ugliness expresses the spiritual impoverishment of our age, and testifies in its own way to a culture that seems at times to be losing its way.)
But, whatever they look like, churches are always special places. From time immemorial, people have had their special sites – hilltops, sacred springs, stone temples – to which to go to worship. God, of course, is personal, not local, and so is not confined to any one place. Still, as human beings, we can only operate in space and time, which is why God himself became human – in a particular place and at a particular time in human history. So it’s no surprise that, through the ages, God has continued to inspire his people to set aside special places in which to assemble to worship him. So Solomon built the Jerusalem Temple to be a holy house of prayer and sacrifice. So too the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great built and dedicated the Lateran Basilica in Rome to be the Pope’s special church, his cathedral, and hence “the mother and head of all the churches of the City and the world.”  
So too Archbishop Hughes and his successors planned and built and consecrated New York's great Cathedral, a gloriously neo-gothic imitation of the Cathedral of Cologne, Germany, located (like its model) at the heart of a great city center. I was privileged to visit the Cologne Cathedral during the 2005 World Youth Day. As part of the program, we went on pilgrimage, walking across the Rhine River on the Hohenzollern Bridge (the most heavily used railway bridge in Germany) to the cathedral's shrine of the Magi. The cologne Cathedral is big and grand and illustrates the legacy of the Old World of Christendom. Its American imitator is likewise big and grand and signifies the aspirations of the New World.
But, when we commemorate the dedication of a church, we also celebrate the people the place represents. That is why the anniversary of a church’s dedication is celebrated liturgically as a feast for all those whose church it is. As New York's principal church, Saint Patrick's is, in a sense, the church of everyone in this city. and, since this is a city of and for the entire world, it is a church for everyone from far and near. It is no accident that one and the same name, “Church,” is used for both the people who continue Christ’s presence in the world and the place where they assemble to experience his presence most directly, by proclaiming his word and celebrating his sacraments.
And, when we commemorate the dedication of a church, and especially when we celebrate that of a cathedral church, we also celebrate the relationship, the community connection, that binds its people together. As the site of the bishop’s cathedra, the chair from which the bishop exercises his teaching office and pastoral power within the local church, a cathedral is a sign of the unity of believers in the one faith, which the bishop proclaims and represents, which is why having a proper cathedral is so important in the life of a local church.
We need all three. We need places where we can be Church. We need to be a people who aspire to be Church and to build the Church in our city and our world. And we need the relationships with one another. the community connections, that can make this possible.
Throughout the United States, the Church is largely built - both physically and also spiritually - for a world that flourished a century ago. It was a world which the Catholic Church effectively reflected in cathedrals like Saint Patrick's and as effectively enriched, nourished, and served by means of cathedrals like Saint Patrick's and the community connections and relationships represented by such structures. Such places, their people, and the relationships they represent are now being challenged, no less than the New York Catholics of Archbishop Hughes' time were being challenged, to respond to new needs and new situations in ways which continue the accomplishments of the past and continue to foster faith and hope as we enter an increasingly uncertain future.

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