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As attractive, well-dressed worshipers climbed out of taxis on New York’s Park Avenue and streamed into the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola for the eleven o’clock Solemn Mass on Sunday, January 10, the atmosphere was one of quiet, reverence, and peace. The parishioners were gathering, in the words of the weekly bulletin, “to prepare for Mass in quiet meditation.” The church, which sits at the corner of Park and 84th Street, is a Baroque beauty, built on the plan of a Roman basilica and finished in Italian marble and Tiffany glass and mosaics. The building was dedicated in December 1898 and (as the parish website attests) “stands as testimony to both the growing affluence and confidence of the Catholic community on New York’s Upper East Side near the turn of the century.” That statement still contains much truth today, at the turn of a new decade in a new century.

The pre-service stillness did not last long. With the first note of the processional hymn, Charles Coffin’s On Jordan’s Bank (a hymn traditionally reserved for Advent but appropriate on this day, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord) the sanctuary’s main lights were dramatically switched on, and a large procession of reverent and smiling altar servers and Eucharistic ministers made its way toward the high altar. The church’s energetic and joyful pastor, George Witt, S.J., brought up the rear. Fr. Witt—a young, athletic-looking priest with closely cropped black hair and a peaceful countenance—has served as pastor at St. Ignatius Loyola since July 2009. Judging by the long line of parishioners who waited after Mass in the freezing cold to greet him, his reception has been a warm one.

Fr. Witt preached his fifteen-minute homily from the sanctuary’s high and ornate bronze pulpit. He began by reminding the congregation that it was Jesus’ baptism that marked the beginning of his public life and ministry. That baptism in the Jordan, Fr. Witt noted, was the moment of Jesus’ awakening—the point at which his eyes were opened to the fact that he is the Son of God. Citing Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, Witt explained that Mary and Joseph, the Magi, and Simeon and Anna all had glimpses of Jesus’ uniqueness. At no point, however, Fr. Witt continued, is there any indication that Jesus himself fully knew who he was—namely, the Son of God—until after his baptism. It took Jesus, then, a good deal of time to be able to see himself for who he truly was and realize his own potential.

Although many listeners may have found it difficult to accept such confident assertions about Jesus’ interior life, Fr. Witt was able to draw from these premises three helpful conclusions. First, he said, we need to learn from Jesus’ example that we are “people in progress” who “need to be patient with ourselves.” After quoting at length from the writings of another controversial Jesuit theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Fr. Witt stressed that we Christians do ourselves a great injustice when we beat ourselves up for not being as spiritually mature as we think we ought to be at any given moment. We should, instead, understand that, just as in Jesus’ life, proper formation and realization take time. Second, Fr. Witt emphasized, we should learn from the story of Jesus’ baptism that self-realization comes in the context of prayer, liturgy, and community. Without these things, we shut ourselves off; it is only with the help of others that our truest selves are manifested. Finally, Fr. Witt observed that the message of “radical acceptance and love” that Jesus received at his baptism is also meant for his followers.

At the end of the Mass, Fr. Witt blessed his parishioners, charging them to “go in peace, into Ordinary Time, to love and serve Our Lord.” One sensed, however—as the organ resounded and worshipers began to spill out into the clear January afternoon—that, after the baptism of Christ, time is anything but ordinary.

City: New York
Borough: Manhattan
Neighborhood: Upper East Side
Address: 980 Park Avenue (84th Street)
Phone: 212-228-3588
Religion: Christian
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Main Service: 11 A.M. Sunday
Pastor: Fr. George Witt, S.J.

Physical Aesthetics of the Church: 9 (out of 10)
Precision, Reverence, and Aesthetics of the Service: 8 (out of 10)
Precision, Reverence, and Rhetoric of the Sermon: 7 (out of 10)
Music: 9 (out of 10)

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