In a fine essay that appeared in the December 2013 issue of First Things, poet and critic Dana Gioia lamented the declension in Catholic literature since the mid-twentieth century, and the depressing homogeneity of contemporary American writing in general. “To visualize the American Catholic arts today,” he wrote, “don’t imagine Florence or Rome. Think Newark, New Jersey.” And thinking Newark conjures up visions of rundown apartment buildings and rattling commuter trains.
But Newark conceals a surprise or two up its well-worn sleeve. In the summer of 2010 I spent a weekend there for the annual conference of the Anglican Use Society. The conference included a High Mass at Newark’s Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a graceful Gothic gem in a dilapidated neighborhood at the heart of the city. This cathedral that, in the medieval tradition, took more than a half-century to build, is especially noted for its stained glass windows designed by renowned Munich craftsman Franz Zettler in the 1950s. The predominant colors are a rich red and blue, embellished with brilliant splashes of gold and green. The rose window in the gallery, spanning thirty-four feet, is the largest in the Americas.
In my memory, however, the loveliest part of the cathedral is the Lady’s Chapel behind the main altar, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Here the colors are more muted and the smaller size creates a feeling of intimacy. Crystal chandeliers cast a silvery light on the creamy white altar and the soft blue of the windows. The chandeliers are unusual in a Gothic revival church, yet their sparkle adds to the quiet elegance of the chapel. Ten minutes in prayer there and the grime and grumble of Newark dissolve into mist.
For all their enchantment, cathedrals appear to be diminished today. In the Middle Ages, the prominence of the cathedral reflected the confident faith of the people. It was the tallest building in the city; its pointed arches and soaring steeples drew the gaze of worshipers upward to the Heaven where, they hoped, they would one day be admitted. The modern cathedral, by contrast, is dwarfed by its steel and concrete neighbors. “Glass boxes” hem it in on all sides and cast shadows over its stained glass. While the medieval cathedral towered over the town and pointed to the heavens, modern office buildings tower over the cathedral and only scrape against the skies. A glance at today’s urban skyline tells a tale of secularism triumphant.
Or so it seems. But modern secularism is a “new work” (the origin of “Newark”) and, for all its bravado, a flimsy fortress. The cathedral, now a hidden treasure, is still the heart of the city. Here, latter-day pilgrims find rest for aching limbs and weary souls. The Gothic arches still point to the heavens and the crystals still shimmer in the cool retreat of the Lady’s Chapel. Though the rays from the rose window are dimmed, the light emanating from the tabernacle, the sacred heart of the cathedral, glows all the brighter. And when the “new work” is at last washed away, the ark of the cathedral will be the only refuge.