Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Drawn through Beauty - Guest Article by Fr Charles Byrd

Fr Charles Byrd, pastor of Our Lady of the Mountains in Jasper, Georgia, here writes about his encounter with a man who wasn’t quite sure his church was Catholic, because the liturgy was done with some care for beauty. Our thanks to Fr Byrd for sharing this with our readers.

After the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass, I was spending time greeting people beneath the porch and in the narthex. It is a time when most pastors have a hundred or more conversations with folks who wait just to say a few words. There are some regular families who always want to briefly chat. Others might want to comment on the homily, and still others might want a scapular blessed, ask for prayers or for a special blessing before they travel. The narthex after Mass can be a joyful place really. On this particular Sunday, as the crowds grew thinner, I decided it was time to make my exit and go to divest, so I turned to walk towards the vestry.

From the shadows emerged a man I had never met before, who was obviously visiting for the first time, and who had evidently been waiting to speak to me last, once the crowds had cleared out. He was an older gentleman. You could tell by his stance and the diplomatic caution with which he was trying to form his question that he really didn’t want to be rude, but he needed some clarification. I could tell his heart was troubled, so I stopped to hear him out. He asked “Father, excuse me, but might I ask … is this parish under the auspices of the Holy See … that is to say the Pope?” To which I responded, “Yes sir, we are.” But he still needed further clarification “So then this parish is under the Archdiocese?” And again, I assured him, “Yes sir, we are.” He seemed relieved, and smiled, and just to make sure he said “Well, you see, Father, there are some parishes that claim to be Catholic but they really aren’t.” I nodded and assured him we were really Roman Catholic and in communion with the Pope.

Evidently, our guest was trying to make sure we really were not a schismatic parish. The reason this is so ironic is because it was summer, and during ordinary time our Mass parts are ordinarily sung in English. I mean we sung a Kyrie in Greek, but the rest of the Mass was entirely in the vernacular. Looking back over the liturgy in fact, there was not even a peep of Latin in any other part of that Mass. The summer break means there was no choir, and so it was a Mass with a cantor and an organist. All the proper chants were done in English. There was a hymn after communion and a hymn at the recessional, but both of these were in English too. My point is this was a congregational singing Mass … there were none of the anthems or polyphonic offerings we might hear when our choir gathers.

I also recall that some of our altar servers had failed to show up that Sunday so all we had were two servers for that Mass, which is unusual for us. One was the crucifer and the other was the thurifer. Moreover, our deacon’s dear wife was not well, so we had no deacon that weekend either. Consequently the liturgy was a bit sparse for us. I remember that I had preached briefly on the new stained glass windows in the narthex, and that we had prayed the Roman Canon that Sunday (again, in English, and versus populum). We had prayed for the pope and bishops in the anaphora and in the prayers of the faithful, and we had prayed for the cardinals in the upcoming Synod for the Family, that they would uphold the teachings of our Founder, and yet still, this gentleman wanted to make sure that we were Catholic.

This is a funny story, but it is also a sad one. You see this kind man wanted us to be Catholic, but he wasn’t sure we were Catholic because, well, we seemed to be really Catholic. I am not even sure he communicated that Sunday, so concerned was he that we might not really be Catholics (though he came back later that week for a daily Mass, and came up for Communion). Still this story demonstrates a point that needs to sink in. Our little parish does use Latin Mass parts seasonally, and our choirs will sing in Latin motets here and there, but none were heard that Sunday. Our rural parish doesn’t offer the Extraordinary Form Mass, though we might pray the Roman Canon in Latin but once a year. We routinely sing the dialogue prayers and presiding prayers on Sundays, and our cantor or choirs sing every sequence they can throughout the year, but again these are sung in English, and we almost never sing the Gospel. Our Sunday Masses are usually over within an hour, and if they go longer, it is because most folks come to the choir Mass, and those communion lines are longer (I’m sorry, but communion rails were just so much faster). The point is, our parish tries but we aren’t overly fussy about things (especially in the summer). This is not a city parish with lots of money and loads of nearby professional musicians for hire. We like to think of ourselves as poor, but classy, but we are decidedly rural and small. Nevertheless, because we are mindful of the liturgy, and because we sing the propers, and because our liturgies are noble and dignified, this confused guest presumed we must not really be Catholic.

What does that say about what is going on in other parishes?

I later came to find out that our guest was a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus. He was an ordinary Catholic man who wanted nothing more than to be a good Catholic. And I have to say he was so happy to find an ordinary Catholic parish that offered the Mass with dignity. I won’t be surprised if he makes us his permanent home. As a Catholic priest, I would like to challenge other parishes to consider this story. Keep in mind that I have nothing against the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. We’re just so small and rural, and I am all alone as a priest in the county, and swamped, and I want to bring unity to my parish. So we forge ahead the best we can out here. But I get a lot of folks driving up from the suburbs looking for something different. Why? I think it is because too often in the frenetic delirium to be relevant and up-to-date, and to try to reach the masses, we Catholics may just be losing the masses. So maybe it is time we paid more attention to the Mass. Seems to me what we need is stability and sanity. Just saying.

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