For the past three months, parishioners and friends of the Church of Our Saviour on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan have been wondering what happened to the fourteen icons that were removed from two pilasters in the sanctuary on the evening of August 22. They have also been wondering why the artwork was removed in the first place. It was integral to the church’s wall-to-wall iconography, which had been commissioned by the previous pastor and funded in part by the Vatican. Other icons in the sanctuary remain. Those that are now missing were integral to the “sacred geometry of the whole sanctuary,” as their artist, Ken Woo, describes them. Their sudden disappearance has been as conspicuous as their presence was.
Neither the current pastor nor any spokesperson for the parish has offered a public explanation. No notice has been placed in the parish bulletin or in the church vestibule. The pastor did not respond to my requests for an interview. Conflicting reports abound.
Woo told me in September that his lawyer contacted the pastor, who replied by email that the icons would be permanently displayed in the church basement. Noting that “the sanctuary was designed with all the icons in mind at the concept stage,” the artist contends that removing some of them “destroys . . . the integrity of the work of art” that was the nearly thirty icons taken together, arranged just so. The effect of the densely packed, deeply pigmented Byzantine-style art was indeed remarkable. Tastes vary, but many found the design of the whole to be gorgeous. It won awards.
Giving the benefit of the doubt to the new pastor, a senior member of the diocesan presbyterate, a local priest suggested to me that the church interior was “busy” and that the reason for pruning it of some art could have been to keep the worshipers’ focus on the tabernacle and the altar. Mary Durkan, a longtime parishioner who spoke with me about the icons, also volunteered her opinion about distractions from Our Lord’s presence in the sanctuary, but her perspective surprised me.
The art never bothered her. She said that what now impedes her concentration is the priest himself. The previous pastor had established the “Benedictine arrangement,” the placement of a crucifix at the center of the altar, and the new pastor discontinued that practice shortly after his installation in the summer of 2013. He may have wanted only to clear the sight lines between the priest and the people, but for Durkan the obstruction was the point. She felt it rather as a kind of veiling.
With the Benedictine arrangement at Mass, “you could connect with Our Lord and not the celebrant,” she explained. The celebrant was “diminished”appropriately, in her view. She welcomed the relief from “new-fashioned” liturgical clericalism, as M. Francis Mannion describes it: “the ‘talk show’ style of priestly presidency of the Eucharist,” “very much a product of the postVatican II era, . . . found today mostly among an older generation of priests.” Benedict XVI observes that “the priest himself was not regarded as so important” when Mass was routinely celebrated ad orientem.
“I suspect this is ideological,” Catholic blogger Fr. John Zuhlsdorf writes in a post about the icons’ removal, suggesting that the current pastor is making a statement about his predecessor, a popular preacher and author who advocates a traditional approach to liturgy and is known as a powerful magnet for congregants, vocations, and donations.
Supporting Fr. Z’s suspicion is a telling email exchange that came my way in the course of conversations with individuals I thought might have insight into the mystery of the missing icons. In August 2013, only a few weeks into his new assignment, the new pastor wrote to an altar server to rebuke him about some Mass cards, a standard accessory of the traditional Latin Mass. They display the text of the ordinary of the Mass; the priest at the altar prays from them. “If I choose to clean the sacristy of paraphernalia and place it in a closet, that is my prerogative,” the pastor wrote. “Placing laminated cards which were superseded more than 45 years ago all over the sacristy is part of the schizophrenia under which OS has been allowed to operate. That is no longer the case.”
The key word here is “superseded.” That is what the 1962 missal was once thought to be. What has been superseded in fact is the pastor’s misrepresentation of the Church’s teaching on this point. Contrary to an earlier misunderstanding common even at the highest reaches of the prelacy, the traditional Latin Mass was never abrogated, as Pope Benedict XVI noted by way of explaining his decision to liberalize its use. “Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows,” he urged. He was concerned to correct those who regarded the older, extraordinary form of the Roman rite as harmful. The old misunderstanding about its status persists in some quarters. Younger priests are less prone to insist on the error.
A month after the “supersession” email, the new pastor discontinued the extraordinary form at Our Saviour, without notice, making it difficult for congregants to collect one another’s contact information and organize themselves as a “stable group” who, per the apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, could approach him to request Mass in the extraordinary form. In a comment on Facebook on July 24 of this year, he referred to the extraordinary form as “ridiculous.”
All sensible Catholics join the pope in deploring clericalism, but definitions of it are necessarily broad. We also need descriptions of it. Its faces are many. This is one of them.
Nicholas Frankovich is an editor at National Review.
Image adapted from Flickr.