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St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Way of Beauty

December 1, 2015


It’s perhaps the most famous church in America, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, newly renovated and sparkling on 5th Avenue in New York City, is the focus of a new book titled Saint Patrick’s Cathedral: The Legacy of America’s Parish Church. Today we share Bishop Barron’s contribution to the book. We encourage you to learn more and pick up your copy at the book’s website.



In his splendid apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis encourages evangelists to the contemporary world to employ the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty). In so doing, the Pope demonstrates his intuition that, in our postmodern culture, leading with either of the other two transcendentals–the true and the good—tends to be less than effective. When we directly tell people what to believe or how to behave, they become defensive: “who are you to impose your ideas and values on me?” In the grip of what Pope Benedict XVI called “the dictatorship of relativism,” many in the contemporary West spontaneously reject claims to objective truth or goodness. 

But there is something more winsome and less threatening about the beautiful. “Just look,” the evangelist might say, “at Chartres Cathedral or the Sainte Chapelle, or the Sistine Chapel Ceiling or the mosaics at Ravenna.” “Just read,” he might urge, “Dante’s Divine Comedy or one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems, or Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.” “Just watch,” he might suggest, “Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity at work among the poorest of the poor.” The wager is that the encounter with the beautiful will naturally lead someone to ask, “What made such a thing possible?” At that point, the canny evangelizer will begin to speak of the moral behaviors and intellectual convictions that find expression in the beautiful. If I might suggest a simple metaphor, when teaching a young person the game of baseball, a good coach begins, not with the rules or with tiresome drills, but rather with the beauty of the game, with its sounds and smells and the graceful movements of its star players. 

The nineteenth century architects, designers, and builders of St. Patrick’s Cathedral understood this principle in their bones—as do those who, today, have presided over its magnificent renovation. What an extraordinary evangelical witness it is that such a place—redolent inside and out with the spirit of Catholicism—should exist along the principal avenue of one of the greatest cities in the Western world. We can only rejoice that, in the heart of Manhattan, which in many ways is the capital of the secularist society, there stands a work of art that speaks, through the beauty of its sculpture and stained glass, of creation, redemption, the cross and resurrection, and the tender mercy of God. What a haven it provides, and what a sermon it continually preaches!

I would like to draw particular attention to a few features of this splendid building. St. Patrick’s Cathedral is, arguably, the finest Gothic building in the Western Hemisphere, and as such, it wonderfully exemplifies the verticality that is a defining element of the Gothic style. Every line in the place points dramatically upward, drawing the eye and the mind of the visitor toward the transcendent order. When one enters a Gothic cathedral, one is compelled to step out of the ordinary, workaday world and to enter another, higher world, the realm of the angels and the saints. The most fundamental spiritual problem of our time is an ideological secularism that closes off our contact with the transcendent and convinces us that we can find perfect happiness in the things of this world. The upward thrust of the Cathedral functions as a challenge to this soul-crushing attitude. The fathers of Vatican II said that church buildings should be filled with “signs and symbols of heavenly realities.” The very verticality of St. Patrick’s is one of those signs. 

Another is the rose window that adorns the Fifth Avenue western façade of the Cathedral. Designed in 1945 by Charles Connick, one of the supreme masters of the glazier’s art, the rose consists of eight petals arranged around a central cross. Each petal is inhabited by an angel who holds a symbol of one of the Beatitudes. In utilizing the number eight in his great window, Connick was standing in a venerable tradition. The North Rose Window at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, for example, is so marked by eight and its multiples that it amounts to a sustained meditation on the number. This is because eight—which stands outside of seven, evocative of the seven days of the week and hence the completed cycle of time—represents eternity, the timeless realm of God. Indeed, the Beatitudes—so puzzling and counterintuitive when interpreted within the fallen world—become luminous when read in the light of eternity. At the center of Connick’s Fifth Avenue Rose is the cross, and all of the other elements of the window wheel around that center in harmonious patterns. This is a symbol of the well-ordered soul. When Christ is given highest value, all of the component parts of the self—mind, will, imagination, private life, public life, etc.—tend to fall into harmony in relation to Him. The rose is also evocative of the well-ordered city, or culture. When Christ is most highly honored in a society, all of the elements of that society—business, finance, sports, politics, entertainment, etc.—arrange themselves beautifully around Him. The great Gloria prayer of the Mass expresses this idea in its formula: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.” In other words, if God is given highest glory, peace tends to break out among those who so glorify Him. Again, how wonderful that a symbol of these fundamental spiritual truths is displayed over Fifth Avenue.

From the very beginning of the Church, Christians have wondered whether it is legitimate for the disciples of the poor Christ to spend large amounts of money on works of art and architecture. I am sure that, in the New York of the nineteenth century, there were some who thought that the funds dedicated to the building of St. Patrick’s should have been diverted to the hungry, the homeless, and the sick. To be sure, one of the essential tasks of Jesus’ Church is to care for the materially poor. But as Pope Benedict specified, there are two other ecclesial tasks that remain co-essential, namely worshipping God and evangelizing. The life of the Church is healthiest precisely when these three are kept in a mutually enhancing and mutually correcting relationship; it would certainly be incorrect, therefore, to allow the service dimension of the Church to trump the other two. Reynold Hillenbrand, rector of Mundelein Seminary in the 1930’s, said, “The poor need beauty as much as they need food and drink.”

Through the very stone and glass of the renovated St. Patrick’s Cathedral, followers of Christ continue both to give glory to God and to announce the Gospel to all the world.

Image credit: Jean-Christophe BENOIST, WikiMedia Commons