Rebuild My Church!
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
A blessed Easter!
This Easter season, I invite you to meditate upon the invitation Jesus gave to St. Francis of Assisi, “Rebuild my Church!”
Why? Three reasons. One, we have a new pope who took the name Francis in honor of the great saint of Assisi. St. Francis heard from the Lord on the cross that very command. Second, because the great summons that soon to be St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis have given to us is to become evangelizers—“missionary disciples” in the words of Pope Francis—which means to make the Church ever more who she should be. And third, because I live at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and so hear every day the massive work of the restoration and see it almost every day when I offer Mass—so rebuilding is on my mind!
Pope Francis and Saint Francis
The whole world is fascinated by our Holy Father. When he told us in the conclave that he would be called Francis, we got our first glimpse of the connection he would make with both Catholics and non-Catholics, for there are few figures in the entire history of Christianity as beloved as the poor man of Assisi. When people ask why Pope Francis is so popular, I am tempted to respond with another question: Why is St. Francis still so popular? It is because people found it easy to recognize—in his simplicity, his charity and his preaching—the Lord Jesus. In Francis of Assisi they saw Jesus, and that it was possible to live the full joy and demands of the Gospel. In choosing the name Francis, the Holy Father points us toward the model of St. Francis, who points us toward Jesus.
You remember the story of St. Francis? He lived in the late 12th and early 13th century in Italy. As a young man, Francis was in the little church of San Damiano in his hometown of Assisi. He heard a voice—miraculously—coming from the crucifix: “Repair my house, which as you can see is falling into ruin!” Upon realizing that it was indeed the Lord Jesus who was speaking to him in this remarkable way, Francis set about doing just that. He saw that San Damiano was in some disrepair, so he began to fix it up. Later it became clear that Jesus was speaking to Francis not only about the physical church building, but The Church as a whole, both physical and spiritual, a universal reality.
Francis and his first companions went to Rome to seek approval from the pope for their new religious order, which would set about that larger task of rebuilding the Church. Pope Innocent III had a decision to make—one that would be of immense importance for hundreds of years to come, as we now know in hindsight all the good that the Franciscan order would do in every part of the world. The Holy Father too had received a supernatural prompting—a vision that came in a dream of Francis holding up a church. In fact, it was the pope’s own cathedral church! Innocent understood the message, and approved the new vision of religious life proposed by Francis and his companions.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Both aspects of “rebuild my church” apply to us in New York. We began on St. Patrick’s Day 2012 a great campaign for St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s America’s parish church, as I like to call it, and Americans come to it every day in huge numbers, joined by fellow pilgrims from every nation on earth. Perhaps we might boast that St. Patrick’s is the parish church of the whole world—but I think that title belongs to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome! When the Bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI, visited us in 2008, he had this to say about our Cathedral: “Perhaps more than any other church in the United States, this place is known and loved as ‘a house of prayer for all peoples’ (cf. Is 56:7; Mk 11:17).”
Our Cathedral needs a lot of work, as any old building does. St. Patrick’s is not a historic preserve, where everything is kept in pristine condition, protected from any possible damage. No, St. Patrick’s is open to the city and world every day, and spends her energies, as it were, even as our great priests, staff and parishioners spend their energies in being servants of Jesus. It is not a museum! It is a house of prayer for all nations! It makes present the Lord Jesus on the altar, in its art, in its outreach, and in the confessional. All those evangelical and pastoral energies take their toll, as does time and the rumbling world outside on Fifth Avenue, and so it falls to us who love this magnificent Cathedral to repair, restore and rebuild her! That we will do, and it will call upon the prayers and generosity of the entire archdiocese. Yet if we only understand rebuilding the Church in the initial, limited sense that St. Francis did, and neglect the broader vision that he quickly came to see, then we will have missed the point.
The Church in New York
What does it mean to rebuild the Church here in New York?
Rebuilding always begins with ensuring that the foundations are secure. There is no point worrying about the paint job if the pillars are falling down. Likewise, rebuilding the Church means taking care of our foundations: Sunday Mass, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Penance, teaching the faith to our children, serving those in need. Marriages and baptisms, religious life and priestly vocations, parishes, families, schools, our charities and prayers—this is how we rebuild the Church in New York. At the very foundation of our Christian life is that friendship offered to us by the Lord Jesus, rooted in the sacraments, nourished by the Word of God and our personal prayer, evident in our charity.
In one sense, it is easier to rebuild a cathedral. That’s a matter of money, and materials, and know how. Rebuilding—or establishing—a friendship with the Lord Jesus demands more of us. It demands not something of what we have—money, materials, skill—but something of who we are.
Friendship with the Lord Jesus demands that we spend time together—we call that prayer and liturgical worship.
It demands that we come to know the Lord and His Church better—study of the Holy Bible, catechesis, spiritual reading, our schools, religious education, and faith formation programs.
It demands that we meet His family and His friends—the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and all the holy men and women saints of every age, in our devotions and celebrations of feast days.
It demands we take His call to conversion and change our lives from sin to grace.
It demands that we introduce Him to our friends—we call that evangelization—and serve Him in the poor.
That’s what it means to rebuild the Church.
The scaffolding is up at the Cathedral and the tradesmen are hard at work. Can I invite you to do your own part to rebuild the Church—in your homes, with your friends, in your parishes?
Rebuilding the Church for the World
From the very first days of his pontificate, Pope Francis has been insistent that the Church does not exist for herself alone, retreating as it were into the sacristy:
The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door… Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.
There are few places on earth where that mission of the Church is more evident that at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where daily thousands of people in every imaginable human situation come through the doors. But we must not only welcome those who come to seek God, but seek out those who are distant. The Church exists to invite people inside, where they might encounter the light that comes from Christ. When Pope Benedict visited our Cathedral in 2008, he used the stained glass windows as a vivid image of the Church. That passage moves us still:
...the stained glass windows, which flood the interior with mystic light. From the outside, those windows are dark, heavy, even dreary. But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive; reflecting the light passing through them, they reveal all their splendor. Many writers—here in America we can think of Nathaniel Hawthorne— have used the image of stained glass to illustrate the mystery of the Church herself. It is only from the inside, from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit. It follows that we, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion, are called to draw all people into this mystery of light. This is no easy task in a world which can tend to look at the Church, like those stained glass windows, “from the outside”: a world which deeply senses a need for spirituality, yet finds it difficult to “enter into” the mystery of the Church. Even for those of us within, the light of faith can be dimmed by routine, and the splendor of the Church obscured by the sins and weaknesses of her members. It can be dimmed too, by the obstacles encountered in a society which sometimes seems to have forgotten God and to resent even the most elementary demands of Christian morality. You, who have devoted your lives to bearing witness to the love of Christ and the building up of his Body, know from your daily contact with the world around us how tempting it is at times to give way to frustration, disappointment and even pessimism about the future. In a word, it is not always easy to see the light of the Spirit all about us, the splendor of the Risen Lord illuminating our lives and instilling renewed hope in his victory over the world (cf. Jn 16:33).
Is that not why it is important that St. Patrick’s stands with doors wide open to the world on Fifth Avenue? So that those who see from outside, might enter within and be transformed by the light?
Doesn’t that teach us what it means to rebuild the Church? We invite those we encounter to come inside the household of faith, to see the light not from the world outside, but refracted through the lives of the Lord Jesus and the saints? To stand outside the Cathedral is to be impressed by its size, even its grandeur. But it misses the point. We rebuild the outside, precisely in order that we may come inside. In New York, there is no shortage of immense buildings, many of which dwarf St. Patrick’s. But none, upon entry, transform the very light of the world outside into something as beautiful. There are many impressive institutions, societies and associations in New York. But none have the same mission as does the Church, to be a house for all peoples by which the world is transformed.
That’s a good way to understand the inspiring pastoral approach of Pope Francis. He well knows—as we certainly do in New York—that many look upon the Church and those “demands of Christian morality” as something forbidding, or even burdensome. So Pope Francis encourages us to bring first the light of Christ, the joy of the Gospel, the happiness that comes from God’s friendship to the world around us.
In the campaign for St. Patrick’s many who are not Catholic have generously offered their help. Some have even said that they don’t care for the Church’s teaching in this or that regard, but they treasure the presence of St. Patrick’s in New York. They are confirming the intuition of Pope Francis that first comes an encounter with God, and everything else follows from that. Just as we invite others to come inside, and witness the light transformed by the Church, so too do the windows point the Church to the world outside. The point is not to enter the Church as a sort of bunker, defensively arrayed against a dangerous world. Rather, the Church herself desires to move beyond herself, to put herself at the service of the world outside, and in service to the One who is outside the world altogether, and who holds it in His creating and sustaining hand. The Church exists for Jesus Christ—He is her Lord, her Head, her Master. And she also exists for the world itself—the world beyond the windows.
To rebuild the Church then is not some project that we Catholics do for ourselves and our own good alone, anymore that one could say that our Cathedral exists for Catholics and our own good alone. St. Patrick’s and stained glass teach us the same lesson, that we serve the world best when we ourselves are solid in our foundations, strong in our structures, open and welcoming, and radiant in the light of Christ. The rebuilding of St. Patrick’s is a project on Fifth Avenue. The rebuilding of the Church is task for every parish in each of our ten counties.
To Rebuild, Restore, Renew, Repair - But Not Replace!
One of the joys of our Cathedral restoration project for me is meeting those skilled experts and workers who show me with great pride a particular window, or statue, or tilework, or polished bronze—and say, “Cardinal Dolan—this is what it looked like in the beginning, before the soot and grime and decay set in.”
In the beginning…The restoration project is showing us what the artisans and craftsmen intended from the beginning—what our ancestors saw when the Cathedral first opened. That’s what we are doing—rebuilding, restoring, renewing, repairing. We are not replacing St. Patrick’s with something else. We have a magnificent Cathedral. Our task it not to build something new, but to rebuild what we have already received so that we can share with others the gift that was intended for us from the beginning. The crucifix in San Damiano did not say to St. Francis: Build another church! He said: Repair My Church!
Therein lies a great difference. Our task in rebuilding the Church is not to replace the Church with something different. Pope Francis has reminded us that he is a “loyal son of the Church” and so too should we be. A loyal son does not seek to replace his mother. Our task in the new evangelization is not to invent a new gospel, but rather to spread with new enthusiasm and new methods the Gospel already given to us by Jesus. We might say that Jesus is the “Divine Restorer” who comes to us in the midst of our weakness, our wounds, our wickedness, and shows us what His Father intended from the beginning.
A Prayer for Marriage and Family Life
As we set about our mission of rebuilding the Church with renewed enthusiasm, I recommend to your prayers a special priority for marriage and family life. The Holy Father has chosen to hold an Extraordinary Synod later this year on the family, followed by another Synod on the same topic in 2015. He has asked the entire Church to pray for this great initiative. As a member of the preparatory council for the Synod I can attest to the importance the Holy Father places on this work. He attends our meetings and follows the preparatory work personally.
It is no secret why Pope Francis wants to focus the Church’s attention on marriage and family life. In many places, marriage and family life are in dire straits. For many people, what should be a source of joy and mission is instead an experience of pain and suffering. The demands of morality can appear forbidding, even impossible. It is not a new situation, even if it presents itself to us with special urgency today. Jesus Himself heard the objections about the nature of marriage. Jesus, the Divine Restorer, responded by reminding His listeners about God’s plan from the beginning. Our task today is not to abandon the plan for marriage and its indissolubility that God intended from the beginning, but rather as pastors and disciples to remove the layers of sin and pain and suffering, so that we can see the beauty of marriage from the beginning. The task set before the Synod, for which the Holy Father has asked the entire Church to pray, is not to replace Christian marriage with something else, but to repair, restore and renew it in accord with the teaching of Jesus, despite all the objections—present in the time of Jesus and present today.
Rebuild My Church! We have already begun with the Cathedral. Let’s recommit ourselves to do the same across the entire archdiocese. And let us pray for the task before the entire Church to repair, restore and renew the “domestic church” of marriage and the family.
At the core of our faith is that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. He is alive… and He is with us in His Church!
A blessed Easter to all!
Timothy Cardinal Dolan
Archbishop of New York