St. David the King
Princeton Junction, New Jersey

Thomas Baker​

Not to brag, but when people in our area shop for a parish, my parish is the one that wins. At least, that’s what former parish shoppers tell me. Maybe over at our competitors, they hear the same thing from those who fled our parish, but I choose to believe otherwise.

We have four well-attended weekend Masses in a modern, sunlit, semi-circular church that holds about six hundred people. Collections are the envy of parishes several times our size. Baptisms outnumber funerals by a wide margin. Outreach programs attract plenty of volunteers. In recent years, as central New Jersey has changed, so has our parish: Asian and Filipino families mix with the long-established Italian and Irish émigrés from Brooklyn and Jersey City. Every week, seeing these friends and strangers coming forward for the Eucharist, the bond uniting us seems something of a miracle, and I am grateful for the place.

So, on most weekends, it seems to me like the state of Sunday Mass is not so bad. And yet I realize my parish is an unusual and healthy one, and that the more than seventeen thousand other parishes out there include many without the resources and talent we have. In the pages that follow, you’ll see reports on a wide variety of Catholic Sunday experiences on two weekends, one in June and one in July. It’s too small a sample, of course, to draw quantitative conclusions—but not, perhaps, to get an impression of how Catholic Sundays are faring.

All of these parishes are making an effort, sometimes valiantly, to do what they can with what they have.

All of these parishes are making an effort, sometimes valiantly, to do what they can with what they have. True, you will see some off-putting curiosities: Stepfordish altar boys in one place, culture war disguised as prayer in another. Still, none of our intrepid correspondents felt like walking out, or saw any true monstrosities: no harangues from the pulpit, no cappae magnae, not a single clown. There are churches with what sound like decent crowds, and even some tears of joy and engagement, and yet also a great deal of what looks, on the surface at least, like routine and indifference. There are multiple reports of many Catholics sitting way in the back, literally and perhaps spiritually near the exit.

Is the current state of things one of “well-intentioned mediocrity,” as J. Peter Nixon writes, or are we somehow muddling through? In a recent authoritative study of parish health, more than 90 percent of Mass-going Catholics said they were satisfied with their parish. But of course, that number is deceptive. My mentor in marketing research taught me that dying products often show high customer satisfaction, since the dissatisfied are long gone. Only 24 percent of Catholics say they went to Mass last week, less than half the rate of fifty years ago. Young adults largely don’t ever go, and haven’t for years. Latino Catholics show losses of Catholic affiliation that rival their Anglo counterparts. The sexual-abuse crisis has, by many reports, weakened attendance still further. A third of all baptized Catholics have left the church.

Looking ahead, even maintaining this status quo is likely to be difficult. An aging and contracting priesthood means that even healthy parishes like mine will face a crisis of leadership sooner rather than later. You’ll see warning signs of that growing, self-inflicted shortage in these reports—a priest driving two hundred miles to visit a rural church, a parish grateful to have half of a pastor’s time, a Spanish Mass said by a priest who doesn’t know Spanish. And in the Northeast and Midwest, diocesan budget cuts and consolidations make those of us in the parish business feel like the manager of the surviving local Sears: it’s only a matter of time before it’s our turn.

So, despite all the dedication and prayer, these are snapshots of a project in desperate need of renewed attention, maybe even innovation. Our editor asked me to write not just as a skeptical Commonweal observer but as, God help me, a liturgical practitioner, a deacon who preaches at my parish regularly and observes things from both sides of the sanctuary, as it were. What can those of us in the parish business possibly do?

Amid all the diversity of culture, taste, and language, the secrets of successful Sunday liturgy are not very secret. The research about what keeps people coming has been clear for years. An atmosphere of respectful, genuine welcome. Good preaching. That’s it. I know there are many other things that have to happen at a liturgy, a thousand matters of rubric and potential conflict. But people seem to be able to overlook all sorts of flaws if you can deliver on those two promises.

Not that either is easy. “Welcome” is a matter of attention over time to subtle details, and the elimination of the wildly mixed signals most churches send. In our parish, architecture helps. As soon as people walk into the gathering area—a large foyer before people get into the church proper—there are usually plenty of conversations going on, staff members talking with parishioners as they walk in, friends catching up, grown children back for a visit. Even if you yourself don’t get a personal greeting as a stranger, it seems as if people like being there. On your way through, you can eavesdrop, decide if you like the way people treat one another, and start figuring out if this is a place where you might fit in.

Mass at St. David the King (Bob Garver)

Sometimes the welcome is much more explicit, and it needs to be. People are told with some regularity, in homilies and at the great gatherings of sometimes-Catholics called Christmas and Easter, that this is where they belong no matter what condition of soul or life or marriage or sexual orientation they find themselves in. And God bless him, the pastor—who over twenty years in the parish has had a long time to indoctrinate his staff in what matters—really believes it.

Don’t people come to Mass needing a glimpse of the divine? Yes, that hasn’t changed. But in the world of Catholics as they are now, the sign of the divine they seem to need first is an imperfect but unconditional human welcome. Only after that can the rite and the Eucharist do the rest of their work, hopefully not too impeded by our failings in execution.

As for preaching, this is unfortunately a matter of luck more than determined parish-wide effort. You have the priests and deacons you have. In my parish not only is the pastor a good preacher but so are the retired priests who are our regular weekend visitors. What seems to touch people in preaching is easy to describe although hard to do: a homily that presents Jesus without dilution or sentimentality, recognizes the existence of doubt and pain, and avoids triteness and condescension. Can preachers also deliver the “learning and wit” Luke Timothy Johnson hoped for (in vain) in his parish visit? I suppose that would be a great bonus.

Music, in these reports from the field, still seems to be a source of as much division and disappointment as joy. Some of us are looking for, as Elizabeth Cahill writes, “beauty, order, balance”; others, me sometimes included, respond to the more openly tacky and emotional. We’re a culturally diverse church, and a musically eclectic liturgy that makes everyone a little dissatisfied is probably inevitable in most parishes. A lot of the popular songs people say they hate, from “Canticle of the Sun” to “Be Not Afraid,” aren’t bad as much as brutally overused. In my parish, I know for a fact there are songs I dislike that are important to others, so I grin and (mostly) bear it. As for me, I’d love to hear more Ola Gjeilo, and sing “For All the Saints” every Sunday. On the other hand, I’d never heard of “Sign Me Up” until John Schwenkler mentioned it below in his report, but having checked it out, I think it’s now on my list.

This is not a time in which the larger church is investing much time or energy in the liturgy. Our bishops’ primary recent activity in this area is their Roman Missal translation, so perhaps we should simply be grateful that is all they have done. Yet at the parish level, there is plenty to try. We could do much, much more to reach out to and reinvite those who have left. Preaching education and formation is available out there, although not on nearly a large enough scale. It’s worth experimenting with liturgies in unusual locations, and at unusual times, to reach the underserved and the parish-allergic. Young adults themselves—and not the way-too-Catholic ones who usually take the lead in such projects—need to define and set the tone for whatever efforts are directed to their peers.

Yet all this assumes that we still have the same goal: churches with people in them. You might think that’s obvious, but one of our problems may be that people aren’t always at the center of the vision. Last year I was studying church websites, and was surprised to notice a frequent pattern in the ones from Catholic parishes: so many of the photographs, whether of church exteriors or interiors, didn’t have a single person in them. It is almost as if we are still tempted to think people might be drawn to an empty church more than a full one, and maybe that God is our audience, not humans. If we are wondering what we can do that will bring people closer to the Mass that has sustained Christians for so long, it starts with realizing that people are both our audience and one of the reasons other people stay. Welcoming imperfect, reluctant people to the table, again and again, is what makes a real Christian jubilee. For that, the song says, people might sign up.

Thomas Baker is Commonweal’s publisher.


St. Mary of the Annunciation (zug55)

St. Mary of the Annunciation
Charleston, South Carolina

Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill

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.”

Perhaps it is the beauty of the church, or just Southern traditions of respect, but our parishioners tend to dress for Mass.

Our Altar Guild is talented, faithfully creating little islands of loveliness against the white altar. On this particular Sunday the flowers seemed to catch the contagion of joy spreading throughout the church: bright-yellow lilies, deep-pink roses, strategically placed white mums, pink snapdragons, and a profusion of greenery. 

The music was, as it usually is, traditional and elegant. We sang “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” and “Come Down, O Love Divine” at the processional and recessional respectively (and here I must note approvingly that in this church, everyone stays through the singing of the final hymn, unlike my parish in suburban Connecticut where the pews emptied rapidly the minute the priest’s foot hit the vestibule). The choir leads us in chanting the Kyrie and Gloria in Latin from the Missa de Angelis; the Communion chant is also in Latin. This week’s Communion motet was Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus; another week it might be Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus or Orlando di Lasso’s Exaltabo te. Ours is not a Marty Haugen church. Such a traditional musical canon may not be for everyone; in this setting, in this city, it is most right and just. But to be clear: we are not striving to be a concert hall—the lovely harmonies of Byrd or Tallis are given contemporary texture by the squawks and squeals of the many young children whose families keep our historic parish fresh and young.

The choir is usually decimated during the summer, but this particular Sunday they were fortified with some former members who had heard the good news of our rebirth and were returning to the loft. The singers sounded as good as I had ever heard them; they, too, seemed infused with optimism and energy. Hassler’s Cantate Domino, the Offertory motet, had it right: “Sing to the Lord a new song and praise his name, for he has done marvelous things. Make music to the Lord with the harp and the sound of singing.”

The quality of the spoken word varies. On this particular morning, the lector was reading the lessons a shade too fast, and (perhaps as a result) scrambled the text a bit. On the other hand, our parochial vicar effortlessly mastered the needlessly complex subordinate clauses that characterize the opening, offertory, and final prayers of the current missal translation—those sinuous clauses that trip up many priests whose first language is not English (or Latin!). The homily, a reflection on Matthew 11:25–30, was articulate, humorous, theologically sound, and relevant—no surprise with this particular priest, who has been with us many times before. Musing on the recent Independence Day celebrations he had observed with his wife and two young children (as a priest who was married with children at the time of his entry into the church, he is that rara avis in the Catholic Church, the officially sanctioned noncelibate priest), he reflected ruefully on the cultural mandate toward self-determination, suggesting that personal autonomy is tantamount to our new national religion (with Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” as the national anthem). He quoted from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey:  “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” He skillfully drew a contrast between that spurious call to autonomous self-definition and the Gospel lesson in which Jesus urges his followers to take his yoke upon them. The purpose and construction of a yoke was described in accessible terms. And he reminded us of the paradox of faith: that we find true freedom by binding ourselves to Christ. Our vicar thinks deeply, communicates effectively, and teaches well.     

Many years ago, I was drawn toward Catholicism by a yearning that I could neither name nor satisfy. At its best, the Mass creates a space and a moment in which that yearning can fleetingly, mysteriously be satisfied by the liturgies of Word and Flesh, enriched by the sensory experiences of architecture, decoration, music, and all the other physical aspects of our communal worship. We are not a perfect people and our Mass this particular week was not flawless. But there is goodwill and hope in this little parish, and a sense that the Holy Spirit continues to make a dwelling in our midst, a dwelling carved out by love and faith.

Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, chairs the board of the Preservation Society of Charleston.


St. Eugene Mission
Tallahasee, Florida

John Schwenkler

Hallelujah! sings the psalmist. Praise God in his holy sanctuary. Praise him for his great majesty. Give praise with blasts upon the horn, with tambourines and dance, with strings and pipes. Give praise with crashing cymbals; praise him with sounding cymbals.

The Mass is a holy event of great solemnity, centered on the Eucharistic sacrifice through which God’s people are fed. It is also an occasion for the exultant praise of God described in the psalms—that practice of communal worship in which the prophet Miriam, joined by the Israelite women, took a tambourine in her hand and went out dancing, proclaiming Sing to the Lord, for he is gloriously triumphant; the worship of David and the house of Israel as they danced before the ark of the Lord with all their might, with singing, and with lyres, harps, tambourines, sistrums, and cymbals.

The choir sings at St. Eugene Mission (Thomas Curry)

Practices like these—of praise and worship, of dance and song, of music played on piano and horn, tambourine and drum—are the life of Sunday Mass at the small mission parish that my family calls home. Saint Eugene Mission in Tallahassee is a microcosm of the global church: the first Mass in the morning serves the Spanish-speaking community, and at the Mass we attend the community is mostly black, a mix of Florida natives and immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. The church is small, its walls mostly unadorned, its windows a rickety frosted glass through which passersby can hear our worship when it reaches its peak.

On this particular Sunday that peak takes a while to come. This is partly because it’s early July in Florida, which means it is close to 90 degrees outside by eleven o’clock in the morning, and the church’s air conditioner can’t quite do what’s needed to make the space truly comfortable. Meanwhile, we are missing our regular music director and several key members of the choir, the piano isn’t properly amplified, and our drummer is late in arriving. So as our worship begins and we sing, Sign me up for the Christian jubilee; write my name on the roll, the atmosphere is still short of jubilant. I want to be ready when Jesus comes—yes, but we are not ready yet. Nothing is working as it’s supposed to. It is hot and we are sleepy; much of the congregation has yet to arrive. Our worship is mostly routine so far—we join in the chorus but are less than expressive in what we sing.

But the liturgy is there to give us a routine, and the highs and lows in its rhythm provide us the time to find ours. As the readings are proclaimed, someone fixes whatever had gone wrong with the piano. The drummer arrives; the pews are gradually filled. The priest, a member of our pastor’s missionary congregation, preaches on the simplicity of Jesus’ message and the promise of rest to those who take on his burden: You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little ones; my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Once it is time for the Sanctus we have found the spirit of the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, their shouts echoing the words of the psalmist: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! The piano is loud; drum and cymbals sound; the congregation sways and claps as we sing. Hosanna!

There are some for whom this would seem like too much cacophony for the solemnity of the liturgy.

There are some for whom this would seem like too much cacophony for the solemnity of the liturgy. And no doubt there are things we could do better: our church is drawn from the world, after all, and just as the air-conditioning is inadequate and our instruments sometimes fail us, so we ourselves will fail to find the appropriate posture for worship in the holy sanctuary of the almighty God. But it is just in this context that the activity of worship helps—to captivate us, to overwhelm our distractions, to bring us actively into an attitude of praise and thanksgiving.

Jesus, I come, we sing during communion. Bless the Lord, O my soul, when it is finished. “And all that is within me, bless his holy name.” A tear runs down the choir director’s face. For he has done great things: bless his holy name. The piano and drums play the chorus alone, then the choir sings it unaccompanied. The choir director moves out in front of the congregation and gestures forcefully, bidding them join in. Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name. The final chord is drawn out awhile. Silence settles on the church, save for the soft murmur of an “Amen.”

The Mass has now gone on for well over an hour—my daughters are squirming, but this is one of the many welcome differences from the businesslike and efficient approach to liturgy at the parish we attended before this one. We are here to worship: it will start when we are ready and end when we are done. Why keep watch for only an hour? Why not ninety minutes or more?

Visitors are asked to stand and introduce themselves: a Spanish-speaking family from Orlando; some college students from Florida A&M University, where our church serves as the Catholic student center; a family visiting from Brazil. Those who are celebrating birthdays come forward for a blessing, and the congregation sings and claps for them. We are reminded that there will be refreshments in the church hall after Mass: not the coffee and donuts I grew up with, but black-eyed peas with salsa and fried dough, and fruit punch and watermelon for the children. We are also to bring food and drink next Saturday evening for a grand dinner in honor of the seminarian who has served our church this spring and will be returning soon to complete his studies in the Congo. The lifeblood of this parish is its prayer and worship; these spill over into a spirit of fellowship that all are welcome to partake in.

The Mass is ended. Now the tambourines are out. Rejoice heartily, we were told by the prophet Zechariah in today’s reading. Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! So let us go forth like little ones, clapping our hands and singing as we did when we were young. Let them hear us on the streets. Our light is small, but it was not given so that we would hide it. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

John Schwenkler is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.


Church of the Nativity (sanfranman59)

Church of the Nativity
Menlo Park, California

Catherine Wolff

I’ve driven by the Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, California, for twenty years now, inevitably struck by its quaint prettiness: if they had a little church on top of wedding cakes, this would be the one. Built in the 1880s, it is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and deserves to be. It's chapel-scale, pure white in and out, with an exquisite rose window and arches traced in dark wood and pews with little entry doors that make it feel vaguely Anglican.

I’ve avoided this church for as long as I have driven past it, though. If you look it up, what you’ll find is that the pastor is the brother of a former CEO of Intel, and that the graduates of its grammar school eventually go on to attend prestigious colleges. The Sunday bulletin invites you to join the Infant Jesus of Prague Prayer Society and the weekly prayer hour for priestly vocations, and offers Confession with an Opus Dei priest. For me, a social worker from a progressive, questioning family full of Jesuits, such a church was suspect. And I was wary of the local Opus Dei households, said to turn up at 8 a.m. Mass. Wary, but curious, I made my way there one Sunday morning in June.

The church was half-full of mostly gray-haired, dignified, well-dressed white people, along with one Asian, one Latino, and a sprinkling of children. It made me wonder where the rest of our Catholic family was. The priest was a man, of course, but so was the altar server, the cantor, the lector: no women on that side of the altar, where the table was set high above the congregation.  The music was low-key, a cantor and a pianist leading the congregation in traditional hymns and Mass parts in Latin, but they all sang in full voice, particularly an enthusiastic guy in the pew behind me who broke with Catholic timidity—or is it decorum?—belting out the songs and prayers.

The readings were delivered without expression, although some were fiery: Jeremiah on persecution; the Psalmist on insult and shame. Thereafter came passages on original sin, and on fear, which the priest (wisely, considering the even grimmer alternatives) chose to speak about. I was grateful at first: that day, as on so many recent days, I have felt fear—not immediate fear for myself, but for my grandchildren, for our mother earth and our riven country, for the insufficiently documented people in East Palo Alto who are living in terror of ICE raids.

The priest began his homily with a hurried, mumbled anecdote about people who had confided in him that they were afraid of a certain group in East Palo Alto, and how they really shouldn’t be, and then quickly went on to speak of fear in our personal lives, in our families, and the way it can constrict us and prevent us from living full lives. He was kindly, colloquial, quoting Franklin Roosevelt and the National Catholic Register and Fr. Flanagan. It was comforting as far as it went, but its focus was entirely domestic, and left unaddressed the wider sense of dread so many carry at this time. I wondered if the lovely people around me did not feel such dread—what would that lack of anxiety be like? They looked untroubled, at home in their skins, at home in the world. Who wouldn’t be, living in Menlo Park?

I have often wondered what the people around me in church were thinking, feeling, praying for, especially when I have been at Mass in a foreign land. Looking around at the pretty church and the handsome people at Nativity put me in mind of the many times I have attended Mass in far-off places: the gray bombed-out church in West Berlin full of hunched old women; the entrancing ancient mosaics and reverent pilgrims of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome; the schoolhouse-Mass in Ireland with sheep grazing in the cemetery outside; the jam-packed cathedral in Nairobi pulsing with song.

They looked untroubled, at home in their skins, at home in the world. Who wouldn’t be, living in Menlo Park?

That morning at Nativity, I was indistinguishable from the rest of the congregation; after all I am white, older, and, for that occasion, well-dressed. Indeed, I felt comfortable there: I saw some familiar faces; I speak the language; it is not far from my home. And yet I knew I was too comfortable. The experience I had approached in a curious, vaguely contentious spirit had turned out to be anodyne, acceptable, pleasant. I’d been more moved by the old women in Berlin, felt more in common with the pilgrims in Rome, been more inspired by the musicians in Nairobi. Half the time I’ve had no idea what was being said in these far-off churches, nor could I join in the responses without embarrassing myself. I did not look like the other congregants, and was often acutely aware of how unaccustomed I was to worship so fervently as those around me. You’d think I would have retreated into an anthropological stance, but no, it was in these circumstances that I have felt the vitality of the universal church, the excitement of its extraordinary human diversity. I have felt in our common prayer a kinship with everyone who has ever worshiped in this way, a sense of being in a time-out-of-time—in God’s time.

I did not feel such inspiration at Nativity. And yet, and yet—sitting there, praying along with these attractive, dignified people, I wondered about the lives they brought to the altar, the fears they harbored, the burdens they carried, or, for that matter, their good works and the charity they bestowed on others. I had to admit that I knew nothing about them, really. And fortunately, they did not know that I had brought to their church that day a certain contentiousness based on what I’d presumed to know about them...and had found a measure of comfort, of commonality. It was the way everyone joined wholeheartedly—as though they were Protestants!—in all the prayers and all the songs, in English and in Latin. They gathered me in, and I prayed and sang along, amazed that I remembered all the words: Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, and Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem cœli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium. For a while there I was part of one of the many choirs in the Communion of Saints, and grateful for that.

But then the final hymn concluded, and half the congregation, led in stentorian tones by my friend behind me, launched into the long version of the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, pleading for his defense against Lucifer, the cruel and ancient serpent who seduces the whole world with his multitudes of wicked spirits who “blot out the name of God...his wicked dragon pours out, as a most impure flood, the venom of his malice on men of depraved mind and corrupt heart, the spirit of lying, of impiety, of blasphemy, and the pestilent breath of impurity, and of every vice and iniquity. These most crafty enemies have filled and inebriated with gall and bitterness the Church, the spouse of the immaculate Lamb, and have laid impious hands on her most sacred possessions. In the Holy Place itself, where the See of Holy Peter and the Chair of Truth has been set up as the light of the world, they have raised the throne of their abominable impiety.”

They lost me there, and I joined the rest of the congregation already moving out the door, smiling and chatting in the sweet June morning.

Catherine Wolff is the editor of Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero (HarperCollins). 


St. Thomas More
Decatur, Georgia

Luke Timothy Johnson

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.

This was predominantly a congregation of young married couples with many children in tow

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.

As far as I could tell, nothing had changed in the church’s interior, and sad to say, little of the life and energy of the congregation was reflected in the liturgy itself, after the glad smiles and handshakes of the opening greetings. Same missalettes as before, same selection of less-than-musically-or-theologically-profound hymns, same lack of an organized choir, same dispirited accompaniment by piano, organ, and (for some reason) guitar. People seemed to join in the spoken and sung responses, as much as they were able when not wrangling toddlers, and they seemed happy enough with the way things were at St. Thomas More’s Eucharist, and in light of that fact I am still pondering whether a certain sort of complacency is really such a bad thing.

Since my flight years ago from St. Thomas had been precipitated by one of the truly bad sermons delivered by the then-pastor on Christmas Eve, I was hopeful that the Jesuit presence, while not infecting the liturgy with the gravity and grace expected of, say, a Benedictine, might compensate with a better class of homily. So after hearing the readings from Zechariah 9:9–10 and Romans 8:9–13 competently delivered by lay readers, and having listened to the pastor’s reading of Jesus’ invitation to come to him and take up his yoke, from Matthew 11:25–30, I settled back when the pastor left the pulpit and walked down to the pews, ready for the intellectual feast that Jesuitical learning and wit had prepared.

People leaving Mass at St. Thomas More in Decatur, Georgia (Caleb Weaver)

I can state unequivocally that the sermon, while not an intellectual or spiritual feast, was better than the one that, years earlier, had driven me from St. Thomas. The pastor dealt only with the Matthean passage, and the upshot of his remarks was that, while Jesus was a good Jew and loved the law, he never let the law get in the way of love, as the Pharisees did. With explicit reference to Pope Francis’s own emphasis on mercy over legalism, the pastor drove home the point (one he confessed he and the vicar seemed to make in every sermon) that love and mercy are supreme. Thus, the congregants should not obsess about observance and concentrate on love.

Now, apart from the easy caricaturing of the Pharisees (an unfortunate staple of Christian preaching), there was certainly nothing dreadfully wrong in the pastor’s message. But I kept wondering if the pastor (a man near my own advanced age) might be speaking to people whose problem may not be a scrupulosity about regulations so much as a disregard (or even ignorance) of them. But, the pastor insisted, he was the one hearing confessions, so he must know his audience. And perhaps it is too much to expect a congregation this youthful and this caught up in childcare either to demand or to appreciate Jesuitical learning and wit.

The congregation recited the Apostle’s Creed rather than the Nicene Creed as its confession of faith. The Prayers of the Faithful had the (now) predictable emphasis on social justice and (more touchingly) the sicknesses and deaths of named members of the parish. The Eucharistic Prayer was spoken until its final doxology and answering “Amen.” The Lord’s Prayer and the Kiss of Peace were standard. The eucharistic ministers were evenly split between men and women. Congregants received Communion under both species. Final prayer, final blessing, and mercifully only one announcement, before we returned, singing, to the Decatur sunshine, parish bulletins in hand, refreshed once more by the mystery of a sacramental presence that can lift our poor humanity through the humble instruments of our flesh to moments of divine indwelling and transformation. 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. Among his many books is The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art (Eerdmans).


Miner's Madonna

Mother of Good Counsel
Hazard, Kentucky

Katie Daniels

At the only Catholic church in Hazard, Kentucky, Sunday Mass starts at 11:30 a.m. But for the parish-life director, Pat Riestenberg, the day starts much earlier. In the early-morning stillness, she moves around the parish hall, getting the church ready for the one day a week when the building will buzz with activity.

A former math teacher from Ohio, Riestenberg moved to Hazard to volunteer for a year or two, and decided to stay. Now on her twenty-seventh year at the parish, she lends her quiet resolve to all its elements, managing the finances, teaching Sunday school, coordinating volunteers, and ensuring there are always extra canned goods on the church’s pantry shelves for anyone who needs help. Ever since the church’s longtime pastor retired last summer, Riestenberg must ensure that the life of this small, now-priestless church goes on. 

It’s a unique challenge. In a diocese where only 3 percent of the population is Catholic and in a state where 25 percent of children live below the poverty line, Riestenberg and the parishioners of Mother of Good Counsel must sustain a community in a region with few Catholics, and in a corner of Appalachia that much of the country has left behind.  

Part of that task means commemorating the community’s milestones. On this Sunday in June, a seven-year-old boy is making his First Communion, and a parishioner is turning seventy-five. To celebrate, both families have brought white-frosted sheet cakes. Thirty minutes before Mass starts, people begin to arrive, congregating in the parish center to chat and catch up. Because driving to Mother of Good Counsel, the only Catholic church in three counties, can take some families almost an hour, many parishioners arrive early to socialize in the parish center, something they can’t easily do during the week.

At eleven-thirty, the parishioners move into the church. Someone has turned on the church’s lights, suffusing the room with soft warmth. Thick wooden beams arc across the ceiling, making the room feel secure and cozy. Down the center aisle and behind the wooden altar, a clay carving of the Miner’s Madonna hangs on the wall. The relief shows Mary balancing an infant Jesus on her lap, her head tilted downward like she’s listening. Behind her, a metal cart loaded with coal sits at a mine entrance; a pickaxe and a miner’s helmet peep out from under her feet.

As the congregation settles into its seats, Riestenberg stands in front of the lectern, closer to the people, and welcomes everyone. The parishioners are a mix of older locals and young families with squirming toddlers. With only seventy-four families in the parish, Mother of Good Counsel is a tight-knit community. The church is also surprisingly diverse. Even though Perry County’s population is 96 percent white, there are parishioners here from Syria, Lebanon, Taiwan, Mexico, and India; many work at a nearby hospital. In a town where the nearest dining-out options are a Long John Silver’s or a Hardee’s, the church’s annual international dinner featured, among other dishes, homemade pollo con queso, spaetzle, and Filipino pancit noodles.“And the best part was that I didn’t have to cook a thing,” Riestenberg told me with a grin.

Riestenberg strums the opening hymn on an acoustic guitar. A Franciscan brother and a female cantor lead the singing, as Fr. Michael Chowning, OFM, walks down the aisle. He was the resident pastor here for twenty-three years before he retired, and he’s back to say Mass for this weekend. Since Chowning retired, a volunteer Glenmary Home Missioners priest drives almost two hundred miles from Cincinnati to say Mass because there aren’t enough priests in the diocese to send a permanent replacement.

Chowning and the little boy receiving First Communion walk toward the altar together, the priest in his vestments, the little boy in a nice plaid button-down. The boy maintains a solemn expression, and keeps his hands clasped firmly in front of him.

The lector stands at the lectern and reads excerpts from the Book of Jeremiah and the Letter to the Romans in a clear, steady voice with a hint of a twang. Behind her, four stained glass windows frame the altar, two on either side. The windows face west and at sunset, the last light of the day streams through, dousing the walls with gold and violet light.

Mother of Good Counsel was designed to resemble the small stone chapels that dot the Italian countryside. The original building, built in 1939, was a low rectangle with a rounded bell tower on the roof. But it’s still a Kentucky mountain church; the thick stone walls are built of gray limestone dug from a quarry a few miles outside of town. 

Mother of Good Counsel was designed to resemble the small stone chapels that dot the Italian countryside.

Near the windows are hand-whittled Stations of the Cross plaques. One of the church’s former pastors commissioned them from a “good Baptist gentleman,” says Chowning, a local man who had never heard of the Stations of the Cross before he was asked to carve them.

Chowning stands to read the Gospel. “Even all the hairs of your head are counted,” he says, his low baritone voice rumbling. “So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” He reads slowly and unselfconsciously, with the easy cadence of a good storyteller. 

“Jeremiah is also a young man, called to be a prophet. And he tried to get out of it,” Chowning says as he starts his homily. He looks at the little boy, and gestures for him to come to the front of the church. Together, the priest and the boy walk to the right of the altar, to the baptismal font. It’s really more of a baptismal hot tub—a spiral staircase leads down into a pool several feet deep. A stone wall juts out above it; water can trickle down the rocks to fill the pool. 

Chowning points to the pool and asks the boy if he remembers when he was baptized the year before. The boy nods. That was the first sacrament of initiation, Chowning explains, half to the little boy and half to the congregation. Now you’re going to receive the second.

The boy sits down, and the priest turns to face the church. He circles back to the first reading. Jeremiah complains but he never loses his love and trust in God, Chowning says. “I hope this boy never loses that.” He pauses and asks the congregation to acknowledge how God has accompanied them, and how he challenges them. “I’m never finished being a disciple,” he says, looking up at the parish he served for much of his life. “I’m never done following the Lord. It’s a challenge the Lord gives to all of us.” He folds his hands and lets the church rest in a moment of silence. 

Riestenberg’s guitar eventually breaks the silence, this time for the hymn, “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.” As Chowning leads the Our Father, everyone reaches out to their neighbor to hold hands. For a minute, it looks like the church is playing a game of Twister as people turn their upper bodies and stretch out their arms to reach the people in the next pew. At the sign of the peace, everyone breaks and shakes hands. The priest walks up and down the aisle, shaking hands with each person he passes.

The little boy goes first for Communion. After he gives him the host, Chowning gently steers him toward the chalice, which the boy holds carefully with both hands. Chowning blesses each kid in the Communion line, although one dad has to rush his enthusiastic toddler outside. The door swings shut, but not before a gleeful “Wheeee!” echoes through the church.

With a flurry of closing prayers and guitar chords, suddenly the Mass ends, and the priest and the new communicant walk down the aisle, the boy no longer so solemn. The pair reach the church door, and in the instant before they swing it open, the two figures—one short and one tall, one young and one old—pause, side by side. Then the boy moves first, or maybe it’s Chowning, and then the doors are open and Riestenberg is passing around second slices of cake to everyone, and there’s talking and laughing and a round of Happy Birthdays, until one by one the parishioners get into their cars and drive away, turning back to wave one last time at Riestenberg and Chowning. And the little stone church in Hazard is quiet again.

Katie Daniels, a former Commonweal intern, is a graduate of Boston College. 


Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen (Steven Pisano)

Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen
Brooklyn, New York

Dominic Preziosi

Brooklyn is still sometimes called the borough of churches but it’s generally more synonymous with the hipster-millennial culture both celebrated and lampooned in the media. The tension is reflected somewhat in religious census data showing that out of the borough’s 2.6 million residents, 23 percent identify as Catholic and 22 percent as unaffiliated (the third largest group, at 18 percent, are Black Protestants). The socio-economic shifts of the past two decades are evident far more concretely in the dozens of churches and parish buildings converted to condominiums and secular private schools, a phenomenon prompting wagers on how long Brooklyn’s ecclesial nickname will apply.

I currently belong to a parish that by many measures is thriving, aided perhaps by the same gentrifying forces that have sped closures, consolidations, and sales of church property in other parts of the borough. We joined it the spring after 9/11, leaving Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen, the old neighborhood parish where my son was baptized. Neighborhood parish: a romantic notion, redolent of the city’s European immigrant past, of holy-day processions through the surrounding streets, of peasant traditions carried from distant southern-Italian villages and exerting their mysterious influence on contemporary worship. Yet it was just those qualities, held in a clannish, crabbed ownership increasingly tinged with Bush-era jingoism and xenophobia, that encouraged our exit. For years I’d thought about going back, if only for one Mass. On a warm Saturday afternoon in late June, I finally did, walking a few short blocks to attend the 5:30 vigil.

The atmosphere, in every sense of the word, has brightened considerably. On the way into the church I was smilingly presented a bulletin with some inserts, a magazine-sized missal, and a smaller but thicker paperback hymnal. Signs outside proclaimed “All Are Welcome,” in keeping with recent diocesan messaging, but the warm greetings I received from the handful of people on hand seemed genuine. It was disarming. Based on those old experiences, I’d come with my guard up. Did I really want to lower it?

The building itself is representative of the late nineteenth-century style of urban church architecture. It’s an imposing structure, towering over the surrounding brownstones and row-house apartment buildings, which at one time were home to first- and second-generation Irish- and Italian-Americans who worked the nearby waterfront, then to their descendants who entered the trades and office-worker class, and then, increasingly, to upper-middle-class professionals lured by the safe streets and well-regarded public schools. Its steeple dominates the sky beyond my living-room window, and indeed is said to have served as a beacon to ships entering New York Harbor. (The Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen website details a rich and colorful history, including the establishment of the associated school by Frances Cabrini in the 1890s, and the merger of the two parishes when construction of the nearby Brooklyn-Queens Expressway necessitated demolition of Sacred Hearts in the late 1930s.)

A grand set of high stone steps leads to a central arched entrance flanked by two smaller doors. Another high set of steps inside leads from the vestibule to the sanctuary, which while striking in its vast, ornate excess manages to feel intimate. Since the sale of its nearby school a decade ago, the church has undergone refurbishing; the interior is well lighted when it once was shadowed, the walls, columns, and soaring ceilings painted in colors that dispel the gloom I’d recalled. The tabernacle is centered high and prominent behind the altar, which in a lingering old–New World touch is fronted by banks of electric, coin-fed votive candles. The pews and floors shine brightly, while the kneelers, appealingly upholstered in burgundy, move silently on their hinges. Restored stained-glass windows alongside the western side of the church filter the light of the lowering sun, which falls in soft bands on the life-sized plaster icons: Our Lady of Sorrows pierced by a dagger, the Infant of Prague, Cosmos and Damian, Our Ladies of Mt. Carmel and the Letters, Frances Cabrini, Maria di Lauro, and Pope John Paul II with staff and mitre. Also, St. Joseph, whom one woman had just thanked “for helping out with that thing with Louie,” as I overheard her reveal to a companion.

I sat toward the front, set the bulletin and missal and hymnal down, and waited for the pews to fill, if only a little, around me. Soon there were maybe half-a-dozen other people, no one close by, yet the murmuring and whispering suggested a larger crowd, and turning around I saw that the back half of the church was almost full. So it goes. But the mood seemed good—none of the scowls or grimaces or blank stares I’d recalled. Yes, the gathered skewed thoroughly older, and white. There were perhaps two or three families with school-aged children. There were no teens or young singles (or even young marrieds) as far as I could tell. 

Based on those old experiences, I’d come with my guard up. Did I really want to lower it?

Mass began promptly on time with a procession—Ghanese celebrant, female altar server, bow-tied lector—out of the sacristy, down the eastern aisle, and then up the center aisle. The opening hymn was “Canticle of the Sun” (two verses), and its performance felt oddly canned, like those anodyne renditions you hear sometimes in religious programming. Few attendees seemed to be singing, yet the vocals were loud and full, and I thought there must have been a recording playing over the speakers. But up in the loft were a live organist and a cantor; maybe a harmonizer was being used to create the choral effect.

Hymn complete, celebrant at the microphone, we were invited to introduce ourselves to those around us: another gesture of welcome, but with so many pews separating me from others I couldn’t even catch anyone’s eye. Things unfolded in familiar fashion from there, although the sung Gloria from the Mass of Christ the Savior had that same canned, Karaoke-like sound.

Then came the readings. I tend to prefer a relatively straightforward style, expressive but not emotive, reserved but not wooden. The bow-tied lector proceeded as if reciting a sponsor’s message in a 1930s radio broadcast—an interesting choice for the verses from Jeremiah. He modulated his tone for the reading from Paul, then dutifully gave way to the celebrant for the Gospel verses from Mark. There was a lively, reassuring tone to his delivery, if at times it felt pitched in a way to appeal to children. The homily that followed began as a rousing address about the persecution to which believers are subject, and ended as a comforting bedtime story; “sparrows” were mentioned often. But at least there was no reference to the Fortnight for Freedom, and its brevity could be said to have compensated for its shortcomings. Not that some of the people around me would have noticed: they read their bulletins or busied themselves with its inserts, including the liturgical word-find seemingly meant for children.

The recitation of the Nicene Creed was spirited. The intentions included a prayer for all who suffer religious persecution (“Christians, Jews, and Muslims in this country”). Then the Mass hastened toward its conclusion through the Second Eucharistic prayer, during which the entire congregation made use of the plush, silently unfolding kneelers (at the parish I belong to, almost everyone remains standing). The sharing of peace was energetic, though with so few people around me I was able to reach just a single outstretched hand. Only one species of Communion was offered, with a separate pair of Eucharistic ministers dispatched to the back half of the church, speeding everything along further still. That, of course, is part of the attraction of the summer Saturday vigil, and things seemed set to wrap up in a tidy forty-five minutes, except that the pastor himself then materialized to deliver the announcements. He came off as a friendly sort, his round silver glasses and neat white mustache contributing to his warm, grandfatherly demeanor. But he spoke a little too lengthily on his threat to discontinue the use of bulletin inserts (had he seen people doing the word-find?), even as he exhorted parishioners to keep up with the news by...“reading the bulletin.” That everyone joined in reciting this last bit along with him suggested it is something of a weekly routine. Then the Karaoke machine was cranked up for two verses of “Lift High the Cross,” for which nobody stuck around.

Almost a decade ago, novelist Colm Tóibín spoke of the solace he found in attending Mass at another nearby parish, having become familiar with it while writing his novel Brooklyn. Among other things, he recounted his walks through the surrounding streets after Mass ended. I find myself thinking of this often, and was prompted to do so again after leaving the Saturday vigil. The parishioners may not have stayed in their pews for the final hymn, but there they were on the front steps of the church, sharing greetings and chatting with one another. Then they gradually parted ways, disappearing in different directions, crossing streets, rounding corners—still a presence in this changing neighborhood, yet, I couldn’t help but feel, someday to be swallowed up by it.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s executive editor.


Most Holy Rosary Church
Antioch, California

J. Peter Nixon

The triangular steeple of Most Holy Rosary Church rises high over its surroundings, slicing like a shark’s fin through the suburban sea of homes, apartments, and retailers that constitute the city of Antioch, California. Once the heart of a vast cattle ranch and later a community of miners, factory workers, and fisherman, Antioch now serves as a bedroom community for an increasing number of families priced out of the overheated real-estate markets of San Francisco and Oakland.

The Order of Preachers (a.k.a. the Dominicans) have been running Most Holy Rosary since the mid-1860s, when the discovery of coal and copper in the area led to a rapid expansion of the population. The current church is the third since the parish’s founding. It was completed in 1966, a year after the closing of the Second Vatican Council.

There was a flurry of church construction in the diocese in the decades following the council and most new churches followed a similar pattern: seating in the round, a high vault over the altar, and a liturgical aesthetic that was resolutely modern. At their best, these churches were well designed to facilitate the “full, conscious and active participation” in the liturgy called for by Vatican II. But many have not aged well and often resemble what the Jesuit liturgical scholar John Baldovin once described as “slightly out-of-date living rooms.”

Most Holy Rosary Church

While Holy Rosary is typical of this genre, the parish has tried to bring together both modern and traditional elements in its worship space. The church’s most striking architectural feature is a high wall of uncut stone behind the altar on which hangs a large, traditional crucifix. A similar blending of old and new can be found on the rear wall, which is also covered in stone and displays Stations of the Cross brought over from the older church built in 1905.

The Sunday 10:30 Mass is one of three English services (the parish also offers two Masses in Spanish). With teens (it is hoped) drawn to the 5:30 p.m. Life Teen Mass and middle-schoolers en route to soccer matches favoring the 8:45 a.m. option, it’s not surprising that the 10:30 attracts a quieter and slightly older crowd.

The congregation reflects the growing diversity of the region. A parish that was once home to large groups of Irish, Italian, and Portuguese immigrants now welcomes many from Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, and elsewhere. A glance at the children wriggling in the pews confirms that the future of Catholicism in California lies with those whose roots are in the global South.  

Like many parishes in the area, the ars celebrandi at Holy Rosary sometimes draws as much from the style of Protestant megachurches as from traditional Catholic forms. The most potent example of this is the huge screens on either side of the sanctuary, on which are projected song lyrics and prayers. The use of such screens has become ubiquitous among parishes in the diocese, even those whose more traditional architecture does not easily lend itself to this kind of visual projection. The screens certainly have their detractors (among whom this author is one) who argue that they assume a worshiping community with minimal knowledge of its own prayers and distract from the action at the altar. It seems clear, however, that the arguments of those who believe the screens make the Mass more accessible have carried the day.

While Catholics have only ourselves to blame for the state of our liturgical music, it seems clear that here, too, we are learning lessons from our Protestant brethren. Most of the songs at this Mass, such as Josh Blakesley’s “Come to Jesus” and Curtis Stephan’s “Go out, Go out” follow the conventions of contemporary Evangelical “praise music,” with its emphasis on simple, repeated lyrics designed to make it easier for congregations to sing along. Among parishes in the area, such songs have migrated from the “Teen Mass” to become mainstays at other liturgies.

Those who are skeptical about this kind of ecumenical borrowing would find a reassuring solidity in how the essentials of the Roman Rite are executed at Holy Rosary. Western Province Dominicans are generally not known for their liturgical experimentation and our presider at this Mass—a visiting priest from the Oakland Priory—favored an understated “say the black, do the red” approach. Both lectors, a man and a woman, were well prepared and proclaimed the readings clearly and effectively.

The homilist was a relatively young Dominican who was newly assigned to the parish in the wake of the death of a beloved older priest and former pastor, Fr. Vicente. The homily honed in on Jesus’ words in the Gospel about revealing the Father, linked this to the exemplary Christian witness of the deceased priest, and suggested that everyone in the parish—both individually and collectively through the parish’s ministries—could find ways to “reveal the Father” to others. For a parish that was still in mourning, it was an effective way for the new priest to honor his predecessor and call the community to continue his work. On another Sunday, the decision to forgo a deeper exegesis of the texts would have been a missed opportunity. In this case, however, the homily’s simplicity and brevity seemed appropriate.

The only truly discordant note in the Mass was the process for distributing the consecrated bread and wine to almost a dozen lay eucharistic ministers. Because the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) requires that such ministers “not approach the altar before the priest has received Communion,” they gathered in a semicircle at the foot of the sanctuary, creating a somewhat distracting wall of bodies. The congregation then watched while each minister received Communion and then waited once again while the priest—the only person in the sanctuary allowed to transport the consecrated elements from the altar—placed a bowl or chalice in the hands of each minister.  

Taken as a whole, there was nothing particularly memorable about this Mass, but nothing particularly objectionable either.

To be fair, this ungainly ballet is not unique to Holy Rosary. Like the screens and the music, it can be experienced at almost any Mass in the area on Sunday. While Vatican directives aimed at defending the distinctiveness of priestly ministry have made things more awkward and time-consuming than they need to be, it is hard to imagine a dozen people crammed into a narrow space behind an altar being able to move with the gracefulness that ritual action requires.

Taken as a whole, there was nothing particularly memorable about this Mass, but nothing particularly objectionable either. If we, as a congregation, were not notably enthusiastic, we were certainly attentive and engaged. Regardless of our human failings as liturgical actors, God was present and at work. We left that morning having encountered Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and strengthened to do his work in the world. On a blistering hot Sunday in Ordinary Time, is it reasonable to ask for more?

But if the reader detects a faint whiff of despair in this author, she would not be mistaken. Many of the words I write in the summer of 2017 could have been written in 2007, 1997, or 1987. Similar concerns about the well-intentioned mediocrity of contemporary Catholic liturgy have been voiced by critics as theologically diverse as Archbishop Rembert Weakland and Pope Benedict XVI. Ideas have been generated and programs have been proposed, but we seem to be stuck in a rut. Things may not be getting much worse. But they are not getting better, and one wonders what it would take for things to improve.  

J. Peter Nixon, a regular contributor to Commonweal, works in the health-care industry and lives in Northern California. 


Iglesia de la Asunción (Steven Pisano)

Iglesia de la Asunción
Bellingham, Washington

Sam Rocha

The featured front sign reads “Church of the Assumption / Iglesia de la Asunción,” with the 12:30 Mass parenthetically marked “Español.” The cornerstone reads “Church of the Assumption 1920.” I enter through one of the three doors facing the street, the foot of the cruciform church. I bless myself at the grey marble holy font in the narthex and enter the nave. There is no air conditioning, but the muted lighting of the church is cool and shade-like and the smaller stained-glass windows are cracked open. I genuflect and take my seat in the dark, heavy wooden pew toward the front of the back half of the pews.

The somewhat narrow hall-like shape of the nave allows me to observe the four side altars from my seat, dedicated to Our Lady of Le Vang and Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, to my right, and Saint Lorenzo Ruiz and Our Lady of Guadalupe, to my left. I thumb through the Flor y Canto songbook waiting for Mass to begin. Before the opening procession, a man in a black button-down shirt takes the mic and informs the faithful that there is a second collection in support of Fr. Francisco’s school in Uganda. “Nos ponemos de pie” brings us to our feet.

The music ministry plays “Tomen Agua Viva,” intoned by a man on the right-hand side of the pulpit, with accompaniment from a baby grand piano and rhythmic tambourine, situated behind the main altar. Bright-red digital numbers on a device above the cantor podium on the right-hand side of the church show the selection number from Flor y Canto. The procession comes in through the left-hand side of the sacristy, with all the extraordinary ministers walking in pairs. The celebrant is, I presume, the aforementioned Fr. Francisco, an African priest from Uganda. He takes his seat on the right side of the altar, angled to face it. Not quite ad orientem, but similar.

It is immediately clear to me that the celebrant does not speak Spanish and is reading the Mass using his facility with church Latin to say the Mass in phonetic Spanish. The giveaway is the hard “ch” sound used on the letter “c.” “En el nombre del padre, del hijo y del espíritu santo.” “Y con tu espíritu.” (I am reminded that the Spanish version of the Mass required no new translation.) We sing “Señor ten piedad” for the penitential rite and the Gloria and sit down for the Liturgy of the Word. At this point I count between 150 and 175 people. The lectern is on the left-hand side of the church and, like the pulpit on the right-hand side, it is set back from the main altar. A woman reads the first reading and the cantor sings the psalm. I notice that the altar and floor surrounding it are made of identical grey stone.

A mother and daughter approach the lectern for the second reading and the mother, wearing a turquoise blouse, proclaims the word with confidence. The Gospel acclamation is sung in the typical, rhythmic alleluia of Latin America. The Gospel procession consists of Fr. Francisco carrying the gospels with two altar servers, both boys, carrying candles. The priest reads in his Latinate style, which in this case is a bit more laborious. A woman sitting behind me says the word “agobiado” aloud to try and cue him as he sounds it out, but he is out of earshot. “Gloria a ti señor Jesus.” The priest and altar servers return to their seats.

The same man who gave the opening announcement approaches the lectern with some notes in his hand. He reads a translation of Fr. Francisco’s English homily in Spanish. The homily begins wishing everyone a happy Fourth of July and, referring to the responsorial psalm, he notes that we praise politicians and athletes but sometimes forget to praise God. Citing St. Paul, he criticizes those who treat the sacraments as mere routines and give higher priority to birthdays and vacations, adding that we must think of the poor who Jesus tells “come to me.” The homily ends with the common liturgical greeting and the congregation replies, “y con to espíritu.” During the penitential rite and throughout the readings and homily, families arrive and sit, numbering well over two hundred people at this point.

We recite the creed, and the lector for the second reading reads the petitions. One of the petitions is for the nation to care for the poor and the needy. The petitions for the sick and the dead name them individually. The offertory song is “Entre Tus Manos.” The collection is taken up by children and youth, mostly, and a mother and two children bring up the gifts, led by the cross-bearing altar server. Responses to the Eucharistic acclamations are cacophonous in volume and pace. The “Santo” is sung and everyone kneels for the prayers of consecration. At the elevation of the bread and the cup, the bells ring out three times, drowning out the voices and pew-sounds made by children for a few moments. The congregation is at 250 people now, many of them families. The congregation anticipates the Great Amen, but the acclamation is sung as well, as the kneelers are raised and pound the pews. 

The Our Father is sung and the congregation hold their hands in the orant position, many holding hands.

The Our Father is sung and the congregation hold their hands in the orant position, many holding hands. The sign of peace is lively and friendly. A couple approaches me from behind to give me peace, noting that I am “solito” (all alone, in an affectionate diminutive tone). The Lamb of God is rhythmic and the congregation remains standing for the final Eucharistic prayers. The Communion song, “El Pan de la Vida” begins and the Eucharistic ministers line up behind the altar where Fr. Francisco distributes Communion. The hosts are in a crystal paten and the chalice is silver. Four lines for the Body of Christ are set up with two lines for the Blood. No ushers direct the communion line, but it moves fairly quickly, especially as it reaches the back of the church, where many do not approach to receive Communion. About 60 or 70 percent of the congregation takes Communion, the rest remain in their pews.

After Communion, the man in the black shirt takes the podium and goes through the week’s announcements. The first is about a collection of socks for charity, the second is about the local department of health doing talks in Spanish on well-being, and the third reminds the faithful again about the second collection for Fr. Francisco’s school in Uganda (this makes sense to repeat, since many were not there at the first pre-Mass announcement). At this point the liturgy is wearing some children down and many run around and cry, a sign of life and a future. The last announcement is to thank Fr. Francisco for his effort to speak in Spanish, which receives a thunderous and heartfelt applause.

The second collection follows as Fr. Francisco, in English, thanks the congregation for their generosity and says that the Ugandan children pray for them and that he also prays for them. The final blessing follows and the recessional song is the up-tempo “Demos Gracias al Señor.” The congregation claps in various patterns, some on every other beat, several on every beat, a few emphasizing other beats. The song goes on well after the procession has finished and the church begins to empty. The faithful greet each other and talk as they leave through the door I entered. At this point I notice that several women wear black mantillas. Several of them, along with others, pray at the side altar, and bring offerings of flowers. At the altar of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mexican faithful pray, light candles, and several venerate Our Lady with kisses.

I walk to the altar and see the wooden statues of Saint Joseph the Worker, to the right, and Our Lady of Fatima, to the left. In the four corners of the ambulatory, surrounding the crucifix in the center, are the paintings of the four Evangelists. Toward the end of the nave, on the left-hand side, there is a large red candle and a door to a reposition chapel, where several are praying. Next to the altar, on the left side, there is a large baptismal font with a cruciform glass structure atop a brown and white marble base. Further to the left are doors that open into a vestibule that leads into the parking lot and parish grounds. Many congregate here, with lively conversation that spills into the parking lot.

I grab a bulletin and notice that, like the welcome sign outside, it is mostly bilingual. I walk out into the parking lot area and see the rectory and a seemingly vandalized statue in a landscaped flower garden. From this side view the church shows its age a bit more than the side I entered from. The iconic image I approached when I entered now seems more worn and in need of roofing. At the front a group of families greets one another in Spanish asking what part of Mexico they are from.

Sam Rocha teaches at the University of British Columbia.


Our Lady Queen of the Apostles in Royal Palm Beach, Florida (Larry Quick / Creative Images photography)

Our Lady Queen of the Apostles
Royal Palm Beach, Florida

Tom Blackburn

Several years ago at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon I watched a traffic jam develop in the parking lot of St. Mark’s Church in Boynton Beach, Florida. I asked the pastor if it was a wedding or a funeral. Neither, he said: It was just the usual crowd coming ninety minutes early to claim their pews for the 4 p.m. anticipatory Mass. I was in awe. As we say in Florida, we never did that up North. Saturday afternoon can be as busy at church as the mid-morning Mass on Sunday, even in my own parish. Who knew?

I usher at noon on Sundays and don’t get around as I once did. On June 25, I chose a 4:30 p.m. Saturday Mass so I could get my first taste of this Florida custom. I went to Our Lady Queen of the Apostles in Royal Palm Beach to make it a twofer because it also was my first excuse to get inside a building that was dedicated in 2009 and enjoys considerable local acclaim.

The first thing I did was to arrive early, but it proved unnecessary. Our summer population is half the winter population, and year-rounders are less addicted than snowbirds to Sunday-morning golf. The church was less than half full. OLQA rests among gated communities west of Palm Beach, and the crowd was composed largely of retirees, all dressed like retirees—from polos and chinos down to Bermudas and flip-flops. There was a decent sprinkling of parents with kids.

The second thing I did was enter by the side door, because that’s where others were entering. But that proved the wrong thing to do; architects want you to use the main entrance. But even from the side OLQA makes an immediate statement. It is certainly not old-fashioned, but neither could it answer to the name “modern.” What it most reminded me of—and I don’t mean this pejoratively because I’ve lived in one—is a suburban split-level house with a big living room. The ceiling has faux beams, but it doesn’t soar. This is Florida; you have to air-condition the space you build.

The nave is huge but manages to be homey. The altar is spacious, on a platform three steps high in the middle of one of the lengthwise walls. It faces eight modules of pews that fan out, widening as they gently rise toward the back. The modules range from eleven to fifteen pews deep. The aisles are wide enough for wheelchairs to pass in opposite directions.

I settled into a pew about halfway back on the left side. There was a group of ten or twelve obvious regulars a couple of pews in front of me. I tried to pick out individuals among the twelve Apostles who appeared with Mary in the painted-glass scene over the altar. The figures were realistic, but their grouping was less formal than it would have been in older art. John had a book open. Thomas (I hope it was) had his forefinger raised to make a point to another Apostle, who didn’t seem to be paying a whole lot of attention.

A lector in a pleated white skirt and with just a hint of a New York accent greeted us, and Mass began. There were two altar boys of grade-school age and a deacon along with the presider. The music had a bigger impact than the entrance procession itself: There was one voice with one guitar singing Marty Haugen’s “Gather Us In.” The amplifiers must have been on Rose Bowl setting. I sang but couldn’t hear myself, looked around, and didn’t see many lips moving. I couldn’t see the performer. The choir loft runs the length of the back wall of the nave, and there is enough sound equipment up there to cover any contingencies. Whoever was up there was good, but the sound level made it a strictly solo performance. No one could sing loud enough to join in. It turned out that he was going to sing the Kyrie, Gloria, and Creed as well as the offertory, Communion, and recessional hymns.

Liturgists usually want the readings to be proclaimed and the congregants to put down their worship aids and listen. Tell that to people with hearing problems.

If we’d been able to sing along, we could have followed the words on five-by-four foot screens flanking the altar, or on the smaller screens along the side aisles. The readings also appeared on the screens. Liturgists usually want the readings to be proclaimed and the congregants to put down their worship aids and listen. Tell that to people with hearing problems. Personally, I’ve no problem with audio-visuals; I ignore them. But the screens are so big they couldn’t be missed, and I noticed that listening to St. Paul’s run-on sentences while following them in print actually made it easier to get his point. That’s a non-scientific datum, but I pass it on to liturgists for what it might be worth.

The homily also was accompanied by a slide underlining the conclusion. Fr. Brian Campbell obviously prepared it long before he vested. He has a rep to uphold. He is in a rotation with three or four other homilists who provide commentary on upcoming Mass readings in the diocesan edition of the Florida Catholic. Saturday he used Florida’s many water bodies as metaphors to discuss both St. Paul—on Adam making the waters turbid though sin—and the Gospel—which says that what’s concealed will eventually become clear when the waters are stilled. He asked God to calm and cleanse us. He was vivid enough that I was able to quote buckets to my wife when I got home. She said, dryly, that I could have read it in the Florida Catholic. Sure enough, his homily was in print, although he added some topical asides in his live appearance.

There were mics on the ambo and altar. Neither put out as much sound as the music sound system, but neither did Fr. Campbell or the lector have to fuss with them. I thought of comparing the Mass experience with watching a movie in a viewing room for critics. All that was missing were soft swivel chairs. The church’s AV system showed us what we heard and made it audible. It sang for us. I suspect that, if asked, it would bring coffee.

But then, suddenly, everything changed. With the Sanctus, lights above the congregation dimmed. Maybe they also brightened on the altar. It happened in a snap. But with just that change in lighting, a family dining table became an altar of sacrifice. The canon proceeded with as much focus, concentration, and sanctity as any unreconstructed pre–Vatican II reverence-seeker could want. For Communion, the lighting switched back.

Since the Second Vatican Council we seem to be indelicately poised between the Mass as a family meal, like Passover, and the Mass as sacrifice, continuing Calvary. What serves one seems to pull against the other. I think OLQA has a real answer. Maybe the lighting maneuver is widely used, but the balance of meal and sacrifice impressed me even more than the church itself.

On the way out, I looked around the narthex, which I should have seen first. It is a long hall, sacristy to the right, gift shop to the left, and a baptismal font big enough for full body immersion in the center. A built-in adoration chapel and life-sized statues of St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II—which must have been planned and ordered for the church before either was canonized—tell you where the pastor’s heart is. He is Fr. Z. Andy Rudnicki, who is still there. He was a parochial vicar in my parish years ago in his early priesthood. From the bulletin I learned that OLQA dedicates the month of October to reinforcing everyone’s spirituality, and as we left the Mass ushers were handing out copies of the small Mass Journal that Matthew Kelly’s Dynamic Catholic group promotes to help folks develop spiritual life.

Fr. Rudnicki is able to summon eight ushers and at least six extraordinary ministers of Communion, without overlapping, for the Saturday afternoon Mass. Coffee is served in a covered pavilion opposite the main entrance on Sundays. That suggests Our Lady Queen of the Apostles is a welcoming place. I felt I could get used to it very quickly.

I guess I’ll have to wait until after Thanksgiving to experience a real Saturday anticipatory Mass scramble. It’s quiet now in Royal Palm Beach because so many folks are up north, sending postcards that say, “Sleeping under blankets.” But Our Lady Queen of the Apostles is a fine place to be if you are stuck here for the summer.

Tom Blackburn is happily retired after fifty-three years as a journalist.


Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Menominee, Illinois

David Carroll Cochran

Since my wife and I have both worked with priests in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, we decided to avoid any awkwardness by crossing the river to a neighboring diocese for Mass. Our two teenage sons came along, placated for having to rise earlier than usual by the promise of donuts on the way home.

We chose a rural parish, one of the red-brick Gothic Revival style churches that still dominate the skyline of small towns across this part of the Midwest. The church was built in the 1870s, has fewer than two hundred registered families, and offers one Mass on Sunday morning. It is clustered and shares a pastor with a larger parish several miles away.

The church sits on a hill with a view of the rolling farmland around it. On one side, as if to emphasize the ratio of current-to-past parishioners, is a small parking lot and much larger cemetery, while on the other side, down the hill, are a bar and a firehouse. A large tower with spire anchors the entrance-side of the building, an apse extends out of the altar-side opposite, and tall stained-glass windows run the length of both sides between them.

Arriving ten minutes early to look around the church, we were among the first ones there. We entered under the choir loft and sat in a pew about halfway up the center aisle. While the church may be tall, it is not large. Its wooden floors and pews creak pleasantly, and the pew backs still have hat clips every few feet. The walls are white plaster with Stations of the Cross oil paintings between the windows. The gaze is drawn to an ornate high altar at the back of the apse, tabernacle at its center. In front of it is a simpler altar-table, flanked by a pulpit on one side and chairs for the priest, deacon, and servers on the other. The back walls are crowded with statues of angels and saints, a crucifix with bright red marking Christ’s wounds, and a Divine Mercy painting.

We’d intended to blend in by sitting where we did, but our choice backfired: almost everyone else took seats toward the back of the church, leaving us, a few older women, and a latecomer or two in sole inhabitance of the front half of the nave. Closer inspection at the Rite of Peace and Communion yielded a congregation profile. Numbering around seventy, it skewed older and middle-aged, though with a few younger couples mixed in. There were only three or four young children, and our kids doubled the number of teens present. Casual dress predominated. Like the figures in the church’s statues and paintings, all were white.

Mass started right on time. A young female cantor welcomed the congregation and announced that we would have a guest celebrant. My wife and I shared a smile as we recognized the recently retired priest from our own archdiocese, who had also crossed the river for Mass that morning. What followed was a serviceable liturgy—familiar, meaningful, and heartfelt, but not especially moving or spirit-filled. An ordinary Mass, though not in Ordinary Time, as it clocked in at a brisk forty-five minutes.

Led by the cantor in front and an organist and small choir in the back loft, the music was solid, though the cantor struggled a bit with the Responsorial Psalm. There was the usual selection of songs, ranging in style from “Canticle of the Sun” for the processional to “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” for the recessional. The congregation’s singing was dutiful but not enthusiastic.

A female reader did a great job with the first and second readings—clear and measured, her tone appropriate to the text—while the deacon was reverent but a bit more rote when reading the gospel. Delivering his short, six-minute homily without notes, the priest was warm and genuine. Picking up primarily on Jeremiah in the first reading but bringing in the Gospel’s call for fearless witness to Jesus, his focus was prophetic service to the poor in the world today, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope Francis. An amusing story from his past added a bit of humor, even if its connection to the homily’s actual message was less clear. 

Perhaps it’s the simple church bulletin that provides the true source of Catholic unity and continuity in a rapidly changing world.

The priest was efficient but sincerely prayerful presiding over the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the deacon was an unobtrusive presence. There were plenty of friendly smiles and warm handshakes at the Rite of Peace. The Blood of Christ was not offered to the congregation during Communion, something I had not seen in some time. This meant the priest and deacon were sufficient to distribute the Body at the front, while a female eucharistic minister went up to the choir loft.

Aside from the absence of the Blood of Christ at Communion, what really stood out to me in an otherwise typical Mass were the altar servers: three pre-teen to early-teen boys who seemed transported from pre-Vatican II days. Rather than the bed-head and ill-fitting albs over shorts and sneakers you might expect at a summer Mass, these guys had the long dark cassocks, white surplices, short combed hair, neat shoes, and precision movements of early 1950s altar boys. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, they came around and knelt directly in front of the altar facing the priest with their backs toward us, and, after ringing the bells at each elevation, they bowed in unison all the way down until their foreheads rested on the floor. While almost all the congregation would take the Eucharist in the hand, they each took it on the tongue and then held a long-handled paten under each transfer during distribution to the rest of us. Tonally at odds with the rest of the Mass, the servers were impressive but also a little distracting, in a Stepford-wives-kind-of-way; I half expected to see them powered down and put back in storage until the following Sunday.

Normalcy, however, was restored on the way out: the bulletin I was handed looked exactly like every other bulletin I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it’s the simple church bulletin that provides the true source of Catholic unity and continuity in a rapidly changing world. Included among the tight grid of small ads on the back, instantly recognizable in its layout, was one for our local liquor store, reminding me that we were running short of some necessities for the week ahead. But first, donuts.

David Carroll Cochran is professor of Politics and director of the Archbishop Kucera Center at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. His most recent books are Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War (Orbis) and The Catholic Church in Ireland Today (Rowman & Littlefield).


St. Michael the Archangel

St. Michael the Archangel
Wheaton, Illinois

Jim Pauwels​

Nearly every Sunday and Holy Day throughout the year, our family worships and serves liturgically at the same suburban parish in the Chicago archdiocese. And so we considered doing something completely different for this secret-shopper-style exercise: going into the city and attending a Spanish-language Mass, or an African-American community, or a campus Mass or a young-adult-focused community. Maybe even a Latin Mass. But in the end we chose another suburban, middle-class parish: St. Michael the Archangel in Wheaton. We reasoned that suburban parishes are where a large plurality—perhaps a majority—of Chicago-area Catholic worshipers are likely to worship from weekend to weekend. As a snapshot of Sunday Mass around here, it didn’t seem a bad choice.

St. Michael’s parish history dates well back into the nineteenth century, but the faith community made news about fifteen years ago when an apparently troubled college student who’d attended the parish elementary school set fire to the church, rendering the building unusable. The parish community pulled together and managed to raise $13 million to build a replacement—an extremely impressive fund-raising achievement and surely the envy of many parishes around here, including our own, that have undertaken capital campaigns in recent years. So the look of this new building was one item of interest.

Another had to do with the parish’s location. It is less than a mile from the campus of Wheaton College, one of the nation’s premier seats of Evangelical higher learning (its most famous alumnus: Billy Graham). Would that proximity influence St. Michael’s liturgical approach in any way, either by borrowing from Evangelical preaching style and music, or alternatively by emphasizing Catholic identity?

We chose the 10:30 a.m. Mass, reasoning that it was likely to draw young families: late enough to roll teens out of bed, early enough that toddlers won’t be starving for lunch halfway through. Our own parish needs to appeal more to young families, so St. Michael’s ability to attract millennial parents and their children was something else we were curious about.

We arrived about ten minutes early to soak in the space and the ambience before Mass began. Not knowing our way around, we entered through a door that led into what seemed to be a small library area, then down a hall into the narthex. While it may not rise even to the level of venial sin, nobody greeted us. The parish website lists a ministry of hospitality, parenthetically adding that these are the ushers, but we managed to make the passage into the worship space without anyone actually saying hello. As cradle Catholics, our expectation of being greeted by ushers is not very high in any case.

The worship space itself is impressive, and may deserve to be called beautiful. By no means is this one of those low-slung, merely functional Catholic churches that were built in the second half of the twentieth century across American suburbia. St. Michael’s is capacious and light-filled, with a high vaulted ceiling. The sanctuary is large and deep, with an altar and ambo worthy of the space. The tabernacle is against the marble-like back wall in the middle of the sanctuary, with an enormous crucifix hanging over it. The pews fan outward, with capacity for perhaps a thousand worshipers. There is also a Marian shrine and a statue of St. Michael, sword in hand and devil underfoot, that I think few children would be able to resist. Stained-glass windows in the sanctuary and along the walls admit a good deal of natural light.

Among the most notable features is the magnificent pipe organ. We chatted after Mass with the director of music and liturgy, Chris Orf, whose play proved that he is equal to the challenge of putting this Porsche of an instrument through its paces. He informed us that it was funded by a donor—an exceedingly generous gift. The organ is used for concerts and is featured on several commercial recordings. The ranks of pipes themselves, in the front near the music area and along the back wall, constitute a major element of the church’s decor.

And there were some notable features about the Mass itself. The presider, the parish’s pastor, was also the homilist. I really liked his homily. He has an understated and conversational style of preaching that allows the content, which was pretty strong on this particular morning, to do the work. The Gospel included the passage, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” His homily focused on the difficult burdens, of sin and relationship, that many of us carry, and urged us to trust Jesus to lighten them for us. An anecdote about a woman who hadn’t spoken with her sister for thirty years before she died, and the burden that this feud placed on her, really struck me. 

All my life, I’ve heard stories of priests who could sprint through the pre-Vatican II Mass in less than twenty minutes.

Something else about this priest: he moves through the text of the ritual at a brisk clip. All my life, I’ve heard stories of priests who could sprint through the pre-Vatican II Mass in less than twenty minutes. This didn’t race by quite that quickly, but the entire liturgy, end to end, came in at about fifty minutes—pretty fast for a large, well-attended weekend Mass. One of the parishioners revealed afterward that his record is forty-three minutes.

By contrast, the woman who proclaimed the first and second readings didn’t rush. In fact, she did a very good job all around. One of the little “tests” I had set beforehand was the proclamation of the first reading. It begins on a high note of exhortation: “Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion, shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!” After a lifetime of hearing such passages recited with all the passion of someone reading the phone book, I was pleased to hear the words proclaimed with the verve the passage calls for. Her enunciation was good and her preparation evident—all in all, an excellent example of how this volunteer ministry can be done.

The hymns and acclamation selections for this day were a blend of traditional and contemporary. The singing was led competently by a cantor whose well-trained voice was big enough to fill the large space. She, and we, were accompanied by the music director, who moved back and forth between the organ console and a fine grand piano. The tempos were pretty quick, I thought—but every church musician has strong views about tempo. Also, the organ was very loud during the congregational pieces. I understand that when one drives a Porsche, one wants to rev the engine, but in this case, the volume made it nearly impossible for us to hear the congregation’s singing. And, though this is perhaps a minor thing: in addition to the hymnal, worship aids were made available to us. But the worship aids didn’t provide notes and lyrics—they simply referred us to the hymnal number of each song. While that may be useful, it also involved killing some trees whose lives might have been spared by some combination of hymn boards and announcements.

The church was full and the crowd young—not a young-adult crowd, but a young-family crowd. There were definitely more young families at St. Michael’s than we’d be likely to see in our parish on a given Sunday morning. That might be attributable to the fact that St. Michael’s has a school (our parish doesn’t), or it could be an indication that this faith community’s pastoral approach is working. St. Michael’s also seems slightly more traditional than contemporary, what with its organ and hymns, its stained glass and statues, and its preaching on sin, to say nothing of its perpetual adoration chapel and the fact that reconciliation is offered nearly every day of the week—an astonishing commitment to that sacramental discipline. St. Michael’s does some things our parish doesn’t, and some things I wouldn’t want ours to do, but based on our visit, its approach is working for its community. 

Jim Pauwels is a husband, father, and deacon. His day job is in corporate America. He lives, works and ministers in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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Published in the September 22, 2017 issue: View Contents
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