Sunday, April 15, 2007

200 Years On

It's one of those things best appreciated with the eyes of faith: American Catholicism's best-known and most-cherished beacon stands on what was once a graveyard.

Much has changed along the Midtown section of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue over the last 128 years. But much like the local church of which it is the seat, St Patrick's Cathedral has remained the constant -- not solely in terms of its presence, but its ability to draw a genuinely catholic crowd day in and day out; the masses who, every hour, flock to it by the thousands.

Some just take a moment to gaze from the narthex, but many others -- from the daily regulars to the floods of wandering tourists -- find within its Gothic walls less a landmark than a place of sanctuary in the bustling heart of the "capital of the world." And whether the pilgrims light candles along the aisles of the nave, whisper prayers in the Lady Chapel, clamor for straw from the Christmas Creche or the blessed water of Easter, each unconsciously testifies to the reality that the church's most-effective stance is achieved not when it peers down from the exalted distance of the promontory, but when it keeps its lights on and its doors open at the very crossroads of mankind.

Among the storied Sees which have given shape to the American Catholic project, Baltimore may be mother and teacher and Boston its bastion, LA the largest, and Philadelphia its proudest. But of them all, in the city that captivates the global imagination as no other, it is the church of New York that has served as our emblem, our exemplar, our flagship -- "The Powerhouse," whose personalities and milestones have, more often than not, paved the way for the rest.

The first Catholic to reach the White House hailed from Massachusetts, but JFK was only completing the journey begun by a product of the tenements of the Lower East Side. An Italian immigrant, the nation's first saint never lost her dream of bringing the Gospel to China, but found a home and her mission in New York's Chinatown. And the Illinois-bred legend who, by taking to the airwaves, led the faithful to their hard-earned place in the national mainstream became the city's own, his repose given him in the crypt of its archbishops.

When it came time for America to take on a greater prominence in the life of the church universal, the nation's first red hat was conferred on New York's second archbishop, followed by an unequalled six of his successors. Dubbed the "Cardinal of Charity," the second of these established a network to serve the needy that, within years, became the standard of the wider church. When the project envisioned by Maryland's Calverts and Carrolls eventually crossed the continent to the ground first sown by the missionary Jesuits and Franciscans, the manifest destiny secured by the marriage of East and West was consummated by the creation of a native New Yorker as California's first prince of the church. And when that day "We have desired for centuries" finally came, as the successor of Peter crossed the Atlantic to plant his first steps on the American continent, Fifth Avenue was where he walked, and the shrine of the secular pastime transformed into his basilica.

For a flock whose founding shepherd departed for eternity before he could arrive on the banks of the Hudson, the record is nothing to sneeze at.

Opened in 1879, St Patrick's isn't the largest of US cathedrals, the most architecturally significant, nor even the city's eldest episcopal seat. The distinction it alone can claim, however, far outweighs what it can't: for people of faith and people of no faith, rich and poor alike, its parishioners, the travelers who come from far afield and those who've never approached its threshold, it is the nation's temple.

Along these same lines, the See it embodies may no longer be the largest, was never the firstborn, and others could more aptly be highlighted for their consistency of innovation or creativity. But the qualifiers of age, artistry and size all vanish before New York's singular, quasi-mythic status as America's diocese, the Catholic bellwether of the public square even as the church in the United States has seen its center of gravity shift to the south and west at a dramatic clip.

On 8 April 1808, the burgeoning nation's hierarchy experienced its first expansion. Pope Pius VII elevated the lone diocese of Baltimore to metropolitan rank, simultaneously easing the burden of the newly-promoted Archbishop John Carroll with the erection of suffragan churches at Boston, Bardstown, Philadelphia and New York.

While celebrations of varying degrees will unfold in each of the Premier See's firstborn four over the coming year, the anniversary's nexus rightly belongs to the Big Apple, whose observance kicked off earlier today with a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Edward Egan, its twelfth ordinary and ninth archbishop. The senior American hierarch, Cardinal William Wakefield Baum, concelebrated alongside the 20 archbishops and bishops who now oversee the vast territory once encompassed by the newborn diocese.

Sure, Catholic New York has rolled out the largest edition in its history (most of which, regrettably, can't be viewed online), but you know it's A Bona-Fide Gotham Event when the New York Daily News doesn't just offer a lengthy tribute, but closes its lead Sunday editorial with a prayer of thanksgiving.
Catholic or not, New Yorkers are invited to share in the year's celebration, for, Catholic or not, New York has been well-served by the church these last two centuries.

With the exception, perhaps, of municipal government, no institution has been as enduringly influential in knitting the fabric of the city as the archdiocese. Under its aegis, countless millions of births, marriages and deaths have been marked, as generation after generation was raised in a life-affirming faith.

And far many more benefited as the church aided the poor, treated the sick and helped assimilate wave upon wave of immigrants without regard to their religion. Neighborhoods were anchored by parish churches, and by parochial schools that still serve as models of education....

As the city grew, so did the Catholic population, due primarily to immigration - initially the Irish and later the Italians, Poles and Germans. And then Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Haitians. And a new wave of Eastern Europeans. And still they come.

The church formed a bulwark of support for the newcomers, feeding their souls and bodies and defending them, sometimes literally, against persecutors. In 1844, Bishop John (Dagger John) Hughes gathered volunteers to guard churches after anti-Catholics ran riot in Philadelphia. Evoking the burning of their capital by the Russians to keep it out of Napoleon's hands, Hughes warned that if even one were torched, New York would "become a second Moscow." Flames touched none of them....

History records the considerable contributions of other remarkable leaders, men like Cardinals John McCloskey (the first American cardinal), Francis Spellman, Terence Cooke and John O'Connor. And countless parish priests and brothers and sisters served an ever more diverse flock.

As the Bicentennial Prayer of the archdiocese says, "Our diversity is Your [God's] gift and leads us to reach beyond ourselves to embrace peoples of every race, nation and ethnic background. Countless are those who have come to our shores with their hopes and dreams, seeking safety, dignity and freedom to worship You. By Your grace they have been welcomed and nourished by this Community of Faith."

And, "as a family of service, prayer and love, may we grow in faith and always be a beacon of truth and openness to others."

In true New York style, Bicentennial Day (8 April 2008) will be marked with a Mass at Radio City Music Hall. As of press-time, it's not known if the Rockettes will be taking part.

Amid one of the coldest Aprils the city's ever known, a furious storm bore down today outside the cathedral walls. Here's hoping that, this time next year, the birds'll be singing and the sun shining as the local church whose two centuries as a people's voice and vanguard have resonated far beyond its borders celebrates a truly monumental journey, the fruits of which have considerably enriched both the church universal and the world at large.

God love the church of New York.