The Cross on the Doorknob

When he was working with architects to design and build his dream seminary, Cardinal George Mundelein, the archbishop of Chicago and first cardinal west of the Appalachians, had to make a lot of tough decisions. Where should we build? What should the buildings look like? Will there be enough room to park both my boat and my car? (Just kidding…well….)

As anyone who has taken on the task of any great design project knows, once the big details are set sometimes an even bigger challenge still lies ahead: what will be that perfect finishing touch that really “ties the whole shebang together”? For Mundelein’s St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, some might argue it was the subtle placement of the golden bees on the ceiling of the library, a little extra height at the top of the Immaculate Conception column, or maybe even those nice, matching table clothes in the refectory (definitely kidding this time). I disagree. It seems that Mundelein and his team decided to make (of all things) a doorknob that central, finishing touch by installing the same knob on nearly every door on campus. The residence rooms, closets, offices, and, yes, even the bathrooms have the same knob.

So what?

Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”. (Mt 16:24) Anytime anyone wants to enter or leave a room on this campus, he has to look at, and then wrap his hands around the cross of Christ. A constant reminder to us, the future priests, and to everyone else who comes here to work, pray, study, or play that no matter whether you’re coming or going the cross around which your hand is grasped must be your guide, your crutch, your inspiration for, indeed, it is already your salvation.

Some people get weird about Christianity, especially Catholicism, and our obsession with the cross. “Isn’t that just a Roman torture tool?” they’ll often ask. Indeed (well, sort of). Before Christ blessed that torture instrument with his Precious Blood that wipes away the sins of the world, it was just another means of torture used by Rome. But precisely because the King of kings and the Lord of lords was hung up on that tree, it is for those who believe no longer a primitive torture device but a sign of victory; the victory of Christ and his Church over the darkness of sin and death.

St. Paul, in his zeal, constantly preached “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23) but you’ll notice there is no corpse on those doorknobs. Every time I open the door, the empty cross there tells me how the man who once hung upon it has opened the most important door all: he has opened for me the narrow gate, the way from the sorrows and plights of earth to the magnificent joy of heaven and of intimate and unceasing union with God made possible by a humble obedience to his commands and by a constant, often difficult, denial of self, picking up of my cross, and setting out to follow him.


Sometimes, when things get old, they fall apart or fall off and get put back on upside down. American Catholicism’s Enchanted Forest is no exception. “Aha!” you’re thinking, “an upside down cross at a Catholic seminary! I knew it! Diabolic Catholics!!” (#LOL)

Since the earliest days of Christianity, really since the martyrdom of St. Peter in the 1st century, the upside down cross has been a symbol of Peter and the Petrine Ministry aka the Papacy and not a symbol of the demonic as the new-agey people would have us believe. A few of the rooms have upside-down doorknobs which brings to mind, usually, two things:

First, it reminds about what I mentioned earlier: there a lot of people who do not understand the Church or what she teaches. What did the Ven. Fulton Sheen say?

“There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”

or something like that.

It’s our job, Church, to press on with love and with truth so that all the world might come to know the Church that Christ founded for the forgiveness of sins and salvation of souls. It’s our job, Church, to represent with accuracy and with charity and with JOY what the signs and symbols of our faith are really all about so that this world which increasingly moves away from Christ might have some taste of what it’s missing.

Second, it reminds of you, Church. It reminds of the Petrine Ministry and to pray for the pope, for the bishops, the priests, and all the clergy. But most of all, it reminds to pray for you! To pray in thanksgiving for your prayers and support of all kinds (but seriously stop sending me cookies…I need a new belt), and to pray in humble petition for you and your needs. The Church is principally a community and, through prayer for one another, we will only get stronger.


So the next time you come to visit Mundelein Seminary, take a look at the buildings and the grounds and the main chapel and the lake and the boathouse and the cardinal’s villa and the gym with the pool and Principal Avenue and the Lourdes grotto and, for the sake of Fr. Barron’s sanity, please “ooh” and “ahh” at the newly completed John Paul II chapel.

But if it’s the spirit of the place and of its men, if it’s the stories of those who’ve come and gone from here, if it’s the message of the Christian life, or if it’s some inspiration that you seek….remember that a simple glance at the humble knob will tell you everything you need to know.

Walking through open doors,