Friday, March 03, 2006

Urban Feasts

The third of March is a day of emotion and memory here in this River City of the Pharaohs. The two big commemorations of this day recall the best of Catholicism in our midst here, and the challenge given the current generation to not simply maintain the tradition, but to build on it.

Today is the feast of St. Katharine Drexel, the foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament who devoted a substantial inheritance from her family of financiers to serve the poor and marginalized, building missions and schools for African and Native Americans across the country. She also founded Xavier University in New Orleans. St. Katharine is buried at her community's motherhouse in Bensalem, a stone's throw over the city limits, where she died on this day in 1955 at the age of 96.

My first trip to Rome -- all the way back in the Fall of 2000 -- was with 1,400 Philadelphia revellers who descended upon town for St. Katharine's canonization. Many of her spiritual children -- the Sisters who have continued her work, and those who were given life and nourishment through the initiatives she undertook -- converged from around the world.

And, yes, Native American celebratory dances (feathers, drums, chanting and all) were performed in the sacristy of the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls at the close of a Mass of Thanksgiving. It was beautiful.

In his homily that day, a very happy Cardinal Bevilacqua noted that, even in Katharine's day, the press who covered Catholicism were prone to pitfalls. Headlines blared "Heiress Renounces Fortune," "Gives Up Seven Million," etc., but the Eminence made a particular note of the story which said that, from the moment of her profession, the heiress-turned-religious "would now be known as 'Dead to the World.'"

Yes, much of the press still does have a tough time with this beat.... Much, but by no means all.

At the banquet on Canonization Night -- as intermittent thunderstorms pummeled Rome -- the eminent Archbishop John Foley, the head of the Philly diaspora and one of the most kind and generous people on God's green earth, said that while the crowd was large and joyous, "We must remember Cardinal Krol."

A prolonged ovation ensued. Many stood.

I mention this as today marks a decade since the death of John Cardinal Krol, the sixth archbishop of Phila- delphia who championed Drexel's cause and presided over the very triumphal beatification and canonization of his humble predecessor, John Neumann. (He's pictured here at a 1969 event in Philadelphia with a man whom many of you know, in a time before most of you knew him.)

In many ways, most ways, the ecclesiastical culture of this city bears the reputation that it does -- and, some would say, weathered the storms as it has -- because of Krol's strong hand at the tiller over 27 years, through the upheaval of the Conciliar period and its aftermath. While the church elsewhere delved headlong into the risorgimento, and some places paid the price for their excesses, John Krol approached it with a cautious, discerning hand -- some would say too cautious, but you get the idea.

At his appointment to Philadelphia in 1961, the 51 year-old auxiliary bishop of Cleveland became the youngest archbishop in the United States and had just been been tipped to take a top post at the Council. He was a polyglot, a canonist, a culturalist, a proud Pole, a shrewd businessman, and an amateur musician given to singing James Cagney and Don Ho who, in the process, defined for those around him what it means to be a churchman.

As a side note, it was Krol's rule in Philadelphia that there would be no Gospel music -- or any liturgical music which wasn't in keeping with traditional standards -- in the churches of his archdiocese.

There was but one exception: How Great Thou Art. The reason for the exception: Because he liked it.

By the time of his retirement in 1988, John Krol likened himself to Moses, comparing his successor's appointment and installation to the point in the Pentateuch when the people came to the leader of Israel and said, "To whom shall we go? Who will lead us now?"

I once did a long paper on this and won't rehash it all, but Krol's impact on the wider church has had a permanent effect on its history far beyond the city he made his own. The apex of this, of course, came when his political skills helped get his longtime friend and paesan, Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow, over the top in the second conclave of 1978. From that vote, Philadelphia had a direct line to the papal apartment, and many appointments, policy moves and papal gestures reflected whispered conversations in Polish between Cardinal Avenue and the Apostolic Palace.

Krol served as John Paul's eyes and ears in America, and the bond between them was so great that one of his proteges, the Philly cleric who became John Cardinal O'Connor, embarked for Rome within hours of his death to fulfill a promise he made the dying cardinal: that he would bring Lolek his love.

I distinctly recall spending some time by the coffin as it lay in state in our Cathedral-Basilica here. Hard to believe it's been ten years. But one thing which remains vivid in my mind was the ring on his finger. It wasn't the cardinal's sapphire given him at his creation (alongside Wojtyla) in 1967, but a hammered-gold band in the shape of a cross -- an exact copy of the ring worn by the Polish Pope, and ostensibly a gift of solidarity and the love that is friendship.

At the end of Krol's funeral liturgy -- which O'Connor preached and Cardinal Macharski of Krakow had come as the papal legate -- as the cortege wended its way to the crypt for the internment, a familiar tune struck up which the hundreds of priests he ordained were able to pick up immediately.....
"Ecce, sacerdos magnus/
qui in diebus suis placuit Deo/
Ideo iureiurando fecit illum Dominus crescere in plebem suam....
The hymn was a staple of John Krol's entrances into his church as archbishop, and on hearing it (it was a surprise kept from all, except the choir, the organist and the press) many of his ordinands started to tear up.

Even a decade on, however, the man who once said "No one's more dead than a Catholic bishop" continues to loom large....