Something unedifying is under way at the Church of Our Saviour, on lower Park Avenue in Manhattan. This alert from a knowledgeable source came Tuesday morning and has been circulating:
I am informed that having [been] officially appointed Pastor of COS, Father Robbins is in the process of removing the other icons and also wants to remove the large Pantocrator. The demolition is in process, and the intention is to finish it before anyone can protest. So immediate action is needed. The Cardinal must be flooded with messages, and there should be notice on as many liturgical/arts websites as possible. Any delay will be too late.
For those of you unfamiliar with the backstory:
Fr. George Rutler was pastor of Our Saviour from 2001 until he was transferred in 2013 across town to St. Michael’s, a less prominent location. In the twelve years of his service to COS, he proved himself a gracious and effective steward. He reversed the parish’s decline, eliminated its debts, enlarged and revivified the congregation. Most visibly, he renovated the church building with great sensitivity.
The cornerstone of that renovation was the suite of contemporary icons that graced the sanctuary. Ken Woo’s stunning magnification of Christ Pantocrator (based on the original in St. Catherine’s, Sinai) was a technical tour de force that presided in triumph within the architecture of the sanctuary. In concert with a series of icons of individual saints on four enveloping pilasters, the Pantocrator set a tone of majesty.
And the ensemble was gorgeous. The gilding, the patterning of costumes, the hieratic gestures—the sum of this lovely assembly of panels conspired in drawing attention toward the high altar. Far from diminishing the altar, the splendor of the surround ennobled it. Woo’s icons were not conceived to function as separate decorative entities. They were meant to function together as an atmospheric unit. And they did, until Fr. Rutler was reassigned and Fr. Robert Robbins took over.
The new pastor began his tenure by making liturgical changes and, to the dismay of parishoners, by removing fourteen of the most prominent icons. In a gesture mimicking the iconoclasm of sixteenth century Reformers, the denuded pillars were white washed. On Tuesday we learned that the remaining ones, included the magnificent Pantocrator, are slated for eviction. Why? Is Fr. Robbins acting on his own initiative or at the behest of higher-ups? Certainly, a pastor has both his druthers and his prerogatives. But the severity—the totality—of this de-adornment gives off an odor of reprisal. It is hard not to sense malice at work. Whose? To what end?
Last August, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf—our online Fr. Z—articulated what Catholics familiar with the situation were thinking: that this was not a renovation at all but an ideological move. Fr. Z wrote:
What’s going on there? Is this “Get Rutler!” time in NYC? Deface Rutler’s work at Our Saviour? Slate St. Michael’s and Holy Innocents for closure a year after he arrives? By next year he’ll be pastor of a cardboard box over a grate near the Hudson.
Suddenly, the erasure is worsening. A company named Renovato Studios has been contracted to remove the remaining icons, including—according to reliable voices—the great Pantocrator. This latest move follows on the heels of Rutler’s essay “The Pope’s Off the Cuff Remarks in Turin” appearing in Crisis on June 30th. The essay took issue with Pope Francis’ impromptu aim at the weapons industry in what read as a naïve replay of Dwight Eisenhower’s famous 1961 warning against the military-industrial complex. Rutler wrote:
The Pope’s comments did not engage the issue with the perspicacity and experience of Ike who seldom spoke off the cuff. Inasmuch as papal guards carry Glocks and Sig 552’s, the earnest Pope knows that weapons are necessary. The problem is that he called those who manufacture them un-Christian.
Having written a book on the moral reasoning behind military actions in the Second World War, Rutler knows considerably more about the issue of arms than does Francis. In a deft marriage of courtesy and rebuttal, he underscored Francis’ deficit:
As for the hypocrisy of those who invest in such manufactures, that would seem to be an unqualified criticism of a large number of investors in a complicated and interlocking world of investments. For example, the Pietro Beretta Company, which is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, is now controlled by the Beretta Holding S.p.A. It is also probably the oldest. The Republic of Venice, in consort with Pope St. Pius V contracted the company to provide the arquebuses that helped to defeat the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. One was used to shoot Ali Pasha. During his reign (1823-1829), the della Genga pope Leo XII, enlarged the papal artillery and, a skilled marksman himself, often relaxed by shooting birds in his gardens.
The essay puts paid to simplistic indictments of Allied actions based on superficial understanding. It deserves to be read in full . Read it for its intelligence; and also for the illustration it offers of why a priest like Fr. Rutler might run afoul of establishment progressives. Was his unapologetic conservatism a thorn in the side of the archdiocese and, possibly, beyond? Impossible to say. But this gratuitous vandalism at Our Savior is not a small thing.
And it is not about Ken Woo or the imagined “moral rights” of an artist, however sympathetic. Woo was paid for his work just as Richard Serra was paid for the popularly rejected Tilted Arc. Neither is it an issue of the award-winning status of the icons. Aesthetics is a secondary matter here. No, above all else, this is about what appears—on its face—to be a calculated effort to delete evidence of a particular priest’s presence in a place that he served and transformed.
Fr. Rutler drew congregants to a house of worship that was a model of prayerful decorum, an oasis in a debased liturgical climate. That, in addition to conservative sensibilities and candor in expressing them, can raise hackles in some quarters.
Our Saviour’s website devotes a page to the church’s tabernacle and the sanctuary marble (“quarried in Pakistan near the Vale of Kashmir, a focal point of the war in which our nation is now engaged”). But nothing is said about major elements added during Fr. Rutler’s term. You have to enter Ken Woo’s name into the site’s search function to find any reference to the commission. No image of the interior appears on site. A small reproduction of the original Sinai panel floats free on the page, but there is no image of the artist’s enlarged version installed in the sanctuary.
Physical evidence of Fr. Rutler’s tenure is being erased in the fashion of Soviet-style historiography. This is not remodeling. This is hierarchical politics on display. Nicholas Frankovich, writing for First Things, named it seven months ago in his essay “This is What Clericalism Looks Like.” The most instructive commentary to date on the lamentable destruction, it closed with this:
All sensible Catholics join the pope in deploring clericalism, but definitions of it are necessarily broad. We also need descriptions of it. Its faces are many. This is one of them.
The hope, now, is simply to save the Pantocrator. Interested readers can reach the chancery by email: firstname.lastname@example.org  or by phone: 212.371.1011 Ext 2935. Letters marked “Personal and Confidential” can be sent to His Eminence Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 1011 First Avenue, New York 10022.