A Pathway to the Restoration of our Iconic Basilica and the Renewal of our Singular Parish
I had the privilege to travel to Rome this past November for the 40th anniversary of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums. As we discern the path forward to restore our beautiful Basilica church and to renew our extraordinary parish, I offer below an adapted version of the opening homily I gave at the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and Martyrs in Rome. As we move forward as a community of faith, I ask you to join me in calling on St. Mary, the first temple of God’s presence, to intercede on our behalf as we seek to restore and renew The Basilica of Saint Mary.
Earlier this fall, I was in my office at The Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, the first Basilica named in the United States. As I looked out my office window, I noticed an unattractive makeshift wooden awning affixed to our historic stone façade of the church. I bristled, who put that up, what is the purpose of it and why wasn’t I consulted (said with an indignant self-mocking tone). After I inquired further, I learned rather sheepishly that the temporary awning was meant to protect our brothers and sisters on the margins who come to the parish seeking services – driver’s license applications, housing and employment information, and basic living supplies.
In an effort to prepare to restore our Basilica, water-laden debris is being removed from the interior of the church and thus the awning was constructed to protect our guests as they lined up to enter the parish. As I reflected further on this, it seemed like the scene communicated integral dimensions of the mission of the Catholic Church throughout its history – to build and preserve beautiful churches where we worship the living God and to serve our brothers and sisters in need.
In Deus Caritas Est – God is Love, Pope Benedict XVI teaches that the ministry of caritas (love/charity) is as integral to the life and mission of the Church as proclaiming the Gospel and celebrating the sacraments. I don’t think this bold and important teaching has received enough attention or reflection. Benedict goes on to say that the ministry of caritas is an opus proprium for the Church – a task agreeable to her. So too, the Church as an instrument and patron of beauty is also an opus proprium – it is for this reason we gather these days in Rome. Inspired and transformed by the sacred liturgy and the beauty that adorns it, we are called to transform the world, to make it more beautiful, and to see and serve Christ in the poor.
For all of our challenges as Catholics – presently and historically, I think it is accurate to say that the Catholic Church is both the greatest servant of the poor and marginalized in western civilization and the greatest patron of the arts in western civilization. The work that you do as Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums is not superfluous – just the opposite, it is necessary and just. Your work preserves beauty and the arts for generations to come and is a manifestation of intergenerational solidarity. This work is worthy of celebration as it gives glory to God, the source of all beauty. As we gather this evening for Holy Mass and the beginning of our celebration, I am reminded again that Rome is a great teacher of the importance of goodness, beauty, and truth. This triad – known as the transcendentals in the Catholic tradition – finds its source in God and leads us to transcend our human nature to touch God’s presence in what is good, beautiful, and true.
Many years ago, as a young priest, I was leading a pilgrimage to Italy – in the footsteps of the great saints of Italy. After the dates were announced, we happily learned that Mother Teresa would be beatified during our time in Italy. We were fortunate to attend this celebration in Rome and I will never forget that, after a forecast of 100% rain for Rome, the crowds were pouring out over St. Peter’s Square down to the Tiber, under a cloudless October sky! We were gathered in great number because we had witnessed the sublime goodness of God through this diminutive nun. No doubt, those to whom she ministered in Calcutta saw the goodness – indeed the face of God in St. Teresa of Calcutta.
In reflecting on the beauty of God, Rome teaches too of the transformative power of beauty. Several years ago, I remember a visit to St. Paul Outside the Walls. As we entered the church, there was a confluence of elements that added to the transcendent experience. The church itself was beautiful, there was a gentle wind moving through the open windows, the light was such that it added splendor to the artwork in the church, and there was a string quartet rehearsing for a concert or perhaps an upcoming liturgy. This was a symphony of beauty touching all the senses – the person fully alive giving glory to God. In terms of Rome’s beauty, I think too of the mosaics and ancient Marian icon at St. Mary Major, the majestic and moving statues of the Apostles flanking the nave of St. John Lateran, and the amber colored stained-glass window of the Holy Spirit capturing one’s eye and heart upon entering St. Peter’s Basilica. As my colleague Dr. Johan Van Parys reminds us, quoting St. John Paul II, “beauty saves.” Indeed it does, and it also evangelizes. Beauty transforms our hearts and leads us to express faith in and gratitude to God, from whom all beauty flows.
Truth connects goodness and beauty in expressing the reality found in Scripture that all wisdom comes from the Lord. Truth also reminds us that any gift, including those gifts given humanity which manifest in beautiful works of art, are given by God and find their pinnacle to the Glory of God. The four basilicas I mentioned earlier and the Vatican Museums, which you generously support, are the high points of art in praise and glory of God. Lastly, the truth of Imago Dei – and the attendant dignity of the human person, teach us that our human nature has been gifted the capacity to appreciate beauty and calls forth the goodness and justice we owe our neighbor. The challenge today is that we suffer from an eclipse of the divine horizon, which results in an attendant failure to grasp the full splendor of beauty, goodness, and truth. The Church has an important role here in the transformation of society as source, witness, and teacher.
Humility and commitment to an integrated life is the way of Jesus – it is the way of his life and his passion. It is also the way of his followers. I think of the great disciples of Jesus – including those named for the great Roman basilicas mentioned above – they lived lives of humility and boldness – they were, as St. Ignatius of Loyola might say, spiritually free. And God did great things through their lives! As we journey through these days in Rome, we thank God for this special time together and we give God glory for the gifts of beauty, goodness, and truth. In faith, we re-commit to integrating these transcendent values into our lives and transforming the world God has made.