Monday, June 11, 2007

New Springtime in Kalamazoo

I seem to recall some old movie, or maybe it was a book, in which young priests came into a dying parish setting and revived it, essentially making a desert bloom. Well, it’s not fiction, for I’ve seen it in Kalamazoo, Michigan, at St. Mary’s parish, as served by priests from the St. Philip Neri House.

I had the pleasure of conducting a chant and polyphony workshop here over the weekend, and leading 30 plus singers to a new familiarity with the most beautiful music in the world. We sang and sang to the glory of God. The liturgies, carefully done and precisely according to the rubrics, were wonderful and inspiring in every way.

What really stands out in my mind was what happened Sunday afternoon at 4:00pm, at the scheduled benediction and procession service for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. Many people came to pray and participate. There were ten torch-bearing servers. The music was again lovely. Incense was abundant. The service was a mix of Latin and English. But what really strikes me is how remarkable it is that people came. These are Catholics we are talking about, folks who mostly regard their duty as having been fulfilled after an hour a week at Mass.

Not at St. Mary’s. They come for Mass. They stay for coffee and donuts. They stay longer for Catechism and instruction. They come back that afternoon for liturgy. They return the next morning for Mass. They come for various events during the week, as well as other classes. The Knights of Columbus chapter is growing and while I was there, there was always a Knight standing guard in front of the monstrance the entire time.

Seeing all this is almost unbelievable to me, especially considering that only a few years ago, this parish, located in the poorest neighborhood of Kalamazoo, was almost closed down. And the plans for the future are quite spectacular, and involve not only expanding and renovating the physical structure of the church and offices but also to provide more services to the surrounding community. It seems very clear that ten years from now, this parish will have been the source of a huge renewal in the entire community.

See what I mean about how this seems to be a story from film or fiction?

To understand the reason for all this, you have to reflect on the lives of the men who serve this parish. They are with the St. Philip Neri House and oratory in Kalamazoo, as led by Father Robert Sirico. The priests here serve several parishes in the area.

By serve, I mean constantly and unrelentingly. They are the busiest people I know. They have morning prayer and Mass in the house, daily Masses at local parishes, evening prayer, and field an unrelenting stream of calls from people with special needs. They are always on the go, to hospitals, parishes, prisons, or meetings with people. They meet all day for counseling seasons, private RCIA instruction, baptisms, home visits to the sick, and taking communion to those who cannot attend Mass. In the night, it is not unusual for the phone to ring several times from people with requests and needs. It seems like the priests are always available.

The atmosphere at the house is interesting, a combination of prayerfulness and constant work. Ora et labora. The men laugh, eat, and pray together. Their daily activities themselves (cleaning, cooking, gardening, making vestments and liturgical items, etc.) are accomplished with something approaching a liturgical sensibility. There is a like a calm whirlwind of activity going on all the time.

It is a modern house with all the latest technology (I’m writing from their wireless connection) and the priests use blackberries for receiving and sending email) but the spiritual sensibility reminds one of what we imagine monasteries were like in the early medieval period. A visitor such as myself is treated with the utmost hospitality and yet if find it impossible to keep up with the schedule. I’m always a step behind these priests, who seemed to have mastered the art of time and space management.

If you look at the pictures of the primary parish they serve, someone from the outside might observe that it is a model of conservative styles in liturgy. Latin is everywhere. The smell of incense never quite evaporates before the next round comes. Many people kneel for communion. But an outsider might be surprised to know that the priests came to this parish with no liturgical agenda as such. They never imposed anything on anyway, never announced new policies or beat anyone over the head with rubrical books or encyclicals.

The watchword here is service before anything else. The liturgy follows naturally from that. So there is peace throughout the parish, and I sense a level of devotion to the Eucharist unlike any I’ve seen.

There is a lesson here for all people who desire liturgical renewal. In many ways, it is better to think of this not as an agenda-driven goal as such, but rather the fruit of service and charity. The service and charity come first. The liturgical renewal is but an outward expression of the underlying reality. In any case, this is how it happened at St. Mary’s parish.

Do the people appreciate these priests? My goodness yes. Every parishioner seems to have a story about how a priest from the St. Philip Neri House was there when someone was in the hospital, how a priest came to a graduation party, how a priest helped a person come to understand a particular doctrine or assisted in a time of crisis. If you ask any parishioner about them, their eyes widen and they inundate you with praise and thankfulness.

After the Corpus Christi procession on Sunday afternoon, Fr. David Grondz came outside to present the new uniforms to the newly formed parish basketball team (St. Mary Falcons) donated by the local Lenny’s Sub Shop. All the guys immediately put them on and circle around each, given high fives and posing for pictures. People were just wild for it all. The priests were there in the thick of it in their cassocks, laughing and enjoying every minute.

How can anyone see such a scene and not be moved? The Catholic faith here is the source not only of spiritual revival but the revival of hope in all these people’s lives. It is certainly a new springtime in Kalamazoo.

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