Ash Wednesday started out as a pretty good day, notwithstanding the grayness of the sky and the forecast of rain and flooding. My train arrived on time in Philadelphia, the meeting went well, and the hotel was very nice and conveniently located adjacent to the Independence Historical Park.
Given my early departure from Washington, and the press of business in the City of Brotherly Love, I had not been able to attend Mass and receive ashes to mark the beginning of Lent. Providentially and due to the kindness of the hotel concierge, I found a church, just a few blocks away, which had 7:30 p.m. services.
It was a dark and cold night… Well, it was. I set out on foot from the hotel lobby through the Society Hill section of town. The streets were deserted with barely adequate lighting for a visitor to find his way.
I came to Willings Alley and made a left turn, as directed by the concierge. My destination was Old St. Joseph’s Church, a Jesuit parish that dates its founding to 1733, making it the oldest Catholic church in the city.
While more of a teaching and academic order, you will find the Society of Jesus running a parish, here and there, in older neighborhoods in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest where it has a university, college, or prep school.
The Alley was wet reflecting the glow of street lights from its cobblestones. It was, I confess, a bit foreboding for one not given to meandering down alleys in the dark of night in a city not my own. On the left was a brick wall of considerable size, part of a fairly substantial building which appeared to run the length of the Alley. But where was the church?
A few yards down the Alley, an entrance through an arch opened up in the brick wall, leading into yet another dark space — a courtyard surrounded by buildings several stories tall. Straight ahead, though, were several, tall stained glass windows, illuminated from within, indicating that this was, indeed, Old St. Joseph’s, welcoming the nocturnal worshipers to come in out of the cold, literally and figuratively.
The interior of the church struck me as a pleasant blend of neo-classical colonial style and Jesuit Baroque. The church was built in 1838—39. Its altar is framed by doubled Ionic columns crowned by a curved pediment. A massive painting, I am guessing 12 to 15 feet tall, of Christ crucified, hangs over the altar.
The congregation was reasonably large for that hour, young (I understand half of the urban parishioners are single) and devout. The choir was excellent and its musical selections were to my taste.
The Prayers of the Faithful were sung, beautifully, by the music director. Among the various petitions was one asking either for healing or protection (memory fails me) of the children of the city of Philadelphia.
This had to be a poignant moment for the congregation. It was for this visitor. The headline in the morning paper had told the sad story: “More priests placed on leave. The Phila. [sic] Archdiocese removed 21 from their duties pending a probe of abuse allegations.” The entire list of these men was published the next day in various media outlets.
Cardinal Justin Rigali had taken this action pursuant to a grand jury report indicating that the priests were still serving in the ministry despite reports of “questionable behavior.”
The late Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, once described the tragedy of clerical sexual misdeeds as the “Long Lent” for the Church in America and now Ireland, Belgium, and elsewhere. Sitting there, awaiting the distribution of ashes, it seemed that the Long Lent was getting longer here in Philadelphia. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the evil, the sin that afflicts so many, the guilty and the innocent. I offered my prayers and Communion for the victims of these crimes as well as the many holy men of the cloth who will suffer for the deeds of their brothers.
After the ashes came the sacrifice of the Mass, Christ, once again, suffering on Calvary. In forty days comes the Resurrection and triumph over sin and death, which only the Son of God himself can overcome through the immeasurable gift of Himself.
Walking home, through the cold, dark night, I hold tight to the Sacrament of forgiveness and look forward to the renewal that comes on Easter morning.