Decatur, Georgia, is older than Atlanta but has become part of the larger city’s urban sprawl. It is a gem of a town, relaxed and easy-going. The humorist Roy Blunt, returning to his hometown after decades spent in more sophisticated haunts, pronounced Decatur to be just about the perfect sort of place to live. St. Thomas More parish sits on the edge of Decatur, with its vaguely Romanesque/Mediterranean buildings dominated by an elementary school. My wife and I attended Mass there when we first moved to Atlanta, since the church was only a stone’s throw beyond the Atlanta city-limit sign and we lived less than a stone’s throw on the Atlanta side of the sign.
In those days, diocesan priests ran the parish, the entire setting seemed grimly functional, and the Sunday Eucharist offered little to those seeking some sense of liturgy or an occasional on-point homily. Having had more than enough of bricks-and-mortar suburban parishes, Joy and I fled to the downtown Basilica of the Sacred Heart, on whose excellent worship and impressive social ministry I reported in the last iteration of these liturgical dispatches (“Celebrating Mass,” January 30, 1998).
I was prompted to visit St. Thomas More for the 9:30 a.m. Mass on July 9 partly because it was convenient, but also because I was curious about what changes might have been made since the parish a few years ago was placed in the hands of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits have become a more visible presence in Atlanta, especially because of their successful launching of a Christo Rey high school. Two Jesuit priests form the heart of a ministerial staff that otherwise includes a balanced mix of male and female laypeople.
My pre-Mass impressions were positive. The church showed an architectural upgrade that greatly improved the façade. On entering through a set of arches, I made my way into a large foyer that clearly serves as a gathering place around a baptismal font. Around the walls of this space are frescoes representing classic icons. To one side is an adoration chapel, fronted by a sign-up sheet for volunteers to maintain perpetual adoration. On the other side is a hallway leading to first-rate restrooms (don’t snicker) and a family room for restive little ones. The foyer is well-stocked with literature that, unsurprisingly, bears Jesuit features: the feast of St. Ignatius, brochures for the Ignatian House of Spirituality (north of Atlanta), and for Christo Rey High School, ministries for social justice. Coming in from an already steaming Southern day, I was grateful for the super-efficient air-conditioning that easily handled the body-heat of a considerable congregation.
A final positive, even enthusiastic observation: I took careful note of the congregation as it streamed in, and was impressed not only by the size of the crowd—well over three hundred—but by its youth. This was not a remnant gathering of the old and the halt. I may have been the oldest (and haltest) worshiper present. This was predominantly a congregation of young married couples with many children in tow: mostly Caucasian, but also African-American and Asian, proportionate to Decatur’s demographics. “Of course,” I thought to myself, “this parish has a school, and these are the parents of students.” But then I looked more closely, and realized that most of the children were not even school age; they were infants in arms and toddlers. There were some older congregants, but the overwhelming impression was of youth and fecundity. This is not, in short, a parish that depends on its geriatric members; it is a parish like those in the suburbs long ago, flush with new life and energy.