Monday, February 15, 2010

Houses of the Holy

She glared at me, and I could feel myself glaring back at her. It seemed ridiculously childish. Just minutes before, we were almost next to each other in line receiving Communion. But once the final strains of that Recessional song diminished and all of us sprinted for our cars amidst the snow and the ice of St. Matthew's parking lot, the spiritual glow of the holy sacrifice of the Mass, for whatever reason, got tossed out the window, especially when jockeying for position on Benton Avenue. I clearly had the right-of-way, but I had the 4-wheel-drive on and it prevented me from making my turn sharply enough. She swung her little red Toyota in front of me quickly and while pulling out on to Benton looked at me as though I just stole her envelope out of the collection basket. And no, I did not say a silent prayer asking that she suddenly develop acceleration problems. After all, I did just exit the celebration of the Liturgy, for crying out loud.

St. Matthew's Church is just one of a number of houses of worship that I have been visiting lately. This is one of those exercises that I put myself through whenever we move to a new location. I've been choosing it over other parishes primarily because of its convenience, although I have my eye on several other places, merely for the sake of comparison. It's also an exercise that will, invariably, cause me a great deal of angst.

I'm not sure exactly where the Catholic church fits into my life. That would seem like a strange statement to make, especially to most of my family. I was born and raised a Catholic. I attended Catholic grade school and Catholic high school. And, as most know, I attended the Pontifical College Josephinum for 3 years and received my Bachelor of Arts from a Catholic seminary. But even during my time at the Josephinum, I felt a need to examine other spiritual methods concerning prayer and lifestyle. I gravitated towards others who seemed to question the Magisterium. I was attracted to spiritual writers who felt a kinship to Eastern religions and practices. During my senior year, I became much more interested in the Byzantine rite. In short, by the time I graduated from the seminary, I probably felt as detached from the Catholic church as I'd ever felt in my whole life. Consequently, these feelings were probably not the most admired ones for someone planning on becoming a priest. So I opted not to return to the seminary.

But, I never really left the Catholic church. In every location where we've lived, I've always managed to try to foster some relationship, locally, with a church. I usually, though, did this alone. Donna is not a Catholic. Nor does she have any interest in becoming one. She's generally very blunt in sharing her opinions and questions regarding Catholicism. I stumble for an answer when she asks, "Why can't women be priests?". I become a bit tongue-tied when she quizzes me about why we genuflect in front of the tabernacle. I don't really know what to say when she mentions that when the congregation responds to the priest during the Offertory that they look like characters out of Dawn of the Dead. But for some reason, wherever we go, I simply cannot make myself officially become a member of a church. Perhaps it's because I know that we'll eventually move and I'll have to start the whole process over again. So, I usually go through my "rent-a-church" ritual until it's time to load up the U-Haul again.

I'm a bit jealous of my friend Gary. Gary and I went to St. Thomas Aquinas High School together, but for all intents and purposes I believe he's given up on the Catholic church. He and his family found a non-denominational church in the Canton area, and they love it. He said that his children actually look forward to going to services on Sunday. He actually brings his Bible to church with him, and he actually uses it. Other people at his church talk to him and his children. The music during Sunday services is world-class and participation is highly encouraged. He frequently involves himself in a bible study group, and he and other families actually get together and socialize. After having lunch with him that day, I consoled myself on the drive home by muttering, "There are Catholic parishes like that, I just know it. I've just chosen the wrong ones. I'll find one that's open, forward-thinking, and full of energy." The problem is, in all of my travels, I've yet to find one that even remotely resembles the church that Gary attends. That includes several parishes in Knoxville, 3 in Annapolis, at least 5 in Pittsburgh, several in the St. Louis area, and a good deal of those in and around Akron during the course of our many moves back home. So, I thought, St. Matthew's will be different. Maybe I've finally come across a parish that will rival Gary's church. And who knows....maybe Donna will reconsider her aversion to Catholicism.

Fr. Williamson seems like an affable-enough person. He has a warm personality and a seemingly good sense-of-humor. But after 5 visits, I can't say that I see Donna joining me any time soon. Like most Catholic parishes, most people prefer to sit in the back. Upon walking in, the occasional usher standing in the back may say "good morning", but that about does it. Catholics prefer not to speak a great deal prior to the start of Mass, due to the on-going reverence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. The cantor, or music-minister, will sometimes try to go over a new hymn prior to the start of Mass and, like most parishes, people are reluctant to sing, therefore they're reluctant to learn a new song. Fr. Williamson even asks the congregation beforehand to stand and greet each other. Most do this sheepishly and haphazardly, as if being asked to give their social security number at the BMV.

During Mass, singing, for the most part, is done grudgingly. Most of the congregation looks as though they'd like to be somewhere else and, as Donna correctly points out, respond to prayers by rote, as if from right out of Dawn of the Dead. Should Fr. Williamson give a homily for more than the normally-accepted 10-12 minutes, the congregation becomes restless, knowing that the total running-time of Mass may surpass the universally-agreed-upon one hour. Communion is usually distributed in both forms, but most eschew the wine, for fear of germs or illness. When the Recessional song is announced, some have already raced for the parking lot, or silently hope that only one verse will be sung so that they can get in a good position out there on Benton Avenue.

A priest once told me that "you get out of Mass what you put into it". Perhaps that's true. Some theologians have suggested that maybe it's time for a Third Vatican Council. Maybe the structure of the Mass should be modified so that it's, well, more interesting, especially for young people. Maybe the prayers and such should be changed every week and written by the congregation. I'm not sure. All I know is that my experience so far at St. Matthew's doesn't even come close to what Gary is experiencing at his church, and it concerns me. So, perhaps I'll actually join and become a member. Maybe I'll even get involved as a cantor or a reader. Or maybe I'll drop by a parish council meeting and mention to Fr. Williamson that something needs to pick up out there in the congregation because most of the parishioners have that same look on their faces as they do while they're waiting to hear their name being called in the waiting area at the doctor's office. But I will tell him that they really shine, though, when it comes to getting in line out there on Benton Avenue. And I'll remind myself not to have my 4-wheel-drive engaged when I go to make that turn. If I glare at her again like that I may have to go to confession.

-30-

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