Monday, November 22, 2010

An Outsider's View of a Typical Catholic Parish

The big girls and I went to Sunday Mass at the closest Western-rite church this weekend because of all the Nutcracker craziness. I always feel unsettled when I go to a church that isn't 'mine;' I don't belong. Perhaps visitors to our missions also feel this way...

Humility- I whisper to myself. I always feel like people are looking at me, sympathetic that I am going to Mass alone with four children. I bet they imagine my husband is reading the Sunday paper in bed. I want to shout- my husband actually left early to replace the ill priest for a different community. He'll celebrate their Liturgy and then our mission's Liturgy until the priest is better. With God's mercy, the ill priest will be better before Christmas.

We frequently go to Mass at the hospital, but that is a speedy daily Mass and the chapel has no kneelers, so the Mass itself is as simple as it gets. A Sunday Mass is different. I always forget that we aren't supposed to kneel after receiving the Eucharist, so I stay kneeling. I worry that I am distracting the believers with my 'backwards' sign of the cross. I hope that everyone has the eyes on their own work. My girls are shocked when altar girls come up the aisle and admonish them to stop judging- even though I disagree with the concept of altar girls. My girls are doubly shocked to see a girl friend who used to faithfully attend the Byzantine Liturgy being an altar server at this church. They left our mission when my husband allowed the people to sing the old country anthem on a holiday during coffee and donuts; they insisted my husband was a liberal. 

This parish has three priests and two deacons. They do a lot of good works and have lots of  groups involved in the pro-life movement. All of their Sunday Masses are packed. I am sure that some of my misgivings are simply sins of jealousy that I need to confess- to one of the priests at this parish since I don't confess to my husband. I am jealous that we are so small and that people who identify themselves as Byzantine Catholic have never even visited us. 

The parish has the trappings of a modern church- clapping after the kids' choir rendition of "Soon and Very Soon" is finished, girl altar servers, lay people opening the tabernacle and distributing the Eucharist (the Blood being poured by a lay person from the priest's chalice into clear glass goblets), and a children's liturgy where they take the children out during the Liturgy of the Word. These things are disturbing to me.

But the lay reader was reverent during the readings, and the homily was dynamic, yet a hard-core teaching directly related to the Gospel. The tabernacle is in the center, and there is a beautiful crucifix as a focal point in the modern construction. There are normal confessionals and there are Knights of Columbus as ushers that also stay close to the Eucharist distributors to eliminate desecration. 

It was a bit discombobulating, but God was there and we were blessed to be there.


  1. You know, as a convert, I can say that it took me a long time to realize that people really were not looking at me at Mass -- I guess the fact that it took me a long time to notice that we weren't the only people not receiving Communion should have tipped me off that other people weren't noticing me, either. Coming from small Episcopal churches, and on the heels of a particular bad and painful experience in the last of them, I actually found the anonymity of our first Catholic parish a relief, even as I found so many things (like clapping, altar girls, lay people giving out the Eucharist, etc) utterly grating. Had there been a Byzantine-rite church anywhere within reasonable driving distance, I would probably have gone there for the sake of my children's sense of the holy.

    Now we're in a rural Latin-rite parish which -- for a small, homely-looking church (think "Saint Public Storage in the Fields") -- does beautiful liturgy, including but not limited to a weekly Traditional Latin Mass. Our priest put in an altar rail last year, so that we can KNEEL to receive the Lord, and we the choir are working on making the music fit the liturgy, which with six of us, at least two of whom would be just as happy singing Kum Ba Ya, is sometimes a challenge!

    I sometimes wish we were more *noticed* by the rest of the diocese. People are always surprised to learn that there's anything going on at St. Podunk's, let alone a LOT going on. Those of us who sing have had no success in breaking into the loop of the diocesan choir -- we keep asking for information and rehearsal dates, and nobody ever answers. The woes of the obscure small parish . . . not that, of course, I would trade. I love my parish, and going elsewhere is always a jolt.

    Anyway, I have some sense of that train of thoughts and feelings you describe (and though I'm not now a priest's wife, we are former Anglicans, and my husband was a priest, so it's always possible that I could find myself a priest's wife again . . . )

  2. I always forget that we aren't supposed to kneel after receiving the Eucharist, so I stay kneeling......
    I am Roman Catholic (although my mom was Byzantine as a child) - we still kneel after Communion and have done so in many parishes in Alabama, Germany, Florida (that's going back 7 yrs).... I think the parish you visited is just doing their own thing

  3. Don't worry, it's not only the non-Western Catholics who don't like some of the ways things are going. I don't like girl altar servers, holding hands during the Our Father, clapping, and especially when people don't continue to kneel after receiving the Eucharist.

  4. Sally- good things come in small packages- just like church! :)

    I hope people aren't watching- I always close my eyes after receiving the Eucharist (which is one reason why kneeling would be better) so that I don't judge people on attire or receiving on the hands (I don't really understand that either). If I were totally holy, I could keep my eyes open and nothing judgmental would pop into my head- until that day- I'll keep my eyes shut

  5. We attend Catholic Mass fairly infrequently (usually only when there is a funeral or wedding linked to our congregation and my husband is participating) and as Lutherans in a small town - I always feel like everyone is watching me - the liturgy is quite similar so I don't usually stumble there - of course I don't receive Communion in the Catholic Church - so I'm safe there - it just feels strange to remain seated during Holy Communion - but the vice versa of that is true too - when Catholics visit our parish they don't receive Communion and I don't think anyone is looking at them - so why should I... is always unfortunate when wordly thoughts and ideas interfere with worship...

  6. affectioknit- love the name :)

    As a family, we were in formation to become Catholic for a year- so it was over 50 Sundays of not receiving.

    There are Sundays that I don't receive because the kids are acting up or I have to lead the singing- so I hope people aren't looking!

  7. We also have always knelt after receiving, and my husband still continues to kneel after what he calls "The Pastoral Sit" at the end. For the longest time, we knelt through everything beforehand, including the Our Father, for which it's customary to stand, because having been Anglican, that's how we'd done it and it felt more reverent. A close friend finally asked us why we did that, when it was contraindicated in the rubrics, and we now stand in obedience to the norms. I like the EF, however, where you kneel through pretty much everything -- that's much simpler, in my book.

    We went to Mass for over two years before ultimately being received, during most of which time I sang in our parish choir. When the director mentioned our family's being received, the whole choir went, "Huh?" They thought I was Catholic already and hadn't really noticed my not receiving all that much, despite my being right there in a small group. The dear lady who sat next to me had noticed, but figured I had my reasons.

    I think everyone's pretty used to having family and friends who are all over the map in relation to Catholicism, and if someone in a given congregation does something that's in any way anomalous, people just shrug if they notice at all. You have your reasons.

    On the other hand, try being an adult male and wearing a coat and tie to Mass, and opening the hymnal to the correct hymn, and singing. Now, people think THAT is weird.

  8. Our parish was gifted with a man named Bill Downey. Bill had Down Syndrome and lived well into his 70s. He was part of the L'Arche Community and the Community is part of our parish. Mass, potluck, fundraiser, no matter what, Bill and his community were there. He often inserted himself into the procession at the end of Mass and was always one who carried the cross on Good Friday.

    One Sunday, Bill was in the procession to receive Communion. He bowed, received Communion, stood aside to consume, and then turned to face the assembly. He swept the hat off his head and bowed deeply, and then returned to his seat.

    One of God's beloved sons, having received the Body of Christ, acknowledged the Body of Christ assembled in that place.

  9. Shannon- You probably have a very special saint interceding for you! He sounds like a special man

  10. I like your comments on visiting the Latin rite church. On those times when I can't make it to the Divine Liturgy, I attend my neighborhood Latin rite church and have had many of the same thoughts as you. The next time I will try closing my eyes after communion to avoid being judgmental.

  11. As others stated, people probably weren't paying too much attention to you. Sometimes I see part of a family at Mass, and I figure that the other part had to go to a different time for some reason (especially large and very active families). My Baptist mother-in-law actually started going to the Catholic Church because many Baptists churches get a little too attentive to newcomers for her taste.

    I'm Western Rite and I despise the Childrens' Liturgy of the Word. Our parish started it over the summer, and after about three weeks they gave a special talk encouraging all parents to send their kids and it felt like they were looking right at us in the front row. So, again, as others noted, some of your objections are not foreign to us Western Riters.

    I really enjoy your blog; you give me such a fresh perspective on our magnificent faith. The Catholic Church is so big and diverse that I realize that we have a little bit of everything no matter what your style might be (charismatic, contemplative, traditional, modern).

  12. I have to say that what you listed at disturbing to you is just about the same as the list I struggle with every Sunday at my own parish and other Latin rite parishes I've been a member of: bad hymns, clapping, a children's homily or children's liturgy, lay Eucharistic ministers.... every Sunday finds me gritting my teeth and asking why. And yet somehow I know that this is where I'm supposed to be even while a part of me really wishes we could just go to an Eastern Rite parish or attend the extraordinary for of the mas and get a much more reverent liturgy. I've been contemplating a blog post on the topic but somehow it never quite seems to come out just right.

  13. Melanie- It's hard to blog on this subject- because we love our Church- and Vatican II wasn't a bad thing. My family on my side is Roman-rite and they go to 'normal' parishes- they are very involved to help make the parishes as 'orthodox' as possible. Let's just pray for our bishops!

  14. That's it. I love the Church, my Mother. It's hard to write about how I feel about my mother's problems and how they grieve me. The problems with the liturgy in the Latin rite are a grave wound. It does seem to me that the other rites have largely dodged that particular bullet as has the Orthodox church. You are right that Vatican II wasn't a bad thing. In fact, I know it's a controversial position; but I suspect had it not happened things might not be in any better shape. The problems would still be there, they might just look a little different. There have always been problems in the church. There have been problems with the liturgy before. Laying the blame for them on Vatican II has always struck me as being rather short sighted.

  15. Shannon, that is a wonderful story. I knwo soem people think that altar servers should only be potential priests. We have altar servers with Downs Symdrome or who are girls and therefore will never be priests. Our parish would be spiritually poorer without them. They all do a lovely job.

    I think saying altar servers should be limited to potential priests would also be difficult for the older members of our parish like me. We remember the days of segregation when Black boys were not allowed to be altar servers even though the stated rule in the parish was that altar service was for potential priests and therefore only for boys on a college prep track. At the time, that 'de facto' barred any Black boys.


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