First things first: I am thankful that The New York Times covered this highly symbolic rite at the St. Nicholas National Shrine at the World Trade Center.
I was at the site just over a week ago and asked some of the crew if they knew when a cross would be installed atop the emerging dome on the shrine. This project represents the end of years of struggle to replace St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church -- the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11.
This is a "local" issue for me, in a way, since I am an Orthodox believer and I walk past the site every morning on my way to The King's College, when I am teaching in New York City. Click here, here and here for my columns about the church, beginning just after the attack.
The Times piece gets many things right, but leaves some major holes about the church itself -- as in the people of St. Nicholas. From the very beginning, this is a news story about a New York landmark, as opposed to a house of worship. Here is some summary material near the top:
The topping out of the shrine with the cross was a milestone in the tortuous effort to rebuild St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, a little parish outpost at 155 Cedar Street in Lower Manhattan that was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, when the south trade center tower fell on it.
And it is more than that. The cross is the first overtly religious symbol to appear in the public realm at the World Trade Center, where officials have often contorted themselves to maintain a secular air. (What almost everyone knows as the “World Trade Center cross,” for instance, is officially referred to as the “intersecting steel beam.”)
I appreciate that the story gives a precise location for the original church, in terms of a street address. The key is that government agencies needed that tiny piece of land, so they took it. So what happened to the displaced church and its people?
What's my point? The story goes out of its way to note why the new shrine is being built where it is -- in a public park -- making it sound as if there were church-state complications.
But there is a crucial question that is left unanswered in this news piece -- a very important local angle.
The shrine will also be a functioning Orthodox parish, right? The people of the small St. Nicholas parish will finally be able to return to a new version of their spiritual home, right?
Orthodox readers: You can picture this in your minds. Imagine the liturgical processions of Holy Week taking place at this highly symbolic and poignant location. I am thinking, especially, of the Good Friday rites, with the tomb of Jesus being carried in procession on the sidewalks surrounding this sanctuary. Then there will be the midnight procession that leads back to the doors of the sanctuary and the proclamation of the Resurrection and Pascha -- Easter.
The story does let the relevant church hierarch address some of this, indirectly:
“As we are here and we look around, we see the triumph of human mind and human spirit and human, really, disposition of overcoming any tragedy,” said Archbishop Demetrios, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, who has been a constant visitor to ground zero since the earliest days after the attack.
“But St. Nicholas will give an additional message,” he said. “St. Nicholas will also offer the opening towards a nonmaterial reality: the presence of God. So this small chapel here will say the story that there is a God beyond what we see, what we feel and what we could statistically verify. And that’s the very great mission of this new St. Nicholas Church.”
After joining with Archdeacon Panteleimon Papadopoulos and Deacon Eleftherios Constantine in chanting the “Feast of the Cross” -- “The cross is the glory of the angels, and the defeat of the demons” -- Archbishop Demetrios sanctified the steel cross with water from a golden rantistirion, or sprinkler. He blessed the small crowd of people around him, as well.
As you would imagine, the Times team stressed -- more than once -- the question of all of this holy stuff taking place at such an important location. The implication is that some visitors to ground zero may be offended. Thus, there are these remarks by Patrick J. Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey:
Mr. Foye said there was nothing inappropriate about the presence of the cross in a public park, because St. Nicholas was destroyed in the attack, because construction costs were being met privately and because the shrine would include contemplative space for the general public.
“A house of worship is going to have its own shape, style and iconography,” he said.
Yes, but that "contemplative space" for the public will be separate from the consecrated sanctuary of the actual parish sanctuary. In other words, there will be an Orthodox house of worship on this site. Check out the video at the top of this post to see some of what that will look like.
I understand that, from the viewpoint of the Times, the main news in this story is an event linked to a shrine in a highly public place. However, this shrine will also be a church and it was the church that was destroyed on 9/11.
The bottom line: When the church is finished, the real church -- that would be the people who worship there -- will return. These Orthodox believers are New Yorkers. Do they matter? Are they part of this story, too? Did anyone think to talk to them?
IMAGES: First image, an architectural rendering of the new shrine and its location. Second image, in the post: A photo of the original St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church next to the twin towers, care of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.