The cathedral -- from the towering Gothic arches of Paris' gorgeous Notre Dame to the modern lines of Los Angeles' new Our Lady of the Angels -- is considered the principal Church building in dioceses filled with scores of parish churches.

A thousand years ago, however, the cathedral was often the only church. The Middle Ages was the time of the "cathedral cities," supported by commerce, and built physically and spiritually around the large, splendid churches.

"The cathedral was the heart of the town around which all life revolved," explained Francesco Cesareo, professor of history at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Center city

The cathedral was where the entire city gathered to worship and work, to socialize and to play. In a medieval city, the square in front of the cathedral was where markets and celebrations were held, and where people assembled to meet their friends and watch entertainments, such as mystery plays.

Since the Church "permeated all aspects of [medieval] life," Mr. Cesareo said, the cathedral served a much different role for medieval city-dwellers than it does in today's more secular society.

Although the religious significance of a cathedral has remained the same, cathedrals today are "relegated to the spiritual side of things, where before they were more interwoven into the various aspects of people's lives," he explained.

Work of all

A bishop might have backed the effort to build a cathedral with some of the revenue from the lands that he owned, Mr. Cesareo said. Similarly, medieval craft guilds would pitch in and offer their services.

"Sometimes, they would bring a relic into the area and hold a mission," he explained. "People could donate money as a part of this mission."

Because the cathedral was the place where the entire city gathered to worship, "the cathedrals were impressive," he continued. "Cathedrals were signs of giving glory to God. Even if you lived in a smaller town, the cathedral would be the most impressive building because it was the sign of the people's devotion."

Identity

Cathedrals in early America often towered over their non-religious counterparts, but they functioned less as a geographical center of life than as an assertion of Catholic identity in a society that was often hostile to Catholics, according to Msgr. Robert Trisco, professor emeritus of Church history at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

"The early cathedrals gave Catholics some sense of belonging, of having a place in the community which was respected because these were imposing churches," he said. "These places were prominent and attracted attention. They made Catholics feel like they had made their mark on the city and were part of the urban life. All these cathedrals were made as grand as the dioceses could afford, in order to make that statement."

Msgr. Trisco cited St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, St. Louis in New Orleans and Baltimore's cathedral as examples of this early sentiment.

Message to city

According to Thomas Prindle, director of development for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany's cathedral was no different.

"The Cathedral began as a marketing message," he said. "When it was built, Irish Catholics were the lowest rung of society. [Bishop John McCloskey, the Diocese's first bishop,] wanted to build a powerful symbol to let people know that Catholics were here to stay."

In many ways, Immaculate Conception and other cathedral parishes served as a focal point for the dreams of Catholic immigrants.

"I think of people coming up to Albany from New York City," Mr. Prindle said. "The first thing they would have seen is the Cathedral. Rising up from the river is this monumental Cathedral. It was the biggest thing north of New York City."

To see that and know that a new immigrant belonged to something magnificent is the "essence and soul of the Cathedral," according to Mr. Prindle. "Everyone belongs."

Modern approach

Today's cathedrals should "resonate" with the makeup of the diocese they serve, according to Rev. Richard Vosko, a priest of the Albany Diocese who is a designer and consultant for worship environments. The role of the cathedral in today's society is different from the times that came before, he said.

"The vision of 150 years ago had to do with a reflection of their own understanding of the Church and its liturgy," he noted. "Immaculate Conception was a church designed to house a liturgy of a different age and genre -- a different, pre-Vatican II understanding of what liturgy is."

Since then, the Church in America, originally conceived as a missionary country, has shed that identity by having more than 70 million members. "The reasons for retaining and building our churches have changed," he said.

Spiritual center

Nevertheless, he said, a cathedral has always been and remains the bishop's seat and spiritual center of a diocese.

"The [bishop's] chair symbolizes a connection to the church throughout the world," he said. "It is important for a cathedral to be a model for all the other parishes in the diocese. A cathedral is the heartbeat in the mystical body of Christ."

As lighting a candle points to the greater truth of the light of Christ, Father Vosko said, "the cathedral building points to a deeper reality."

(11-14-02)