Saturday, October 19, 2013



Today, October 19, is the anniversary of the dedication of Newark’s Basilica Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, an appropriate time to reflect on a book we recently read at table in the monastery.

Gothic Pride: the Story of Building a Great Cathedral in Newark, by Brian Regan (2012), gives plenty of historical context and biographical details to help the reader truly appreciate what a great work the cathedral is. 

What particularly struck me was the number of crises (some original foundations had been done incorrectly and had to be dug out and redone before the pillars could be built), human imperfections (the building contractor changing specs without permission to increase his profit margin), and even tragedy (the master architect was ultimately fired and left a broken man).


A word that summarizes this aspect of the book is “despite.” Despite all of these difficulties and others such as a couple of world financial crashes, the cathedral stands today as a monument to certain men’s passion for beauty, others’ commitment to detail, others’ steadfast faith that money could be raised to finish the project. The list of triumphs and tragedies fills 312 fascinating pages.

When we look at this marvelous building today we don’t see any of the wrangling, corner-cutting, pridefulness and so on. What we see is how it turned out – one of the greatest neo-gothic churches in the Americas.

There are some good lessons here. First, the cathedral is an encouraging lesson in perseverance. Bishops in other dioceses often trimmed back the design of their cathedral to make sure their project would get built. Newark’s bishops and others held on to their original vision despite all the setbacks and nasty surprises, trusting that the Lord would supply what their efforts could not.

A second lesson is this: Looks can be deceiving. Just as you can’t see the stress and struggles that lie behind the present beautiful cathedral basilica, so you can’t see what’s going on in another person’s heart. It’s a common temptation to look at someone and say “Boy, I wish I had her serenity, her calm way of being, her quiet life.” You don’t know the struggles and problems she is facing; in fact she may be looking at you and saying the same thing: “Boy, I wish I had her serenity, her quiet life.” The cathedral reminds me not to be envious of what I think is someone else’s interior life.  

A third lesson is related to the second: that imperfection is always part of human existence. The cathedral is a triumph of imperfect men overcoming their own imperfections and those of others to produce with God's help a work of lasting beauty. 

When we look at the cathedral we don't notice that the granite in certain places is not the granite specified by the designing architect; we may not even know that the two towers had to be shortened considerably compared to the original plan. 


The design on the book jacket is a very clever depiction of this third point. Lurking behind the photograph of the present cathedral stand two pointed Gothic towers, a ghostly reminder of the way the facade was originally designed to look. 

I wonder if our own lives aren't a bit like that, presenting to the world who we in fact are, but only hinting at some things that could have been different. The trick is to learn to embrace and love who we are right now (this is what God does, right?) and not worry about those dark blue towers in the background, the me that might have been.



  1. Ok my family's from Philly-NJ land area & I just love the architecture of the Cathedral. Also, used a pic of your building for phone wallpaper. Homesick for buildings like the Scranton Muni Bldg. Thanks! CMJ Evans

  2. The architecture at Wheaton College is similar and beautiful! I had the pleasure of attending a talk of Dr. Luke Yarbrough (SLU) at Blanchard Hall the other day. God gives us the desires of our hearts! CMJE