On the Road: To stand and receive where JFK was laid

The next in an occasional series of travelogue/photo essays on seeing and experiencing intersections of faith, history and culture — on seeing new and old communities of faith.

The Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., photo by Steve Givens

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I attended morning mass at one of my favorite places, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, just a few blocks up from DuPont Circle where I was staying. Because I travel to D.C. a few times a year to attend meetings of higher education public affairs folks like me, and because DuPont Circle is “home territory” for many higher education organizations, I have come to know this area pretty well. And St. Matthew’s has become my parish home when I’m there.

To be honest, in a city filled with architectural gems, from the outside St. Matthew’s has little in its facade that would draw you inside. It lies just a block off busy Connecticut Avenue on Rhode Island, tucked back from the street in such a way that you might miss it if you didn’t look up. But inside, its collection of side chapels, statuary, and mosaics are inspiringly beautiful and prayerful. My favorite mosaic is that of a different gospel writer, St. Mark, elbow on knee and fist beneath his chin, urging us all to enter into conversation with him on the life and death of his friend. The shape of the interior (at least to my untrained eye) is more of a square than a rectangle, drawing all nearer to the altar. (In fact, it is in the shape of a Latin cross, 155 feet long by 136 feet wide). To see more of the Cathedral, visit its online tour.

St. Mark invites us into conversation. Photo by Steve Givens

The Cathedral honors St. Matthew, that iconic tax collector and the patron saint of civil servants, and it plays a major role in the life of Catholics in the nation’s capital. It is the seat of the archbishop, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass there in 1979 and, in perhaps its most noted moment, it was the place of President Kennedy’s funeral Mass on November 25, 1963, a fact of which I am always reminded whenever I go forward for communion and stand upon an inlaid marble plaque that marks the spot. I breathe a little deeper when I stand there, waiting.

The Cathedral is attended by Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, Cabinet members, members of the diplomatic corps, and sometimes even the president of the United States. As a history buff, I can’t NOT be affected by these facts. I do not stand in awe of these people, but I am aware of the tremendous burdens they bear in their positions of responsibility. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. Sometimes I agree with their decisions and sometimes I do not.

But I appreciate the fact that many of them come here to pray and worship and receive the sacraments, to place themselves into the hands of God, to be no more important at the moment of receiving the body and blood of Christ than me or the person sweeping the floor or a hungry, frightened child in Uganda who might benefit from, say, a wise decision to send aid and U.S. troops to protect them from being pressed into service as child soldiers by the horrifically named “Lord’s Resistance Army.”

JFK marker at St. Matthew's, photo by Steve Givens

We all need a place to pray with others who share our faith or just to be alone with our thoughts and our God. Washington, D.C. has many such places for believers of every kind. And with the weight of the nation and the world on the shoulders of so many of these men and women, it’s a good thing.

Take a moment today to pray for all of those who serve our country as elected officials and civil servants. For a few seconds, forget about party lines and campaign speeches and the scandal of the day. Just breathe. Just pray.

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