For all the years I have spent in New York City as a college student or white-collar professional, only three Roman Catholic churches have made an impression on me: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Malachy’s Church (the “Actor’s Chapel”) and Holy Cross Church. And it wasn’t till yesterday—Good Friday, no less—that I finally got around to entering the last of these, though I had known about it for quite some time and had frequently been near it.
Day after day, as I enter the north side of the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street, Holy Cross is at my back as I sprint upstairs for the commute home. When I have had a bit more time, I have walked directly in front of the 145-year-old church, on my way to a play in New York’s Theater District.
But this Friday, I had a bit more time to indulge my considerable curiosity, so I walked up the steps and stepped quietly inside the red brick structure. Services, I saw, were not due to start for another hour, at 9 am. But there were already some worshippers praying earnestly in the pews, and it seemed sinful to aim my camera at the altar and make a loud clicking noise. So, after a quick prayer and look around, I turned my back and walked out.
Over the years, many others have, like me, stopped in this proud, venerable survivor of Catholic New York—including one well-known actor who, it is said, wanted to kill a man who had violated his wife years before. Yet its pastors have, on occasion, not only waited for the world to come to its doors, but have ventured out themselves—and perhaps none so famously as Rev. Francis P. Duffy.
The name sounds a bit stiff and severe, not unlike the statue of him standing now in Times Square—but also unlike the man who became known as “Fighting Father Duffy” for his ministry to New York’s famous “Fighting 69th Regiment” in World War I. He did not stand on sanctimony as chaplain when he shared the discomforts and listened to the last terrorized words of Doughboys in France, nor did he in the tough neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen that he served as pastor of Holy Cross in the last decade of his life, when he went among the denizens of skid row.
I have a hunch that Fr. Duffy would have a strong feeling for another Francis—Pope Francis. Years before his celebrity as a WWI chaplain, the young Fr. Duffy had seen a scholarly journal he had founded, the New York Review, suppressed by archdiocesan authorities for expousing modernist thought. He was sent to do parish work as a form of punishment. Instead, working among the lowly only enhanced his skills as a priest.
Fr. Duffy would have nodded in appreciation at the current pontiff for his forthright, courageous encounter with the modern world. That might be best expressed by the pontiff’s praise of the vernacular mass, one of the key changes of Vatican II: “This is important for us, to follow the Mass this way. And there is no going back…Whoever goes back is mistaken.” That is the voice of the unafraid, a person who believes in paying attention to those he encounters--not unlike the long-ago pastor of Hell's Kitchen.