The magnificent papal visit to the United States had many highlights, but a signature moment was the Mass in Madison Square Garden. There, the distinctive pastoral approach of Pope Francis was most evident, just as the signature moment of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in 2008 was his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
New York’s cathedral restoration had been completed just before Pope Francis arrived on Sept. 24, and its interior radiance was such that many viewers on television initially did not recognize it. In April 2008, Pope Benedict used the cathedral as an image of the Church in a homily that was typically lyrical and profound, taking his departure point from the beauty of the Catholic tradition in art and architecture.
“From the outside, those [stained-glass] windows are dark, heavy, even dreary,” Benedict preached. “But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive; reflecting the light passing through them, they reveal all their splendor. Many writers have used the image of stained glass to illustrate the mystery of the Church herself. It is only from the inside, from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit. It follows that we, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion, are called to draw all people into this mystery of light.”
“This leads me to a further reflection about the architecture of this church,” Benedict continued. “Like all Gothic cathedrals, it is a highly complex structure, whose exact and harmonious proportions symbolize the unity of God’s creation. Medieval artists often portrayed Christ, the creative Word of God, as a heavenly ‘geometer,’ compass in hand, who orders the cosmos with infinite wisdom and purpose. Does this not bring to mind our need to see all things with the eyes of faith, and thus to grasp them in their truest perspective, in the unity of God’s eternal plan?”
Illumination, order and beauty, giving rise to the knowledge of truth, which comes from faith — all this was a lifetime of Joseph Ratzinger’s lucid thought in a few paragraphs.
Benedict delighted in the Gothic cathedral planted in the heart of Gotham, pointing the city to God above and inviting all those who pass by to encounter him within, bathed in natural light made warm and radiant by the images of divine revelation. It is the mission of the Church in the midst of the world, the heart of the city.
In contrast, Pope Francis offered the holy Mass at Madison Square Garden, not a sanctuary, but a place where regularly are featured all manner of things offensive to God. He came to sanctify the city, to bring the sanctuary of God to it. Pope Francis also took up the theme of light: not the transformed light of the cathedral, but the light that penetrates the “smog of the city.” It was the complementary vision to that of Benedict: Francis seeing the light of Christ in the midst of the turmoil and travail of the city. The Church is here, Francis said, amidst the darkness, bruised and dirty in the streets.
“One special quality of God’s people is their ability to see, to contemplate, even in ‘moments of darkness,’ the light which Christ brings,” Francis preached at Madison Square Garden. “God’s faithful people can see, discern and contemplate his living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city.”
Where is God in the modern city? In the sanctuary or out on the street? The successive visits of Benedict and Francis give the usual Catholic answer: both. Benedict’s emphasis on the cathedral reflects the distinctive Catholic proclamation; Francis discovers the seeds of the same proclamation amidst the cacophony of the streets.
“Living in a big city is not always easy,” preached Pope Francis. “A multicultural context presents many complex challenges. Yet big cities are a reminder of the hidden riches present in our world: in the diversity of its cultures, traditions and historical experiences; in the variety of its languages, costumes and cuisine. Big cities bring together all the different ways which we human beings have discovered to express the meaning of life, wherever we may be.”
And amidst the thriving mix of city life, there are those beloved to Pope Francis, those who are not part of the mix.
“But big cities also conceal the faces of all those people who don’t appear to belong or are second-class citizens. In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath ‘the rapid pace of change,’ so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.”
Jesus is to be found in the least of these. Surely then, the Holy Father reminds us, Christ is to be found on the streets of the city, too.
“Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope,” Francis said. “What is it like, this light traveling through our streets? How do we encounter God, who lives with us amid the smog of our cities?”
The first pope from the Global South knows well the teeming reality of the modern city, especially the mega cities of the developing world. In the slums of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio found the light of Christ shining amid the darkness. He walked in the slums because he was convinced that Christ was walking there, that his light was traveling through the streets.
All the “different ways” that people “express the meaning of life” are present in the city. The Christian meaning belongs there; the light of Christ belongs there.
If Benedict taught expertly that what takes place in the sanctuary reveals God most fully to us, Francis asks us: Who is carrying that revelation to the dark corners of the city around the sanctuary? Liturgy and mission, the cathedral and the city, communion and compassion — call it stained-glass solidarity.
In 2008, after the splendid homily at St. Patrick’s, many commentators remarked that no one other than Joseph Ratzinger could have given that homily.
At Madison Square Garden, only Jorge Bergoglio could have preached there as he did.
In Vatican eyes, partly due to the international headquarters of the United Nations, New York is the caput mundi: the “capital of the world,” in the expression of St. John Paul II.
Where is God to be found in the capital of the world? Does the city come to the cathedral to find God? Or do Catholics go out to the streets to find God? Both: Christ is in the cathedral and the city. His vicars, in a remarkable complementarity, have pointed to his presence in both places.
Peter memorably put the question: “To whom shall we go?” It’s the motto of the current archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Peter’s successors have answered the question in the caput mundi: We go to the sanctuary of the cathedral. We go to the streets of the city.
The light of Christ shines in both.
He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998 to 2003.