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WelCom Article - Our Sacred Places

Published in WelCom

WelCom September 2020

+ John A Cardinal Dew  Archbishop of Wellington Archdiocese Apostolic Administrator of Palmerston North Diocese

“In our sacred places we can go deep into our hearts and souls – we can experience God’s presence anywhere and everywhere.”

In 1998, I was invited to be a chaplain to a tour group travelling to the Holy Land and Rome. It was a wonderful pilgrimage and the times to pray and reflect in sacred sites were deeply appreciated. We visited historic sites and learned so much about the places where Jesus prayed, walked and performed miracles. Some of the people from that trip have kept in touch with me and always mention some of their memories of the pilgrimage and the wonderful privileges we enjoyed. 

Prior to leaving New Zealand, I prepared various prayers and reflections to be used on the visit to the Biblical sites we have heard of all our lives. I also bought a preparative book about some of the places we would be going to: Cathedrals of the Spirit: The Message of Sacred Spaces, by TC McLuhan. It is a wonderful book, which I dip into every now and then.

Ars Sacra: Christian Art and Architecture of the Western World from the Very Beginning Up Until Today, by Rolf Toman, Achim Bednorz, surveys over 1700 years of Christian Art and culture presented in chronological order, and highlights the unique features of each historical era.

I have another book in my office called Ars Sacra (Sacred Art), a huge book with Church architecture the focal point. It is in the monumental buildings of Christianity that Christian Art began to grow. The book tells the story of Christian Art and Architecture of the Western World ‘from the very beginning up until today’. It includes indescribably beautiful illustrations of magnificent Cathedrals from all over the world with lots of fascinating information about them.

Preparing for the site blessing to begin the strengthening and restoration work of our own Cathedral of the Sacred Heart last month, 7 August and the blessing of those who will work on it, I referred to these two wonderful books. I used the following words in my homily: 

The book Cathedrals of the Spirit begins by saying: ‘This book is about sacred places. It is about landscapes of the holy as centres of inspiration where human consciousness is temporarily set free.’ The book goes on to speak of our human experience of sacredness, or of any sacred place, and talks about how any of these holy places – natural or built of stone and timber, steel and glass; our experience of any of these places is a re-entry into a state of holiness – an introduction to our true origins. The goal of the book, it says, ‘is to reintroduce you to yourselves’.

We are all very aware, I am sure, that sacred places all over the world are revered, whether they are natural places such as rivers and mountains, oceans and beaches, a tree, a forest; but we also know there are places of great sanctity crafted by human hands, the great Cathedrals of Reims, Chartres, Canterbury, the huge Basilicas of Rome – endless places that take our breath away and we wonder how they could ever have possibly been built. This Cathedral of ours is tiny in comparison, but it is ours and it is beautiful. This Cathedral of ours does the same thing that my book, Cathedrals of the Spirit, speaks about – like any sacred place it re-introduces us to ourselves. This happens because it is in our experience of God that we meet ourselves, our true selves. 

“…it is in our experience of God that we meet ourselves, our true selves.”

Here, in this Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St Mary His Mother, God speaks to us, God nourishes us, God feeds us, God challenges us and inspires us, whether we come here for a quiet moment of prayer, or whether it is a large congregation praying together, or a very small congregation during the week, we are touched by the grace of God and sent out on our mission to take Christ into the world around us. 

The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, once wrote: ‘Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever-greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action.’

We can make that interior journey anywhere – in one for the great natural cathedrals of the world, or one worked on and crafted for hundreds of years. In OUR Cathedral and in many other sacred places we can go deep into our hearts and souls – we can experience God’s presence anywhere and everywhere. 

We want to give you and generations of people to come the opportunity to make that inner journey here in OUR Cathedral – it is ours and it is beautiful. Our Cathedral is also an ‘Ars Sacra’ it is ‘Sacred Art’, and it could well be included in my other big book called Ars Sacra. Because it is that, it is one of the places where we come to know, as St Paul said in that reading: ‘you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in you…God’s temple is holy and you are that temple.’

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