New York values

November 7th, 2017

When Debbie and I reached the side door of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on Reformation Sunday morning, our old friend Scott Black Johnston was standing outside the door, eagerly awaiting someone's arrival. Not ours; though his bear hugs were as enthusiastic and all-embracing as always. Scott was waiting for His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York.

Cardinal Dolan was at that moment headed from Saint Patrick's Cathedral, a couple of blocks down the street, for his historic visit to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. This was the first time in the 209-year history of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian that it had hosted a visit in worship from the city's Roman Catholic archbishop.

On the way into the sanctuary we received the Order of Worship, the cover of which was decorated with the picture of a wonderful icon of St. Peter (symbol of the Church of Rome) and St. Andrew (the Patron saint of Scotland) embracing. After the joyful processional, the singing of the congregation (John Calvin's hymn, "I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art") and anthems by the choirs, our confession and assurance of pardon, and Scott's warm welcome, Cardinal Dolan stood to preach.

Confirming the Cardinal's gregarious reputation, he began by telling the congregation that, on his way down the sidewalk from Saint Patrick's Cathedral that morning, he had been stopped by two young people who asked to take a picture of him. Touched, he posed. What a delightful thing, thought the Cardinal, two young people so pleased to meet the Roman Catholic Church's leading figure in the city that they would like a photograph of him. After they took the picture, however, the truth came out. They had no idea who Cardinal Dolan was. As they walked away, they shouted back to him, "Great Halloween costume, Dude!" If possible, the Cardinal laughed harder than anyone at his own joke.

It quickly became clear that Cardinal Dolan was deeply touched to be asked to preach in this Presbyterian Church. A historian and an Irish American himself, he reflected on the often bloody conflicts between Protestants and Catholics through history. He said that, as a boy growing up in St. Louis, his family could never have imagined that a Catholic priest would someday stand to preach in a Presbyterian church such as Fifth Avenue. Yet, here he was.

The Cardinal reminded the congregation that the Protestant Reformation of the church begun by Luther in the sixteenth century was not the first reformation of the church. Nor the last. There had been reformations for a thousand years before Martin Luther came along, beginning with St. Benedict of Nursia. Cardinal Dolan talked about other reformations before and after our own before reaching the climax of his sermon. The Reformation of the Church continues, he said, and can never stop, not in this world.

The Cardinal told the story of a woman who met him at the doors of St. Patrick's one day after mass. The cathedral was, at that time, undergoing repairs and was shrouded in scaffolding. The woman suggested to the Cardinal that they should keep the scaffolding up all the time to remind us that the church is always under construction, always in need of repair. He agreed that it would indeed be a great reminder to us of the continuing need for reformation of the church. Then he added, however, that the scaffolding was much too expensive to keep up. Since Luther came along, there's no way they could sell indulgences to raise money. And there's no way bingo was going to bring in enough. And again he laughed.

Between the laughter, and the historical and biblical insights, the congregation saw something truly remarkable: Two Christian leaders and brothers, and two Christian congregations, and two Christian traditions with every reason to look for what divides us, celebrating instead what makes us one.

Someone is bound to say, "Sure, but this happened in New York City, not in a small town in the Midwest or the South." But maybe this is the point. Maybe there are times when we ought to engage in some of the so-called "New York Values" that get criticized from time to time by politicians. I note this in particular because while we were worshipping in Midtown Manhattan, on the Upper East Side another old friend, Michael Lindvall, the senior minister of Brick Presbyterian Church, was exchanging pulpits with the priest at St. Ignatius Loyola Church. Michael reports that both churches were packed, and after he preached, the Catholic congregation gave him the first standing ovation he had received in forty-one years in the pulpit. 

If Reforming might just come to mean re-forming, wouldn't it be a marvel to behold! I've got a feeling that the world may be waiting to see if that old song could be true: "They'll know us by our love."

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

comments powered by Disqus