Completed in 1959, Our Saviour is the last wholly traditional church constructed by the archdiocese until the rebuilding of St Agnes in 2000. Intended by Cardinal Spellman to be a showpiece on fashionable Park Avenue, it is rumored to be, per pew, the most expensive church ever attempted by the archdiocese. Designed in a kind of Romanesque style with High Renaissance elements (a popular choice for Roman Catholic churches in the 1950s), the building, like most 20th-century churches in Manhattan, is multipurpose. It includes a rectory, parish hall and church all under one roof. The exterior is quite grand and imposing, and features some terrific statues and high-relief decoration, yet the interior is surprisingly small and intimate, with a gorgeous polished stone floor. A renovation undertaken in 2005 included the addition of a number of imposing murals painted by the Chinese artist Ken Woo, in a pastiche of Byzantine iconography, with varying degrees of success (St John Chrysostom looks decidedly encephalitic). The most noteworthy part of the new artwork is the enormous 24-ft tall Christos Pantokrator, (based on that icon at St Catherine's Monastery on Mt Sinai) on the wall behind the altar.
Our Saviour is among the newest parishes in Manhattan, and before Father Rutler took over in 2001 it had a reputation as a sleepy backwater of weekday transients and weekend dowagers, even spending time on the shortlist of possible closures. That has definitely changed, as they now boast one of the youngest congregations in the city and more seminarians than any other parish in the archdiocese. Quite a conservative congregation, the parish also offers religious education for both adults and children as well as bi-monthly natural family planning classes. They also sponsor the city-wide Catholic Lawyers Guild. The church is also quite popular among the Opus Dei crowd, although it isn't formally under that prelature, and a mass in the extraordinary form is celebrated weekly.
Our Saviour is located in Lower Midtown East, a particularly bland, residential stretch of Park Avenue between the office towers surrounding Grand Central Terminal and those further south below 34th Street.
The Revd George F. Rutler, STD, pastor, presided. He was assisted by two priests and two acolytes whose names weren't listed anywhere. Father Rutler is quite well-known, having hosted various shows on the Catholic cable channel EWTN since the mid-1980s. An amateur boxer, he is also famous for a 2007 dust-up with the late writer Christopher Hitchens, forcibly ejecting him from the Union League Club for his comments about Jesus' foreskin during a symposium.
What was the name of the service?The Eucharist
How full was the building?
Pretty near filled to the gills, pushing 300, most of whom were quite young, much to my surprise. I would estimate the average age of the congregation to be around 35. There were lots of young families with young children, but more about that later.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No one welcomed me personally. I think there were a couple of ushers, but they were busy shepherding people to confession.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, surprisingly so. The backs of all the pews are rather short and that gives the illusion of more space to the interior, which I thought an interesting design choice.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was lots of activity, as there were lots of young families with children and baby carriers and paraphernalia, but most of the activity centered on the lines for the confessionals, which were quite long. I did notice that Father Rutler had a nameplate on his confessional, something I'd never seen before, but there were also other priests offering reconciliation there as well, so the lines moved fairly quickly.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Celebrating the Eucharist (Classic Edition).
What musical instruments were played?
A very nice, warm sounding organ, an opus of the Schantz Organ Company (installed in 2005) and a choir of what sounded like four or five voices. They were in the loft behind me, though, so I couldn't see to verify. The choir did a terrific job with all the plainsong chant, which was pretty much the entire mass.
Did anything distract you?
I was a bit surprised that they offered reconciliation before mass, and that it attracted that level of participation. I also got lost in taking in all of the icons, trying to figure out who was being represented.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
About as stiff as it gets for Roman Catholics, I imagine. The Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were chanted in Latin. The congregation was asperged during the Kyrie. The gospel was censed and the reading was chanted, as were the creed and Pater Noster. There were full smells and bells, with quite a competent thurifer. A few things, though, I'd never seen before I wondered if they were perhaps particular to this church. While the altar rail was not used, most of the congregants genuflected before the priest before taking communion. The congregation remained kneeling until it was their row's turn to go to communion. Perhaps most unusually, the peace was completely elided into the Agnus Dei, so there was no opportunity at all for the congregation to share the sign of the peace. All told, it seemed much more like an Anglo-Catholic service than any Roman one I'd ever been to. I suppose it is no surprise that Father Rutler was once an Episcopal priest.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Father Rutler is an accomplished preacher, which is probably to be expected from a television personality. I was a bit surprised at his no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners style, sort of a ne plus ultra of authoritative.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He argued that the 40 days of Lent are based on Our Lords 40 days in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan, which anticipates the crucifixion. He compared the temptations that Christ faced in the desert to temptations that the Church faces as a corporate body, including the desire to seek worldly power and a divorce from reality such as one finds in new age religions. He also compared Christ's temptations to those that we face as individuals: temptations of the flesh and the appetite and desire for power. Satan is quite real and working in the world.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I know this will sound a bit odd, but I have to say it was probably that they were such a well-behaved congregation. They seemed really engaged with what was going on. Almost all arrived a bit early and stayed until the very end of the service, not leaving before the benediction. People seemed really to be there. That was a real treat.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The cacophony of screaming and crying infants, which seemed to reach its crescendo smack in the middle of the homily. It was pretty loud for much of the service, but I completely missed great chunks of the homily, as Father Rutler was drowned out by what can only be described as wailing and gnashing of teeth of biblical proportions. Clearly they need to take a page out of the suburban parish handbook and put in a baby room or perhaps have some childcare.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. Nobody approached and it didn't look as though there was a coffee hour. We walked around taking some pictures, and that gave us a chance to stumble on the shrine to Cardinal Newman, which I thought pretty fitting.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – Its a little far to travel, and while quite a lovely service, I'm not sure it was very me. I would, however, like to return.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, although I did overhear some folks discussing some of the more tiresome aspects of the current presidential primaries, and this put me off my devotions a bit.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
How such a traditional service seemed to resonate with so many young people.