I realized yesterday that I’m a bit like a homing pigeon when it comes to visiting New York. No matter where I am in Manhattan, I always end up back at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is like home base for me. Back when I was a reporter for Catholic New York, I used to cover Cardinal John O’Connor’s Sunday Masses there with regularity, along with lots of other events, from the unusual (Andy Warhol’s memorial Mass complete with Liza Minelli and Grace Jones) to the the sublime (meeting Mother Teresa after a Mass marking the anniversary of Cardinal Terence Cooke’s death.)
After Dennis and I had wandered around the upper West Side for a while, including a misty morning stroll through a muddy but decidedly spring-infused Central Park, it was still too early for most stores or museums to be open. Where to go…where to go…St. Patrick’s Cathedral, of course, which is completely covered in scaffolding — inside and out. Although I feel bad for the tourists coming to New York to see it for the first time, there was something intriguing about getting a glimpse of it this way, and, based on the completed work that is already visible, it’s going to look fantastic when the restoration is complete.
At first, as we walked along the outer edges of the cathedral, trying to avoid wires and boards and construction workers, I wondered aloud why they would even bother to keep the cathedral open under such conditions. But eventually we made our way to the Lady Chapel at the back of the cathedral, which remains untouched (at least as of now) by the restoration project. We knelt down in prayer, as other visitors did the same — the old lady with the scarf tied tightly around her head, a shopping bag on her arm; the young business man in the fashionably cut suit; the tourist with backpack and camera marking his outsider status. One by one, they drifted in and out, genuflecting, kneeling, praying, making the Sign of the Cross. And it made me smile.
Then as we worked our way back to the Fifth Avenue entrance, weaving between clusters of high school students and folding chairs where pews should be, I caught sight of a man in the midst of the mayhem with Rosary beads dangling from his hands as he sat staring up at the scaffolding. A few rows back was another middle-aged man with head in hands, obviously lost in prayer. Near a side altar, someone placed a bouquet of flowers in front of the statue of St. Joseph, despite the fact that poor Joseph’s face was completely covered by boards.
The beauty of the quiet spiritual calm in the middle of the noisy physical chaos stopped me in my tracks. Yes, the cathedral was mostly filled with tourists snapping selfies, but there were plenty of other people who had come not for the architectural grandeur or the possibility of seeing Cardinal Timothy Dolan but for a respite from the struggles and sorrows and stresses of their lives. Outside the cathedral is a sign that reads: “In a city that never sleeps everyone needs a place to pray.” Amen. Even if it’s a place covered in scaffolding.