Thursday, January 2, 2014

"Rebuilt": A Catholic reviews the book and the parish

"My house will be rebuilt in you with joy." Book of Psalms

Several months ago I was asked by my pastor to read the book Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter by co-authors Michael White  and Tom Corcoran
as part of an exercise in discernment for a parish council retreat.

As I recall, some of the key things that were emphasized in the book were liturgical orthodoxy, excellent preaching, a welcoming environment, a clean church, parking attendants, high quality music and a focus on reaching out to a non-practicing Protestant or lapsed Catholic character called “Timonium Tim” who was central to the mission and service of the church.

After reading the book I had a strong desire to attend Mass at the Church of the Nativity (CON) in order to reconcile my impressions from the book with the reality on the ground in Timonium.  I am a cradle Catholic who had a significant experience with learning about and owning my faith through a period of discernment and conversion in my early 20’s when I considered leaving the Church for a Baptist congregation.

 My family recently had the opportunity to attend a 9:00 a.m. Sunday Mass at CON. I was joined by my wife and four youngest children that day.  As we rounded the corner on the church driveway the parking lot attendants were there to greet us as promised!  There were friendly greeters at the door, which is a common sight at Catholic parishes these days. When we entered the building we saw an unmanned reception desk which I expected because recalling that the book described having a place where new folks could stop and ask questions and receive information about the parish. To my recollection the book didn’t describe the church sanctuary other than to say they had to work with what they inherited – a typical 50’s building.  Even so, I was slightly surprised at the austerity of the space. Somewhat dark – a brick box with carpeting throughout.

For some reason I was not surprised by the lack of kneelers or the fact that there was no tabernacle in sight.  There were large screens up high on the front wall of the space, an elevated, carpeted altar platform with a table, a simple ambo and a chair or chairs off to the side for the priest celebrant. The altar servers sat down on the left out of sight.  Behind the table against the back wall were two sound system monitor units on the floor and above that a spotlighted crucifix which was the only object with religious significance in sight. Suspended above the table altar was a sort of baldacchino with no religious imagery or markings.  Though I did not spend a significant amount of time looking around I did not any statuary or Stations of the Cross.

We entered the worship space to the low tones of the seated and socializing congregation.  We found a pew near the front and knelt on the carpet to pray momentarily and prepare for Mass. This was uncomfortable physically and out of place within the context as there were no kneelers and the ambience had the feel of a social setting more than an encouragement to personal devotion.  I also noticed at this point that there were no papers or books of any kind in the pew – continuing the theme of austerity.  The Mass began with music from the band and the entrance of the priest with two altar servers in cassock and surplice, neither bearing a processional crucifix.

As I expected from descriptions in the book, the band was excellent, playing praise type music of the highest quality, and as the Mass unfolded the lead singer obviously had the duty to lead the congregation in prayers as well as songs.  For some reason the large screens were not in use and so even though we were encouraged to join in the opening song we could not because we didn’t know the words. The opening song was somewhat long and so the priest went down off the altar and shook hands with some of the congregation after arriving at the altar.

My general impression of the Mass was that it was respectful and of good quality.  As I expected from the book, the Sanctus and Kyrie were sung in Latin in traditional tones which was good. Regrettably, the priest celebrant was not the Pastor, Father Michael White, and so I was not able to assess his preaching which is something that was strongly emphasized in the book.  However, the priest celebrant, whose name I do not know,  preached a good homily that related to the Gospel. As mentioned before there were no kneelers and so we knelt on the floor during the consecration but remained standing with the congregation after the Sanctus. At the Sign of Peace we were warmly greeted by those around us as was expected.

At communion time, I looked up from my preparation prayer to see a plethora of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (EMHC) who had appeared from where I could not tell, each with a ciboria.  They had not gone onto the altar platform at all, which I saw as a plus, however I am not sure when or where they got the sacred hosts from since they didn’t seem to have been consecrated by the priest and the tabernacle was nowhere in sight.  Holy Communion was only distributed in one species (a plus) and went VERY fast due to the number of EMHCs and the fact that the sacred vessels all disappeared rapidly after communion.  In fact, in a few short moments after I had received communion and knelt down to say my thanksgiving we were rising for the closing prayer and the priest was processing out.  I literally still had unconsumed fragments of the host in my mouth when the priest was walking out.

My compliments on a respectful Mass, a clean church, a good homily and very high quality music. Also, in CON’s defense, a single visit on a Sunday morning doesn’t tell one enough about a parish to make a good assessment.  One needs to answer other questions such as, are there active small prayer groups? Is there a good bible study program? How many are in the line at confession on Saturday afternoon? With that proviso here are some closing thoughts, observations and questions.

If we pray as we believe then we can learn about what we believe from our positions and postures during the Mass. How do new folks learn the prayers, positions and postures of the congregation at a Catholic Mass without an instructional prayer book? For example, the congregation doesn’t know to make a profound bow during the creed if they are not instructed; no one made a sign of reverence before receiving communion.  How can one participate in the music of the Mass without a song book if the big screens are not being utilized?

Many parishes have protracted problems with EMHCs despite and after extensive and repeated training, including their simultaneous communication of the sacred host with the priest on the altar, so my compliments go to CON for efficiency and discretion in this area.

CON has no Catholic art or statuary in the sanctuary.  I liken this to going on a trip and staying in a “suites” –type hotel with impersonal furniture and generic art on the walls versus staying in a friend’s home. Real family homes have furniture and art with personal relevance; they have pictures of family and deceased relatives on the wall to reverence their memory.  In a Catholic church we help to enculturate the faithful with “pictures” of our heavenly loved ones, statues of Mary and Joseph, through art and statuary. Upon entering a Catholic church one should feel the comfortable familiarity of a Catholic family home, not the generic austerity of a hotel room.

Finally, and most importantly, how do we cultivate a sense of prayerfulness and nourish an interior life if there is no time for personal prayer at Mass?  At CON there were no kneelers and the pre-Mass environment was discouraging of prayerful preparation.  There was no silence after communion and no time before or after communion for preparation or thanksgiving due to the incredible efficiency and speediness of the process of the distribution of communion.

Of course, after Mass, the parish was typical in that general socializing erupted even though CON has some great gathering spaces outside the sanctuary for that purpose. Is CON nurturing Catholics in a strong interior life? Are CON parishioners growing in the CATHOLIC faith and maturity in that faith?  Are CON parishioners being challenged and made uncomfortable and encouraged to “do the hard stuff” that Catholics are called to do? How is “Timonium Tim” doing several years down the road? Is CON a gateway church that brings in Protestants and lapsed Catholics and helps to cultivate a deep, adult and abiding Catholic faith?

By P of Catonsville, MD

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