Recognizing that it's sometimes easier to focus on what can be improved in the church than to highlight what is working, I want to follow my post on the Lost? conference with something I experienced at the end of weekend, the day after the conference ended.
A friend I met at Fordham is a lay ecclesial minister at a church in the city, and he invited me to attend Mass on Sunday. He promised that if I showed up, I would experience a liturgy that would be worth my time. So before heading back to DC, I walked over to Saint Francis of Assisi for afternoon Mass. The sanctuary is beautiful, and if Lost? offered reasons why we as church might be less than optimistic, the liturgy at Saint Francis was a nice antidote.
- A few simple hellos. I was greeted by several smiling faces when I entered, by people of varied ages and races, all of whom offered a pleasant "hello" and "welcome." I arrived a few minutes before Mass began, with the church was already pretty full at that point, but several people warmly offered to move down to make room. A friar came over and shook my hand and said welcome.
- The congregation was invited to participate. Before the liturgy began, a music minister invited the congregation to rehearse a few of the new hymns and responses that we would sing during Mass. The cantors' beautiful voices certainly were most welcome, but the invitation to practice along with the choir was what was most meaningful. Knowing the songs beforehand made singing and participating both more enjoyable and more meaningful.
- Lay people were empowered and active. From those greeting worshipers at the door to the confident music ministers to the lectors and altar servers, lay people clearly had a valued and significant role to play during the entire liturgy. Again, they represented a wide range of life experiences, and many people in the assembly could probably find someone participating with whom they could identify.
- The pastor seemed joyful. A homily is only as inspiring as the preacher is inspired, and the presider at Mass seemed to take joy in his priestly vocation. This sense of joy is vital to breaking open scripture in a meaningful and relevant way, and it adds something inimitable to the Mass.
- The celebration of the Eucharist was truly a celebration. Everything I describe above lent itself to creating an atmosphere of authentic joy and thanksgiving, while remaining reverent and sacred. The space felt holy but not stuffy, joyful but not saccharine.
There are myriad challenges facing the church that can cause us to lose hope and perhaps give up altogether, but when church works as it should, it stirs something in the soul that wipes away the anxieties and fears we inevitably build up during the week. And after a weekend reflecting on the challenges keeping twenty-somethings away and pondering what that will mean for the future of the church here, there was no better spiritual balm than this liturgy.