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A compelling cathedral

March 20, 2015
Msgr. John Talesfore

Imagine three medieval workers standing around a large vat, vigorously mixing its contents. Though they are all engaged in the same task, each has a different answer when asked just what they are doing. One responds, “I’m mixing clay”; the second says, “I’m making bricks”; but the third boasts, “I’m building a cathedral.”

No human endeavor matches the building of a cathedral as the very pinnacle of what we recognize to be noble, beautiful and outstanding in all of human activity and accomplishment. How sad it is then that locals, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, often fail to appreciate what is so evident to pilgrims and tourists, architects, artists and builders the world over: That in the construction of a worthy mother church for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Archbishop McGucken, his engineers and contractors were keenly aware that they were building a great cathedral and nothing less!

While he may not have set out with something so great in mind, the archbishop took to heart the critique of those who were disappointed by early designs that missed the unique opportunity for this to be the first cathedral to embody the liturgical vision of the Second Vatican Council. Particularly compelling were the words of Allan Temko, Pulitzer prize-winning architectural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle:

“The Cathedral should, and can be a great building in every sense of greatness, if only the church and the city together make the best of this tremendous opportunity … the Cathedral must belong to its own people and place, but also to the world. It must express the oneness of things, as well as their ineffable mystery” (San Francisco Chronicle, June 1963).

And so, like the great cathedrals of the past, St. Mary’s Cathedral has drawn upon the artistic and engineering genius of its time to shape a worthy gathering place for the great events in the life our local church and where countless visitors can find a spiritual oasis in the midst of San Francisco. Ancient faith and modern technology combine to create a monument to the praise of God that draws our eyes both upward to heaven in the graceful sweep of the cupola and outward to the four corners of our beloved city and the world to which we are sent in eager service.

Perhaps because locals have heard that a once popular newspaper columnist flippantly compared it to a common household appliance, they have never really taken the time to honestly assess this cathedral which the American Institute of Architects counts among the 25 most important buildings in the San Francisco region. Much like many Romans who have never set foot inside St. Peter’s Basilica or Parisians who have never been inside Notre Dame, San Franciscans seem content to drive right by St. Mary’s Cathedral and never wonder why so many tour buses are always lined up there on Gough Street or on Geary Boulevard.

Why not stop in and see what thousands and thousands of tourists and pilgrims marvel at year in and year out? Arrange a docent tour and catch up with a generation of Catholic school students, who for more than 25 years have taken advantage of this most popular field trip, and learn about our great Catholic traditions in church architecture, sacred art and music. Why not make a Lenten pilgrimage to pray along the path of meditations that accompany the monumental bronze sculptures of the Blessed Virgin Mary as our role model of discipleship? There’s no better time to appreciate St. Mary’s Cathedral than when we, the faithful of the archdiocese for whom it was built, gather to give glory to God. This year’s splendid chrism Mass on Thursday, March 26, at 5:30 p.m. would be a perfect opportunity to behold the mystery when we gather in our mother church for the blessing of the sacred oils to be used in the celebration of the sacraments throughout the coming year.

The cathedral space captivates because it is both dramatic and simple. Four “hyperbolic paraboloids” rise from a square footprint, creating the large volume necessary to seat 2,600 people yet culminating in a slender cruciform apex. Light bathes the interior space through the immense overhead cross of golden glass that continues down the four sides in green, white, red and blue to represent the four elements of earth – air, fire and water – and all that God has made new in the death and resurrection of Christ. Surely no other space could provide us a better opportunity to contemplate the mystery of God’s presence and action in our lives, captured in perhaps the most evocative piece of American religious art of the 20th century, Richard Lippold’s 150-foot baldacchino sculpture, 4,000 concave aluminum rods that appear to shower light down upon the altar, leaving the visitor no doubt where our faith sees heaven meeting earth.

This is the spot where Archbishop McGucken once stood with architects and contractors and, speaking on behalf of us all, proclaimed: “We are building a cathedral!”

Msgr. Talesfore served as rector of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption from 2005 until 2014. In January he was appointed pastor of St. Matthew Parish in San Mateo.

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