Churches in the hot muggy Southern coastal city where I live tend to become somnolent with summer’s heat and humidity. Those residents who can do so generally escape to the mountains. The tourist hordes that God has seen fit to visit on my stately city pretty much stick to the beaches or their hotel rooms, at least on Sunday mornings. Parish life slows to a crawl.'
Not so this summer. For the first time in eleven years, our parish church, which was the first Catholic church in the Carolinas and Georgia, has been assigned its own pastor. Well, half a pastor: our new man is also presiding as pastor and building a brand-new church in another, growing part of the city, so he will be with us part-time. A parochial vicar has also been appointed, a familiar face who leads a small congregation under the auspices of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which is the quasi-diocesan structure created by Pope Benedict in 2012 for Anglican communities that seek a home in the Catholic Church. They are talented and dedicated priests, both of them, and the consensus among the parishioners I have spoken with is that after years of having a parish administrator whose tenure was characterized principally by the disinterest implied in the title, we have won the lottery.
So whatever the opposite of the doldrums may be—elation? excitement? glee?—such was the mood of the Mass I attended on July 9. There was a joyful energy in the church, keeping time with the hum of the necessary (and inadequate) air conditioning. As my husband and the two of our four children who were at home that weekend settled into our usual pew (third from the front, left side of the center aisle), I looked around, and it seemed as if my fellow parishioners’ smiles were a bit brighter than usual. Life in this place was about to change, and for the better.
In the twenty-two years since I converted to Catholicism (I grew up an Episcopalian), I have experienced the Mass in a variety of settings, from the pomp and circumstance of a Jesuit priest’s funeral at St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan to the stark simplicity of the liturgy in a Trappist monastery. I recall one of my Episcopal priest-mentors once telling me, when I complained that I missed the beautiful language and music of the Anglican liturgical tradition (is there a greater linguistic expression of liturgical worship than the Book of Common Prayer?), “Well, we Episcopalians may have cornered the language, but the Catholic Church really knows how to do the Mass.” I have found this statement to be largely true. But I will note also that in my experience of parish liturgies in particular, there seems to be a chronic tension between the streamlined efficiency of a well-said Mass and the claims of reverence and sacredness, which call for time and attentiveness.
Architecturally, our church points us toward the latter, enshrining ideals of beauty, order, and balance. Nearly a hundred and eighty years old, it is a Greek revival building, its cornerstone laid in 1838 when the church was rebuilt after a terrible city-wide fire. It is open and balanced inside, lots of white marble, a graceful balcony, stained glass windows made in the famous Mayer Glassworks of Munich. Of the many paintings that grace the church—and they include a curious portrait of St. Peter with six toes on his right foot—my favorites are the two trumpeting angels that flank the main altar painting of the Crucifixion (originally painted in 1814 by John S. Cogdell, and restored by the painter after the 1838 fire). Each robed angel, standing on a little cloud, holds up a curved brass instrument and turns toward the crucified Christ—a reminder to me each week that our work as Christians is to trumpet the good news and give glory to God, not to seek to be the central event ourselves.
Perhaps it is the beauty of the church, or just Southern traditions of respect, but our parishioners tend to dress for Mass. Many of the men wear coats and ties, the women dresses or dress slacks. The children, too, have clearly been given a good helping of spit and polish. Everyone looks, well, nice. The out-of-town visitors who join us for Mass each week—and for most of the year they are many, as our church is smack in the middle of the heavily touristed historic district—model a more informal sartorial ethic. No matter, we welcome them to the table of the Lord and to the abundant spread at the coffee hour afterward, known informally in the parish as the “collation.”