When the lights came on in 1988, St. John Cantius Church in Chicago still seemed dark. That might have something to do with how empty it was.
Then, the old baroque church was frequented more by pigeons than by people. The distressed River West neighborhood in America’s third largest city had gone through a transformation, its once vibrant community of Polish and Italian immigrants having taken a new highway nearby to find quieter suburbs for their children.
Jaysin Trevino from Evanston, IL, US - Highway Isometric, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47310587
Today, that same highway brings thousands back to a sacred space once all but abandoned and slated for closure, now lit by bright faces of the faithful.
If more studied the church’s namesake, how this happened might begin to make more sense.
Jan of Kanty, also known as John Cantius, was a 15th century Polish priest, philosopher, physicist, and professor who was instrumental in the founding of one of Europe’s first universities in Krakow. But you wouldn’t know that simply by the saint’s portrayal above the high altar in St. John Cantius Church.
“The Miracle of the Jug” painting depicts a real, historical event from June 1464 on a main Krakow square. It recalls the story of a servant girl who had dropped and broke a jug, and began crying in dread of being punished. Father John encountered her, comforted her, and prayed as he helped her pick up the pieces of the jug. His prayers made the broken jug whole again, and the water with which it had been filled had turned into a sweet, rich milk.
It might be said that this miracle is exceeded by its lesson.
Today, it’s not hard to see our world, our country, our city, and even our lives are often like broken jugs. So much is broken and needs restoring. But that’s not to say being broken is to never have been sacred. Quite the opposite.
Think of the Garden of Eden. There everything was intrinsically sacred. But with the first sin comes brokenness. Something of the sacred was lost in humanity and in creation that needed restoring. That brokenness—that felix culpa—can lead to an even greater restoration, something deeper than if we had never been broken at all. Somehow, by embracing our brokenness we also embrace another, higher opportunity to be filled with God’s mercy, His grace, His love—indeed, His very self. Who among us doesn’t need that kind of deep restoration? To pick up the pieces, be put back together, and be made whole again, and again. Father John’s miracle teaches us that nothing is beyond repair. Nothing is wasted.
This is the miracle that inspired a new community of priests and brothers to “restore the sacred” in the Church, in the world, and in their own lives so as to pursue not only their own sanctification, but also the salvation and sanctification of all people in all places.
The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius accomplish their mission by way of a keen awareness that it is through the human senses the faithful perceive the Divine, which is present in the varying aspects of life and thus find meaning imbued in life’s joys and travails. The Eucharist is the center of our lives—or at least, it ought to be—and that’s why the liturgy forms the core of the Canons Regular apostolate. The reverence with which the liturgy is celebrated at St. John Cantius Church is about reclaiming what is part of our common heritage.
St. John Cantius Church was once in pieces—a visibly broken jug. But it too is being restored to its former glory and being filled with growing families, rich art, sweet music, and vibrant liturgies. Here people can encounter something bigger than themselves, and participate in their own personal restoration.
Ultimately, to “restore the sacred” is so much more than a mere motto aimed at fostering a material restoration, as important as the rich patrimony of art, music, and culture is. It is instead focused on the restoration of ourselves and others—recognizing and restoring the sacred where it truly abides: in each and every human person.