August 17, 2010

The Slave, the Advocate and the Star in the Cathedral

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

Being a native of Washington, DC, I say nice things about New York City only grudgingly. Damn Yankees is my favorite musical and in our house growing up, when we sang the title song, we meant it.

Nevertheless, over the weekend I took my 11-year-old daughter on a “just girls” trip to New York. We stayed with a beloved aunt and did touristy things tailored to the interests of a young girl making her first real visit to the city. As Sunday was the Feast of the Assumption, we treated ourselves to Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

I don’t have to tell you how splendid St. Patrick’s is, since Pope Benedict XVI did that beautifully in his homily there in 2008. In addition to being a joyful expression of the Christian message, that homily is a masterwork of rhetoric that repays careful study. In it, he compared the Church at large by turns to a stained glass window, the precision of Gothic proportion and the dynamism of a flying buttress.

Glorious was our liturgy Sunday morning, but the Holy Spirit can be capricious, so for me the most moving moment came not during Mass itself, but after. Behind the main altar is a famous statue of the Pieta (which I noted with amusement is “three times the size of Michelangelo’s.” New Yorkers have to outdo everyone at everything, I guess.) We made a visit in the “Lady Chapel” where the Blessed Sacrament is maintained.

Under the main altar, visible only from the Lady Chapel, is a crypt in which are buried the eight deceased archbishops of New York, two bishops and a priest interred there because of their service to St. Patrick’s, and one layman: Blessed Pierre Toussaint.

Toussaint was a Haitian-born slave whose master apprenticed him to a hairdresser shortly after the family arrived in New York City. He was renowned for the kindness and Christian counsel he distributed to his customers.

A talented stylist, Toussaint grew rich from the patronage of wealthy women, and was able to purchase his sister’s freedom, though he himself chose to remain a slave to his master’s widow until her death, to save her any anxiety over her own welfare.

As a free man, he and his wife opened a home and school for orphaned African-American children, spent much of their wealth freeing other slaves, and helped pay for the first two Catholic Churches in Manhattan: Old St. Peter’s and the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral (which was later lost to fire). It is said that he never missed the 6 a.m. mass in 60 years.

Of the dozen men buried under the altar at St. Patrick’s, three have had their causes for canonization introduced: Pierre Toussaint, Archbishop Terrence Cook, famed for his work for the sick and elderly, and silver-tongued apologist Archbishop Fulton Sheen. The slave, the advocate and the television star.

I didn’t anticipate being moved by the sight of their graves, but I was. It gave me a sudden flash of gratitude for the holiness that is possible even in the “big city.” And it brought me back to Benedict’s comparison of the diversity of the Church with the flying buttress.

“The unity of a Gothic cathedral,” he preached, “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.”

“Here too,” he went on to say, “we see our need to acknowledge and reverence the gifts of each and every member of the body as manifestations of the Spirit given for the good of all.”

I love that image of dynamic tension lifting the Church up! In other words, there’s no place for milquetoast Christianity. Only the firm strength of holiness is good enough for everyone to push against and rise.

Rebecca Teti is a wife and mother who writes for Catholic Digest and other publications.

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