Arriving about a half an hour early, because of my uncertainty as to the time required to get there, I was shocked to see massive crowds of people already streaming into the church and tons of cars jockeying for spaces in the multiple overflowing parking lots. Was this a basketball game or a Catholic Mass? People actually going to church? What marvel would I see next?
As I entered the church I was awestruck by the massive number of people attending. In a rather novel scene (for Catholic churches), the several priests and deacons were actually standing at the entrance greeting the throngs. I found such a practice commendable. As there was a bottleneck there, I had time to examine the foyer, where I found many useful pamphlets on issues people face, such as dealing with rejection, coping with loss, etc. There were also various posters and announcements detailing the many activities in the parish. I picked up a bulletin and was amazed at how much life there was here.
According to this bulletin, the church has over "7000 faithful families", "400 Lay Ministers in the Liturgical, Religious, Education and Family Life Ministries", 6 Masses on Sundays, regularly scheduled novenas, RCIA, Eucharistic Adoration, evangelization groups, senior groups, and tons of charitable endeavors. They have a "faith formation center and group", day care, religious youth groups, etc. The bulletin also contained more than just announcements. It had a mini sermon and a spiritually introspective "Question of the Week". I had already gotten more spiritual nourishment reading this bulletin than I had gotten from many years of Mass attendance at poorly led parishes. My subsequent glance at their website revealed even more religious and communal activities going on at this parish. I was simply gobsmacked.
When I finally found a place in the quickly filling pews, I beheld a massive structure. The building could be described as one big dome with 4 stubby extensions so as to form the shape of the cross. Its size leads me to call it the Basilica. It had a light and airy feel, with plenty of windows and a white and pastel blue color sheme. My guess is that it holds close to a thousand people. It was completely filled.
When Mass began, the priests and deacons led a ceremony at the back of the church. Apparently, a large group of RCIA graduates- both young and middle aged- were ready to come into the Catholic Church. (Real life converts!! Another novelty in a modern Catholic church!) Their names were announced by the priest and then each individual had to state their intention to join the Church. When that was concluded, everyone proceeded to the front of the church where the catechumens were seated in the first row and Mass began.
The music was performed by a large choir and pianist hidden in a section off the altar. Their repetoire seemed a bit too feminine and "un-churchy" to me, like in every other Catholic church, but at least they were technically very proficient. I even noticed people around me singing. (Another wonder!)
The sermon was unremarkably simple, but the priest delivered it with such an air of masculine authority, that it actually had an impact. This was one of those cases where it wasn't so much what was said, but how it was said. The priest acted like a man and spoke like a man. He exuded leadership with every word and gesture. Such qualities may explain why his parish seems to be thriving.
On the way out of Mass, there were young children handing out little cards to people and asking them to pray for the Confirmation class. I took one of the cards and on it was the name of one of the children who is preparing to make his Confirmation. It asked me to pray that he receive wisdom, right judgment, courage, et al. and that he will always realize the presence of God, etc. I thought that was a wonderful idea, and I've been praying for this boy daily.
I was so impressed with this church that I went back for Midnight Mass. This time it was standing room only. It was so crowded that I was actually overheating in my pew and having a hard time breathing. A few things that stood out for me: first, the choir was even more "artistic" this time. They put together some very professional numbers, some of them very modern. They even sang "Mary did you know?", which is a "Christian contemporary" hit. A precocious child sang a solo and three women did a very rarified sort of counterpoint chant of the intro to the nativity story (i.e. "a decree went out from Ceasar Augustus", etc). It was very interesting to listen to, but I was still a bit uneasy. I won't go so far as to say it was wrong, but it felt too much like a"performance". I want good music, but I don't think it's right when the music is so predominant that it overshadows the Mass and becomes the central focus of the entire act of worship. Too many Protestant churches, especially of the non-denominational variety, have fallen into that trap and had their services degenerate into little more than concerts. With our awful music, that danger was one thing we American Catholics haven't had to worry about for a long time! However, with this Midnight Mass, it just felt like the choir- I don't know- demanded a bit too much of my attention.
Again, the sermon was very simple and not what I would describe as great, but the priest spoke so well and with such authority that it was almost like he had a direct line to my heart.
Another thing I noticed were people actually being publicly reverent. In an alcove of the church I saw young women crossing themselves and bowing in front of what I believe was a statue of the church's patron saint or perhaps of Jesus. Lest anyone think that is a Pharisiacal act, done for personal glorification, I can attest that in the Catholic churches I have known, being outwardly moral or showing reverence for holy things- i.e. being a traditional Catholic- is looked at with curiosity or scorn, especially among the young. So I took the young ladies' outward reverence to be a very admirable thing and a very good sign about this church.
The church also offered refreshments afterwards, which I thought was a very hospitable gesture, even though I didn't attend. I think most churches do so after Midnight Mass, but I'm pretty sure it is a weekly practice at this church. I think such gatherings are good for fellowship among members but are also helpful in making newcomers feel welcome. In a lot of Catholic churches, a newcomer could be forgiven for thinking that he'd somehow donned a cloak of invisibility when he walked through the door.
So, in short, even though there were some things about this parish I didn't care for, on the whole I found it to be a thriving, well-led and fervent community of faith. I think every priest in Staten Island, not to mention New York City, should spend some time at this parish and copy exactly what its pastor is doing. I will continue my church shopping, but this parish is definitely in the lead at this point. I never expected I'd find a place like it, I'm very excited about it and could see myself joining if it turns out to be the winner.