By Fr Martin Sirju, Cathedral Administrator
It was a surreal experience visiting the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary for an Acies (Legion of Mary) Mass last March. I had last been to Rosary Church for its reopening under the then Fr Clyde Harvey.
As I entered the church, I was struck by its awesome beauty, its architecture, blend of colours and caverns – one to the north housing a chapel of Our Lady and another to the south, containing a side altar with tabernacle.
Many say it’s the most beautiful church in the city. One is naturally lifted up on entering the church, something I’m sure was intended by the architect as the pilgrim is brought from secular space to sacred space.
Then there is the glorious space under the apse, located to the east as is custom so that the rising sun can emblazon the stained-glass windows.
Within that space is contained the former high altar housing the Blessed Sacrament. The spacious floor under the apse is rendered private by altar rails to the north, west and south and a solid wall to the east, successfully proclaiming to the curious pilgrim: “Take off your sandals for the ground on which you are standing is holy” (Ex 3:5).
This surreal experience took me back to a trip I made in 2004 to Turkey and Greece – “In the Footsteps of St Paul.” While in Istanbul (former Constantinople), we visited the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). It was the flagship church of Eastern Orthodoxy until the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
From then, it was converted to a mosque, but the secular state turned it into a museum in 1935. It was still a museum by the time I visited. It returned to its status as a mosque in 2020 by a more conservative Islamic government amidst international protest.
The stained-glass windows of Rosary Church reminded me of the Hagia Sophia where Islamic faith demanded the removal of all images and replaced it with geometric patterns. The stained-glass windows contain these geometric patterns as well as nature images.
These varying patterns reminded me of the meeting of Byzantine and Islamic cultures in the Hagia Sophia. Muslims also borrowed aspects of Byzantine art in constructing their mosques.
I remember reading many years ago an article in The Tablet which asserted Muslims got their beads from Eastern monks while nuns got their veils from Muslim women.
I also recall Sr Phyllis Wharfe SJC (deceased) joking many years ago that she asked a Muslim teacher at St Joseph Convent, San Fernando, to remove her hijab when coming to school to which the teacher retorted: “If you can wear yours, Sister, then I can wear mine.”
I began musing on Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) where he devoted more space to interreligious dialogue than he did to ecumenical dialogue and says clearly that it is a necessary component of evangelisation. Islamic and Christian cultures were not always marked by clash and hostility but cooperation and mutual exchange.
Rosary also sits in the middle of a commercial hub of the city. It symbolically points to two things. Firstly, the Church needs money for its evangelisation ventures.
International evangelisation media sites like St Augustine Institute, Word on Fire, EWTN all need money to run their business. There is always a cause to donate to and a new book or set of videos to buy: “You can’t run the Church on Hail Marys”, the infamous Archbishop Paul Marcinkus was reputed to have said during the Vatican Bank scandal of the 1980s.
But there is another signpost. ‘The Courtyard of the Gentiles’, created by Benedict XVI in 2009 as part of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
The Pope said: “Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown. I think that today the Church should once more open a sort of Courtyard of the Gentiles.”
Fr Henry Charles used his Trinidad & Tobago Guardian articles as a way of establishing his own ‘Courtyard of the Gentiles’, and his articles had a very wide following.
Bishop Robert Barron did similar when he spoke at Google Headquarters in 2018, and Archbishop Jason Gordon has been encouraging the same as he insists the Church must dialogue with science and technology, the world of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and neuroscience.
The Church is entering a whole new era, a whole new world, and Rosary Church, like the Cathedral, stands at the heart of it. We cannot be “parked up vehicles” or “look at life from the balcony” as Pope Francis says in Christus Vivit (Christ is Alive).
We must accompany the present generation in uncharted territory and render the gospel intelligible in a digitally landscaped world.