Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Beginnings of a Serving Tradition: St Mary’s 11 Years Later

The arrival and passing of October has become a yearly reminder of how the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite became such an important part of St Mary’s Parish in Norwalk, Connecticut. Now known as a keystone parish in the restoration of the sacred to the liturgy, the seeds of that notoriety began in the damp and cold of October, 2007.
The Rev. Greg Markey, pastor of St Mary’s at the time, had learned the traditional form of the Roman Rite in 2001, and celebrated the Mass regularly for the St Gregory Society of New Haven, which sponsored the services at Sacred Heart Church. Fr Markey, who became pastor of St Mary’s in 2004, had been moving the regular liturgy toward a more traditional style, celebrating the Novus Ordo in Latin, using the high altar on regular occasions, and moving the music program away from Glory and Praise and into plainsong and the choral masters.
When Summorum Pontificum was promulgated on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross that year, he determined he would more towards having a regular high mass. One of the first things he knew he had to do was train his servers.
Sacred Heart Church, New Haven, was the location for the traditional rites until it closed in September of 2009.
Fr. Markey had moved away from coed servers and toward an all-male group. As happens in most places where this is tried, the numbers increased, and he had close to 40 young men and boys who served weekly.
On Tuesday evenings in October, about 25 of those boys and young men trekked to the basement of St Patrick’s Chapel to begin learning the prayers and responses of the Traditional Mass. This writer was asked to do the training. For five consecutive Tuesdays and for several rehearsals after that, the boys learned by repetition the responses for mass.
There was a problem: None had ever seen the traditional rite, and many had no idea what it was. Out of loyalty to their pastor, the boys, along with Deacon Stephan Genovese, learned the “Prayers at the Foot of the Altar,” the versicles and responses, the “Suscipiat” and the various other things they were expected to be ready to say. Still, this was done without them understanding where, when or why they would make these responses.
But Fr. Markey had a plan. He was scheduled to sing the Mass and Benediction for the Feast of Christ the King at Sacred Heart in New Haven on the last Sunday of the month. This was going to be his opportunity to bring the boys down and have them take part in the service. The feast was and is still a big one for the St Gregory Society, and included Solemn Mass, exposition, Litany of the Sacred Heart, Act of Reparation and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. 
The boys were going to get a dose of the ancient rite and traditional devotion they could never imagine.
We attempted some “walk-throughs” at St Mary’s, but attempting to show liturgical choreography to a group that had never seen the rite had its pitfalls. We did a rehearsal the day of the Mass when a caravan of automobiles from Norwalk traveled the 35 miles north to New Haven. What we did that day was have the Norwalk boys “shadow” the regular servers. The thurifer and his shadow stood side-by-side. The acolytes shadowed. Instead of two acolytes there were four. The torch-bearers had the six required, and another six kneeling right behind. It was a way to have them see, up close, the liturgy and what was required.
It worked. The kids were flawless, interested, and finally understood the position of the prayers they learned in relation to the liturgical action, and they were awed by the sights and smells, and the sounds of a polyphonic choir in the context of the rite. It all came together for them. Afterwards, there was a trip to downtown New Haven to pizza restaurants which is famous throughout the world.
Eventually, the ancient rite was added to St Mary’s regular schedule, and that group of servers continued to learn and perfect their roles.
St Mary’s is now one of the leading parishes in the country, offering both forms of the Roman Rite. The church now boast close to 60 servers, most of which are seen during the Sunday High Mass.
Some 11 years later and two pastors removed, we are now in the fourth generation of servers. Many of that original group, now in their 20s and pushing 30, are faithful to the parish. Some have discerned vocations and are studying for religious orders or the secular priesthood. They all agree that learning the traditional rite of Mass was a pivotal moment in their lives, and helped them understand more fully the doctrines they had been taught.
As with any large group of boys, the older guys teach the younger. They also act as sergeants-at-arms if the boys get too rambunctious. The progress through their roles from closing the gates or ringing the tower bells to more involved roles as they get older. 
Under the tutelage of Master of Ceremonies John Pia, one of the best students of the traditional rites on the planet, the worship at St Mary’s has become a template for others who are just beginning. His work with the servers since he arrived in January 2008 has molded the corps into a cohesive unit, but also taught the young men lessons they could scarcely learn elsewhere: teamwork, responsibility, and precision -- all for the greater Glory of God.
With the guidance first of Fr Markey, then Fr Richard Cipolla, and now the newly installed pastor, the Rev. John Ringley, St Mary’s now boasts a unit of servers that nears 60, ranging from eight to 24. Lifelong friendships have been forged here. Lifelong lessons have been learned here. Lifelong love of the Faith has been nurtured here. It’s a traditional part of a bigger tradition.
And it all started on a damp cold night in October eleven years ago.

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