Today I thought I was going to be very punny in my blog. I was going to write about going to the country’s Primate house of worship. The use of the word primate does not refer to monkeys and gorillas but to the the principal See who governs a province in the Church (collection of diocese, archdiocese, and metropolitans). This of course is the Basilica of the Assumption of Mary in Baltimore, Maryland. (The historic church where approval was given to the Catholic Schools system, the Baltimore Catechism and a whole bunch of things.) I was then going to point out that the problem with America is that we dedicate our principal church on an Assumption… and you know what happens when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me. What I saw today held countenance, and even one as satirical as I am could not force out the pleasure of irony. It began with sheer amazement. I entered the Basilica of the Assumption of Mary early this morning for Mass and couldn’t believe where I was. I had been in the Basilica before, but this was amazing! It had completely changed. Before it was a dark and dingy hall with darkened imposing columns, traditional paintings, and dark wooden pews. I walked into a place that gleamed with light. The restoration had brought in white marble floors, white pews, white walls, and opened up windows in order that natural light could reflect throughout the building. I couldn’t believe I was in the same place. I feel I’m getting better at photography, but as I look at the pictures I took today, I can’t tell you how much I feel the pictures are inadequate to the experience of actually being there. The church was commissioned by the first Bishop in the United States, John Carroll and it was designed by Benjamin Latrobe. Latrobe also designed some other famous building located in Washington DC where Congress sits around and “works”. John Carroll went with Latrobe as the designer over other Catholic designers for very specific reasons. He wanted a church that would be prominent but also “fit-in” to the American culture. Even in Maryland, Catholics were seen as odd (which we are). Anything that would have looked too “European” would have stood as countersign to John Caroll’s main effort which was to make being Catholic a natural fit to being American. Latrobe’s design was therefore not Gothic and dark, calling instead for abundant light, lots of light. No stained glass. Not a lot of paintings or statutes, but glory found in light. Over the years the maintenance of the Basilica changed its original character for many reasons, some very pragmatic. These changes left the building dark and cold. For the 200 year anniversary of the Basilica, Cardinal Keeler called for a restoration of the Basilica and to restore it to the intended design of Latrobe. Wow! Just Wow! The restoration also included creating a crypt church. The photos of brick arches are underneath the main church. The pictures illustrate a unique design by Latrobe to use reverse arches underneath to support the massive weight erected above. To view my Google Earth pictorial of the Basilica, https://adsodalitatem.org/kml/2007/Jan/Jan11.kml.The amazing event was soon followed by the comedy of me locking myself out of the van I am driving. I had to get a locksmith to help. Ah… pilgrimage. What can you do? As I began to think of the experience at the Basilica I was reminded how much I hate Religious Studies. Let me explain. Religious Studies is an academic field in which religions are observed and compared without any bias of their relevance or truth. I detest this because the reason I respect Judaism and Hinduism and others is because I am Catholic. The fact that I am Catholic allows me to enter into the conversation. Without it, I don’t have any vehicle that informs me of the sacredness of the people and customs of these other traditions. However, what Religious Studies has taught me is that all religions are trying to explain a mystery. In the case of Christianity, the greatest mystery we try to explain is transformation. A child is born. She grows up. She raises other children. She dies, yet something about her remains in the hearts of the living and in the very fabric of time. There is a transformation.The Autum comes and the leaves of trees fall off. The Winter leaves all things cold and barren. But the Spring comes and the same tree once again returns to life. There is a transformation.There is simple man who makes a pilgrimage, but all the while he is aware that he is a sinner just like everyone else. Along the journey he realizes that holiness does not come from his removal from the potential of sin, but how the sin he bears is used by God and transformed in good. There is a transformation.The central mystery we try to describe as Christians is one of transformation. The most important story we tell in this regard is the story of a man whose measure was beyond humanity, stemming from the divine. Though we thought him to be magnificent, when he disappointed us, we had him killed. Nothing erases that. Nothing undoes that. He was murdered, crucified. But then came the transformation, and the only way we can describe what happened is he was resurrected. The tomb became a womb for new life.This afternoon I made it back to THE Catholic University of America. I even was treated by Sr. Eileen who went with me to Rwanda in 2003 to my favorite college bar, Colonel Brooks (which brought me sooooo much joy and happiness.) I began to realize how much of a womb this was for was for me. (Catholic U., not Colonel Brooks, though the argument could be made either way) It formed me, and in many ways I don’t fit there anymore because of… well transformation.I know this is a long set of thoughts and occurrences to weave together, but there is one more experience to tie into today’s blog. I met with one of my college professors today. She was kind enough to spend some time with me and talk about all the changes in the school since I have been gone these 10 years. Some of those changes were not pleasant or healthy. What is worse is that she is not healthy. She is dying from terminal cancer that will take her life, probably in the next 2-3 years. This is why I can’t be punny today. I have experienced highs and lows on a journey, and the only way I can frame them is within a mystery at the heart of the Christian mystery, life is transformed beyond the darkest, dingiest, unlit, and cold aspects of life. They are never undone. They are never taken away. They are used to be transformed in new and beautiful light that surpasses any imagination. I know, someday, beyond the cancer, my college professor will experience a new light that transforms her into glory beyond imagination. I pray for her in the trials, grief, and pain these next few years will bring and I stand in wonder at the mystery of life, which today tells me that life itself is merely a womb out of which we all must grow. And when we try to go back to that comfortable and safe place, narrowed by our own expectations, we may find we no longer fit, and must accept that we too are… transformed.
Ordinary times started today. The priest wore green, not white. No more Christmas. We’re back to the time of the Liturgical year when we do “what we ordinarily do.” For me, I don’t know what the “return to ordinary” is exactly, since every day is an adventure. Although I will say, if today was an ordinary day on pilgrimage, I might go on spiritual overload.
For over half of my life, I have studied and performed Broadway musicals, not actually on Broadway, but you know… the actors life is lived in satellite theaters throughout America. Here I am at the center of the American theatrical life and I find a church that fits right in with the heart of the American theatrical life. I visited St. Malachy’s parish. A church known as “The Actor’s Chapel.”
The parish has a special history in serving the artists of New York, especially actors. This tradition began in the 1920’s when the parish offered midnight mass every night for the actors on Broadway who would finish the evening show and want to go to Mass.
It later became a parish where theatergoers would come to Mass after seeing a Broadway show, being that the parish is located in the middle of the theater district. Other late night workers around the city led to other night time Masses being offered at 2:00 AM and at 4:00 AM (when the bars closed). After a while, St. Malachy’s was only offering Mass at night, just steps off of Times Square.
When the downturn of Times Square came, the parish needed to refocus itself. It did a lot of work caring for the needs of the downtrodden and fighting the overpowering influence of massage parlors and prostitution.
In recent years it has returned to a ministry which focuses on the needs of Catholics who are part of the theater and artistic community of New York. The New York Catholic Actor’s Guild found a home at St. Malachy’s, and now on any typical Sunday, a large number of the assembly are persons who earn their living acting, singing, and dancing on Broadway. (Find out more about St. Malachy’s by visiting their website. www.actorschapel.org)
For a person such as myself, who is so entrenched in both theater and faith, this Church was like paradise. What made it even better was the fact that the pastor, Fr. Richard Baker, was a classmate of mine from THE Catholic University of America. We studied choral conducting together 10 years ago. It was unbelievable to me! Here I am at the center of the art form I appreciate the most, talking to the man whose responsibility it is to minister to those who do what inspires me the most (at least secularly).
I know there are actors with whom I have worked who read these blogs. We’ve often had discussions about how can I, or anyone, balance the “theater world” and the world of organized religion. If you ever get the chance, I encourage you to come to St. Malachy’s. The parish finds that balance, and as they do, they base the work off of a letter to artists written by the late Pope John Paul II entitled “The Way of Beauty.” Click on the link to read the letter.
They say there is a light bulb for every broken heart on Broadway. At St. Malachy’s, there are candles lit by actors who are hoping and praying they’ll get a break at the next audition. The parish is illuminated by hope, not broken hearts. It is amazing to witness, and not only because of the niche St. Malachy’s and Fr. Baker have found, but because they have chosen something so simple yet so important in the life of the Church, to engage the world in which they live. This is what the Church is supposed to do. This is… well… ordinary. Not necessarily because it is done all the time, but because this is what the Church is supposed to do.
to see the pictures of St. Malachy’s parish. The Google Earth satellite photo isn’t the greatest because other buildings cover up the footprint of St. Malachy’s, but it is right off of Times Square.