I have to admit that, visiting St. Anthony of Padua parish in New York this weekend, I can see why some Protestants might get the mistaken idea that Catholics may have gone just a bit over the top in the matter of church decor--and how the mistaken idea that Catholics elevate saints over God might creep in too. The key word in that sentence is mistaken.
I usually take advantage of a trip to New York to indulge in mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Although the gawking crowds of tourists can get in the way, I love the soaring architecture, the massive space, the chapels and the statues arranged along the walls. It is so classically Catholic to me--something I recognized as a difference from the Protestant faith of my childhood even from the beginning. Like the style or not, I find it impossible to enter a space like that and not understand that I am in a place reserved for the uplifting of the human heart to its Creator.
This time, however, our digs in Soho and the desire to spend as much of Sunday morning as we could with our daughter made the trek uptown to St. Patrick’s impractical, so we opted for a neighborhood church, built in the 1800s to welcome waves of Italian immigrants to the City. I’d actually walked by the building on several occasions, drawn particularly by a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, surrounded by kneeling children (one that proves, as a recent homilist said, tongue firmly in cheek, that not only do Catholics bow down to statues, so do their statues!). Closer inspection revealed that Our Lady wasn’t the only statue in the small garden outside. St Padre Pio was there, and St Anthony (no big surprise) and over in a corner, appropriately placed next to a bag of Weed-Stop, was St. Frances.
But that was just the beginning, and nothing to compare to the statuary that filled the inside. There was not a nook or cranny long the walls that did not have some sort of exuberant, highly representational--and very beautiful--art: statues of various saints and huge stained glass windows and relief carvings of the stations of the cross. The sanctuary space was lined with green stone, set apart by soaring, white columns. In the center, behind the altar,between two carved angels, was a much larger than life sculpture of the Blessed Mother handing the infant Jesus to a kneeling St. Anthony. Below it was a gold crucifix, beautiful. Present, central--but somewhat overwhelmed by the tableau above it.
I could just hear my Presbyterian friends tut-tutting in disapproval. Where, they would ask me, is Jesus in all that? Talk about exalting the creature over the Creator--this church not only gives headlines to this Saint Anthony fellow, they give him center stage as well!
Well, no, not center stage, and not headlines, either. In the center of the tableau, in the exact center, above the crucifix,is the child Jesus, being handed to Anthony by Mary. One of the things I learned very quickly as I entered the Catholic Church is that all of the Trinity is regularly worshipped, and Jesus in all of his forms is known and adored. It was a new experience for me, liberating, disorienting, intoxicating, enhancing all at the same time. It never occurred to me--because no one ever pointed it out--that Jesus is and was and always will be Jesus at every stage of His earthly life, and thus, worthy of worship (and teaching me something about my own life in the bargain.) It was a little disorienting to see the infant Jesus, rather than a massive crucifix, at the center of this church, but once I adjusted to it, I realized that it conveyed to me in a very powerful way that the Infant being tenderly passed from one set of loving arms to another was the same One who ended up on the cross below. And knowing the story of St. Anthony, if for no other reason than that it was shining forth from the stained glass of the windows, the message that he was entrusted to spread the knowledge and love of Jesus came through loud and clear.
I began to look at that church with the eyes of a new immigrant to New York in the closing years of the 19th Century. That’s not as hard as it might seem for a second generation German-Irish All-American mutt like me--after all, I’m a new immigrant to the Catholic faith. And here’s what I found.
I found that I didn’t need to listen to the homily (though it was inspiring) to get the story of the faith, because it was all around me. I didn’t need to know how to read, or be trained in biblical exegesis. The simple story of faith and salvation was an intimate part of the very walls of the place in which I worshipped. This was a place where, simply by paying attention to the cues around me, and (at least in my imagination) hearing the stories passed down of the saints and their missions, I was drawn clearly and expressly to that Infant and that Man and thus to the Trinity itself.
After church, I paused for a few minutes to walk around and look at the statues lining the walls. I realized that I have learned to recognize them even at a distance, as clearly as I would recognize the distant form of my husband in a crowd. There was Mary, there was Jesus, there was St, John the Baptist, in animal skins, carrying a rod and a lamb. And St. Rocco. with his ever present dog, this one carrying the miraculous bread. St. Joseph, with his flowering staff. Saint Lucy with wreath on her head (I was too squeamish to look for her eyes). What amazed me, literate, book-learned woman that I am, is that is was osmotic knowledge--not something I had read and learned and thus acquired and made mine by effort of will but something I had seen and experienced that was mine simply because I was immersed in it and belonged to it and it was in one way or another always around me.
It’s sometimes hard for modern people, who depend so very much on reading things to remember that for most of the history of the church, most folks learned the faith not through expensive, difficult-to-obtain books that a hefty percentage of the population couldn’t read anyway. They learned faith through the people who lived it. They learned about Christ through Christians. And Christians learned the stories of the faith by heart and through art because that was the way to spread the message to the most people in the most memorable way. Faith wasn’t then--and shouldn’t be now--a merely intellectual exercise. I fall prey to that temptation all to easily; it was nice to be shaken out of the habit. Learning about Christ from other Christians, alive in the present or alive to us from the past, is still the best way to see how to live out the faith we have been given.
So, I think about Saint Anthony’s and what its art communicated to me, and what it must have said to the people who arrived there so many years ago. Here was home. Here were friendly reminders of the homeland they had left, with St. Rocco and Saint Anthony, and of the homeland to which they would go, with Jesus the Infant and Christ the Crucified. Here was a place that paid tribute to the glory of God and the works of his creation. Here was a place that the stonemason, the sculptor, the artist, the painter, the seamstress, the glassworker, the carpenter, and the bricklayer all had a hand in creating, where the Word made Flesh was both proclaimed and illustrated in His life and in His saints.
Sometimes we complicate things far too much. Although there is wonderful subtlety and great depth to the Catholic faith, it is, after all, a faith meant to be accessible to everyone, at every time and in every place, at every stage of life and of every intellect. I take great joy in the fact that communicating it isn’t limited to the printed--or even the spoken--word.