My introduction to the Cathedral of St. Paul came by way of an invitation from two seminarians. In 2002, I was serving my first year as bishop of New Ulm. My two seminarians studying at St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul invited me up on a Sunday evening to attend a concert being held at the cathedral. I suggested that we have dinner prior to the event and so we did. However, our conversation ran over and by the time we reached the cathedral, only the back row was open. But that proved to be a huge advantage.
As I sat as it were on the “back wall”, I could take in the breadth and depth of this magnificent structure. My eyes first surveyed the grand baldachino over the altar, then the expansiveness of the sanctuary, and the perfect symmetry of all the details. I then looked up to the dome, only to be deeply impressed with this large reflection of the sun and the sky, providing the suggestion that all the world was welcome into the space below.
Commentators believe that the architect, E.L. Masqueray, wanted to give the person in the pew the impression of being in a boat. In fact, completely surrounding the nave of the Cathedral, you will find a marble border carved in the pattern of waves.
Again, sitting in that back row, I was reminded that the mission of the Church is to serve as a vessel, carrying the baptized through the raging seas of this world to the final port in the Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, like the Gospel story, Jesus is with us in this boat, perhaps asleep in the stern, but always in charge, challenging us to believe in him.
But as I looked around that night, I noticed that the most significant fact was that this huge but beautifully artistic structure was filled with willing Catholics. What a beautiful sight!
This is what Archbishop John Ireland had in mind when he commissioned its construction: a gathering space for the people of God to turn their attention and devotion to the Lord of Life. I have no doubt that this is what caused this great Church leader to break down in tears at the opening Mass on Palm Sunday, March 28, 1915. Even at that early date, he must have seen this extraordinary ecclesial structure achieving its potential.
My next significant experience at this great cathedral was my Mass of Reception as coadjutor archbishop. The edifice was filled to capacity that day as family and friends, clergy, religious and lay leaders came together to celebrate who we were as a community in transition. I attempted to draw an analogy in my homily between the ministries of Ss. Peter and Paul to that of Archbishop Flynn and myself. While we both had different administrative styles and ministerial approaches, we were united in the basics of the faith. The unity of the local Church was a pre-eminent priority for both of us. Even today, I remain convinced of this great truth.
Over the past seven years, the cathedral has been the site of some of my most treasured experiences as archbishop: countless celebrations of the sacrament of confirmation; the ordination of permanent deacons, priests and two auxiliary bishops; the reception of new Catholic school teachers and administrators at the beginning of the new school year; our celebration of life on Jan. 22 followed by a march to the Capitol; our May rosary processions; the beautiful chrism Masses and the celebrations of Holy Week, Easter and Christmas; the celebration for consecrated religious Feb. 2; the first Men’s Conference with an overflowing number of participants; the celebration of married couples in the spring; and even the occasional request to celebrate the sacrament of baptism for newborns.
Indeed, the cathedral has served these past seven years as my own parish Church. But because of the pressing responsibilities of my office, I cannot be present on a daily basis to handle pastoral concerns, and so I want to acknowledge and thank the two rectors who have stood in my stead these past years, namely Father Joseph Johnson and Father John Ubel. They are men of great pastoral zeal and immense talent — and they have served the cathedral with great dedication and tireless service. I am so thankful to them both.
One final experience worthy of mention here: In 2011, I was approached with a request to allow the Red Bull Crashed Ice event to take place in the front of the cathedral. In consultation with the rector, I decided to let it happen. But as the track was being set up, I received an angry letter of complaint from a person who thought I was disrespecting this sacred space.
I wrote back to say that the cathedrals of Europe often use their plazas for markets, parades, even bull fights. The present use by Red Bull was hardly an anomaly when one consulted the tradition of the Church and her history. Here we were permitting a secular event to use the space in front of the cathedral as a way of showing that the Church was concerned about the whole person, soul and body.
What is more, the cathedral is a part of a community, a community that is made up of both believers and non-believers. Our allowance for the event on the cathedral grounds makes it clear that we are a part of the neighborhood and part of the common good that is our political community. Despite its challenges, I was glad to host the event, and was grateful to the cathedral parish community for their patience and for the sacrifices necessary to see it happen.
That year on the last night of the Crashed Ice event, I deliberately walked through the interior of the cathedral while the contest was going on outside. I was impressed with the reverential atmosphere that I found. People were seated in prayer, walking around to inspect the interior detail, reading the brochures offered there. I thought, isn’t this what the cathedral is meant to be: an oasis of sacred space open to discerning believers and non-believers who wish to be touched by the mysterious presence of God?
As Archbishop Ireland said on the occasion of the first Mass in this historic edifice:
[This is] “… one great temple, that, in expressive manner, will symbolize, as no isolated effort can do, our Christian faith and Christian love, and will preach to the world of men around us the grandeur of that faith, the sublime holiness of that love.”
As we begin this year of celebration in honor of the centenary of our magnificent Cathedral of St. Paul, let us reaffirm the vision of Archbishop Ireland and E.L. Masqueray by promoting and envisioning this handsome edifice as a powerful and enduring symbol of our Catholic faith, reaching out to the society around us with an attractive invitation to experience the joy, the consolation, and the grandeur of our belief in Christ.
May the beauty of this house of God, which is also our house, call all the nations to believe in the one who has pitched his tent among us.
May God bless you!
Category: From the Chancery