My visits to St. John the Divine Cathedral on Manhattan’s Upper West Side have been few. A recent trip, on Sept. 8, will stay with me for some time to come, and not just because Pope Francis joined the festivities via a video message to the eager crowd assembled in the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
I was there to cover an evening service meant to welcome Community at the Crossing, an ecumenical initiative, to St. John the Divine. One of the project’s major engines is Chemin Neuf, a Catholic religious order with ecumenical roots, and several members participated in the service. They included a Roman Catholic priest from France, a Roman Catholic sister from Canada and an Anglican sister from the United Kingdom. Another participant is a young man from the United States who is a student at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan.
A good number of Catholic representatives participated at the well-attended service. Retired Auxiliary Bishop John O’Hara of New York and Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop James Massa, the rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, took part in the opening procession. Sister Joan Curtin, C.N.D., vicar for religious in the archdiocese, read the Gospel. Several others were spread throughout the sizable congregation.
Over the next year, the members of Chemin Neuf and the cathedral’s staff, led by the Rev. Patrick Malloy, the acting dean, will build the program that is expected to annually bring 10 to 12 Christian young adults, ages 20 to 30, from across the United States. At St. John the Divine, they will live on a floor in a building in the cathedral complex. Their common life will “become a real laboratory for Christian unity,” the dean later said in a phone interview.
The dean first considered the idea of the cross-denominational project several years ago based on a similar initiative of the Archbishop of Canterbury called the Community of St. Anselm. The Covid pandemic delayed the start until now.
He said he anticipates a continuing partnership with Chemin Neuf to develop the program. For the year they are together at St. John the Divine, young adults from Episcopal, Catholic and other Christian denominations will pray, reflect and perform acts of service for New Yorkers before bringing their new perspective back to their secular or religious lives.
Sister Hannah Spiers, C.C.N., the Anglican sister who is part of the Chemin Neuf community, said the small initial size of the endeavor doesn’t deter her. “God is not afraid of small beginnings,” she said in an interview.
She said she was encouraged by congregation members at St. John the Divine, who called the recent service “one of the most significant ecumenical gatherings they’ve seen in a long time.”
The members of Chemin Neuf have worked on the project from a distance for a year or two, and Sister Hannah said she was looking forward to meeting with the local churches, both Episcopal and Roman Catholic, to see what the needs are, “and how we can serve.”
“We don’t want to come with anything prefabricated,” she said.
At the service, video messages of support came from a number of prelates, including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church.
Pope Francis, in his video remarks, thanked the young people who are part of Community at the Crossing for their courage and commitment. Harkening back to the first Christian community, the pope offered these stirring words, “See how they love each other…see how they live together with joy and put in common their belongings, see how they pray together, see how they are close to the poor.”
The pope extended his gratitude to Cardinal Dolan and Episcopal Bishop Andrew Dietsche of New York for “welcoming and supporting” the initiative. “My heart rejoices when I think that the Cathoic Archdiocese and Episcopal Diocese of New York are working hand in hand,” Pope Francis said.