‘In a manner of speaking,” the archbishop of New York “becomes the leader of the world, or at least of a world,” Catholic World magazine editorialized in 1939. “He has a greater opportunity to battle evil and to amplify good than any other one man except the Holy Father. There is no see in Christendom with such potentialities as New York.”
That world is in transition, to say the least. No less than the current leader of New York Catholics, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, a St. Louis native, has said that “in the public square, . . . the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over,” acknowledging both a changed culture and a more diverse Church.
In their new book, Sons of Saint Patrick, George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Brad Miner, a former National Review literary editor, write that the question of whether the influence of New York archbishops “is currently waxing or waning is a matter for debate.” But that quote from Catholic World about the archbishops’ potential is one of many archival treasures that jump off the pages of this book — telling us that we might find, in the past, some clues about what the future will look like. Marlin and Miner have done a great service of recovered memory and identity.
They write about Cardinal Spellman:
Francis Joseph Spellman had the good fortune to head the archdiocese during the golden age of the Church in the United States. . . . Throughout his record-breaking, 28-year administration, Cardinal Spellman leveraged this power to become the nation’s leading religious spokesman and advisor to presidents, governors, members of Congress, and mayors. His residence at 452 Madison Avenue was rightly called the Powerhouse, and politicians of every stripe visited to seek the cardinal’s blessing on bended knee.
The rich history — immigrant, courageous, missionary, feeding, educating, serving, healing, leading, praying — of Catholicism in New York is displayed on the bronze doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, in the persons of Saints Isaac Jogues, Kateri Tekakwitha, Mother Cabrini, and Elizabeth Ann Seton. They remind us that the Church has always had different flavors of leadership: male and female, religious and lay. Before he was Archbishop “Dagger John,” John Hughes was turned down as a seminarian at Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland and “got a job nearby working for Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton and the Sisters of Charity at St. Joseph’s School.” Mother Seton “not only hired Hughes as her gardener, but she listened to him describe his longing to be a priest and she admired his passion for serving God.” She wound up successfully making the case to the seminary’s rector, and the rest is history. (There were mixed reviews as to whether this was a blunder on her part or her first miracle.)
Sons of Saint Patrick begins with an account of religious persecution. (Marlin chairs Aid to the Church in Need USA, a human-rights group focused on helping Catholics who are victims of religion-based violence and oppression.) A “Mohawk hunting party” submitted Isaac Jogues, a Jesuit missionary, to torture in captivity in Auriesville in upstate New York. They found him “hard to kill,” and he ended up being rescued by Dutch Calvinists. The authors quote historian William Harper Bennett’s description of Jogues: “A bronzed, dark bearded face, lined and drawn with suffering, but in the eyes and expression ‘that peace which the world knows not of.’ Of the forefingers and the left thumb of his hands only the jagged red stumps remain. Every finger shows a partially healed wound and from all, the nails are gone.”
The Calvinists weren’t heroes of religious freedom, though: In what would become “America’s largest and most Catholic city,” Marlin and Miner write, “Dutch tolerance went only so far”:
It was the rule . . . that in New Netherland only one religion was to be practiced: Calvinism. No Masses could be said in the colony, and the turmoil of the late-Reformation period in the Netherlands was reflected in laws that essentially gave second-class status to all religions but the one established. . . . The vaunted Dutch tolerance towards Catholics was in some measure due simply to the scarcity of Catholics.
The Dutch were still the least of Catholics’ problems. “After a brief convalescence in France,” Jogues, who had been dubbed “the indomitable one” by the Mohawks for his courage, returned to have “his neck . . . hacked through with a tomahawk” and be thrown into the Mohawk River in 1646. “All in all, it was not an auspicious beginning for Catholics in New York.”
The ancient assertion that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” is more relevant now than ever. There have been, by some counts, more martyrs in the tyrannical regimes of our time than there were in the early days, when Christians were thrown to the lions.
Even in today’s developed and relatively free countries, there is a hostility to the Church’s teaching. This opposition tends to focus on Catholicism’s teachings about the nature of men and women and family. The witness of the likes of Jogues suggests that truth is worth living and dying for, out of love. In a day when “spiritual, not religious” is a mantra of the mayor, and is subscribed to by many Millennials, the Church alive in “love for one another” (John 13:35) is the only compelling way forward. Marlin and Miner close their book with a quote from an Independence Day message of Cardinal Dolan:
Amid the culture of death that we find all around us, our faith is something that our neighbors will find compelling and may even be something they want for themselves. We must show the culture that seeks to marginalize us that our faith is a living and life-changing reality. The more fundamental challenge needed for us to preserve our American ideals is to boldly live our faith, to boldly proclaim it, and to boldly love God and our neighbor. As Jesus taught, “Let your light shine before all.”
That’s not real estate; that’s life and culture changing.
A few blocks down from Trump Tower, St. Patrick’s Cathedral still stands in the center of everything. Its location — before the skyscrapers, you could see both the East and the Hudson Rivers from it — was the result of what Marlin and Miner rightly identify as a “genius” move on the part of Hughes. In recounting the monumental achievements and losses, the saints and sinners, Sons of Saint Patrick serves not just as history but also as a call for an examination of conscience. A healthy Catholic culture has implications beyond anything institutional. What will they say of our time? It is decisions made in faith, actions taken today — and not just by archbishops — that will determine our legacy.
Note: This article has been amended since first posting.