Chapter 1: St. Patrick Co-Cathedral, 215 N. 31st St.
Service, 10:30 a.m., Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013
Length of service: 60 minutes. Length of sermon: 5½ minutes
This service was a mixture of the familiar and the strange. Familiar because I was raised a Catholic and was quite comfortable in the surroundings—the stained-glass windows, the Stations of the Cross, the many suggestions of Gothic architecture, the strict reliance on an organ and piano as the only accompaniment to the hymns.
Strange because I had been away so long that I knew almost none of the rote responses the congregation makes at so many points in the service. Sometimes I could summon a few of the words, or at least a half-formed idea of what was to come next, but often nothing at all. When we recited the Apostles Creed I wondered if we even used to do that. If so, how did I entirely forget it?
Nor could I accustom myself to the prevailing casual dress. I would estimate that more than half the congregants were dressed in jeans. Only a few people were downright slovenly, but I saw just one man in a tie and jacket and one woman wearing a hat.
In earlier days it was at least a venial sin for a woman to enter a Catholic church with her head uncovered, and no adult male would have dared appear without a tie.
But never mind. If I get going I suppose I’ll be lamenting the absence of Latin and wishing the priest would conduct the whole service with his back to the congregation.
I was impressed with the number of people on hand. This was the Sunday after Christmas, which was on a Wednesday this year, so you’d think people would have had plenty of church-going of late, but the large sanctuary was at least half full.
What is this series about?
To read the essay that introduced this series click here.
There were lots of families, not to mention an abundance of very small children. It made me wonder if the old “crying room” tradition had fallen out of favor. At my boyhood church, this glass-walled room used to be located just to the side of the altar, giving parents and their young children an excellent perch from which to follow the proceedings, with blessed silence for the rest of us.
As it was, just as an elderly woman standing in the pulpit commenced the first Gospel reading, a toddler a few pews ahead of me began squalling something fierce, almost entirely drowning out the reading, whatever it was. The first minute or so of Father Robert Grosch’s homily was likewise inaudible, at least to me.
No one else seemed at all alarmed or offended, perhaps because a Catholic service does not reward a close listen anyway. The emphasis is on the ritual and the rote and the repetition.
That would also explain why the homily, or sermon, was so short, at just 5½ minutes. I hadn’t been to a Catholic church in so long, but had heard quite a few Congregationalist sermons during the intervening years, and of course among Protestants the preaching is everything.
After the baby stopped crying, I prepared myself to hear what was left of Father Grosch’s homily, but I had barely settled in before it was over. It was hardly a sermon at all, but rather a string of inspirational phrases and admonitions—“Do whatever you do in the name of the Lord Jesus,” “Put on the virtues that Paul lived,” etc.
I don’t want to fault him because I think the fault, if there is any, lies with the church. Individual brilliance is not cultivated or rewarded. Individual priests matter as little as individual congregants; it is the body of the church and the Catholic Church itself that is important.
I have to say that my favorite part was when, just after the Apostles Creed, a little girl of perhaps 8 or 9 led the Prayer of the Faithful, citing various groups of sufferers in a clear, delightful, sing-song voice, after which the assembled would say “Lord, hear our prayer,” or something like that.
I didn’t even notice when the ushers started coming around with baskets, and I noted that the “directive” inserted into our missals did not refer to this part of the proceedings as the “collection.” But there they were, and damn me if I didn’t suddenly feel the old compulsion to do my part. I fished two dollars out of my wallet and dropped them in the basket.
The longest part of the service by far was Communion, during which we all stood. I decided not to partake, as I could not remember whether I was still eligible to do so. Also, I think we used to have to fast in the morning, and I had had breakfast. And though I didn’t much care for the standing, I felt the oddest thrill when we briefly knelt during the preparation of the Eucharist.
That small act seems to be the essence of Catholicism—the submission, the humility, even the sacrifice of it, however small. I also liked the music, good old-fashioned hymns (most of them composed by Protestants?) like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel.”
As a boy, I used to go to Mass six days a week during the school year. That’s why some parts of the service still seemed so familiar. I’m sure that also explains why nothing was as viscerally familiar as the feeling of freedom I experienced when the service ended and I pushed through the doors into the fresh air of a late December day.
Next week—Chapter 2: Mount Olive Lutheran Church.