By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, AUG. 25, 2011 (Zenit.org).- In New York City, advertising is an art. Along every street, vendors, lights and store windows entice passersby with food, clothing, technology and every other desire. Should one be so surprised to find alongside these signs that hawk sales, special offers and great values, a big red billboard promoting confessions outside a Roman Catholic Church?
Frankly, it stopped me dead in my tracks. Rushing from museum to library to friends to dinners, the last thing on my mind was repentance and reconciliation — like paying a hotel bill, accounting always comes at the end.
St. Agnes’ Parish on 143 E. 43rd Street, an elegant church on what former New York mayor Ed Koch described as the “busiest pedestrian street in the world,” offers three hours a day of confession, as well as seven Masses.
Intrigued, I returned to see this remarkable parish. Anna Megan, who manages the parish, was kind enough to talk to me about the church and its history. She immediately noted the significant location of the church. “Half a block from Grand Central station and across the street from the Chrysler building,” Megan pointed out, “St. Agnes sits at a hub of commuter and tourist traffic.”
St. Agnes’ number of registered parishioners is a small but steadfast group of about 400, although the number of attendees can swell to as many as 10,000 over holidays, with people coming in for Masses and confessions around their festivities and travels. Thanks to the intense flux of people, the intersection by the church was renamed Fulton Sheen Place in 1990, bestowing the name of a great Catholic communicator on this busiest of crossroads.
St. Agnes was built in 1873 for the workers at Grand Central Station, but burned down in 1992. The present church, rebuilt in 1998, was modeled after the Gesu, one of Rome’s best known basilicas for the sacrament of penance.</p>
For 30 years, St. Agnes has been offering regular hours of confession daily. This is not only a result of pastoral initiative, but also of the insistence of the parishioners. I visited the parish at 1 p.m., when a three-quarters full church was beginning Eucharistic adoration. All the extraordinary ethnic, economic and aesthetic diversity of New York City knelt side-by-side in the pews. Young next to old, tattoos by lace veils, designer purses next to paper bags, here was God’s limitless creative expression all worshipping their Creator together.
There are of course several other churches in New York City that offer regular confession: St. Patrick’s Cathedral has confessions every morning and at lunch hour, and the Shrine to St. Anthony on W. 31st Street offers confession so frequently it’s been dubbed New York’s confessional. But after seeing so many churches closed all day in the U.S., and parish bulletins discreetly indicating confession time on Saturdays from 3:15 to 3:30 (or by appointment), and after calling only to be greeted with discomfiting questions such as, “What is this in regard to?” or “Will it take long?” St. Agnes seems like a marvel (and model) for many others.
I asked about the difficulties in keeping a church open all day and providing priests for the sacraments. Mrs. Megan told me that parishioners help out in keeping an eye on the Church, remaining during the day to safeguard the tabernacle. While there is only one diocesan priest in the parish, Fr. Richard Adams, usually five or six visiting priests from places like the Philippines, Ghana or Burma are on hand to help out with the sacraments.
This availability of sacraments has become so popular that lines form outside the two confessionals and many a priest has been called from his lunch or dinner (apparently New Yorkers do not indulge in the Latin siesta) to tend to a passing soul. St. John Vianney must be very proud.
In a city where every other store front offers grooming — whether for hair, feet, nails, or eyebrows — to keep one’s exterior always ready for a “close up,” St. Agnes promotes a deeper and richer cleansing treatment, that of the soul.
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No mother more beautiful
While on the subject of beautification, another major facelift just got under way on the other side of the Atlantic. St. Peter’s Square, the most famous ecclesiastical façade in the world, kicked off a restoration project to clean every statue, column and block of stone, returning the piazza to the state of its inauguration in 1667.
The project will entail the restoration and cleaning not only of the colonnade (which has been going on for the past few years) but also the statues, fountains, ceilings, columns and pillars, and even lamp stands. Overseen by the Governor’s Office of Vatican City State, this immense undertaking is expected to take about 30 months, or two and a half years, to complete.
This is certainly a Vatican family effort. The Vatican Museums will handle restoration of artwork, such as the 140 statues that stand above the square: a line-up of favorite saints through the ages, from St. Stephen first martyr to St. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi, canonized in 1669. The four bronze lampposts, a modernizing gift of Pope Pius IX (along with the balustrades to mark a traffic-free area around the obelisk), will be cleaned by specialists from the Fabbrica of St. Peter’s Basilica.
The first completed section of cleaning revealed the original colors of the Charlemagne wing on the left side of the Square. After centuries of dingy mustard ochre, it glows in a creamy white, reflecting the morning sun that hits the façade of St. Peter’s.
One of the more significant challenges involved in cleaning the square is the problem of cleaning travertine. More porous than marble and sensitive to atmospheric pollution, it can crumble when simply blasted with water. Some of the travertine on St. Peter’s was quarried from the Colosseum, which, after a century of serving as a traffic island, has turned an irreparable black.
Via della Concilliazione, the road that leads to St. Peter’s, was opened in the 1930s and although there are many harrowing pictures of St. Peter’s being used as a parking lot (Romans!), the damage to the stone was far less than that of the Colosseum. The saint statues constantly exposed to wind have been damaged to the point where they are frequently difficult to identify.
The centerpiece of the square, the obelisk, brought by Emperor Caligula in 37 AD from Egypt, remains the only one in Rome to have never been broken. It is also the only obelisk without hieroglyphics making it very difficult to gauge the date (the range is 1900 BC to 500 BC). It does, however, hold a special place in the history of Christianity. Erected in the private imperial horse racing circus by the Vatican hill, the obelisk witnessed the martyrdom of St. Peter and the other 900 Christians wrongfully accused by Nero of having set the Great Fire of Rome of 64 AD.
Moved in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V to be a beacon to pilgrims, now it will be tested, assisting in reminding people of St. Peter’s witness for years to come.
The cost of this massive renewal must be staggering. While much of the work will be done by the Vatican restorers who are exceptional, two Italian companies, Italiana Costruzioni and Fratelli Navarra, have been hired for the heavy duty cleaning of the 284 columns and 88 pilasters that enclose the square. With a breadth of 240 meters (787 feet), there is plenty of work to be done.
Commenting on the cost of the project to L’Osservatore Romano, Pier Carlo Cuscianna, chief of Technical Services for the Governor’s Office of Vatican City State, explained that the funding was provided through “private donors and divine providence.”
St. Peter’s façade was restored in 1999 in preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000, in a massive effort sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. Four hundred years of soot and grime were removed to reveal the remarkable two-toned façade of Carlo Maderno, accentuating the movement in the bro
ad expanse. While no such revelations are expected in the cleaning of St. Peter’s Square, it will allow pilgrims and tourists to relive the glory of the space as it was first unveiled by Gian Lorenzo, and restore the luminous splendor of Mother Church.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at email@example.com