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I love St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It was painful to see it the object of a sacrilegious ambush early in Lent. 

On February 15, a funeral was held at St. Patrick’s for transgender activist Cecilia Gentili. It quickly became a major media event. The event told us something important about all four elements involved: the cathedral, Catholic funerals, transgender activists, and the media. 

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus often told a story about a visiting clergyman in New York. This Methodist minister jumped in a taxi at the airport and asked to be taken to Christ Church, which is on Park Avenue. He was surprised when the cab driver took him to St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue. 

“This isn’t Christ Church,” he observed. 

“Reverend, I don’t know where you’re from, but in New York this is where Christ lives,” replied the cabbie. 

For Fr. Richard, for taxi drivers and transgender activists, the point is the same. Only St. Patrick’s is St. Patrick’s. The organizers of the event considered Cecilia Gentili an “icon,” hence they wanted an “icon” for the funeral. 

The term “icon” is now used to mean merely “famous,” but the proper religious meaning is an image that makes present an intangible holiness. Cecilia Gentili was a kind of reverse icon in that sense, rebelling against the corporality of being made in the image and likeness of God. Transgenderism is a rejection of what St. John Paul the Great taught, namely that “the body is an icon of the person.”

St. Patrick’s is a true icon of the Church, as Pope Benedict XVI memorably preached on his visit there in 2008. His lines on the stained-glass windows are famous, but this passage seems appropriate now:

The unity of a Gothic cathedral, we know, is not the static unity of a classical temple, but a unity born of the dynamic tension of diverse forces which impel the architecture upward, pointing it to heaven. Here too, we can see a symbol of the Church’s unity, which is the unity—as Saint Paul has told us—of a living body composed of many different members, each with its own role and purpose. Here too we see our need to acknowledge and reverence the gifts of each and every member of the body as “manifestations of the Spirit given for the good of all” (1 Cor. 12:7). 

The icon of St. Patrick’s manifests unity across divisions. The funeral sought to further divide, to rebel against that iconic meaning. Those who arranged it did partially understand what St. Patrick’s means, hence their desire to have a transgender rally masquerading—to use the precisely right word—as a Catholic funeral at St. Patrick’s.

St. Patrick’s has been in a perpetual battle of the icons for the better part of a century, ever since, in 1937, the Rockefellers thoughtfully erected a statue of Atlas in their plaza across Fifth Avenue. Archbishop Fulton Sheen had fun with that, noting that even Atlas bent the knee at the name of Jesus. I once wrote that to be in St. Patrick’s on Good Friday is to stand between Atlas and the Cross, and to choose. Fr. Richard liked that image very much, for he too loved St. Patrick’s.

That what was intended for the Gentili funeral was something other than a Catholic funeral became clear when the thousand or so mourners and activists turned up. The eruptions, ovations, hooting and hollering—even before things got underway—put one in the mind of Moses detecting the sounds of “revelry” before the golden calf in the Israelite camp. At St. Patrick’s there was plenty of camp and plenty of revelry. The priests on hand, in the first few minutes, made a quick decision to abandon the original plans for a funeral Mass and to hurry through readings, prayers, and eulogies.

Two lessons for Catholic funerals suggest themselves. First, it is time to revisit the default custom that Catholic funerals be funeral Masses. Every priest has had the experience of a funeral where most of those attending have no idea how to respond at Mass, let alone any idea of what is really being offered. The Gentili congregation didn’t even realize that the Mass was never actually offered until they read what the cathedral priests said later. 

It is now standard practice in most Catholic parishes to suggest that weddings be conducted without the nuptial Mass if most of those attending are not accustomed to Mass, and especially if the bridal couple are themselves distant from Catholic belief and practice. It’s time to institute that practice for funerals. People who never went to Mass when they were alive can be prayerfully buried without the Mass when they are dead.

The transgender dimension will require additional thought. Dioceses and parishes need to think through how a funeral should unfold in such circumstances and even have policies in place, as is often the case with Catholic schools. At the Gentili funeral, the celebrant used “Cecilia” and female pronouns for the deceased. Such decisions on the fly can be fraught for both celebrant and congregants; better for it to be known ahead of time that what will be said does not convey a false anthropology.

The second lesson has already been learned in many places: Eulogies should be given at the funeral parlor, the wake, the graveside, the luncheon afterward, or not at all. The blasphemous eulogy at the Gentili obsequies, which praised the deceased as a “mother of whores,” is a rare thing. But awkward, irreverent, and windy eulogies that disrupt the liturgical act are common. A priest friend of mine once ordered the sacristan to turn off the sound and lights when the eulogist exceeded the twenty-minute mark.

The best reason not to have eulogies in the church is not because of outrages, but because the eulogist is not expected to speak the full truth about the deceased. Indeed, very often understandable lies are told. There are a lot of grumpy men in the world; no one is ever eulogized as such. The house of the Lord should not offer people the opportunity to offend against the truth. 

Many commentators have criticized how the priests at St. Patrick’s handled the ambush. They clearly did not expect what they got. Should they have? It seems entirely plausible that those intent on an ambush concealed their true motives, and in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday I expect priestly attention was elsewhere. In the event, they did what they could to quickly end the funeral and get a thousand boisterous activists out the door with minimal risk of further eruptions. 

More attention should be paid to the ambushers than to the ambushed. What does the Gentili manifestation tell us about transgender activism? It is not nothing to assemble a thousand people in their Sunday best, as it were, on a Thursday morning. It’s quite possible that Gentili was beloved by many, but grieving did not motivate what took place. When a group that large decides to deceive and desecrate, it is fair to ask about what produces such a disordered decision.  

Then there was the media aftermath. The day after the funeral, the archdiocesan spokesman offered general comments about providing a welcome to grieving families and how every funeral is for a sinner. True, but not really on point. The next day a scorching statement came from the cathedral rector, using phrases that suggest that Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s pen was involved. 

When the rector of the cathedral speaks of “our outrage over scandalous behavior,” and laments that “our welcome and prayer would be degraded in such a sacrilegious and deceptive way,” there can be no mistaking the severity of the offense. Cardinal Dolan, as reflected in the rector’s statement, is out of step with the prevailing tone of public discourse. When an archbishop orders that a Mass of Reparation be offered in his cathedral, for those with liturgical ears to hear, there can be no doubt as to how seriously he considers the matter. 

Nevertheless, he remained merciful in speech, in a day when the expected tone is accusatory and condemnatory. Not just in politics. In recent weeks, Pope Francis condemned those opposed to blessing same-sex couples as being guilty of “hypocrisy,” and Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego diagnosed them as being motivated by “animus.” Dolan is no Pope Francis in that regard; he famously tends toward goodwill and good humor.

Another aspect of the archdiocesan response bears mention. It is common today for bishops, in the midst of controversy, to hang their priests out to dry, or leave them twisting in the wind, or throw them under the bus. The occasions are plentiful, as are the metaphors. Dolan didn’t do that. That’s significant in an environment where trust between bishops and priests is very low.

How different is the media environment today compared to, say, 1989? In Advent that year a massive demonstration by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) brought more than four thousand protestors to the steps of St. Patrick’s for Cardinal John O’Connor’s Sunday Mass. The Mass was disrupted, more than one hundred protesters were carried out and arrested, and, most grievously, the Sacred Host was crumpled and thrown on the floor during Holy Communion. 

The New York Times gave it extensive coverage, but did not exempt the activists from scrutiny. Back then it was clear that a journalistic distinction ought to be drawn between the ambushed and those ambushing. Mayor Ed Koch, a Jew, had deliberately come to O’Connor's Mass in solidarity. To the protestors he was blunt: “If you don’t like the church, go out and find one you like—or start your own.”

Carl Trueman’s Erasmus Lecture last October, “The Desecration of Man,” is relevant here. The Gentili gang already have their own church of a sort, and they have their own doctrines when it comes to substance and accidents and the body. A battle of icons is a battle of doctrines too. That’s why they ambushed St. Patrick’s.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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Image by Pahudson licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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