Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Trip to St. Mary's Cathedral

On Wednesday of this week, my "Introduction to World Religions" class went on a field trip to St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral here in Amarillo. Our host and tour guide was Monsignor Harold Waldow, the rector of the parish. After greeting the class, he explained some of the history of the building. The previous facility burned to the ground on February 26, 2007. The new one was consecrated and dedicated on September 11, 2010.

The cathedral really is something to see. Just outside the sanctuary hangs the huge, beautiful tapestry pictured below. One thing is apparent about this place: countless hours and a tremendous amount of work went into the new building and its decor. It's clear that the designers wanted to inspire awe and appreciation. They succeeded.

Once inside the sanctuary, Monsignor Waldow told the class about some of what had been salvaged from the old building and made a part of the new one. Almost everything had to be completely replaced, including the pipe organ, some of which you can see in the background.

Then, the class was welcomed up to the altar where they heard about the centrality of the Mass and various aspects of Roman Catholic history and theology.

Below are pictured the huge crucifix and the bishop's chair, unique to a cathedral church. Note that, unlike the typical Protestant cross, the Roman Catholic rendition is not "empty." It is a crucifix; Christ is on the cross.

It was an interesting trip for several reasons. For one, it's not often that you get to hear from someone who has childhood memories of the Church before the Second Vatican Council (early 1960s), who has also served as a priest since the early days just after Vatican II. Monsignor Waldow fits that description. So he's a walking, talking primary source for recent Roman Catholic history.

Something else, and I'm sure that the students noticed and may have been surprised by this: contemporary Roman Catholicism embraces the modern, scientific quest for truth. According to our host, this includes an openness to Big Bang cosmology and to at least some aspects of evolutionary teaching. In addition, the Church now acknowledges insights provided by modern higher-critical theories of the Christian Scriptures. For example, in commenting on the Book of Genesis, Monsignor Waldow highlighted the differences between the accounts found in chapters 1 and 2. He mentioned that he does not understand these passages literally. At the same time, he emphasized that whatever modern research might reveal about the origins and character of the written Word or about the universe, the Church ascribes the origin and sustenance of everything to God.

Finally, the Monsignor's remarks included a couple of references to a handful of embarrassing episodes in Roman Catholic history. He mentioned that there have been a few roguish popes, and that the Church clearly erred in its response to people like Copernicus and Galileo. That was significant, I thought, because it runs counter to a fairly popular notion: that Roman Catholicism claims to have a pristine past with popes who could do no wrong. Based on our visit, it seems clear that the Church recognizes its human frailties as well as its divine mission.

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