New York is not often considered a place of pilgrimage. Author Peter Kreeft is fond of remarking that if God does not destroy New York, He will have to issue an apology to Sodom.
Perhaps so. But last year I celebrated the Paschal Triduum in New York and found it a marvelous place to do so. For in New York, the Cross of Christ must be chosen very deliberately amongst the competing distractions. Many do choose it. And to choose the Cross on Good Friday in New York is to experience in a special way the drama of choosing the Cross in our culture.
Last year, as per usual, John Cardinal O'Connor was in his cathedral on Good Friday, preaching on the Seven Last Words of Christ from noon until three o'clock, and then celebrating the liturgy of the Lord's Passion. Meanwhile, up in the Bronx, Mayor Rudolph Giulani and the largest home-opener crowd since 1975 were at Yankee Stadium for an afternoon game.
The cardinal protested in his Easter week column in Catholic New York. “I love the Yankees. I love the Mets. I love baseball,” he wrote. But he announced that he would not attend any baseball games in the 1998 season to protest the major leagues playing on Good Friday. “Playing on Good Friday cheapens our culture. I resent it,” he said.
The cardinal's intervention called attention to the lack of public observance of Good Friday. The New York Stock Exchange closed, but otherwise the city did not pay much attention to the holiest hours of the Christian year.
New York's Jewish community was preparing for Passover, which began that night, as the New York Times advised on its front page. The weather was beautiful and the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue were teeming with shoppers and sightseers. USA Today devoted a full two pages of its Friday edition to Fifth Avenue, “one of the world's most legendary boulevards,” reporting that business was booming and real estate was going for $2,400 per square foot.
Neither the Times nor USA Today nor the mayor seemed to notice that it was Good Friday. On Fifth Avenue some did and some did not. In between the teenagers flocking to Trump Tower's Nike Town on 56th Street, and the society matrons strolling into Saks on 49th, there were thousands of the faithful attending Good Friday services, whether at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian on 55th, St. Thomas (Anglican) on 53rd, or St. Patrick's Cathedral on 50th.
A few blocks over on Park Avenue, almost two thousand went to the Waldorf-Astoria grand ballroom, where Father George Rutler preached his famous three-hour meditation on the Seven Last Words of Christ. Even though St. Agnes Church, a stone's throw from Grand Central Station, was already rebuilt, it could not hold the number of faithful who wished to attend, so St. Agnes continued holding its Good Friday services in the nearby hotel.
Father Rutler began last year, as he often does, noting that the streets were full and the city was bustling. “These three hours are the most silent of hours,” he declared. New York, like Jerusalem on the first Good Friday, may be noisy, he conceded, “but Heaven is silent, for in Heaven they know what is happening.”
Father Rutler's practice of preaching the Seven Last Words at the Waldorf is a great sign of contradiction amidst the opulence and luxury of the hotel, and a sign that the Cross of Christ is not alien in any place. He noted that in the very same ballroom a month earlier, Time magazine had held its gaudy anniversary dinner, piling honors upon those who had graced its cover. “Some may have been truly great, but were they saints?” he asked. The difference between the two is the difference between what is chosen. “The difference between those who are great and the saints is their embrace of the Cross.”
While Father Rutler was preaching in the Waldorf, the Brooklyn chaplain of Communion and Liberation was leading the Stations of the Cross at another great New York landmark, the Brooklyn Bridge. At the annual event, Father Ronald Marino leads a large group, the majority of them young, across the bridge toward St. James Cathedral in Brooklyn. In the midst of the traffic and noise of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Cross of Christ is proclaimed. “No space is beyond the sacred,” said Father Marino, “Christ belongs everywhere, even on the Brooklyn Bridge.”
To choose the Cross on Good Friday in New York is to choose very deliberately indeed. And for those young people on the Brooklyn Bridge, or their fellow pilgrims at the Waldorf, it is to choose in the face of a worldliness and wealth that refuses to worship a king who is nailed to his throne.
In New York the sacred and the sinful grow together like the wheat and the tares. An overflowing congregation packed St. Patrick's Cathedral, and knelt as Cardinal O'Connor, prince of the Church, prostrated himself before the large naked cross that dominates the sanctuary on Good Friday. It is only princes of Church who prostrate themselves. Princes of the world do not. While he did so, the great organ of St. Patrick's was silent. The great crowd was silent. Like the great crowd of silent witnesses in heaven, they knew what was happening.
They were not silent at Yankee Stadium. The traffic did not stop on the Brooklyn Bridge. The stores and restaurants in the Waldorf did not close. They were not silent on Fifth Avenue. At the end of the liturgy, the great doors of St. Patrick's were thrown open, and the Cross of Christ could be seen from the street. The faithful leaving St. Patrick's are greeted by the giant statue of Atlas across Fifth Avenue at Rockefeller Center. Standing in the nave of St. Patrick's on Good Friday is to stand exactly between Atlas and the Cross. Between the fallen god, who struggles and strains to carry the world on his back, and the God-Man who peacefully lays down on the Cross to be lifted up, so that He may draw the world to Himself.
The nave of St. Patrick's Cathedral is a good place to be on Good Friday. To stand between Atlas and the Cross. And to choose.
Raymond de Souza, a seminarian, writes from Rome.