Following a brief hiatus to allow for the Mother of all Novenas, this temporary Sunday wanderlust continues, with an experience at a different parish church each Sunday. It will run nearly every week until yours truly is tired of running.
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It is difficult to imagine in the present day, but for more than a century after the end of the War Between the States, Virginia was very much a part of the south, and by extension, very Protestant.* Even the northern part of the state outside of the Nation's capital was still virtually a mission territory for the Faith. In 1912, a society of Catholic ladies began a program of religious instruction in a local cobbler's shop, for the children of families in the towns of Abington, Del Ray, and Saint Elmo, those which now comprise the northern part of the city of Alexandria. It was at that little storefront that Mass was first said, and that the story of a faith community began. As a mission of the long-established Saint Mary's Parish in "Old Town" Alexandria, a little stone church was erected just two years later in nearby Mount Ida. In 1924, the Bishop of Richmond elevated it to the status of a parish, in the title of Saint Rita of Cascia, an Italian widow and Augustinian nun of the late Middle Ages, and patroness of hopeless causes.
The war production buildup, already underway by 1940, brought a considerable rise in the population, and the pastor secured a three-acre plot about a mile to the north on Russell Avenue, with enough room for a school, a convent, a rectory, and a larger church. In 1949, a beautiful Gothic edifice of Virginia fieldstone and Indiana limestone was completed and dedicated. But for a narrow separation of the main altar from the reredos, to allow for the celebration of Mass "versus populum," the appearance of the church interior has changed little in more than seventy years since then. In addition to being arguably the most beautiful church in what is now the Diocese of Arlington, there is an impressive listing on the parish website of clubs and activities, with a unique outreach, not only to the Latino community, but to “the young at heart approximately between the ages of eighteen and forty.” (One may wonder just how broadly "young at heart" is interpreted.) And although the parish school is no longer administered by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chestnut Hill, its lower grades are at full capacity, a sure sign of growth among young families.
As one walks amidst the stone walls and pillars of this place of worship, it speaks to the viewer of permanence, of stability, of a place that weathers the storm, that is here to stay. Such is a reminder of the things that matter, that one need not be far from the kingdom of God. Venturing into the church itself is where architect Samuel J Collins further demonstrates his acute understanding of traditional church architecture. The viewer gazes upon a space that is devoid of excessive decoration that was characteristic of parish churches in North America up to that time. The order and proportion therein speak for themselves through the generations.
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The Sunday Mass at eleven in the morning is said to appeal to those inclined toward a "reform of the reform" of the sacred liturgy. Contrary to popular opinion that such an endeavor is an attempt to create a "hybrid" of both pre-conciliar and post-conciliar forms of the Mass (a rumor generated mostly by those who know just enough to show off what they don't know), it is in fact a two-pronged initiative, both to examine what the Council Fathers actually intended for the reform of the Roman Mass, and in the interim, to celebrate the Novus Ordo Missae in a manner that respects its tradition and heritage. At a time and place when the Traditional Latin Mass becomes more available, this is an opportunity that is often overlooked, one that can reach a broader spectrum of the Latin-rite faithful.
To this end, the parish uses the “Lumen Christi” missal and hymnal, both the work of Illuminare Publications. The choir sings the Propers for the Mass -- the Introit, Offertory, and Communion Antiphons, supplemented by verses based upon the Graduale Romanum (thus reviving an ancient practice associated with the antiphons). Those hymns that are sung are in English or Latin.
Only boys or men serve the priest, and Communion is administered kneeling at the altar rail, whether on the tongue or in the hand, and only by the priests. The reverence accorded to the ars celebrandi is tempered somewhat by a certain minimalism. The procession seems a bit rushed, walking at a somewhat brisk pace, as if on a deadline. Parts of the Mass best chanted (as shown in the pew missal) are spoken, which while a common practice in most parishes today, even at a "sung" Mass, neglects availing itself of one of the features given new emphasis in the 2011 English-language Sacramentary. If a liturgical counter-reform would deign to put the "High" back into the "High Mass," one would hope for no less clear a distinction between "High" and "Low."
It cannot escape notice that the priest here celebrates Mass "ad orientem," that is, "facing East," if only metaphorically, so that he and the faithful are facing the same direction, thus "turning toward the Lord" together. What is equally inescapable is that the priest's chair -- the "sedilia," as it is known -- is conspicuously placed on what appears to be the ledge at one side near the reredos. The celebrant faces the people from a higher place than when he is when the Mass culminates at the altar. It is obvious from the design of the sanctuary (to say nothing of custom) that the sedilia was never intended to be at such a lofty vantage point, but rather down below at the "plano," the floor of the sanctuary. It is from below where the Mass begins, reminiscent of the ascent to the "holy mountain" cited in the traditional prayers at the foot of the altar.
The result of this physical arrangement defies the hierarchy within the Mass itself, wherein one enters into the Holy of Holies from the outer sanctum. All told, and in an otherwise magnificent setting, the priest becomes more noticeable than the ritual action, one of the very things which "ad orientem" worship is intended to avoid.
An ancient and laudable practice that deserves mention, and is commonly overlooked by even "conservative" parishes, is the ability to go to confession immediately before Mass, and even during its beginning. This is how it used to be done in most places, rather than dropping everything and going to church on a Saturday afternoon (which is easy to rail about if you're standing at a pulpit without children to care for), or even worse, making an appointment. In the post-conciliar years, this practice has been looked down upon by pointy-headed liturgical scholars, as a detraction from the central action of the Eucharist (which seems not to be a problem elsewhere for liturgical dancers and a bevy of ministerial minions invading the holy place), the practice serves to highlight both the contemplative and diverse aspects of the sacramental life of the Church. One is there to reconcile with God and neighbor before communing at the table of the Lord.
The church is just over half full this day, and most of the congregants are in their twenties and thirties. (Just like my day job, I'm practically the oldest guy in the building.) The choir of about a dozen young ladies fills the air with lovely voices from the loft. The homily given by the celebrant, who is also the pastor; a young, congenial, squared-away sort of fellow, is bold, enthusiastic, yet conversational. There is no doubt as to one's catholicity, where one is to stand. We hear no call to condemnation, but to conversion.
After Mass, there are those who stay briefly, and it would appear that a number of them make their way to the nearby Wafle Shop. (That's "Wafle" with one "F." Don't ask me why.) This diversion is yet to be confirmed, but it only makes sense. Conspicuously absent here is the suburban mentality of emptying a huge parking lot as quickly as possible (the needs of families with young children notwithstanding), in a mad dash to what is ostensibly a day of rest.
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There are those among the status quo at both ends of the ideological spectrum, for whom St Rita's might stand as a defiance of conventional wisdom. They do not see the "Tridentine" Mass offered on Sundays (as at present it is available on holydays of obligation and select weeknights), and decry the faithful rallying around a "reverent Novus Ordo" as if to a lost cause. Conversely, there is also no attempt at rebranding, as witnessed by some Protestant "emerging churches" (and a few Catholic ones only recently), with the usual unbridled enthusiasm and soon-to-be-dated musical genré (or in the manner of some progressive urban parishes administered by the Society of Jesus, which is another story for another day). What is found in a renewed urban neighborhood in northern Virginia, is a renewed approach to a tried-and-true model of parish life, one that reaches its people where they are, whether under forty, or over fifty, and leads them higher.
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* When this writer first moved to northern Virginia in December of 1980 and was looking for an apartment, one high-rise development had a line on its application for "Religion." It was left blank. Whether or not this was a factor in being passed over remains a mystery to this day.