One of the most wonderful things about being a Catholic who lives and works in Manhattan is that on the island there is an abundance of absolutely beautiful Churches within which to worship and pray. At the center of course we literally and figuratively have the most spectacular of all, the gothic grandeur of the See Church of our Archdiocese: the Cathedral of Saint Patrick. But within walking distance of the Cathedral there are at least a half dozen other Churches that in my opinion could easily rival some the great sanctuaries of the Old World. A particular favorite of mine is just a brisk 15-block walk up Madison Avenue – the Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer (www.csvf.org). Administered by the Dominican Fathers, this Church has long been one of my favorite destinations on my lunchtime strolls, when I’m seeking a space for prayer and solitude in this city of over 8 million people. From the outside, the Church – built in the continental style – is a strong and stately structure, but when you enter through the front doors on any given afternoon, you encounter a solemn, serene environment – lit in hues of royal blue and bright red from the magnificent stained glass windows – perfectly conducive to silent contemplation and prayer. The beautiful stained glass, magnificent High Alter and small devotional chapels lining both sides of the Church flickering with candles really help you forget the hustle and bustle of the city, and enhances your ability to contemplate the essential and eternal.
With all of the beauty that this Church contains, you’d think it would be difficult for me to pinpoint what my favorite element within the Church would be, but in fact my favorite feature of this Church has always been the almost life-size Crucifixion scene placed above one of the rafters that cross the Church’s brick-vaulted ceiling at the entrance to the Sanctuary. Called “The Great Rood” (link), the thing that is most distinctive about this beautiful carved depiction of the Crucifixion is that it includes the three Crosses described in the Gospels – with Jesus in the middle, and the two thieves crucified with him on either side. Such a complete depiction of the Gospel scene is fairly common in older French, Spanish and Mexican Churches, but is quite rare in Churches in the United States. I appreciate this more complete depiction of the actual Gospel scene because it helps remind me of one of my favorite stories about Jesus – his interaction in the Gospel of Luke with the “good thief”. Named Dismas by tradition, this unnamed thief crucified alongside Jesus rebukes the other crucified with them for mocking Jesus, an innocent man, and then repents of his sins. When Dismas asks Jesus to remember him ‘when you come into your Kingdom“, Jesus replies by assuring him that “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise“. When I recall this story from the Gospel, I always get a little choked up: I picture it in my mind and see Jesus, bloody and battered, tortured and nailed to a cross in what must have been excruciating pain, and yet still reaching out and giving to others the love and forgiveness they so desperately craved. There is another element to this story that should not be forgotten either: the first person we know as a fact arrived in Paradise that day (from Jesus’ own words!) was an individual who had broken the law – of both God and man. By Jesus’ own actions and words during his own Crucifixion he reminds us that no matter what we do in our lives, by virtue of our membership in the human family and God’s unending love for us, our lives possess an inherent, inalienable dignity. We know from this story and others like it that, to Jesus, there are no “throwaway people”; this story is one of those wonderful counter-intuitive moments in the Gospel – like when Jesus confronted the crowd to save the women they were about to stone who had been caught in adultery – where the supernatural logic of love trumps the ordinary perceptions of what counted by human standards as the just and right thing to do.
I was reminded of the story of Saint Dismas the other day when I attended a 15th Anniversary Celebration – a Quinceanera – for Abraham House (www.abrahamhouse.org), a Catholic Charities Affiliated Agency located on Willis Avenue in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx that offers the incarcerated, ex-offenders and their relatives a place of hope and community where these men, women and children who have been deeply marked by crime can rebuild their lives, mend their families, and break the cycle of recidivism to become the productive citizens their dignity calls them to be. Founded with the assistance of Catholic Charities staff in 1993 by three Rikers Island Chaplains, and Department of Corrections personnel, Abraham House’s initial goal was to break the cycle of recidivism (which in New York State tops 70%) through a residential program that helps inmates to complete their High School education, take social and personal responsibility for their lives and get and keep a job. Out of the more then 100 inmates who have passed through the Abraham House program, only one has ever returned to prison for a second offense. In an effort to break the cycle of crime in those families effected by incarceration (over 50% of children of offenders will commit a crime by their 18th birthday) a Family Pastoral Center was added for men, women and children caught up in the criminal justice system, offering food, clothing, emergency services, counseling for substance and spousal abuse, parenting skills, housing, adult education, an after school program and immigration services. One of the most interesting elements of the work of Abraham House is that it quite literally serves as a “Parish of Offenders“, where over 250 people gather every weekend from across the Tri-state area to take part in prayer services, community meals (with bags of staples to take home!) and Mass. Baptisms, weddings, retreats and community outreach are all part of the parish; Fr. Peter Raphael – one of the founders of Abraham House – explained the essential nature of a spiritual connection for residents to succeed, saying “We do not oblige men to be religious, but the minimum is to be a human being. We give them a roof, but the need to belong to society and other people is essential.”
The 15th Anniversary Celebration itself was beautiful: many participants were there from the various programs, giving testimony to the profound effect that Abraham House and its holistic approach to reform has had on their lives. One participant from the Family Pastoral Center gave what I thought was one of the most moving tributes that I have ever heard: given in Spanish, she stated that at Abraham House the language that is “spoken” is the language of love – “a language that the deaf can hear, a light that the blind can see“. Though Abraham House may not physically have the beautiful stained glass that diffuses light in hues of red and royal blue, the fine carved art or stately architecture like the magnificent Church described before that sits some 70 + blocks to the south, from the testimony that was given, the love that is manifest there is every bit as audible, visible, beautiful and essential as was the love displayed on that lonely hillside just outside Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago.