Basilica of St. John

From A Spectrum of Faith, our student-written, photo-narrative about religion in Des Moines

Written by Tierney Grisolano

Photo by Bob Blanchard (http://www.bobblanchardphotography.com)

 

Space

Up a flight of stairs to the vestibule in the Basilica of St. John’s, three sets of wooden doors mark the entrance to the main sanctuary, or nave. I push through the center set, my jaw dropping at the magnitude of this space. The click of my heels reverberates down the long, marbled aisle and through the expanse around me like a booming metronome. It feels like an eternity before I finally take my seat on one of the dark, wooden pews. Then I look up.

The steeply arched ceiling composed of a pattern of squares laced in glittering gold creates the appearance of a tall dome. Stained-glass windows are inlaid at intervals along the base, and underneath those, a series of discs made from varieties of marble from around the world represent the universal reach of Catholicism, which, itself, means universal. Sweeping columns line the pews. The columns are adorned with squares of gold and rise all the way to the ceiling, merging with the arches that stretch to the very top of the sanctuary. (One of the nuns, Sister Mary Claire, says that if there were ever another flood, the church would be transformed into an ark, turning upside down to save the congregation.) The gleaming elegance of the architecture is diffused in a mixture of warm gold and cool blue-green hues as beams of sunlight stream through the stained-glass windows.

In the expansive silence, one’s gaze falls naturally on the altar—this, too, made entirely of marble. At its center, a table topped with a white cloth is laid with four tall candles in golden receptacles, two on each side. Behind the table, a Presider’s chair upholstered in bright red seats the priest. Towering over both chair and altar, four columns arch and ascend to form a point over which rests the roof of a huge canopy called a baldacchino, which symbolizes the tent that housed the Ark of the Covenant during the time that the Israelites wandered in the desert. Like the tent that protected the Ark where God’s presence resided, the baldacchino stands over the host where the presence of Jesus dwells.

But there is a twist. Typically, the sacramental bread and wine that are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ during the ritual of Communion are kept under the baldacchino. However, because St. John’s Basilica enjoys the distinction of being listed on the National Registry of Historical Places, many visitors come through the church daily. The sacramental bread and wine were moved to a chapel adjacent to the northeast corner of the nave so that parishioners can venerate the holy sacraments undisturbed. In contrast to the palatial, glittering sanctuary, this smaller space called the Blessed Sacrament Chapel is relatively unadorned. Still, it is St. John’s most sacred space according to the Basilica’s head priest, Father Aquinas M. Nichols: here, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.

 

History

Sunlight now cascades through a stained glass window that had remained covered for construction during my many weeks attending St. John’s. Now, patterns of blue, red, and yellow light fall on the parishioners and pews. A newly installed elevator is further evidence of recent building improvements, enabling more direct access for disabled parishioners than the previous series of ramps at the back of the church which were exposed in all weather. Now St. John’s Basilica can say it provides truly universal access to Catholicism.

The elevator installment is the latest example of the effort to include all people in the church’s long history of welcome. Purchased on June 7, 1905, the Basilica complex originally stretched across a full fourteen lots. By Christmas Day that same year, St. John’s held its first service in its partially finished school. Construction on the church itself didn’t even begin until August of 1913 and wasn’t officially completed until September of 1926. The cost of construction was approximately $480,000; not even seven million dollars would achieve that feat today.

St. John’s was always an inner-city church. In the early years, members of St. John’s came largely from its surrounding neighborhoods in the central west and northwest parts of the city near the Drake University campus. As its parishioners steadily moved further out to the suburbs, however, the church became more geographically diverse. Nowadays Father Aquinas’s flock drives in from towns like Newton, Indianola, Earlham, Ames, and Ankeny.

Unlike many Catholic churches in the diocese, the Basilica has enjoyed continual growth, most of it by young families, many of whom home school their children.   Father Aquinas Nichols notes that this growth in particular and the congregation in general is remarkably diverse.

This diversity is evident at the Basilica’s many masses, attended not only by Latin and European Americans but also by a growing contingent of Africans and a significant remainder of Vietnamese. Although Des Moines’ Vietnamese Catholics now have their own church—St. Peter, on the east side of town—the Basilica was their primary church from the 1980s up until 2009, when many Vietnamese refugees lived in the St. John’s neighborhood. Former St. John’s deacon, Quan Tong, remembers this era well. In 1991 he and his family were resettled from Vietnam to the Basilica neighborhood of Des Moines. Fifteen years later, Quan was ordained and appointed St. John’s first Vietnamese deacon. In this role, he provided assistance not only to Vietnamese refugees but to Latin Americans and Africans as well. Although Deacon Quan followed the Vietnamese community to St. Peter’s in 2009 (and from there to St. Ambrose in 2012), his heart has remained with the first American church that welcomed him.

Six years ago, Reverend Jose Reynaldo Hernandez was called from his home in El Salvador to serve as the first Spanish-speaking priest in the Des Moines diocese, first at Our Lady of the Americas and in the past year at St. John’s. He conducts a Spanish-speaking mass on Saturday evenings. For Revered Reynaldo, the Basilica is unique in the way it “combines together” so many different people. Everyone is welcomed at St. John’s. And Sister Mary Claire, one of two Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus who attends the Basilica, agrees wholeheartedly. For her, St. John’s is a welcoming community unlike any other. In her words it is “the only parish around here that has felt like home.”

Every Sunday, the Basilica’s cantor, Carolyn, peers out at this diversity from the choir loft—so many different faces, such diverse attire. But she also hears these different voices join together in singing the hymns of the holy Catholic Church each week, seamlessly uniting their voices into one melody. This, for her, is one of the most important things about being Catholic: “It’s so universal that it doesn’t really even matter what your ethnic community is; you always will come together to worship and take part in the mass.”

Leading all these English-speaking masses is Father Aquinas Nichols. Although priests tend to be moved from church to church every six years, Father Aquinas has served at the Basilica for sixteen years and was recently appointed for six more. Because Father Aquinas was a Benedictine monk—then serving at the Vatican as Secretary to the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines—the Bishop knew St. John’s would benefit from his knowledge of traditional liturgy. Indeed, this is what the parishioners of St. John’s seem to admire most about Father Aquinas—his fidelity to tradition and monastic spirituality. In Deacon Quan’s words, Father Aquinas is also “a shepherd caring for his parish as if they were his own children.” He has a tender side, shares Sister Mary Claire, which is exemplified best in the time that he spends blessing newborn children and hugging their parents after many a service. “He loves to hold those babies,” she exclaims, later adding that she has seen him moved to tears during many a mass. Indeed, Father Aquinas is very grateful to be at St. John’s. He loves the parish and its congregation for many reasons, among which he singles out their spirit of dedication to Christ in applying their deeply held Catholic values to their lives and their community.

 

Identity

“Welcoming, friendly, and unified” in their faith are the words Rosemary Sloss uses to describe the congregation of St. John’s. A member of the Basilica’s Adult Faith Formation and RCIA, or the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Rosemary adds that the congregation is also very diverse. When asked what visitors should know about them, she replied, “Well, we are a very conservative church”—orthodox in its services, which enact the same liturgy as that of the Pope’s church, Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

“The Pope’s church” is proud nomenclature for St. John’s parishioners. It means their church is one at which the Pope could take part in the liturgy exactly as he would do at his own church. St. John’s didn’t start out with this distinction, however. That happened on December 31st, 1989 when Pope St. John Paul II approved the request of the priest there at the time, Father Chiodo, to have St. John’s named as a minor basilica.

To qualify for this honor, a church must maintain certain key features: architectural antiquity and dignity, historical significance, and devoted mission and worship. St. John’s is very much a basilica—one of only some sixty in the country—and its parishioners are proud that their tradition maintains liturgical fidelity to Rome.

Carolyn takes deep pride in the liturgy, the music, and the Basilica. But what makes her proudest of all is the heritage of Catholicism itself whose roots can be traced back to early Christianity. That means that Father Aquinas stands in a succession of priests leading “all the way back down the line to the Apostles and St. Peter.” As a Catholic, she knows she can receive the same sacraments and participate in the same Catholic faith no matter which church she attends. At the same time, the basilica serves an important function in obliging the many requests for information about the Catholic faith. As such, questions from both its own parishioners as well as from the wider community are welcome. That’s the whole point of religion as Father Reynaldo sees it: to help us live in peace with others who are different from us, to love others—all others.

***

St. John’s has been specially designated by the Bishop as one of three “Doors of Mercy” locations in Des Moines. Currently, this is one of its most important forms of outreach. Related to this distinction is Pope Francis’s declaration that 2016 is a Year of Jubilee. According to the Old Testament, Jubilee years happen at the end of seven cycles of schmita, or sabbaticals, which translates to every 50 years. During this period, debts were forgiven and slaves and prisoners freed. In the Roman Catholic tradition, however, the Year of Jubilee has a more spiritual meaning—it is a special time of mercy from God for the forgiveness of sins. The first such Jubilee Year dates back to 1300; since then they ordinarily occur at intervals of 25 years.

Sometimes, however, special circumstances call for “Extraordinary” Years of Jubilee. One such circumstance occurred last year. Although the next official Jubilee had been set for 2025, Pope Francis wanted, in Rosemary’s words, to “elaborate on God’s mercy.” Thus, he declared the period from December 8, 2015 until November 20, 2016 an “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.”

One walks through the “Door of Mercy” as if walking through Christ to the Father, thereby realizing the mercy of the Lord. Specific prayers accompany this action: “Our Father,” “Hail Mary,” “Glory Be,” and the Nicene Creed followed by a celebration of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. Walking through the door enhances one’s spiritual faith through self-examination; one resolves to change through recognition of God’s love and mercy.

When we cross the threshold, says Father Reynaldo, we are met by Jesus Christ who pardons our sins and gives us His mercy and strength. Then we can begin again, trying to be more merciful like Jesus.

 

Practice

Before mass one evening, a mother and father lead their family into the pew. Like their parents, the children first kneel on the cushioned rail before crossing themselves. As the parents bow their heads in reverent silence, their eldest girl does her best to teach the little ones to do the same, just like mom and dad.

A typical Roman Catholic Liturgy has two parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Liturgy of the Word includes readings from the scripture and the sermon, while the Liturgy of the Eucharist includes the offering, the Eucharistic prayer, and communion. The high point of the service is the Holy Eucharist. Father Aquinas blesses the wafer and wine, which are transformed through the ritual of trans-substantiation into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. One by one, the faithful come forward to kneel or stand at the altar as Father Aquinas and his deacons serve the Holy Sacraments—the body of Christ from a precious metal Paten and the blood of Christ from a precious metal Chalice.

One of the holiest of seasons for Christians is the 40-day period in early spring called Lent, which leads up to Easter Sunday. On this day, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Prior to Easter, the faithful reflect on Christ’s withdrawal into the desert where he fasted for 40 days, and on His sacrifice on the cross which atoned for the sins of humankind. Many Christians observe this period by giving up certain foods or performing other tests of self-discipline. Good Friday, three days before Easter, is the one day that doesn’t include the Liturgy of the Eucharist because on this day, Jesus died. The altar, typically covered by a cloth colored to represent different stages of the Lenten season, remains bare. The altar statues are covered, and the red candle that represents Jesus’ presence is unlit.

During this service, Father Aquinas proceeds down the aisle where he prostrates himself in the likeness of Jesus on the cross. The congregation waits in silence for some time—silence meant to underscore the solemnity and importance of the day and the manner in which Jesus died. Father Aquinas eventually stands, and the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is sung. At the end of the aisle, he uncovers a cross, kisses it, and then walks it to the high altar where the faithful are invited to come up and repeat the kiss.

One special mass—the abundantly musical “Festive Sung Mass” on Sunday mornings at 10:30—is conducted exactly like the mass at the Pope’s church, Saint Peter’s. It was this mass that moved me more than any other in my several weeks of attendance—surely because of its splendor, but also because I realized that I no longer felt like an outsider. No longer was I waiting for the cues about when to stand or sit or kneel, nor did I wonder any longer what these actions meant. No longer did I need to wait to hear what page the hymn was on or have to ask about the parts of the service, or communion, or the altar. Instead, I could focus on what the services meant for me.

Silence. There is something so peaceful about the services at St. John’s. Although we are active and responsive throughout the service, what I’ll remember most are the moments of profound quiet. Silence, as the faithful lean in to the singing of the hymns, the recitation of the psalms, and Father’s sermon. Silence, as Father Aquinas prepares the Holy Eucharist. Silence, as the faithful participate in sharing the body and blood of Christ. It is a depth of tranquility, full and complete, that moves inward, stilling the soul.

As Deacon Quan describes it, above all, St. John’s Basilica provides sacred spaces and times for its diverse parishioners to be at peace.