The Great Places: Our Saviour’s Church, New York

George Weigel

Of the 19,500 Catholic parishes in the United States, it’s a safe bet that none had a more spectacular aesthetic renovation last year than Our Saviour’s Church at Park Avenue and 38th Street in midtown Manhattan. That’s why I’ve chosen Our Saviour’s as the first in what I hope will be an occasional tour, in this column, of Catholic “great places.”

Our Saviour’s was chartered in 1955 and completed in 1959. One clerical legend has it that the late Cardinal Spellman wanted a Park Avenue church to rival the Anglican’s St. Thomas, which boasts perhaps the most magnificent stone reredos in America; another New York tale says that “Spelly” resented the fact that the only Park Avenue church was in the hands of the Jesuits. Whatever the truth of the matter, Our Saviour’s became, sadly, the archdiocesan great white elephant. Debts mounted, bills went unpaid, the fabric started to erode, and some began to wonder whether the church shouldn’t be abandoned despite its prime location – four blocks south of Grand Central Station in the middle of the capital of the world.

Then, six days after 9/11, a man with no small plans came to Our Saviour’s as pastor: Father George Rutler – convert from Anglicanism, graduate of Dartmouth, the Pontifical Gregorian University, and Rome’s Angelicum, EWTN personality, and one of the wittiest correspondents in the universal Church. What had been a parish of midtown daytime transients and weekend dowagers quickly began to attract flocks of twenty- and thirty-year olds. Children were once a rare sight at Our Saviour’s in the past; last year, fifty-two baptisms and almost fifty weddings were celebrated there. The parish had never produced priestly vocations; it now has more seminarians than any other in the archdiocese. Substantial funds were raised to cover overdue structural renovations and the parish, long beset by deficit budgeting, was put into the black.

But Father Rutler wasn’t through. At the Metropolitan Museum, he had seen a medieval reproduction of an icon of the Christos Pantokrator, Christ the Universal King – and it occurred to him that Our Saviour’s would benefit by something like it. But not just any something. For what Father Rutler commissioned, and what has now been sensationally completed by an Irishman and a Korean (converted by Father Rutler, of course), is a twenty-four-foot tall Christos Pantokrator based on the great icon of that style at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai. What I once wrote of the St. Catherine’s icon is just as true, now, of the luminous apse of Our Saviour’s, Park Avenue:

“The Christos Pantokrator is an image of Christ in a typical iconographic pose, full-face toward us, the Lord’s head surrounded by a golden corona or halo, his left arm clutching a jeweled Bible to himself (the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, holding the Word of God, the Holy Scripture), his right hand raised in a gesture that is both greeting and blessing, the thumb and ring finger touching (in acknowledgment of the two natures united in the one person of Christ), the index and middle fingers crossed (in acknowledgment of the instrument of salvation). The colors are impressively rich: gold and ivory, lavender and vermillion. But it is the Holy Face – majestic, calm, strikingly masculine – that draws us into the icon and into an encounter with the Lord himself.

“It is one face, for Christ is one. Yet the iconographer, by painting a face with two subtly different expressions, has drawn us into the mystery of God Incarnate, the Son of God come in the flesh. For all its humanity, we see – perhaps better, we sense – that, while this is a truly human face, it’s unlike any face we’ve seen before. He is in time, in one dimension of his face, but beyond time, in another. He is like every other human person, i.e., a person of time and space and history; but he is also transcendent, eternal. We meet him in his humanity; he draws us into his divinity.”

The white elephant of Park Avenue has become a vibrant center of Catholicism and an embodiment of the unity of truth and beauty.

COMING UP: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

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When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!