Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mass in the Mushroom

No one ever said it was easy being a Catholic priest. It's a job that requires a level of dedication and devotion that is simply unheard of in our world of self-realization, self-fulfillment, self-indulgence, in short the whole litany of feel good about ourselves attitudes that pervade our society. In fact the word "self" doesn't appear in many attributes that one would use to describe a good priest, except maybe self-denial.

However priests are human beings with the same needs, and faults as the rest of us. Much is expected of them, which is why it is shocking and newsworthy when they fail.

So many have publicly fallen from grace recently that it is difficult for the vast majority of priests who remain true to their convictions, to be taken seriously. The general public has taken upon itself to believe the worst of them. When our former pastor was removed for misappropriation of funds, people inevitably said to me: "well at least it wasn't for, well you know what," meaning of course the sexual abuse of children. A sad state of affairs indeed.

The man who took the old pastor's job could not be more different from his predecessor. He is a warm, gentle, self- effacing man, (OK another "self" term that could apply to good priests), with a cherubic face that slightly resembles that of Clarence the Angel from the movie "It's a Wonderful Life." Unfortunately, some of our parishioners are not seeing much of a resemblance. This week they see him more as the nasty Mr. Potter.

Our pastor just sent out a letter to the parish telling us he is terminating the popular "family mass" that is celebrated not in the church but in the lunchroom of the school next door.

In his letter, Father told us that this particular mass was created in the 1960s, after the reforms of Vatican II but before the pastor at the time allowed guitars to be played in church. Now that guitars and other non traditional instruments, are in the church proper (they're becoming the rule rather than exception in Catholic churches all over America, much to my consternation), he feels it's time for us to be together again.

For the record, I couldn't agree more.

I once asked my kids one Sunday if they wanted to go to the mass in the lunchroom but my four year old daughter misheard it as "mass in the mushroom." As the term is appropriate on so many levels, not the least of which is lunchroom's subterranean location, the appellation "mass in the mushroom" has stuck in our family.

Mass in the mushroom has a friendly, convivial feeling, compared with mass in the church. The Germans have a good word for that feeling: gemütlich. Mushroom mass is laid back, there's socializing before, during and after the mass, and of course, the music is supplied by a guitar.

I haven't spoken to my fellow parishioners since the pastor's letter, but I can imagine that there will be fierce opposition to the plan. Once at mass in the mushroom, an older guy expressed to me in no uncertain terms his disdain for our pastor's desire to bring the church back together. "We've been doing this for over forty years and no priest is going to take it away from us" were his words, more or less. I'm quite certain he's not alone in those feelings.

Indeed a forty year tradition is nothing to take lightly. Father clearly anticipated the rancor in his flock as he addressed the hope that the "anger and pain will lessen over time as we move forward." Clearly he knows there are rough times ahead.

Although my kids like it because they have cookies after the service, I for one was never a big fan of mass in the mushroom. My feeling was always this: years ago in the midst of the Great Depression, the people of the community pinched their pennies and saved up their hard earned nickels and dimes in order to build themselves a church in which to worship. Through hard work and dedication, they built what would truly become a house of God. Being inside their beautiful building, one can feel their spirit and their legacy. Why then would anyone want to forgo it to worship in a lunchroom?

I know the answer to that question. When the reforms of Vatican II spearheaded by Pope John XXIII slowly began to take hold, it was like a gust of fresh air blowing out the stale, stagnant, tedium of what church had become in those days. Beautiful as it is, the celebration of the Latin liturgy of the Tridentine Mass that had been around for 500 years, had become perfunctory, or so I'm told. Most people at mass, not understanding the language, and not encouraged to participate, were just going through the motions. So were some of the priests. The new mass would change all that, the priest would now face the congregation, and speak to them in their own language.

I wasn't there forty years ago but I can imagine that the people of our parish who created the guitar/lunchroom mass must have felt quite radical at the time, their faith re-invigorated by their new role in the Church. They were outcasts of sorts, not entirely unlike those early Christians who were forced to profess their new found faith in hiding in places like the Catacombs.

Our parish is a extremely diverse lot, both racially and ethnically. During the one time of the year when the entire congregation comes together for a single Sunday mass to celebrate Pentecost, Father asked for a show of hands. He named particular parts of the world and asked how many people came from there. It turned out that every continent with the exception of Antarctica was represented in our church. I'd guess that well more than a couple dozen native languages are spoken by our parishioners.

In his letter our pastor noted that our parish "was founded in 1921 by a German bishop for the Luxembourg community. He named it after a French saint and the first pastor was Irish. The people then proceeded to construct the buildings in the "Spanish" style."Between the lines he is saying something that no one wants to say aloud. The diversity of our church does not extend to the mushroom mass. It is not unusual for the only non-white face to be seen there is that of our priest from Nigeria or our deacon from Cameroon. Now I am not saying this is by design. Everyone is welcome to come to the mushroom mass, it's just that the non-white people in our parish, choose not to go. Maybe they feel out of place, maybe they just feel that mass belongs in church.

I can just hear people say: "well what's the problem, some folks choose to be in the church, we choose to be in the lunchroom, everybody's happy, why change a good thing?" I have to admit that I was quite surprised when Father announced the end of mushroom mass. Frankly, if it were up to me, I'd probably just keep it around to avoid the trouble. It was a gutsy move by our pastor, fraught with tremendous risk.

My parents' greatest gift to me regarding faith was their hands off approach to it. They exposed me to the Catholic Church early, but in the end let me decide for myself. I struggled for years with my faith until the time of my son's birth when everything came together and it all made sense. I don't think there's anything better for the faith than to have it shaken up every once in a while. Fifty years ago, Vatican II shook up the Catholic Church. Forty years ago, the Mushroomites shook up the parish by leaving the church, if only by moving across the parking lot.

Today, if I may be so bold to say this, it is the Mushroomites who could use a little shaking up. Friendly and comfortable as it is, I believe their mass is lacking something that is essential to the Catholic experience. We celebrate the eternal and the universal, not just the here and now. Our church building is s sacred space. Its stained glass windows depict scenes from the life of the Holy Family. Shrines to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and the Sacred Heart of Jesus (the first devotion of which is attributed to the saint for whom our church is named), invite the faithful to worship privately and light votive candles in memory of their beloved dead. The stations of the cross, the wooden reredos centered around the figure of the crucified Christ, above which is the inscription Intriobo ad Altare Dei (I will go in the altar of God), and most importantly, the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament, remind us of the meaning of Mass, which is the time where we literally celebrate the Passion, death and Resurrection of the Lord.

Strong stuff indeed. Now it's true that an open heart and mind, and an ordained priest are the only things you need in order to celebrate mass. As long as the focus is on the right thing, the other physical objects are not necessary. But those things help us focus on Christ and the mystery of our faith. A well designed church is an unworldly place where we gather to grasp things that are not of this world. Most Catholic parishes including ours, provide ample opportunity for their members to gather as a community outside of mass for fellowship, to pray, discuss the Word, to break bread, and to socialize.

Mass is different. I believe there should be a sense of wonder, of focus, of mystery and urgency at mass. The mushroom mass has all the urgency of a weekly game of canasta.

Because of the mushroom mass, our parish is essentially two parishes. Our pastor wants it to be one. And so it will be, unless he is somehow forced to change his mind. Now as everyone knows, the Catholic Church is not a democracy by a long shot. The Vatican still calls the shots and their decrees filter down to local parishes where the pastors have the final call. But the reality is this: at the parish level in the Catholic church, people vote with their feet. If they don't like something about one parish, there is always another parish nearby more than willing to take them in.

I would not be the least bit surprised if we lose several members of our parish because of Father's decision. I already know of one who has agreed to check out another local parish that still has a similar alternative mass. This would be devastating financially to our parish as we are already in the red and we cannot afford to lose more families. It would also be devastating spiritually to see people remove themselves from the community over a trivial (in my opinion of course) matter. If all we had were the school lunchroom in which to worship, our community would be none the poorer. But we have a sacred space with history and memories of lives that went before us and those that will follow. My daughter was baptized in that church and my son made his first communion there. A beloved neighbor was buried there. And so it goes.

In the end of course it's people who are the Church, not the buildings. As I wrote to the members of St. Sabina's parish a little while ago, the Church does not belong to the Pope, or the pastor, or to any of us. The Church belongs to God.

Like our pastor, it is my firm belief that God wants us to be one parish. It is my hope and prayer that the people of our community will come together and the folks on the other side of the parking lot will choose to join us in the sanctuary of our church, as we need one another.

My thoughts and prayers are also with our pastor during this difficult time as he weathers the storm. He is a good man whose intentions are for the greater good of our parish. May God be with him and all the good men and women of the Church who have devoted their lives to Him and to the rest of us.

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