Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Holy Week Reconsidered

I have written of my experience of Holy Week in the past. It will be different this time.

After more than eight years as Senior Master of Ceremonies for the Traditional Latin Mass at the Church of Saint John the Beloved, in McLean, Virginia, my resignation was accepted. The short version of the story is that a) my service to the parish had run its course, b) it was anticipated for some months before, and c) the decision was a mutual one between myself and the pastor.

The long version of the story does not bear repeating -- well, most of it, for now.

That I left with my good name intact does not lessen the heartbreak. In the thirty-five years I have lived in the DC area, I have been associated with nine Latin-rite parishes. (What can I say, at some point I may have moved around a lot.) This was the first one where I truly felt at home. And yet the circumstances were such, that continuing to participate in the life of the parish would have been uncomfortable.

There is more to be said. One of these days I'll say it. But for now, sometimes you just have to shake the dust off your feet and walk away, and so I did. What was anticipated as a sabbatical was not for long.

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Saint Francis de Sales Church (SFDS) lays claim to being the oldest Catholic mission in what is now the District of Columbia, dating back to 1722, when it was the private chapel of the Queen family in Maryland, and several of Maryland's prominent Catholic families, including the Carrolls, worshipped there. Through the years, it was known as “Queen’s Chapel” until 1908, when it was bestowed with its current patron. Shortly thereafter, its location was moved three blocks north, from 20th and Evart Streets, to 20th and Rhode Island Avenue, in the northeast quadrant of the District, to be located along the trolley line. A new building was begun, and the basement portion was completed by the time the stock market crashed in 1929. It has been a "crypt church" ever since.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a succession of pastors of short duration. The demographics of the parish changed as well, from families of predominantly European ancestry, to mostly African-American. During the 1980s, liturgical dance became a feature of Sunday worship, as if to play on the false premise that young ladies cavorting in ballet tights is integral to the African spiritual tradition. In the past decade, the parish school was closed due to declining enrollment, and the Sisters of Saint Joseph left their convent. When the current pastor came on board two or three years ago, the altar was where the first few pews used to be, the tabernacle was off to the side, and the red-carpeted and unadorned sanctuary was the setting for the "dance ministry." An immediate restoration of order to the presbyterium was apparently one of the first major decisions.

The pews in front were returned to their place, but they are rarely filled. With roughly three hundred households in the parish, mostly elderly and/or retired, there are many more funerals than weddings or baptisms, and while the buildings remain up to code, some are more adequately maintained than others, and the priority in capital improvements is the parking lot, which is presently not up to safety standards.

The same could be said for half the streets in the District. Go figure.

Beyond that are the challenges typical to most inner-city parishes with changing and/or declining neighborhoods. The spirits of those who remain are high, but there are not enough of them to sustain the community in the long run. There is a hint of gentrification barely one mile to the west. Once it reaches 20th and Rhode Island, the Church will need to be there for them. Can the parish hold out that long?

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The Traditional Mass has been at SFDS for nearly one year. What began with a fair degree of participation, with about fifty attendees on average, has dwindled to fifteen or twenty on a given Sunday. Several young adult men who were experienced servers have moved on, as young adult men are inclined to do. There are four or five interested boys from within the parish, and while eager to learn to serve, they have little experience with the Old Mass. The sanctuary, like so many in the post-conciliar era, is a plain red-carpeted floor, bereft of features that mark the stages to the Holy of Holies. There is no altar rail, and the altar with the tabernacle behind it rest "in plano" (on the floor), not on a step, never mind three, leaving it with no "praedella" (the platform or step on which the altar stands, and from where the celebrant is immediately attended). This makes altar server training very difficult, as a lack of points of orientation requires prior experience, to properly set the imagination. My new students have the benefit of neither.

It's not their fault.

Over a span of half a century, we have robbed them of their heritage. We have gutted their sanctuaries, dumbed down the story of their Faith, and inundated their divine worship with novelties, whether gleaned from the latest weekend workshop, or the usual bag of tricks from "pastoral ministry" publications. The result is the iconoclasm we see today. It is generally less expensive to tear something down than to build it back up again. As with everything else, it is the poor and lower-middle-class who suffer the most. If I am to succeed, I have to get creative, and soon.

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It is here that I serve for the time being. The pastor is young, white, congenial, about forty, rather young for a pastor, who has several volunteers filling in for the lack of a paid staff. He has been emboldened by an apostolate of young adults dedicated to promoting the Traditional Mass, even as he is warmly embraced by a predominantly-black community with an active and ongoing Gospel Mass. He is also grateful that I'm giving a sense of organization to this apostolate. When I first went to Mass there two months ago, there was no one to serve. The following Sunday, I was the only one. Some of the boys who are interested have been trained, but are still not experienced enough to be left on their own.

They say that when God closes a door, he opens a window. But more than that, it is the message of Holy Week, the act of dying and rising again, one that does not happen without suffering.

It matters less what has happened up to now, than what happens next.

Photos of Saint Francis de Sales Church are courtesy of the parish website, and are used here without permission or shame.

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