Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Astonishing Work of St. John Cantius

I’ve heard wonderful things about St. John Cantius in Chicago, and I had the opportunity to interview of its priests for Sacred Music, but nothing could have prepared me for the full glory of the reality that this parish is. I was here for a training session in the sung Mass for celebrants, from Wednesday through Friday, so I was not there for Sunday. Nonetheless, I was overwhelmed.

In its perfect unity of liturgy, great music, and intense attachment to orthodox faith, this parish is a model for the nation or even the whole of the English speaking world. Nothing I say here can portray the glory that exists here, so I can only encourage that you plan a family vacation to spend several days here at least. It will purge you of whatever despair you feel about the state of the Church in America. For there is no question that this is where the Church is headed, as its example spreads—as it is now—and draws ever more people by its example.

The parish is home of the canons regular of St. John Cantius, which makes this an unusual setting. It is a combination parish and monastery – that’s the best way I can describe it. There are six priests and some 15 novices studying under very strict discipline. They are all wonderful men, what we think of as the ideal. They are smart, hard working, and always of good cheer. They are studying liturgy and music and theology. They are not permitted to leave the grounds without permission. They are not permitted to have laptops and face an incredible schedule of daily liturgies and studies. Whatever the rules of their formation, it is working. Some outstanding priests are coming out of here.

Everyday, they participate in the public sung office: lauds, sext, vespers, and compline. I attended all of these, some of the old form and some in the new form, mostly a hybrid of Latin and English. There are also three Masses every day, and while I was here I was the ordinary form English, Latin, and mixed, and extraordinary form Missa Cantata and Solemn High Mass. Every liturgy is in the main Church, which is massive and beautiful, with two balconies. Everything is done with utmost attention to detail, quality, and beauty.

There are so many choirs I couldn’t keep up: a wonderful childrens’ choir, or maybe several, a girls’ choir, several adult choirs, and a professional choir. The repertoire comes from all centuries, all high quality. The organ is played for recessionals and other times. There is a delightful absence of hymns, and the people sing the Ordinary. All propers are sung in Latin, mostly from the Graduale – and for the first time, I actually hard a proper from the Graduale Simplex (it confirmed my sense that this book serves no good purpose, but I was still glad to hear it).

There is simply no way to attend everything. The incense fires up every few hours and takes over. I can’t imagine what the bill is for the incense and candles. I quickly lost track of what form was next, as the ordinary form easily move to the extraordinary form and back again. All Masses are said ad orienttem. I began to play a little game if I happened to show up late: which form is this? It took longer than one would think, until finally I seized on a tiny element that distinguishes them. But it was not always easy.

The history of this parish is amazing. It was nearly shut down less then 20 years ago. Then one priest became pastor: Fr. Frank Philips. He is now the superior of the ever-expanding Order of St. John Cantius. His prayer life and actions made the difference. He is the most charming person, self-effacing in the extreme. When he talks of this history of this parish, he talks about everyone but himself. If you praise his vision, he changes the subject and diverts the topic. He makes a powerful point of theology and spirituality but prefaces by saying that he is no intellectual. I had imagined him to be an older man, but he seems young in so many ways. His countenance is bright, his spirits are high, and he seems to have all the time in the world to talk and talk.

I especially appreciate that this parish never defined itself as a traditionalist outpost. What it is does is within the mainstream of the liturgical life of the Church: precise attachment to the documents of the Second Vatican Council. It has long had the indult for the older Mass but Summorum Pontificum has unleashed this parish in every way. It now runs a website to teach the old form and encourage an understanding of the modern rite in light of the old.

You can wander around the parish for hours and be in awe of the paintings, the liturgical items, the reliquaries, the huge beer stein collection in the dining room, and on and on.

What this parish has become is a model for the future of the American Church, and anyone visiting there can’t deny it. For this reason, it is continually hosting visits by Cardinals and Bishops. In a time when parishes are struggling, vexed by struggles between parish committees, and faced with dramatic declines in virtually every area, this parish and order booming and their spirits are high.

While we were there, we were among the first to hear the wonderful news that the Order has been given yet another parish in town, and is sending an assistant pastor to become the new pastor. See what is happening here? In time, this Order will be providing priests for the whole diocese. They will be well trained, super dedicated, and some of the finest in the nation.

It was a great occasion of grace, and a pleasure, to be there for three days. The weather was awful, the traffic of Chicago dreadful, but when enter the doors of St. John Cantius you feel that you have entered a mansion in Heaven.

For those of us working in the trenches, there is a temptation toward extreme forms of jealousy until you realize the hope that comes with seeing a living example of the ideal, working like a perfectly built machine, day in a day out. Sitting here so many miles away, I find my heart longing to go back. A far better feeling is the desire to replicate the passion, beauty, dedication, and glory of all I saw right where I am, in whatever way I can.

I’ll say again that a pilgrimage is in order. We should all be so grateful to Fr. Philips, Fr. Scott Haynes, and all the others here. It deserves to be known and beloved the world over.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: