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Crossed Paths in the Shadow of the Cathedral

Jeff Dietrich has been a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker for more than 25 years

“The cardinal’s just trying to buy us off. He’s not a Christian--he’s a glorified real estate agent.” The general attitude around the Catholic Worker house was that Cardinal Roger Mahony’s proposal to come to our soup kitchen and say mass for us was simply a cynical maneuver to blunt our public opposition to his new cathedral. But a refusal to meet would be a rejection of the Christian spirit of reconciliation, though we know from personal experience that dialoguing with a cardinal can be frightening, painful and futile. So, despite our misgivings, a date was arranged--Aug. 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration.

While the mass itself was pretty innocuous, it was strangely moving to break bread with a prince of the church around our simple chopping table where so many meals for the poor have been prepared. Nevertheless, one could not help but recognize that the cardinal’s understanding of the Transfiguration focused on God’s glory, which would reveal itself in a new cathedral for the city of Los Angeles.

Later, as we talked and ate together, the cardinal shocked us by acknowledging that our commitment to the poor and our opposition to the cathedral was “an important message for the church. And you must never stop speaking it. My concern is that this conflict not prevent us from working together on issues that affect the poor.”

We are not naive; we realize that the cardinal is a shrewd and politically savvy player, and that there is no doubt that his visit to our soup kitchen was motivated by a desire to mitigate even our minimal opposition to a project upon which he has staked his reputation and his place in history. As an anonymous source recently told us, “You are the only fly in his ointment.”

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But the cardinal’s visit forces me to consider the humanity of my opponent. Just as he has done us the courtesy of acknowledging our humanity, I have to recognize that there is a part of me that desires to oppose him simply because he is an authority figure and I have unresolved issues about authority. Much as I might like, I cannot simply demonize or dismiss him as a heartless functionary of a hierarchical church. Much as I might find it distasteful and uncomfortable, the cardinal has personalized our struggle.

But our differences are real, and in large measure they are reflected in our conflicting interpretations of the Transfiguration story (Luke 9:28). The cardinal believes that the Transfiguration is a simple miracle story about God’s glory revealed on a mountaintop. But the point of the story is not the glory of God, but the voice of God, which says, “This is my son. . . listen to him.” The disciples are not listening to Jesus. They are not focused on the cross. Instead they are focused on glory. “When you come into your glory,” ask James and John, “can we sit one at your right and one at your left?” (Mark 10:37) When they see Moses and Elijah on the mountain of Transfiguration, their response is, “Master, let us build booths.” Like the disciples, the historic tendency of the church has always been to build a structure around the glory of God. But when we institutionalize God’s glory rather than embrace the power of God’s suffering on the cross, we are not listening to Jesus.

We know that in opposing this cathedral project, we fly in the face of 1,500 years of church tradition. But throughout that history there has always been a tiny minority of prophetic people who held to the notion that the church Jesus Christ had in mind could not be built with bricks and mortar and steel and stained glass. Rather, it is built out of our works of mercy and compassion and justice. Thus we take our stand with Francis of Assisi, who answered God’s call to “rebuild the church” with a life of poverty and service. And in this century we stand with Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, when he said, “The temple shall remain unfinished until all are housed in dignity.”

We will continue to reject the cardinal’s cathedral until this worthy goal is achieved. But this struggle with the church is no mere political battle. It is more akin to a family fight around the dinner table. Passions are high, tensions are personal, unresolved inner demons are ubiquitous. But still there is this sense of an unbreakable bond between ourselves and the cardinal, renewed in the sharing of food and the acknowledgment of mutual humanity. This historic tension between the glory of God on the mountaintop and the suffering of God in the person of the poor on the streets may never be resolved, but on the other hand, may it never be abandoned.


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