When Church Works

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.


What worked?

  • 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.

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Knud Rasmussen
8 years 1 month ago
David Smith says, "That's a description of a church I wouldn't like much, Michael."

I agree - most of the things Michael lists would turn me off as well. I think the key point to be made here is that there is no list of 'best practices' that would fill the pews if implemented everywhere.

"I'd like to say, to each his own, except that it doesn't seem such a great idea to have people having to church shop all over the city just to find an ambience that fits - or to avoid one that doesn't fit.  This situation is a result of stressing the social over the religious - or, to put it another way - of expanding the the definition of 'the religious' into the realm of sociability."

On this point, I disagree somewhat with David Smith - I would argue that parish-shopping is simply a fact of life that the Church has to accept. I would not, however, put this down to sociability - on the contrary, I think it's a reflection of differences in  individual subjective tastes. Indeed, some people like to worship in places where they can be totally anonymous - they don't want to be confronted by enthusiastic greeters, and they don't want to be invited to out themselves as newcomers. They're looking for a more private 'God and me' experience. I'm sure that some here would scoff at that attitude and effectively argue that such people should be strong-armed into accepting a more aggressively communal style of religion, but I think that sort of approach is both wrong-headed and counterproductive.
Jim McCrea
8 years 1 month ago
That should have said "take their mission or providing a welcome to all comers SERIOUSLY."
Dave de la Fuente
8 years 1 month ago
Well, I would like to state that by no means do I think that parishes will go away entirely, but I do think more people will say things like "I'm part of Communion and Liberation" (which might even have parish-based prayer groups, I'm actually not sure) rather than "I'm from St. Ignatius on the Upper East Side," or "I'm a parishioner at St. Elizabeth's in Flanders NJ."

David commented in the other post: "On the other hand, unless the Church abandons its social missions, there will have to be feet on the ground - many of them.  Where and how will they center?" I agree with this.

Although my tastes tend to lean towards a higher liturgy, from what it sounds like, I think that the Mass at St. Francis sounds great. I tend to side with Pope Benedict/then-Cardinal Ratzinger on the interpretation of "full, active, conscious" participation in the liturgy, but when the participation is reverent and at the same time joyful in God, then it's good participation.

Mr. O'loughlin, may I ask what songs you sang at this mass?
8 years 1 month ago
I go around and around on this hello stuff.  Sometimes they have you greet the people next to you.  Does this actually make you feel welcome?   If it's forced?  It sounds like there were both greeters and just friendly individuals at St. Francis.  I think if there are just greeters, then I'm not sure it helps.  It seems to me that this is a particularly Anglo Catholic thing.  It can't be that catholic churches the world over are so cold.  But, maybe it is because we don't actually know our neighbors anymore.  I don't know.

I really like it when people move over for you to sit down, especially when I have two kids with me.  The other day we were late and couldnt find a seat.  Someone finally gave up his seat, but if people could just move over or even sit near each other, things could go a lot better.
we vnornm
8 years 1 month ago
Thanks for the good news about a good Church...

Have been to Assissi many times, used to go to the 6 am Mass when I had to catch an early train out of Penn.

Thomas Merton has a neat section in the Seven Storey Mountain about his "adventures" with the Fanciscans & his experiences at the chuch on 31st st.. bvo
8 years 1 month ago
Nice piece, lovely church with committed people. Good luck to those looking for a private audience with the Beyond. Hard to imagine giving your life for someone you won't say "hello" to.
8 years 1 month ago
The coverage in America of the Fordham conference has been excellent, I think.
One of the major issues that Peter Steinfels talked about in his works on "drift" are issues around good liturgy that touches people. A warm welcome seems very appropriate!
Hence, I think this post was quite relevant.
The tape from the Millenials was sometimes hard to hear, but the evident theme was a more listening and attractively less top down Church.
If I could read between the lines thus far, there is a call for more exemplary loving service and less fiats and less left/right abrasiveness.(It would be neat to find that in all the posts on this and at "In All Things" in general.
Jim McCrea
8 years 1 month ago
Michael:  for a minute I thought you were describing my parish in San Francisco:  www.mhr.org.

As Ed Gleason pointed out above, SF has some - nay, many (but could always use more) - parishes that take their mission of providing a welcome to all comers.


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