It is a bright, cold afternoon in late fall. Pulling open an embossed bronze door, I enter the monstrous Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. Ahead of me, the heavy glass doors between narthex and nave are propped open by two full black trash bags; I silently step past them. Walking up the warm but gloomy center aisle, I turn for a moment to look up at the ranks of organ pipes, their form leading the eye to a huge stony Christus Rex surrounded by stained glass. I remember the relatively recent recital here of music by Messiaen, including a physically oppressive piece that was intended, according to the program notes, to express the power of the Catholic Church. The mass of sound from the pipes high behind us pushed with unrelenting pressure against our necks and backs, pressing us down until some of us were bent over and leaning against the pew ahead for support, wanting to escape. As I reach the transept, I smile and shake my head at the irony: Messiaen knew not what truth he told.
The chapel on the north side of the transept is named the “Blessed Sacrament Chapel.” Except for ambient light from the dim nave, only a small sanctuary lamp, a sign to believers that Jesus is present as bread behind the veil of the tabernacle, relieves the darkness of the space today. I discern the bent form of a white-haired man kneeling near the altar, adoring his hidden Christ in the hidden wafers while gilt angels inexplicably show their backs to his savior. The old man is small and frail in the vast, hard church. But the cathedral has its own frailty: looking up at the massive side walls of the chapel, I note the long, crooked crack in each, cracks spanned by small devices that track their widening over time. I know that the south transept is also cracked and metered. Slowly but measurably, the arms of the cross are breaking off as the church’s foundation fails.
Leaving the old man to his murky worship, I turn and walk to the south side. The chapel here is a shrine to St. Joseph, the shadowy husband of the mother of Jesus. But now the altar and its reredos, with its tall gilt Joseph, are covered by a large curtain, before which is a crèche lit by electric lanterns held by plaster figures. The scene, with angel and star suspended on strings, is empty at its center: the season being Advent, the plaster baby Jesus has not yet been placed. Mary gazes tenderly upon the emptiness that magi, shepherds, and angels adore. I smile again while a smaller Joseph, not susceptible to irony, looks on solicitously, perhaps a little worried about the widening cracks.
On my way out, I make the visit that I came for: the altar dedicated to St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, le Curé d’Ars. Like the other saints at the abandoned side altars, this white stone priest is attached to the wall, seeming to hover there as, according to the friar who told me the story, a devil did during a famous exorcism. But Jean Vianney is the patron saint of parish priests and the namesake of one of the kindest men I have known, John Vianney Kelly, O. Carm., the prefect of my class at the Carmelite seminary. I was thirteen years old when I began living under Father John’s gentle oversight, and it was he who soothed me on the nights when, weeping, I could not sleep. Although he must have been tired, he never turned me away. I remember that he would remove his capuce, scapular, and tunic, kissing the small ivory cross embroidered on the scapular as he hung the habit on a hook on his cell’s door, and, wearing the white tee shirt and black slacks that the brown robe had covered, talk to me about my life and future, about his hopes and fears, and about art, especially religious art. I, having come from my two-tiered bunk in the dorm next to his cell, would be wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. Today, I recognize the danger of such a scene, but then I was an innocent. Had Father John been a predator, I don’t think I would have survived the disillusionment and shame. But he was a kind man, a sincere follower of Christ. John Vianney Kelly saw his thirtieth birthday that year, and he told me that he felt old. Perhaps he was prescient at that moment; he died, I learned recently, before the age of fifty.
“They have taken your other prie-dieu,” I tell the saint as I approach his narrow altar, which at my last visit was flanked by kneelers on both sides. Noting that no votive candles burn before the curé, I ask, “Has the patron of parish priests fallen out of favor — and in this, Benedict’s “Year for Priests” in honor of the 150th anniversary of your death? Is this your situation now, that only an atheist stops to speak to you? Well, I won’t light a candle for you, because I won’t give them the five dollars that their sign demands. But I will talk to you: I have something on my mind.” I kneel on the remaining prie-dieu and look the statue in its stony eye. “Father John Vianney Kelly took yours as his religious name. True, he laughed as he told me that he had chosen your name partly because his given name was John: there was already a John in the province and therefore he could not simply keep his baptismal name when he made his Carmelite vows, but ‘John Vianney’ was considered to be sufficiently distinctive. And so you helped him retain the name that his parents had given him and avoid some obscure tongue-twister. But it’s also true that he admired you and tried to follow you, especially in your self-sacrificing dedication to the ordinary people under your care. He was a beautiful soul. He brought honor to your name and profession.”
I look intently at the saint’s rigid features. “But what would you think of those other priests? What would you think of the consecrated men who had befriended me before I met Father John, men like Robert Hopkins, the proud priest who outlived John Kelly by many years, basking in the admiration of the gullible while abusing children over a quarter-century, confessing his crimes only when confronted as an old man? And that other one, the one who never confessed? I know what they were. I know that they were grooming me. I don’t think that they were ever able to molest me, but I know that other boys were not as lucky as I.”
As anger and sorrow rise in my heart, I arise quickly and walk toward the narthex. Stopping at the great glass doors, I turn back to the statue. “I try to do good in the world,” I say silently to the vacant saint, “despite your evil men and despite the fear and emptiness that your church gave to me as God’s gracious presence. I have made a promise to your brother John, who was truly a father to me, and although he no longer exists I keep that promise: I help feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, liberate the oppressed. In doing those things, I honor him, because, priest though he was (and he held his priesthood humbly), he showed me how to live love. His spirit speaks to me today, renewing my resolve. Like him, I will look to what is beautiful in human existence, to kindness and art. Like him, I will give of myself in the small things of everyday life. Like him, I will be a source of hope and comfort for children who weep and don’t know why.”
I pass through the open doorway, past the bags of trash, into the cooler air of the narthex. At the outer doors, I turn and pause. “Goodbye, patron of priests. You must remain attached to your sinking church, shamed by what your men have done. I leave you behind in your gloom, but the spirit of your namesake goes with me. Something good must come of this; I promise you that.” Pushing the ponderous bronze door, I step into the clean, cold light of day.