Monday, November 08, 2010

All Souls Day at St. John Berchman Cathedral in Shreveport

Sent in by Father Luke Melcher of the Diocese of Alexandria, LA:

Almost 40 years ago, the Jesuit Church of St. John Berchmans in Shreveport, Louisiana had its last solemn requiem. Fr. Peter Mangum, rector and pastor of the the now Cathedral of St. John Berchmans, offered the Solemn Requiem Mass for the deceased clergy and parishioners of the cathedral parish. The Diocese of Shreveport celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary, having been carved from the Diocese of Alexandria, which celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the transfer of the see from Natchitoches this year. Fr. Peter Faulk and I assisted as subdeacon and deacon respectively and as priests of the Diocese of Alexandria, we saw an opportunity to offer prayerful solidarity and liturgical assistance in this restoration of the Mass for the Dead.

Because of the historical French and Spanish influences, there is a prevalent culture surrounding the dead of Louisiana. It is not uncommon for families to prepare for the feast of All Soul's by cleaning and painting the family plot and graves, which are uniquely above-ground, encased in brick or cement because the water-table precludes ground burial. As a result, a necropolis is formed which leaves the impression that the dead are still among us, not hidden. Perhaps this is why over 500 people attended the evening Mass during a torrential rain and thunderstorm, to connect with their dead.

The catafalque was covered with a funeral pall constructed for my grandmother's funeral and was recently accented with Spanish galloon; it will be used for future family burials. The vestments were designed and made by a small shop on Calle Franco in Seville, Casa Rodriguez. Made with Italian damask, Spanish velvet and galloon, the unique features of this Spanish set are found in the 'guitar-back' of the chasuble and the unique collars of the dalmatic and tunic, leftover from the days of the appareled amice. The set working in the Holy Mass offers a sober joy and dignity to a profound subject, death.

The sacred music of the Church was executed with precision and diligence by the cathedral choir and schola with the diocesan choir of St. Cecilia under the direction Mr. Justin Ward. Mr. Ward (who is unrelated to Justine Ward) has taken up an ambitious work in an area which had all but forgotten the great patrimony of chant. Now, he and Fr. Mangum are working together in the parish school to bridge the divide. Their work is formidable and exemplary, when many others in less straits would have recoiled and desisted because of the naysayers. School children are again singing the Gregorian ordinaries in Shreveport and many young men are coming forward to serve at the holy altar. Is there any surprise?

Yet, what is most surprising to me are those who, marked by their ecclesiological and generational tendencies, are now receptive to the EF. At this requiem, there were present those who strongly resisted any contact or promotion of the Extraordinary Form on principle. Yet, after having assisted at this (dare I say 'pastoral') requiem, with tears in the eyes and profound sentiments in the heart, one definitively declared, "This is a gift to the Church." Convincing others of the value of this form of the Mass is becoming rather effortlessness now that the seal has been broken. The effortlessness is in that the Holy Requiem speaks a language inherently understood by all. The ritual and gestures guard the most tender part of a person, their interiority; there, their grief, is hidden from the eyes of others, yet paradoxically this interiority is liberated to throw itself open, exposing its crushed spirit before the one God who died too.

Perhaps this is why we don't need long sermons and panegyrics; people just get it. Long ago had the requiem plowed deep furrows in the psyche and ethos of Louisiana Catholics and their mourning. Its reappearance now deeply resonates within our little culture and will, no doubt, become that which will give vitality to a French and Acadian culture being cheaply reduced to its beads and booze at Mardi Gras. If my grandfather Chenevert would be alive today, he would have said to me in French, "Don't drop the potato," meaning "Don't give up your heritage," a rallying phrase for any Creole or Acadian to continue the tradition of one's Catholic faith and French tradition no matter the persecution or cost.

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