Philadelphia: The City of Brotherly Papal Love

Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia

Pope Francis has arrived at the last stop of the apostolic journey on Saturday morning, in Philadelphia, the former American capital and the city of philos. In this city, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were signed. And in this city, the World Meeting of Families and the Apostolic Journey are taking place, two events that will prove to be historical in the American Church.

In this series of blog posts, I have hoped to show you the beauty of churches everywhere. The beauty does not only consist in the architectural grandeur or artistic decorations, but also in the historical significance and devotions of the people, past and present. Churches anywhere in the world fascinate me, as they are the physical and visible symbols of the intersection of liturgical, historical, architectural and ecclesiastical dimensions of the local Church. I hope that you will also grow in love with houses of God as I do.

If you are ready, sit tight, as I will bring you to important churches in the city of brotherly love.

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Philadelphia was one of the first dioceses that were created out of Baltimore in 1808. The importance of a diocese is related to the number of cardinals. Since Philadelphia’s promotion to archdiocese in 1875, it has had 9 archbishops, 5 of whom are cardinals.

The Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul was built from 1846 to 1864 on a Roman cross plan. The church was designed in the Roman-Corinthian style and modelled after the Basilica of Sts. Ambrose and Charles in Rome. A huge Renaissance vaulted dome rises 48 metres above the floor, enabling an undistracted and spacious nave. The highlight of the golden interior is the marble baldachin with a bronze dome above the altar, emphasizing the centrality of the altar and the Eucharistic sacrifice. Two large paintings are found in the transepts, depicting the Adoration of the Magi and the Ascension of the Lord.

Philadelphia is the seat of two Catholic metropolitan sees: the Latin-rite Archdiocese as well as the Ukrainian Byzantine-rite Archeparchy (“eparchy” is an Eastern-rite diocese that is outside the proper territory of the particular Eastern Church). The large number of Byzantine-rite Catholics in the area is the result of immigration of many from Austria-Hungary in the late 1870s. The Byzantine Catholics were given an Ordinariate in 1913, until 1924 when it was ritually split into two apostolic exarchates of Ruthenian and Ukrainian rites. The latter was based in Philadelphia, and was promoted to metropolia in 1958.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is modelled upon Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the original patriarchal cathedral of the Byzantine empire. The dome is spectacular with golden paint from the outside, but looking from the inside is a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator. The wall in the sanctuary depicts the Theotokos (Mary the God-bearer). The four major icons on the lower level of the iconostasis (wall of icons separating the nave from the sanctuary) include St. Nicholas, the Mother of God, Christ the Teacher and St. John the Baptist from left to right.

John Nepomucene Neumann was a Redemptorist priest from Bohemia (now Czech Republic) who became the Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. The holy and frugal bishop was the first one in the country to organize a diocesan school system to care for the children. After his death in 1860, he was beatified during the Second Vatican Council and later canonized in 1977, becoming the first American male to receive this honour.

The Redemptorist Church of St. Peter the Apostle in Philadelphia, built in 1843, is also the home of the National Shrine of St. John Neumann. His body as well as a museum showcasing his life can be found on the left side of the church. In 2009, a fire broke out, burning the pulpit to dust, but the body of the saint suffered no damage. Many consider this as a miracle.

The parish of St. Rita was established in 1907 and was entrusted to the Augustinian Friars. The inspiration of St. Rita of Cascia, a 15th-century wife, mother, widow, nun and stigmatist, soon proved to be instrumental in caring for immigrant families. Many were drawn into devotion to the saint, who is the patron saint of the impossible causes, abused wives and widows.

The shrine was designated a national shrine by the American bishops in 2003 “for its outstanding ministry and its effective service to the spiritual, liturgical and devotional life of pilgrims from across the United States.” Today, the National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia still continues to provide for many needy families.

The National Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel is located in Bensalem, 30 km away from downtown Philadelphia. It is contained inside the Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which was founded by Katharine Drexel. Mother Katharine worked hard for the Black and native people who suffered from prejudice and unjust laws. She died at the age of 96 in 1955.

The remains of Mother Katharine lie under the main altar in St. Elizabeth Chapel in the motherhouse. She was raised to the altar by John Paul II in 2000, and is still the only canonized saint to have been born a United States citizen. The shrine was designated a national shrine by the USCCB in 2008.

Old St. Joseph’s Church was the first Catholic mission in Philadelphia, founded by a Jesuit in 1729. The first chapel was built in 1733, and was replaced by a bigger church in 1757.

The church is not easy to find because it is shielded from the street. This was for a practical reason to protect the church from anti-Catholic bigotry.

Olde St. Augustine’s was the first church established by the Augustinian Friars in the United States in 1801. Even George Washington contributed to the building funds of the first church. The community founded St. Augustine Academy and became a famous musical centre in the 1810s. After being burnt down by anti-Catholic riots in 1844, the church was rebuilt in 1847.

In 1976, St. Augustine’s Church was added onto the National Register of Historic Places. The church was also featured in the movie The Sixth Sense. The parish is now the home of many Filipinos.

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Photos: © 2015 Gabriel Chow
Also posted on: Salt + Light


New York City: Capital of the World

Pope Francis has left the American capital for New York City, the second stop of the apostolic journey in this country. With less than 40 hours in the metropolis, the supreme pastor will have a packed schedule: praying with the clergy and religious, visiting the diplomats, praying at Ground Zero, meeting children and families of migrants, and celebrating Mass in Madison Square Garden. After New York City, the Pope will set out for Philadelphia, the last city in the trip.

Pope John Paul II once told Cardinal John O’Connor, then Archbishop of New York, “I am only the Bishop of Rome, but you are the archbishop of the capital of the world!” This raised eyebrows among many, but it does have some truths to it. NYC is home to the United Nations Headquarters, and is arguably the world’s most important financial and cultural centre. New York City is also one of the strongholds of Catholicism, served by the Archdiocese of New York and Diocese of Brooklyn. The two dioceses are separated by the East River, and serve 10.73 million Catholics through 556 parishes.

I enjoy New York City’s numerous beautiful architectural works, and churches of all denominations fascinate me too. The city hosts the greatest number of cathedrals in the world; visiting all of the 4 Catholic cathedrals (and a former cathedral), 13 Orthodox cathedrals and 1 Episcopalian cathedral in the city was a joyful yet tiresome experience for me. In this blog post, I will recommend noteworthy Catholic churches for pilgrims to this city.

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Situated prominently in the heart of midtown Manhattan, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the exception to otherwise financial and business buildings. Shining in its pure neo-Gothic style, the white façade and interior have just been cleaned and massively restored, just in time for the papal visit. Construction of this new cathedral began in 1858, and only completed 20 years later due to the Civil War.

The spacious cathedral can accommodate 3,000 people, with its spires rising rise over 100 metres. The two pipe organs contain more than 9,000 pipes and 206 stops. Four pre-Vatican II cardinals’ red galeri (former ceremonial hats with tassels used by clergy, presently still depicted in the coat-of-arms of prelates) are proudly hung in the ceiling of the cathedral, a popular custom of cardinalatial sees.

St. Patrick’s is the only church in the Americas that has received a pope more than three times: Paul VI in 1965, John Paul II in 1979 and 1995, Benedict XVI in 2008, and Francis in 2015. It is also the first American church that a pope set foot in.

The Diocese of New York was created out of the primatial see of Baltimore in 1808, along with Bardstown, Boston and Philadelphia. New York and Cincinnati became the third and fourth metropolitan sees of U.S.A. in 1850, after Baltimore and St. Louis did. Built between 1809 to 1815, Old St. Patrick served as the seat of the Bishop of New York until 1879 when the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral was dedicated.

In 2010, the former cathedral was raised to the dignity of minor basilica, the 67th church in the country to receive the honour. Today, the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral serves people in downtown Manhattan of various cultures, offering Mass in English, Spanish and Chinese. This year, the church is also celebrating its bicentennial, with Cardinal Timothy Dolan presiding in the blessing of the newly restored basilica, to be held on November 22.

St. Peter’s Church, established in 1785, is the first parish in the New York State before the state was admitted into the United States in 1788. This present church in Greek Revival style, situated in Lower Manhattan, was rebuilt from 1836 to 1840. It was here that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton converted from the Episcopalian Church in 1805.

On 11 September 2001, located just 100 metres from the World Trade Center, the roof of the church suffered damage from the landing gear of one of the airplanes that struck the buildings. Fr. Mychal Judge, the Franciscan chaplain for FDNY (New York City Fire Department), was the first publicly identified casualty of the event when debris from the towers hit him. He preached to the firefighters the day before, saying, “No matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea of what God is calling you to do, but God needs you… And this firehouse will be a great blessing to his neighborhood and to this city. Amen.”

Despite the historicity of St. Peter’s Church (as it was rebuilt in 1840), the Church of St. Joseph in Manhattan claims the title as the oldest church in New York City. As the six parish in Manhattan, its church building was constructed between 1833 to 1834, also in the neoclassical Greek Revival style.

The Dominican parish serves many students from the nearby New York University, and has been running a soup kitchen since the 1980s.

Located within 200 metres of the headquarters of the United Nations, the Church of the Holy Family is popular among diplomats and officials of the extraterritorial jurisdiction. With the modern style in mind, the church was meant for the new liturgy and a spirit of ecumenism. On 4 October 1965, the church proudly received Pope Paul VI in an ecumenical meeting. This is also the first time that a Roman Pontiff visited a non-cathedral church on the American continent.

The German Parish of St. Joseph, Yorkville, had its origin in 1873, at first served by the Jesuits. A new church was built in 1895 to accommodate the growing parish community. After Vatican II, many elaborate furnishings were unfortunately discarded, until the 1990’s when the interior was restored and refined. It received Pope Benedict XVI on 18 April 2008 for an ecumenical meeting.

Across the Brooklyn Bridge, St. James, built in 1822, was the first Catholic church on the Long Island. It became the seat of the Diocese of Brooklyn when the see was established in 1853. It lost the cathedral status in 1896 only to regain it in 1972. On 3 October 1979, Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral. Three years later, it was given the status of minor basilica and is now known as the Cathedral Basilica of St. James.

The first St. Joseph’s Church at this site was founded in 1850 to serve new immigrants in the city. It was rebuilt in 1912 in the Spanish Colonial style. When the Cathedral Basilica of St. James is too small to accommodate people for major diocesan liturgies, the Bishop of Brooklyn petitioned the Congregation for Bishops to have St. Joseph’s Church designated as a co-cathedral. The petition was granted in February 2013, and since then, St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral is the venue for major liturgical events in the diocese.

Each diocese can only have one cathedral, the symbol of the unity of the local Church. However, for various historical or practical reasons, some dioceses may have co-cathedrals. A co-cathedral has the privilege of a cathedra (the bishop’s seat) and can host the important pontifical Masses for the bishop. While the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral is celebrated as a feast throughout the diocese, the co-cathedral does not enjoy such. (Co-cathedrals that were once cathedrals have special privileges of indulgences too.)

Photos: © 2015 Gabriel Chow
Also posted on: Salt+Light


Washington DC: The Little Rome in America

After three days in Cuba, Pope Francis touched down at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, DC, in the United States of America, greeted by the president, dignitaries, bishops and children. This is the 10th papal visit to the country since 50 years ago. Each of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis, has paid a visit to the American capital once.

Washington is called the Little Rome because you can find many Catholic institutions in the city: from the national Catholic university founded by the American bishops and the pope, to countless houses of various religious orders, Catholic hospitals, seminaries, and impressive churches. Washington is the only city in the Americas which can boast of three resident archbishops: the Archbishop of Washington, the Archbishop Military Ordinary, and the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. It is also home to the headquarters of USCCB, the official assembly of all bishops in the country.

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The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or simply called the “Shrine” by locals, was built to commemorate the national patron saint. America’s first bishop, John Carroll, consecrated the newly created country to the Blessed Mother under the title of the Immaculate Conception in 1792, even though the dogma of the Immaculate Conception would only be proclaimed by Pius IX later in 1854. Construction of the shrine lasted for decades, from its groundbreaking in 1920, through its dedication in 1959, to its completion in 1961.

Located in the campus of the Catholic University of America, the shrine is the largest Catholic church north of Mexico, although shy of the size of the Washington National Cathedral and the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. With a mix of neo-Romanesque and neo-Byzantine in style, the superstructure is home to more than 70 chapels dedicated to different titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, located on the sides of the upper church and in the crypt. Beautiful mosaics are found everywhere, from the 15 mysteries of the Rosary in the apses of the crypt, to the 3 impressive domes in the upper church. Do not miss the exhibits of the stole used by Pope St. John XXIII to convoke Vatican II and the last papal tiara that Pope Blessed Paul VI gave away for the poor. The basilica is a must-see church for Catholics in North America.

Pope Francis will visit the basilica in the afternoon of 23 September 2015, and hold an outdoor mass, canonizing Junípero Serra.

Although not as famous as the “Shrine”, the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America in the same city is often overlooked as a treasure. It is equally spectacular in terms of popular devotions but differs in theme. It is a miniature version of the Holy Land.

The church contains replicas of the holy sites in the Holy Land and elsewhere, including the Grotto of Annunciation, the Bethlehem Grotto, the Altar of the Magi, the Chapel of the Transfiguration, the Holy Sepulchre, the Catacombs, to name only a few. Those who have been to the Holy Land will relive their blessed moments, and those who have not will experience such. You can find even more replicas outdoors: the Grotto of Gethsemane, the Ascension Chapel, the Tomb of Mary, the Portiuncula, Lourdes Grotto and a cloister with Our Lord’s Prayer and Hail Prayer written in dozens of languages. Catholics who visit Washington DC should not miss the monastery.

St. Matthew the Apostle was a tax collector before he followed Jesus. He is aptly considered as the patron saint of civil servants. The parish church in the heart of the American capital was established in 1840 and was dedicated to the apostle to serve the civil servants. Although the Archdiocese of Washington was only created in 1947, this church had gained the cathedral status in 1939. The state funeral of John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic American president, was held in the Cathedral of St. Matthew.

Pope Francis will be here on the morning of 23 September to pray and meet with the bishops.

St. John Paul II National Shrine, opened in 2014 on the same day of the canonization of the Polish pope, was converted from the former John Paul II Cultural Center by the Knights of Columbus. It is a place of prayer as well as an exhibit of the legacy of the great pope. It has an impressive permanent exhibition hall showcasing the different time intervals of the life of John Paul II. Mass and confessions are held daily.

For Roman Catholics, the Ukrainian National Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington, DC, gives a different taste through its architecture, liturgy and tradition. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is one of the 23 sui juris Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome, and the most populous in the world. The cornerstone of the shrine was blessed by John Paul II in 1979, and the upper church was completed in 1999. During the celebration of the World Meeting of Families and the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, the national shrine is a good place to pray for our families with the Holy Family as our model.

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Photos: © 2015 Gabriel Chow
Also posted on: Salt + Light


The Heart of Cuba: El Cobre

Basilica National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, El Cobre

In his fifth apostolic journey outside of the European continent, Pope Francis will visit Cuba and the United States of America, marking his longest trip thus far. He will spend 3 days on the largest and westernmost island of the West Indies, followed by a 5-day visit to the American East. In a series of articles, I will introduce the places that will be visited by the Pope from the perspectives of a Catholic pilgrim. Today, let us travel to Cuba first.

Since its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the island of Cuba has been ruled by the Catholic monarchs of Spain, and briefly by France, England and the USA, until the country gained independence in 1902. Baracoa, the first colony, became a bishopric in 1517, but the seat was transferred to Santiago when the capital was moved there in 1522. The capital again moved to Havana in 1552, and the second Cuban diocese was established in the new capital in 1787. Today, there are a total of 11 dioceses in Cuba organized into 3 ecclesiastical provinces (Havana, Santiago and Camagüey), with a total of 6.8 million Catholics out of 11.2 million people, served by 283 parishes, 16 bishops, 196 secular priests and 169 religious priests, 84 deacons, 35 religious brothers and 624 religious sisters.

Cathedral of Havana
Pope Francis will be visiting two cathedrals in Cuba: the cathedrals of Havana and Santiago. The Baroque-style Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in the capital was built between 1748 to 1777 with coral rocks, flanked by two asymmetrical bell towers. The interior is neoclassical in style, with black and white marble floor, supported by massive stone pillars. Columbus’ remains once rested under an altar in the cathedral. The cathedral was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. On 20 September 2015, Pope Francis will lead Vespers in this church.

Cathedral of Santiago
The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, the seat of the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, was first built in 1526 but destroyed by fire merely a year later. The second cathedral was completed in 1555, but it lived only to suffer continuously from pirate sacking, fire, earthquakes and hurricanes. A third cathedral opened in 1690 until its destruction by an earthquake in 1766. Finally, the fourth and present cathedral was constructed from 1810 to 1818, and became the first minor basilica of the nation in 1882. When I visited the cathedral in 2013, it was in bad need of repair. Some reparations were made in 2014, in time for the Pope’s visit on 22 September 2015.

Other than the cathedrals, the Bishop of Rome will also visit an important Marian shrine in El Cobre, the highlight of the Cuban trip. Our Lady of Charity (Nuestra Señora de la Caridad, or affectively called la Mambisa) has a history dating back to 1612. Two Indian brothers and an African child slave set out in a bay in Western Cuba to collect salt for the workers in the village presently named El Cobre. A storm appeared and was about to overturn the canoe. With a Marian medallion the 10-year-old slave was wearing, they prayed in fear and devotion for the protection of the Virgin. The skies became clear in an instant, and they saw a statue floating on the sea. On closer look, it was a statue of Our Lady on a small wooden plank, holding the child Jesus, with the inscription “I am the Virgin of Charity” in Spanish. The statue was completely dry to their surprise.

A simple chapel was immediately built in Barajagua to house the statue. On several occasions, the image disappeared for hours, leading to people’s speculation that it was to meant to be placed in a different spot. The statue was later transferred to the top of a small hill in El Cobre where a church was built. The Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, rebuilt in 1927, houses the statue till this day.

The statue made of baked clay measures 40 centimetres tall. The Blessed Virgin, standing on a brilliant moon with angels on a silver cloud, holds the baby Jesus who holds a golden globe on his left hand while raising his right hand to bless.

Basilica of Our Lady of Charity, El Cobre

Pope Benedict XV declared Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre as the patroness of Cuba on 10 May 1916. The statue was canonically crowned on 20 December 1936. The national shrine was raised to the dignity of minor basilica on 22 December 1977. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI visited the shrine during their apostolic journey to Cuba in 1998 and 2012 respectively. The latter pope even granted a golden rose to the basilica, a privilege of which only a few shrines around the world can boast, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue. Pope Francis will be in the basilica on the evening of 21 September 2015 for prayer, and on the next day for Mass.

As the Pope is embarking on his visit to Cuba, let us pray for the reinvigoration of the faith of the Cuban people and Our Lady of El Cobre’s protection on the nation.

Photos: Gabriel Chow
Also posted on Salt + Light: English, Chinese


Curé d’Ars, Curer of Hearts

Basilica of St. Sixtus, Ars-sur-Formans, France

Today is the bicentenary of the priestly ordination of the Curé of Ars. God always supplies the Church with saints in each century, but a few of these shine so brightly that everyone can recognize them even during their lifetime. St. John Vianney is such a saint, who easily became my favourite after I had read much about him. When I had the change to visit Ars ten years ago, I was brought to tears on entering the Basilica of St. Sixtus and praying before his incorrupt body.

Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney was ordained in the Major Seminary of Grenoble on Sunday, 13 August 1815, a feat that was nearly miraculous. Without proper education (only a year of school at the age of nine), he failed seminary examinations so badly that earned him the title of “the most unlearned and the most devout seminarian in Lyon”. None of this mattered as the vicar general allowed his ordination at the age of 29 in light of his reputation of goodness and holiness.

After three years of apprenticeship at Ecully, he was appointed as pastor of the tiny village of Ars-sur-Formans, 30 km north of Lyon, with a population of merely 230. He arrived in Ars when the people were in a constant state of drunkeness, profanity and immorality after the Napoleanic era. At the doorstep of the church, he prayed, “My God, make the sheep entrusted to me come back to a good way of life. For all my life I am prepared to endure anything that pleases you.” His wish was indeed granted, for he would have to endure great sufferings and mortifications for the next 41 years in this village, serving his flock until his death.

The original room of St. John Vianney
Through home visits, genuine care for his flock and powerful witness of purity and holiness, he brought back all the people in the village into the church. His fame spread when people realized he could multiply food in an orphanage. He became known for his ability to read souls, discern spirits and even prophesize. Soon people from near and far flocked to this tiny church to confess to this living saint; he had to spend 12 to 16 hours every day just to hear confessions. His ability to cure people of physical illnesses did not lessen his workload. More importantly, countless people who came to see him were converted from their former lives. By 1855, 20,000 people came annually, to the extent that Lyons railway had to establish a special booking office to handle the waves of travellers.

Much can be read about this saint and many of his homilies are well preserved. Here is an episode of a really sad day in his life that I will share. At one time when his bishop came to visit him, the pastor rejoiced and welcomed him. This attitude totally changed when the bishop announced to the crowd that he was to name their pastor as an titular canon of the cathedral chapter, and invested him with a mozzetta, the vestment proper to the hononary office. He tried to shrug off the cape during the Mass, and never again wore it but sold it immediately for charitable purpose. He avoided all honour and preferred saving souls and self-mortification as reparation of sins.

Vianney's understanding of liturgy totally influenced me. While he lived and dressed very poorly, he spared nothing for the Sacrament of the Altar. He would make use of the most beautiful decorations inside the church, vested solemnly and employed the beautiful vessels whenever he celebrated liturgy. He understood the liturgy as an action and worship of Christ, unlike the anthropocentric view of liturgy in the present days where people wrongly placed the focus on the celebrant or themselves.

When he met his eternal reward on 4 August 1859, he left the Church with an example of zeal for souls, piety, sanctity, simplicity, obedience, and other virtues too numerous to enumerate. Pope Pius X beatified him in 1905; Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1925 and made him the patron saint of pastors in 1929. Pope John XXIII devoted his whole second encyclical Sacerdotii nostri promordia just to this saint. Pope Benedict XVI declared a Year for Priests during 2009-2010 in the memory of St. John Vianney and extended his patronage over all priests.

The Basilica of Ars, which was built as an extension of the Curé’s original church, has been celebrating a Jubilee Year for the bicententary since 2 February 2015 and having its Holy Door open, one of eight churches in the world with this distinctive privilege. Let us make a pilgrimage on foot or in our heart to the shrine, and pray that our Church has more priests like the Pastor of Ars, as his vicar general once said, “The Church wants not only learned priests but, even more, holy ones.”

Photos: ⓒ 2015 Gabriel Chow