Thursday, January 1, 2009

Catholic Church shopping, Part 1: Brick house

So after years of suffering in my ancestral parish, with a few equally unsatisfactory substitutes for when I sleep late on Sundays or travel, I've finally now begun my Catholic version of church shopping. Unlike the Protestant version however, I'm looking for more than emotional gratification, musical appreciation and social networking opportunities. (And if any Protestant observers here think that statement is uncharitable, I would advise them to talk to any one of the many evangelical/Pentecostal pastors in my neighborhood whose once-flourishing churches folded after their flocks defected to newer and hotter Christian-themed clubs.) Although social benefits and musical excellence would be nice, I'm primarily looking to be a part of a church 1. whose congregation takes their Faith seriously and who show it in their lives and worship, and 2. whose priest is orthodox in his Faith, intelligent enough to preach a halfway decent sermon and fervent enough to nurture the souls of his flock. How difficult that quest will be is a question we will explore together.

My first stop was a large brick church on the North Shore. Plainly constructed and comparatively unadorned, it is my guess that it was built by no-nonsense Irish immigrants in the early 20th century, although the almost Calvinist austerity of the place may point to a more modern architecture. The small foyer had a cozy side alcove with statues and candles. Rather bizarrely, there was also a glass doored confessional there right next to the entrance. If they want to discourage people from going to Confession, that would seem like a good way to do it. Even I would be embarrassed about confessing my sins in full view of and in earshot of every person that walks through the door. But that was merely incidental. I was there to see about the spirituality of the place.

I picked up some literature in the back of the church, and saw that there was apparently some life here. In addition to the standard volunteer opportunities you would find in any parish, such as altar servers and Eucharistic ministers, the announcement I read listed other groups that were active in the parish, like the Holy Name Society, St. Vincent DePaul Society, Legion of Mary, Senior Group, St. Joseph's Guild, CCD program, Senior Spirituality, Jr. Teen Center and Titan League Sports program. Interesting so far.

I was attending an afternoon Mass, which was the last of 4 Masses on Sunday. Surprisingly for such a later Mass, there were probably over 100 people there, which was another good sign. Unfortunately, most of the people I saw did the old "one quarter genuflection" and "sign of the blob". That is to say, when they reach their aisle, they place their right leg forward, bow a little and bless themselves by shaking their right hand sloppily in front of their faces, like Eli Wallach in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". I know it's a minor thing in context, but when healthy looking people can't be bothered to properly genuflect to their Lord and don't appreciate the holiness in the symbol of His sacrifice, it doesn't reflect well on their Faith.

The hymns were sickly sweet and unsingable, as usual, but that seems to be par for the course in American Catholicism these days. However, I did my best to belt them out, and got the "crazy man" stare from a couple of tweens in front of me. I once attended a church where the priest would stalk the middle aisle during hymns, singing artificially loudly and staring at people until they started singing. I understand his frustration but I disagree with his solution. My grade school nuns taught us that "singing is praying twice", but it's a sad fact that Catholics just don't sing. (again, I can't recommend Thomas Day's "Why Catholics Can't Sing" enough). It might have something to do with our history and ethnic cultures, but the torch songs and bland pop standards we're given to work with are surely at the center of the problem. I notice that most everyone joins in when we sing Christmas carols. But I digress.

As it was the first Sunday of Advent, that was the subject the Fillipino priest chose to talk about. I was a little on edge as he began by discussing the advent candles and the colors and such. Symbolism and church ritual are fascinating subjects to me, but I've heard some priests in the past give such things a disproportionate attention in their sermons. In a time of unprecedented spiritual deterioration in the Church, a focus on the peripheries of the Faith amount to navel gazing and dereliction of duty. That's like George C. Scott getting up in front of that big flag in "Patton" and lecturing his troops on the numerical symbolism of the stars and stripes. Happily though, the priest did move on to the subject of preparation for the coming of Christ, with Christmas being a shadow of His Second Coming, with a need for repentance and prayer, etc. The specifics escape me now a few weeks later, but it was a good sermon. It was very simplistic, as if intended for 8th graders, but it had substance and made sense, which was quite a new church experience for me.

So, my verdict for this one was that although I wasn't especially impressed, it seemed to have a lot of good points and may deserve a second look.

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