‘Jesus Christ is the one who brings us together’: Msgr. Kostelnik, founding pastor of the culturally diverse cathedral, leaves legacy of ‘no one is less than’
R.W. Dellinger June 16, 2016
One of Msgr. Kevin Kostelnik’s favorite stories about the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels — which he’s pastored since even before its great bronze doors opened in 2002 — happened early on during its construction.
A worker in a hard hat came up to him, asking to pray for his son. The son was in his mid-20s, married and heavily addicted to drugs. And he had recently been arrested. After asking the son’s name, the new pastor said, “Let’s pray right here for him.” And that’s what he did, laying his hands on the man’s shoulders.
“You know, I’ve been in construction 35 years. I’ve built mini malls. I’ve built hotels. I’ve built homes,” said the worried father. “And this is the first time in 35 years I could go to a supervisor and ask for prayers.”
It hit Msgr. Kostelnik like a ton of bricks.
“That was when I first realized that the heart and center of this place will be all about prayer,” the 60-year-old priest, who grew up in Detroit and Hacienda Heights, told The Tidings. He will be celebrating his farewell Masses at the cathedral on June 26.
“It’s about meeting the spiritual needs of people,” he went on. “Because St. Augustine said, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.’ And so I think this more than anything, the cathedral has become a spiritual center. We’ve witnessed that not only at daily and Sunday Masses, which are very, very full, but also in our special event liturgies.
“When we opened, we started with four or five of these at 3:30 on Sunday. Now we have over 45 special liturgies throughout the course of the year. From Chinese New Year to the Korean martyrs’ Mass to the Red Mass [lawyers and judges] to the Blue Mass [police officers] to the White Mass [health care workers], etc.
“When the city has had to mourn and cry for police officers slain in the line of duty and others, this is where people gather,” he said. “So this has become a place for prayer.”
Recently, Msgr. Kostelnik sat at a cherry wood conference table. He was looking back at his pastorship of the cathedral since its ground blessing on Sept. 21, 1997. At the time, he said how he was excited about serving the spiritual needs of people who lived in the community as well as the people who worked and visited downtown. Seemingly no small feat.
“I believe we’ve done it with a fabulous team of people — with Cardinal [Roger] Mahony, with Archbishop [José H.] Gomez, with all the priests who served here and who came to assist us and with some amazing lay ministers,” he pointed out. “I think the cathedral surpassed our expectation in terms of the numbers who come here from all over. Oftentimes we will get people who come by in the morning in a taxi and they’re flying home to Australia or Europe that evening.”
After a pause, he added with a half-grin, “I haven’t signed a check in a year. I don’t need to sign checks. I need to be in the confessional. I need to be preparing my homilies. The operational needs of the cathedral, whether it be maintenance, parking, security, are taken care of by the director of operations, [Franciscan] Brother Hilarion O’Connor. I’m the pastor taking care of the spiritual needs with a great team of people.”
Msgr. Kostelnik points out that it’s this common religious hunger that unites the different communities served by the cathedral. The surrounding neighborhood is populated mostly by working class Latinos, while nearby downtown apartments and lofts house a burgeoning number of upwardly mobile young adults.
Moreover, the cathedral is the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s mother church as well a favorite stop for people from across the U.S. on vacation and international travelers.
“Every day you can walk across the plaza and you will meet people from around the world who are here. Our docents provide guided tours every day,” he reported. “And sometimes it’s a struggle to juggle a parish community and the larger global communities. But I think we’ve handled it with great care and great hospitality.
“The different communities come together and we do one thing: We pray in the name of Christ. And that brings people together. When you bring people together and you pray in Christ, they get along.”
Then he explained: “You know, if you provide the basic, and the basic is simply the sacramental life, the basics of coming together in prayer, of celebrating the Eucharist, of preaching well and with a message of Christ, Jesus Christ is the unifier. Jesus Christ is the one who brings us together.
“And so I don’t like to talk about class, about any differences in these communities as much as everybody is the same,” he stressed. “Constantly, one of my themes in preaching here has always been recognizing the holiness of each of us. We are all made in the image of God. No one is less than. No one is less than!”
A considerable future challenge is continuing to serve the new downtowners, according to Msgr. Kostelnik. When the cathedral opened 14 years ago, it had 39 carry-over registered households from the old St. Vibiana Cathedral days. And he gave them a construction tour to make sure they stayed on board and knew this was where they really belonged.
That number has jumped to 1,100 households, and he still sends a welcome package to all when they register. Last night he signed 10 letters of welcome, with half going to new downtown residents.
“So the greatest challenge is to evangelize all these amazing young adults who are moving downtown,” he said. “When we opened there were 10,000 people living downtown. Right now the census is over 60,000. And it’s estimated by 2018 there will be almost 80,000 people living downtown.
“They’re the new model of who is moving into downtown Los Angeles. The urban setting is being recreated in a very unique fashion. And I think young adults have very specific needs. They’re hungry — spiritually hungry. And one of the things I have witnessed the most is they are looking for a sense of belonging, a sense of family, a sense of welcome. And that’s one of the most important witnesses of the Church.
“Look at some of our vibrant parishes today,” he noted. “There’s the sense of belonging, the sense of a spiritual home in what attracts and keeps them.”
When asked about the major joys of his time at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Msgr. Kostelnik had no trouble ticking them off. He started off talking about the outreach the urban parish has developed to the poor. Some 40 to 60 volunteers gather almost daily to make more than 1,200 lunches. Over 100 clients visit the outreach office every day seeking help paying their utility bills or rents. And more than 100 families receive groceries every week.
And that’s not counting Adopt-A-Family at Christmas time, which provides gifts to struggling families living on and near Skid Row. The current number is over 400 families served every year.
“From the very beginning, I always talked about how the cathedral was going to be for the poor,” said Msgr. Kostelnik. “We had many voices against building the cathedral at the time. And I was always reassured by the words of Dorothy Day who said cathedrals are for the poor.”
‘Pope Francis sent me’
Another great joy has been preaching: “I think preaching the Word, proclaiming Jesus Christ, is one of the most important missions that we have here at the cathedral. I take every occasion as an opportunity to make sure Jesus is preached. Whether it’s Sunday or a special event or weekday, there’s always an occasion to touch people’s hearts.
“One of the things I love most about the cathedral is preaching about the saints featured in our tapestries,” he said. “I like to walk down the aisle and stand underneath a saint and talk about him or her. I hope people here fall in love with the saints. As I say at every baptism, they’re our best friends. The saints are our intercessors. We’ve got a whole beautiful band of witnesses who are praying for us.”
Baptisms, in fact, are another highlight for the pastor. There have been more than 5,000 emersions in the baptistery font — babies, children and adults — at the entry of the cathedral. Performing and witnessing them has been an “amazing experience” for him.
Hearing confessions, celebrating the sacrament of penance, has been another mystical ministry he’s loved. “Bringing people back to the Church is tremendous,” he said. “Oftentimes, especially during this Year of Mercy, it’s been beautiful to witness the number of people who have come in and they have been away from the Church for a long time. And sometimes they’ll say, ‘Pope Francis sent me.’”
A real joy for Msgr. Kostelnik, who holds a master’s degree in liturgy from the University of Notre Dame, has been the cathedral’s own liturgies and music. He’s tried to make congregants aware and to fully take part in the Church’s rich spiritual life. Both have been “key priorities.”
Other highlights include the historic art housed in the cathedral, the devotion of volunteers, the “great house” he’s had living with Cardinal Mahony and more recently Archbishop Gomez, and the five seminarians who have come from the urban parish.
And then there’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” which he and Hal Bastian started in 2007 in honor of their respective dogs, Joaquin and Buddy. The summer event has become a downtown happening, attracting hundreds of canines and their custodians.
He will celebrate his two last Masses at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Sunday, June 26, at 8 and 10 a.m. After a six-month sabbatical of travel, writing, prayer and plain “fun,” he will become pastor next year on Jan. 1 of St. Joseph Church in Long Beach.
“Outreach, taking care of the poor, hospitality — it’s been a joy to do faith formation,” he said, summing up. “The greatest joy for me has been not only to witness the design and construction of the cathedral, but the evolution of a parish family that wants to belong.
“Very few pastors get to help be a part of the design team and watch a cathedral grow from the ground up,” pointed out Msgr. Kostelnik. “Because in history, most of the pastors were dead before the building was finished. It took 30, 40, 50 years. There would be two or three pastors and bishops before a cathedral was finished. And we were privileged to see this completed in just six years.”