Gazing Upwards: The Pope’s Homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Although I’d followed Pope Benedict from event to event during his visit to the U.S., one of the most moving moments for me was watching him on TV as he delivered what I believe was his most personal statement, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
As pastor of the Universal Church, the Pope is most at home with the Eucharist and the liturgy. His homily, characteristic of his writing in general, was both understated and profound.
Using the architecture of St. Patrick’s as his springboard, Benedict offered a beautiful reflection on personal vocations - how members of the Church discover their individual calling while remaining united in the Body of Christ. This is a universal message. Not all of us are called to be bishops, educators, world leaders, or seminarians; but we all have a vocation of some kind and in that vocation we are called to give witness to Christ’s message with joy and love. In this way, the St. Patrick’s homily offers each of us rich fruit for reflection.
St. Patrick’s gorgeous stained glass windows were the entry point for Benedict’s meditation. From the outside, they are dark, even foreboding. The Church can seem this way sometimes: a bureaucratic behemoth, a complex institution. But once on the inside, “we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit.” This calls to the mind the idea that the Church does not impose a set of rules to follow, but rather proposes a path to walk on.
Like sunlight illuminating the interior of a cathedral, God’s grace spreads the light of faith, hope, and love, and places Christ, the human face of God, in the center of our lives. The medieval ordering of the cosmos represented this idea by literally situating Christ as the physical center of the universe. Benedict invites us to think along more metaphorical lines, “to see all things with the eyes of faith, and thus to grasp them in their truest perspective, in the unity of God’s eternal plan.”
God’s eternal plan is not ordered like a blueprint or a math formula. It is relational, and incorporates within itself the flux and flow of temporal encounters that index eternity. To make this abstraction concrete, Benedict elaborates on his cathedral metaphor: “The unity of a Gothic cathedral, we know, is not the static unity of a classical temple, but a unity born of the dynamic tension of diverse forces which impel the architecture upward, pointing it to heaven.”
The kind of architecture that dominates a city skyline suggests a great deal about the city itself. In medieval towns, the cathedral or the church was visible for miles around – a beacon of the faith that united its inhabitants. I’ve been in New York for the last few days, and while the city’s tallest buildings can stir the senses, they come attached with names like Chrysler, Trump, and Bank of America. Can this be everything? The human heart longs for more.
And there it was: a beautiful liturgy, an awe-inspiring cathedral, and the Word of God mediated by an incisive intellect. Benedict observed: “The spires of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral are dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline, yet in the heart of this busy metropolis, they are a vivid reminder of the constant yearning of the human spirit to rise to God.”