The last day of filming for the CATHOLICISM Series took the Word on Fire crew to churches in and around the Chicago area. Following this final day on set, Father Steve took a moment to reflect on three of those churches, as well as the entire experience of producing CATHOLICISM.
**Also, be sure to tune it to the 3rd episode of "Word on Fire with Father Barron" on WGN this Sunday-- airing at 9:30 am Eastern and 9:30 am on the local Chicago affiliate. This week's show will feature Father's talk "Untold Blessing: Three Paths to Holiness". Also coming up: Creation and The Fall - parts one and two of the five-act drama of Salvation History and where we fit into the big picture. Go to the WGN page on the Word on Fire website for more information and to view Eduardo Verastegui's (actor from the hit movie, "Bella") endorsement of the CATHOLICISM series.**
Yesterday, Father Barron and the Word on Fire crew filmed segments for the CATHOLICISM series at churches in the city of Chicago. This was last time that filming for the series would include stand ups with Father Barron- a sign to all of us that the production of this series is coming to its conclusion. The filming of the CATHOLICISM series has been quite an adventure. Father Barron and the Word on Fire team have traveled all over the world, taking in some of the most extraordinary expressions of Catholic culture. We went to these places not simply as tourists, but as pilgrims, seeking the Lord’s presence in these experiences. He found us, as he always does, and manifested himself to us in ways that kept us at times standing at attention and at other times brought us to our knees.
The Archdiocese of Chicago has a rich patrimony in art and architecture. Driving along the expressways into the city, one can see the domes and steeples of Chicago’s Catholic parishes, encircling the imposing skyline like a jewelled necklace. Within most of these churches are some of the most beautifully decorated spaces in the city. Most tell the story of not only the Catholic Faith, displaying the mysteries of redemption in Christ, mysteries that are imparted to the world through the Sacraments of the Church, but also of the communities who laid the foundations of these buildings and those who continue to worship within these temples today.
Our day began at the magnificent St. James Chapel. Formerly the spiritual heart of the high school seminary of Chicago, the complex of the seminary buildings is now the chancery of the Archdiocese. The St. James chapel was consecrated June 20, 1920 by Cardinal George Mundelein. The chapel was designed to represent the French Gothic style and is an evocation of the renowned Sainte Chapelle in Paris, which is one of the architectural and artistic wonders of the world. The interior of the chapel is monochromatic, which is fitting given that the highlight of the space are the magnificent windows. Unfortunately for us the weather was overcast, so we missed the spectacular effect of light illuminating the chapel with a panoply of jewel-like color. The chapel is fittingly included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Our second setting was Assumption church, a parish that was established in 1881 to provide a spiritual home for the city’s Italian immigrants. The church was built in 1886 in an eclectic style that might best be described as a kind of American-Italianate baroque. The parish has been staffed since its founding by the Servites, and the decoration of the interior highlights the great saints of this community and encourages devotion to the Mother of Sorrows. There is a shrine to St. Peregrine in the church including a reliquary containing relics of the saint. St. Peregrine is the patron saint of those suffering the afflictions of cancer. I imagine, given the prevalence of cancer, this shrine has been blessed by many tears. We were told that Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini lived and worked in Assumption parish and that her religious community staffed the parish school. I imagined Mother Cabrini sitting in one of the pews and thought to myself that saints do not just walk in far off places or in days gone by, but are closer than we think. Perhaps we are less attuned than we should be to their presence, but they are here nonetheless. A richly decorated ceiling is the highlight of the interior but I found the rows of statues of the saints, though not artistically important, to be a comforting presence, signs to those who gather for prayer and worship that we have friends and advocates in a world that is still yet to come.
Finally we gathered beneath the imposing façade of St. Michael’s in the Old Town neighborhood. Founded in 1852 by German immigrants and staffed by the Redemptorists since 1860, a magnificent church was built in 1869 which was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. The faithful were undeterred in their efforts to raise up a temple to the Most High, and the current church literally rose from the ashes in 1873. The soaring spire of the church rises like a sentry tower over the neighborhood, directing the attention of the people from the ordinary world to the extraordinary world of heavenly realities.
The interior is a riot of delicately painted color and shimmering gilding. The main altar houses what must be one of the most painstakingly decorated tabernacles in the city. The structure of the altar is crowned by an image of St. Michael the Archangel, victorious over the evil one. This tableau has been imaginatively lit, with red light highlighting the fires of hell into which satan has plummeted. Side altars are dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and his foster father, St. Joseph. There is also an exuberantly painted shrine that houses an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, across from which is an altar dedicated to Masses which would have been offered to alleviate the sufferings of the souls in Purgatory. I imagine that back in the day, a Mass said at this altar had special significance to those who had lost a loved one. Now, I wonder how many Catholics would even understand its purpose, especially in an age when heaven is seen as some kind of right rather than a gift.
All along the back of the church are confessionals, which give testimony to the former esteem in which the practice of the Sacrament of Penance was held. Our cameraman who is not a Catholic asked why so many? Avoiding a lengthy explanation, all I could muster was a melancholic “We live in a very different time.”
Our director remarked that this church would be a great place to bring his young children to Mass, provoking Father Barron to speak eloquently about how these buildings serve the purpose of displaying and teaching the content of the Faith in the form of images. This is precisely what St. Michael’s was doing the entire time we were there, and we are spiritually richer for the experience. When our director also noted the dissonance between the hyper-decorated interior of St. Michael’s in comparison to so many of the churches built in late modernity, we could only see loss in this, rather than gain. The Faith in its presentation has become abstract, or in Father Barron’s terms “beige.”
After we completed the last of Father’s standups and the gear was packed away, we all paused and spoke about the just where this pilgrimage had taken us. We had been, to borrow a phrase from Tolkien, “there and back again.” And like the magi in T.S. Eliot’s poem, because of the journey and what the Lord had shown us all along the way, none of us would ever be the same. I noticed our director slip away for a quiet moment of prayer and then turned my attention to the friendly gaze of a statue of St. Therese, the great spiritual force, whose power of intercession has been with us in so many uncanny and mysterious ways throughout this pilgrimage. I reminisced in my mind remembering all the places in which our crew had encountered her image or experienced signs of her friendship. A smile uplifted my face as I spoke interiorly of my profound gratitude to Saint Therese and imagined that somewhere nearby the saint was smiling too.
The CATHOLICISM Series will be released in the Fall of 2011. For more pictures from this filming excursion, please visit the Word on Fire Facebook Page or the CATHOLICISM Project Facebook page. Be sure to become a fan!
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.