Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture

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Cathedrals As Seers

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY was rededicated by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, D.D., on Sunday, November 21, 2010. The event provided our Diocese with an opportunity to focus on the meaning of a cathedral in the 21st century. This  article was the last ina series of three written for the parishes and institutions of the Diocese of Albany.

Some decades ago a religious building in downtown St. Louis, Missouri was becoming a victim of urban gentrification. The Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral was not only deteriorating it was losing members because of the socio-cultural changes in the neighborhood. Edwin Lynn described that Cathedral in the title of his book as a Tired Dragon. However, rather than sell and move to the suburbs the Cathedral board decided to stay put, energize the people and invest in the building.

That Cathedral congregation began to imagine the possibilities for the future. It realized it needed a new vision to survive. First, the Cathedral building itself was stabilized and restored, a project that attracted new members. The enhanced and flexible interior made it possible to celebrate liturgies in diverse ways. Along with its many programs, the Cathedral building became a prominent voice in the public square. It was envisioned that the Cathedral could be a place not only for congregational gatherings but also a place for neighborhood meetings, a center for interfaith events and ecumenical discourse.

In many ways the cathedrals of yesteryear were places of imagination — where liturgy, architecture, music and all the arts could flourish; where civic problems could be addressed; where downtrodden people could imagine living anew; where scientists and theologians could wrestle with spiritual and ethical issues and where religion could take its rightful place in the political forum.

Our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with its refurbished interior and its proximity to civic, artistic, medical and university centers has the potential to join hands with many allies addressing issues that pertain to the quality of life. Although our Cathedral still requires more work it can be a model for parishes and institutions in our Diocese working together to experience an amazing God.


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Cathedrals As Servants

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY was rededicated by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, D.D., on Sunday, November 21, 2010. The event provided our Diocese with an opportunity to focus on the meaning of a cathedral in the 21st century. This  article was the second of three written for the parishes and institutions of the Diocese of Albany.

Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries in France tons of stone were quarried for the building of some 80 cathedrals according to Jean Gimpel in his book The Cathedral Builders. These giant edifices were constructed as examples of the powerful presence of the Catholic religion in pre-Reformation times. Funded by wealthy patrons, built by guilds and staffed by religious personnel these cathedrals served as the centers of civilization. In some areas they were so big the entire population of the town could gather inside.

The cathedral of yesteryear was a busy, multi-tasking servant. Many diverse activities took place within its hallowed walls. The primary event of course was prayer. The Eucharist and other sacraments along with the Divine Office were celebrated with the townspeople. Often built like fortresses, the building provided shelter and security especially when the village was raided by bands of outlaws or even large armies. The cathedral was also a hospital where people could be treated for various illnesses. They were packed during plagues. Festivals of crafts, music, drama and food were also held inside and outside these large halls.

Similarly, Cathedrals in the United States continue the tradition of serving the population living in the shadows of their spires, the daily visitors who work nearby and the pilgrims who journey from afar. Along with a vibrant liturgical life many of these modern day servants sponsor education programs, concerts and art exhibits. Outreach programs like food pantries, soup kitchens, counseling services and second hand clothing stores are often housed in the cathedral itself or a nearby facility.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is in an ideal location in downtown Albany, New York. There it can serve not only its parishioners but also other people seeking day to day sustenance and spiritual nourishment. New life has been breathed into our Cathedral building. Now, new life can be breathed into all the people it serves.

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Cathedrals as Symbols

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY was rededicated by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, D.D., on Sunday, November 21, 2010. The event provided our Diocese with an opportunity to focus on the meaning of a cathedral in the 21st century. This  article was the first of three written for the parishes and institutions of the Diocese of Albany.

Did you know that the Pope’s cathedral is not St. Peter’s Basilica but the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome? This building, once a palace owned by the Laterani family, was consecrated in the year 324 CE and has served as the location of the official chair of the pope ever since. The word cathedral is taken from the Latin word cathedra, which is translated as “chair.” There is a cathedral in every Catholic diocese throughout the world. Because of the“chair” each cathedral is a symbol of the unity between the local diocese and the leader of the global Catholic Church. The chair is also a symbol of the local bishop’s ministry as a teacher and pastor. Bishops preside from the cathedra during all liturgies and when they make statements affecting the life of the diocese entrusted to them.

Further, according to The Ceremonial of Bishops, the local cathedral “is a symbol of the spiritual temple that is built up in souls and is resplendent with the glory of divine grace.” (Ceremonial No. 43.) What does it mean for us, the members of this Diocese, to understand our Cathedral as a symbol of who we are? In scripture we read that we are the living stones that build up the spiritual temple on earth (1 Peter 2). In doing so we advance the kingdom of God already here on earth even though it is incomplete.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a symbol of the people of God, all the members of the Diocese of Albany. Every baptized person is, in some way, spiritually connected to the Cathedral. Spiritual temples, however, are empty if they are not places where the work of God is evident.

The symbolic and real identity of a Cathedral is energized when all members of a Diocese participate together in the work of Jesus Christ. Even though our Cathedral is far away from many parishes in this Diocese, it stands as powerful reminder of the calling each of us has received from God to put our faith into action.

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The Meaning of the Advent Wreath


A. The wreath is a symbol of this time of the liturgical year. Interestingly, there is no liturgical requirement to have an Advent wreath in our churches. In many parishes the wreath is placed in the parish center or vestibule.

It is a custom, like many, that began in European countries, where red candles is used to point to Christmas. We use four candles as a reference to the 4 weeks of Advent. Three are purple – a color used to express penance. Advent once was a penitential season. The rose candle is a sign of joy and is lighted on the 3rd Sunday once know as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice.” It was a break in the Advent practice of fasting and abstinence. Many communities today use white candles only. The circular wreath is a reference to the eternal, continuing presence of God in our lives. The evergreens traditionally symbolize life.

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Origin and Meaning of Advent


A. The word Advent is taken from the Latin and means “arrival” or “coming.” Like all Christian festivals the season of Advent is best understood in the context of the entire liturgical year. The precise origin of Advent is linked to an understanding of sacred time and how to commemorate the experience of God in time. Advent was modeled after the season of Lent. Originally, in Gaul (France) and northwest Italy Advent was 6 weeks long. In Spain it was a period of 5 weeks. Eventually at Rome it was reduced to four weeks.

Advent was considered a time of fasting and abstinence in preparation for baptism, which occurred in some parts of the Eastern Church on Epiphany. In the East Epiphany was a celebration of both the birth and baptism of Jesus. This was because in the lunar calendar, the winter solstice occurred on January 6th. Later in the 4th century the Eastern Church adapted December 25th as the celebration of the birth date of Jesus. No doubt this was a copying of the Western date of Christmas established earlier in the 4th century.

Today, Advent has a two-fold purpose. One is to prepare for the celebration of the incarnation of God marked by the Christmas festival. The other purpose is to prepare for the second coming of Christ, a mysterious time, when the fullness of God’s presence on our planet is completely realized and apparent.

We should not forget that this season is also the time for other important dates in our liturgical year. On December 8th we celebrate the Immaculate Conception – the patroness of the United States and of our diocese. On December 12th the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe who is the patroness of the Americas is celebrated. For some, the feats of St. Nicholas (December 6) and St. Lucy (December 13) are also important.


Homily – 11/21/10: Citizens of Which Kingdom

The Solemnity of Christ the King – November 21, 2010 – Citizens of Which Kingdom
1 Samuel 5:1-3, Psalm 122:1-5, Colossians 1:12-20, Luke 23:35-43

Complete Biblical Texts

In his eighth novel, Ranger’s Apprentice: The Kings of Clonmel, John Flanagan tells the story of a corrupt religious leader who promises that a god named Altheiass will protect the Kingdom of Clonmel. The frightened gullible villagers trusted the high priest only to discover he himself was the enemy. The heroic Rangers in the novel set out to defeat the religious marauders with another god — the Sunrise Warrior. [1] The story suggests that when we seek protection from the dangers of the world, we tend to put our faith in warriors, money, gods and kings.

Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King. Historians tell us the feast probably was inaugurated [2] to counter ideologies such as secularism and nationalism. What does it counter today? Commemorated at the end of our liturgical year is it a timely reminder to look at the kingdoms we live in to see just how much of God is present?

There are many dominions vying for power and control in the world. The list is long; here are a few. The marketing enterprise that tempts us to pile up possessions. Transnational corporations that earn huge profits while paying workers substandard wages. (Check those labels) Military kingdoms that believe war is a good big business. Financial fiefdoms that deprive poor people of basics like food and housing. Religions that compete with one another promising palliatives for successful living.

We believe Christ is the head of an alternative kin-dom. This supreme being is a benign sovereign, who like King David in the first reading, is in solidarity with all creatures; treats us with mercy and justice; does not abandon us when we fall or fail. As the psalm suggests, this is a ruler who shepherds us while we walk with others to a new Jerusalem — that fabled land of eternal peace.

The life of Jesus Christ, the revelation of God, rejected the title of “king” and refused “enthronement.” [3] His mission and message said it all. Not only did Jesus challenge the corrupt empires of his age while embracing underclass and outcast people, he endured humiliation, suffering and death in doing so.

Some sources say the feast of Christ the King also gave new impetus to Catholic social teachings at a time when different nations were rebuilding after the first world war. Who will take the lead now to build up the kin-dom of God on earth? To whom do we turn? Soldiers? Politicians? Money? God?

There is evidence that things are not right in this country never mind the world. It is easy to blame elected officials. We are impatient. How hard is it for us to admit we are part of the problem? New York Times columnist Bob Herbert thinks we have no will when he writes, “America will never get its act together until we recognize how much trouble we are really in, and how much effort and shared sacrifice is needed to stop the decline.” [4] This seems to be good advice for any one of us who belongs to any organization or institution be it religious or secular — membership has no privileges.

Like the good thief in the gospel, we continue to proclaim Christ as the shepherd king, a companion who walks by our side, who laughs and cries with us along the way. By doing so we also recognize that all people have rights to every possibility life has to offer. We do not stand by gridlocked, watching while other kingdoms, promising to save us, deceive us and rob us of our pride, dignity and resources. Here at St. Vincent’s we try hard to give credence to our baptism by being pro-active, reaching out to everyone, especially those who are having a difficult time living. We declare “hospitality here is without borders.”

Next week we begin a new Advent season as our country slowly crawls out of a deep recession and joins other nations in worrying about the economy and security. It is a time of hope and great expectations — not only of a savior-king — but also of the citizens who live in the kin-dom, you and me.


1 Flanagan, John. Ranger’s Apprentice – Book 8 – The Kings of Clonmel (NY: Philomel) 2010. See also

2 In the encyclical of Pius XI, Quas Primas (“In the first”) December 11, 1925

3 Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997) 167-169

4 Herbert, Bob. “Hiding From Reality” in The New York Times, November 20, 2010, A19


Homily – 11/14/10: Be Not Afraid

33 Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 14, 2010 – Be Not Afraid
Malachi 3:19-20, Psalm 98:5-9, 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12, Luke 21:5-19

Complete biblical texts

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could predict the future? Besides knowing what the weather will really be like we might find out just how long we have to live and, better yet, whether we’re going to heaven or hell. Now wouldn’t that change the way we do things now?

Today’s gospel is not about making predictions especially dire ones. Rather, it is more about focussing on the way things are here and now. Luke’s gospel was written some fifty years after Jesus rose from the dead and 10-15 years after the Temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed. If it was not a prediction of these events then what meanings are to be found in these texts?

The first scripture reading this morning helps us understand. Malachi (the name means “messenger”) may have been a Temple priest who took it upon himself to be a prophet. He criticized a corrupt Temple priesthood and anyone else who tested God. He said arrogant people and evildoers would not be saved. By naming the things that were wrong he hoped people would change their lives.

What then are we to make of the cosmic tragedies listed in the gospel? Luke understands Jesus to be a “spokesperson” for God [1] who tells things like they are. In this sense Jesus was pointing out that life in this world is imperfect with its cholera epidemic in Haiti, the mindless battles in the Mideast, the weak economy in our nation, the devastating floods in Pakistan and the Philippines.

These events, however, are not signs that the end of the world is near.  We will always have to deal with terrible calamities. We are challenged, instead, to find ways to do something about ending the evil we cause and helping others survive the natural catastrophes and illnesses we cannot control.

The psalm today is helpful in thinking about our responsibilities for one another. It is a hymn celebrating God’s rule over the universe. In that time of Israel’s history it was thought that people were passive witnesses to whatever God was doing in the world. Christian theology today tells us otherwise — that we are participants in God’s salvation. [2]

Our mantra in this community, for example, is all about daring to advance the kin-dom of God here on earth. It is not enough to wait in joyful hope for the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ. After all, we do not literally expect Christ to return on a cloud announcing the end of the world. What we are anticipating is a time and a place when and where justice will prevail and all of God’s people will find peace and harmony. It may be a long wait.

These scriptures today remind us that, in the meantime, God will not leave us alone on this journey. As we trek together sometimes we are faithful in doing God’s work. Sometimes, like the Thessalonians in the second reading, we are uncooperative or slow to respond. [3] In a mysterious way the holy Spirit, nevertheless, is helping us stand up straight and tall in the face of all adversity.

The end of another liturgical year will soon give way to a new Advent – the birth of a savior and the promise of the coming of God’s kin-dom. That’s the way it is in life. The dawn of something new comes after something old dies. Day follows night. Our task is to name, like Malachi did, what must end — those things that need to be changed in our lives and on earth. It’s a never ending task and there is no escaping it.

We can keep our focus on things as they really are. No amount of material goods, powerful weapons or government policies will cause lasting joy and security. We are pilgrims, all of us, pitching our tents in a time and a place, doing all we can do; joining with others who believe in God’s companionship, willing to work hard to bring about a little bit of comfort on earth. Do not be afraid.

1 Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1997, 164-166

2 Fuller, Reginald. Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press,1984) Revised Edition pp. 511-12 and 525-527

3 Some Thessalonians, influenced in part by  Gnostic teachings, believed Jesus Christ had already returned and so there was nothing more for them to do. Their knowledge would save them.