February 25, 2024

O come, let us adore Him.

In 2005 the more than 150-year-old Cathedral of St. Raphael in Madison, Wisconsin, was set on fire by a troubled soul while I was sleeping in the attached rectory. I rose from bed as usual about 5:30 a.m. and turned on the radio to learn the weather forecast. Instead I heard that a four-alarm fire was blazing at St. Raphael Cathedral which is where I was.

I threw on some clothes and went outside to see what was going on, thinking it only a minor disturbance. It was a Monday morning in the university town of Madison where weekend disturbances are routine, so what else was new. I thought maybe there was a fire in the dumpster.

What I encountered was new and sad. The entire block was surrounded by fire trucks shooting streams of water toward the front of the cathedral only yards from my bedroom.

Despite media inquiries for comments I was speechless for a while in my shock and my grief. This was where I said yes to God’s call to go to seminary and discern priesthood. This was where I was ordained. This was where twice I was assigned as rector. This was my spiritual home.

Later in the day as I stood in the March coldness, it seemed that the fire was localized to the bell tower at one end of the church. I wondered whether I could get into the other end of the church to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle.

Suddenly there was a swoosh and horrendous orange flames flew down the expanse of the roof. The old dry timber beams were easy fodder for fire. I knew I could not personally retrieve the Blessed Sacrament. I was saddened and my heart ached.

As a side note, you might understand that when I came to Sioux Falls and learned and saw that some of the wiring in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph was the original from the early 1900s, I knew that this needed to be addressed. I did not want to personally or for anyone else experience the angst of that day when my spiritual home was destroyed or be subjected to the heavy ripple effects—physical, spiritual and personal—of such a loss. I remain grateful to all those who so generously supported our restoration project. Our restored Cathedral of Saint Joseph has touched the hearts of many from around the world who visit this spiritual and community landmark.

Later on that fateful day, the Madison cathedral was just a shell; the fire was under control though smoldering continued and small flash fires had to be attended. Reverence for the Blessed Sacrament was in my heart in a depth I had not realized. Among the most influential forces that led me to my conversion to the Church Christ instituted was the revelation that Christ is truly present body, blood, soul and divinity in the Blessed Sacrament.

I went to an assistant fire chief and asked whether we could check to see if the tabernacle, and therefore the Blessed Sacrament, had been spared. He gave me a look that suggested, “Are you crazy? It’s dangerous in there.” But another firefighter who was obviously Catholic and understanding of the importance of what I was asking overheard my request and volunteered to go into the destroyed church and check it out.

With several firefighters I entered the charred remains to point out where the tabernacle was located. Debris had fallen and blocked the view. I pointed out the direction of its location and, at their request, then withdrew to the parking lot because it was dangerous in there.

After a short but long time, three brave firefighters, in full regalia blackened from their dangerous and courageous work, came walking slowly toward me with great reverence. One carried the large ciborium which contained the Body of Christ consecrated at Holy Mass the night before. It glistened so golden that it seemed beyond this world.

Another carried the smaller ciborium in which was the Body of Christ we had bowed down before at eucharistic adoration a few days previous. It too glistened in a gold that took my breath away.

Earlier I had teared up at the loss of the building. At that moment I wept for joy at this beautiful sight, at the presence of our Lord. In the midst of ashes and smoke, anxiety and loss, our Lord was with us, our Lord is with us. Out of darkness comes light, in Him is our hope.

There is much about which we can become discouraged in our day, but perhaps no more than when Christ walked the roads of the Holy Land. We are blessed to know that His presence is always with us in his Church and especially in the Holy Eucharist. When we accept His presence body and blood, soul and divinity in the Blessed Sacrament, we cannot help but become guiding lights, beacons of hope, especially to those who are discouraged, those searching for meaning and those who carry heavy crosses, sometimes including ourselves.

O come let us adore Him.