Outside the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, jackhammers pounded away at a do-it-yourself maze of century-old, underground pipes snaking to destinations unknown, a New Orleans mystery more confounding than the Trinity.
Inside the Sonesta, 435 priests from across the state gathered for the Louisiana Priests’ Convention, the largest attendance in history and even more amazing when you consider that number represented about two-thirds of the 660 priests in the state and 1.2 percent of the estimated 37,000 priests in the U.S.
The power of such a fraternal gathering can’t be under-valued. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, one of three keynote speakers on the convention theme of “Shepherding Today as Priest, Prophet and King,” looked out on the packed ballroom – workers were adding two more back rows of chairs as he spoke – and said: “At St. Patrick’s, we call this a two-collection crowd.”
In both physical stature and ecclesiastical status, Cardinal Dolan is a large man – “That robe in the closet that says ‘one size fits all’ … the heck it does!” – and his renowned ability to communicate clearly big ideas using an economy of words was on full display.
He did not carry with him his shepherd’s staff, which he has been known to lean against nonchalantly in the narthex of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue as he gives yet another television interview, but he clearly had command of a room of “brothers.”
“The priesthood for us is that pearl of great price,” Cardinal Dolan said. “It’s a sublime gift that we never, ever dare take for granted to nurture it, to fan it into a flame. An occasion like this is nothing less than sacred. The priesthood and the church are so inseparable that if we speak about our priesthood, we have to speak about the church. Christ is not complete without the church; the church is not complete without Christ.”
Cardinal Dolan talked frankly about the “wounds” of the church, how if it is to be taken seriously by those who have left and never returned to darken its doors, it must admit openly that human weakness and sin are as much a part of its story as Cain and Abel are to the Old Testament.
Am I my brother’s keeper? Cardinal Dolan told his brothers, yes.
“Looking at the ominous side of the church and acknowledging it can actually, I contend, lead people to her,” he said.
He referred to historian Arnold Toynbee – “who happened to detest the Catholic Church” – but later in life came to the conclusion that the church is “divine.”
“I believe the Roman Catholic Church to be divine, and the proof to be thus: that any mere human institution, conducted with such knavish imbecility, would not have lasted a fortnight.”
Cardinal Dolan said priests hear the stories of fallen-away Catholics all the time.
“Some reject her for being old and wrinkled and irrelevant, in need of radical surgery that could change her stale tradition of faith and morals, recasting a medieval, patriarchal, outdated structure,” he said. “And others complain that they feel she’s become too brash, wavering on the wisdom of ages, way too accommodating, sheep, (following the) fads of the times.”
He said Pope John Paul II once had powerful advice to young people at World Youth Day: “Be patient with the church, she is a community of weak and imperfect people, and God has placed his work of salvation in human, soiled hands.”
Even after Christ rose from the dead, the cardinal said, he appeared to his apostles with a radiant, glorified body and showed them his wounds.
One of Cardinal Dolan’s best stories about the wounded nature of the church did not happen on Fifth Avenue but in a small, rural parish in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where Cardinal Dolan had served before coming to New York. Bishop Richard Sklba, his late auxiliary bishop, told him the story.
“As a result of strategic pastoral planning – oh, those chilling words – this historic, venerable country parish had to be closed and merged with another,” he said. “The people were very sad. Actually, they had been quite angry at first, but eventually they came to acknowledge that their tiny parish, with maybe 80 people, with another parish only four miles away, could hardly stay open.”
The parishioners, who represented five and six generations, had one request.
“They asked if they could burn their old, wooden church to the ground,” Cardinal Dolan said. “See, they explained, if it just sat there closed up, it would crumble into disrepair and might be vandalized. They did not want to sell it, fearful that it might be turned into some restaurant or boutique shop. Could they burn it as an act of sacrifice and reverence? The archbishop at the time agreed.”
Bishop Sklba went out on a Saturday evening for the final Mass. Parishioners removed the statues, stained glass windows, sacred vessels, altar and pews, and the Blessed Sacrament.
“At the conclusion of the Mass everybody processed outside and stood at a distance as the local fire department expertly prepared the building for burning,” Cardinal Dolan said. “As the flames went up, the people sang, ‘The Church’s One Foundation’ and prayed the rosary as the timbers burned.”
Bishop Sklba spent the night at the neighboring parish but decided the next morning, before heading back to the city, to drive by the remains.
“There he saw the smoldering ashes, and many of the parishioners, walking around the embers, carrying buckets of water, hands in asbestos gloves, collecting the nails!” Cardinal Dolan said. “See, the fire had burned so intensely, so evenly, that all that was left were stacks of the large nails that had held that church together for 150 years.
“As he watched the people gathering those relics of their beloved old church, he thought, ‘It’s really the nails, the nails of Christ’s cross, that hold the Church together.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.