Kate Monaghan in First Things offers some eloquent sentiments about faith, beauty, and the human heart, all tied to the current and ongoing restoration of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral:
The first time I sat inside the cathedral for Mass—long before I worked so closely with St. Patrick’s—I saw a woman with several plastic bags alternating between two pews in the nave. She would climb back and forth, wiggling under the bar separating the pews. She’d pause and stand on the kneeler, praying, somewhat loudly, during the Mass. I was sort of fascinated because it was a strangely quiet, yet noticeable distraction/devotion. I could not figure out what she was doing with the plastic bags, but she would rearrange them and then keep moving back and forth, back and forth.
She was left undisturbed by usher and Mass-goer alike. She was free to worship in a place of beauty, tranquility, and peace. St. Patrick’s provided something beautiful, something to marvel at and take you out of yourself.
All beautiful things do this. Babies, art, churches, people—they free us from “I” and “me” and bring us to what is beautiful and what is true and He who is Beauty and Truth.
This is why we need the cathedral.
Is she a testimony to the immigrants who built her, to a fledgling Catholic Church in the New World, to the Irish in particular, to religious freedom, to the millions who have prayed and visited her altars and chapels? Yes, but she’s also a reminder, right in the middle of a city known for power, money, and prestige, that the person of Jesus Christ offers us, through a road like that to Calvary, all that is beautiful and true.
St. Patrick’s faces Rockefeller Center outside of which Atlas struggles under the weight of the world. If you enter the cathedral, walk all the way to the back into the Lady Chapel, and turn around, you’ll see behind the main altar a small statue of the Child Jesus. In his hand he’s holding the weight of the world too, but, unlike Atlas, effortlessly.
The Catholic Church, in preaching the Gospel, does preach unpopular and even difficult teachings. We live in an era where what we see is easily manipulated—we can pick and choose what we want to see. St. Patrick’s stands in our line of vision day in and day out, a visible reminder of the food needed to feed the soul.
Mother Teresa said she had never seen such poverty as that which she had witnessed in the United States. But she wasn’t talking about physical poverty. “I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering . . . But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America. . . America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”
By opening her doors to all and uplifting the spirit, the cathedral becomes the jewel of the “poor Church for the poor” that our Holy Father talks about because he is not talking about a re-structured building: He’s talking about a re-structured heart that loves all the poor, both in spirit and in material need.
As we work on the restoration, we are mindful of the more important work taking place: that is, the restoration of the heart, of the Church, and finally, of the cathedral. As Pope Francis said, we must make the Church “a community where everyone feels welcomed and understood, everyone feels the mercy and love of God…”