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Building a New Gate to Paradise

As Los Angeles' archdiocese awaits construction of Our Lady of the Angels, many ponder what makes a great cathedral and what difference a great cathedral can make to a city.


On Sunday, in the late afternoon, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony will lead a procession through downtown Los Angeles to a hillside overlooking the Hollywood Freeway. There, he will bless the ground. Ten thousand people are expected to meet him at the end of his pilgrimage from the old cathedral, St. Vibiana's, to the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

In reality, he will start at one parking lot and end up at another. There is no cathedral. The 3.6 million Roman Catholics in the Los Angeles Archdiocese--the largest in the nation--are without a mother church. St. Vibiana's still slouches on the corner of 2nd and Main streets like so many other residents of skid row. The building was locked more than a year ago in a delayed response to the 1994 Northridge earthquake that nearly ripped it apart.

For the moment, Our Lady of the Angels exists only as a set of models and plans. After months of public bickering over everything from the historic significance of the abandoned church to the high cost of building a cathedral, the current plan is to open it in three years. Time enough to address a far more significant question: what difference will a new cathedral make for the archdiocese--and for Los Angeles?

It is a welcome break with local custom that a parking lot is making way for a bit of paradise. According to a tradition that extends back to the Middle Ages, a cathedral is more than a grand edifice--it is a preview of heaven, a taste of eternity. To enter is to pass through the "Gates of Paradise." This belief was set in bronze on the baptistry doors of the cathedral of Florence by the 15th century sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Long before Ghiberti, the French monk Abbot Suger built the model for the Gothic cathedral at St. Denis near Paris, in 1144. Its vaulted arches and elongated columns directed the eyes upward. He hoped that the spirit would follow. "I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor the purity of heaven," he wrote. "By the grace of God I can be transported." His dream still holds sway.

Anyplace that promises to transport people to a world suspended between heaven and earth does not consider itself ordinary. To bring about such a shift requires ingraining human hopes in the building's stone and embedding dreams in the foundations. By necessity, the very act of raising such a structure leaves an imprint--and not just on the church itself. If a cathedral is doing its job right, the whole city ought to know its way around it and feel a part of it.

Imagine Paris without Notre Dame, Mexico City without its Metropolitan Cathedral, or New York without St. Patrick's. More than a public monument, a great cathedral serves as a spiritual beacon that draws the faithful with the curious, the bored and the desperate, the saints and the pickpockets, as if all of them were looking for the same thing.

"Our cathedral will be a reminder of the presence of God in our community," Mahony said. "It will raise up the inspirational dimension of the city.'

A number of Christian denominations include cathedrals in their tradition. The official requirements for a Catholic cathedral are precise. From its 4th century beginnings, it is the place that holds the bishop's chair, from which he does his most important teaching and preaching. New priests are ordained there; holy oils are blessed there and distributed to all of the parishes in the diocese.

An inspiring cathedral, though, goes far beyond such functions. Heads of state are married as well as eulogized there. Babies are baptized and warring neighbors meet to talk peace. Government workers are blessed as they take office, but so are the protesters who march to City Hall demanding equal rights. The philharmonic performs in the sanctuary and the soup kitchen offers free tickets. Bankers kneel beside welfare mothers.

A cathedral is a home front of the religious realm, where the images and altar vessels are artworks, and the prayer life and preaching set the standard for the diocese. "A cathedral is not only a place to come and feel good," Mahony said. "It is a place to be nourished and to be challenged."

A Work in Progress

Our Lady of the Angels will be consecrated in 2000, with much of the interior left incomplete. "A cathedral is a work in progress," Mahony said. "To be done right it ought not to be finished when it opens." And to emphasize the enormity of the task, three of the best known cathedrals built in the United States have been under construction for most of the century.

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