“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. ” (Matthew 16:19)
Two sets of keys in our church decorations encapsulate history.
The first is the emblem of Saint Peter the Apostle, on the 47th Street side of the church. This pair of crossed keys features handles with three lobes, symbolizing the Trinity. Saint Peter’s keys – representing his leadership role in the church — are commonly called the “keys of heaven” and Peter is often imagined as the guardian at the “pearly gates,” as well as the first Catholic Pope.
The other keys are up in the dome, exactly opposite the window showing the papal tiara. These match the keys of the Papal insignia, official “since the XIV Century,” as described by the Vatican Press Office: “The symbolism is drawn from the Gospel and is represented by the keys given to the Apostle Peter by Christ.” The correct insignia shows “two keys crossed as the Cross of St. Andrew…” (a symbol of humility). The gold one, on the right, alludes to the power in the kingdom of the heavens, the silver one, on the left, indicates the spiritual authority of the papacy on earth… The cord with the bows that unites the grips alludes to the bond between the two powers…”
Wait a minute! In our window, the keys are reversed — gold on the left; silver on the right. They’re also upside-down: traditional Vatican key “mechanisms are turned up towards the heaven and the grips (handles) turned down, in other words into the hands of the Vicar of Christ” — that is, symbolically, toward the Pope. But in our church, the handles point up to heaven and the unlocking parts of our keys point down at the congregation. And although our keys are very similar to the emblem of Pope Pius X, who was Pope at the time the church was built, one of the crosses in our handles is mysteriously blackened.
So what does it all mean? Our emblem of papal allegiance could have been crafted wrong-way-up by mistake or by design. The black and white crosses could emphasize eternal versus worldly concerns or add layered meanings of power and knowledge; order and chaos; or beginnings and endings. Whatever the intent, their heaven-turned handles today remind us of the limits of all earthly power, since God alone unlocks the secrets of souls.