Sunday March 4, 2012. St. Clare of Assisi Parish, Ellisville MO
One of the things that was impressed upon me when I moved to St.Louis almost 7 years ago is that this was an incredibly Catholic area. St. Louis was founded as an outpost of the French Empire so the Catholic church was here from day 1. Later waves of Catholic immigration from Ireland, German, Italy et al. cemented this as a Catholic hotbed. It remains so today. Within a 10 mile radius of Emerson Chapel are several huge Catholic parishes. The one just down the street is St. Clare of Assisi, known by locals as “the potato chip church” for its unique architecture. It was built in the 1960s and is characteristic of the architectural experiments of its day. The roof is shaped like a giant potato chip.
There is a school connected to the parish and this affects my life many times a week because I drive by the school on the way to my partner’s acupuncture clinic. I know better than to try and get anywhere fast on Clayton Road when school lets out midafternoon. It’s crazy.
St. Clare of Assisi has five weekend masses – one on Saturday and four on Sunday. Plus mass every single day, sometimes twice a day. I attended the 10 a.m. mass on Sunday. I got there five minutes early and was part of the traffic jam getting into the parking lot. There were no spots left so I followed the traffic around behind the school and parked there.
People were streaming into the sanctuary. It was absolutely jam packed. My guess is there is seating for at least 500. I sat in the back 1/4 of the sanctuary which seems to have been the young family area. I was surrounded by children. However, as a whole, the gathered congregation was diverse in age. I saw a lot of young people, also a lot of seniors.
The procession started precisely at 10 a.m. The altar children were girls and boys. The choir to the side chancel was composed of women and men. The service progressed. I’ll be honest and tell you I have no idea how everyone knows what to say when, but they all do. They all know when to stand and when to kneel, when to cross themselves and when to say “And also with you.” I’ve been to many masses by now and I continue to get lost. Someone in front of me was thumbing through a mass guide. I found one and I still couldn’t figure out where we were. However, the order of service was pretty good for giving you a sense of where you were in the mass.
All the scripture readers were women. I liked that.
I was expecting very professional music. I was surprised. There was only one piano. The song leader, a woman, seemed pretty amateur to me. This congregation isn’t 500 strong for a mass because of the quality of music. I’ve been to other Catholic masses where the music is amazing. So why was this particular mass so full?
Probably because it is connected to the school. I’m getting the sense that one can be Catholic in St. Louis and that can be your whole world. Many of your neighbors are Catholic, your kids can go to Catholic school, your friends will be other Catholic families, the ones you stand with at soccer practice. Mass is just one more piece of a very complex and dynamic and huge community.
I have to say I felt almost as foreign in the Catholic mass as I did at the Jewish service. I grew up in the Mennonite church which pretty much abstains from ritual and liturgy. The highlight of a Protestant service is the sermon. That is simply not the case in a Catholic mass. The homily at the mass I attended was less than 7 minutes. It focused on the story of Abraham listening to God and being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, and then on the story of Jesus where God says, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” The priest’s homily focused on 1) why it was so short (so people paid attention) and 2) be ready to listen for God. We didn’t get any examples of what that might look like, just be ready to hear the voice of God. I was not inspired.
But maybe that’s not what the homily is supposed to do because that’s not where the power is. The power is in the Eucharist, which is the high point of the Catholic mass. If you’re Protestant, or have come from a Protestant background (with the exception of High Episcopal), just don’t expect to get at an intuitive level how important the Eucharist is. We’re just not going to. We can approach it intellectually, I don’t know if we can get it in our guts. There is so much liturgical preparation for the Eucharist in the mass. It is everything. It is the presence and being of Christ among us.
The only hint of any commentary regarding the outside world happened in the prayers to the people. We prayed for the government leaders to hear its people, for they were not being heard. I suspect this had to do with the whole issue surrounding the health care mandate to give women access to birth control without co-pays. As you will see later I was right on that one. We also prayed for the protection of innocent life, which I strongly suspect correlates to the Catholic church’s strong anti-abortion stance. As you will see later, I was right on that one too.
So, once all that is done, we move towards the Eucharist, the most sacred moment in the service, which is when, according to Catholic doctrine, the bread and wine literally transform into the body and blood of Christ. The priest says the invocation that everyone knows by heart, everyone responds with words they know by heart, they all kneel at exactly the same time, file forward for the sacraments, kneel again, respond with words they all know, and the service is over. It amazes me every time.
I did not take communion because the Catholic Eucharist is not open. I have once, at a parish where the priest, who is friends with a friend of mine and very progressive, made sure to speak with me prior to the service and let me know I was welcome to participate. He had to do this carefully because the doctrinal position of the Catholic church is that you have to be Catholic to receive the sacraments. He could get in a lot of trouble for what he does. Since I received no such invitation here, I declined to participate. I think I was the only person in that huge sanctuary who did not go forward.
As we filed out, people stood at the doors and handed us that week’s newsletter. This is a very active parish. There are so many groups. The newsletter also mentioned pastoral concerns, offered a stewardship update, announced several different retreats (men’s, women’s, etc.) the Lent Fish Fry schedule, educational pieces, offered a prayer line, support for the unemployed, and social justice activities including a food drive, a rally for religious liberty at the Department of Health and Services (remember this was the week that all hell broke loose regarding the new mandate that contraception be a basic health care need for women, hence no co-pays.), and two days of protesting outside St. Louis Planned Parenthood to support the 40 Days for Life.
I must admit I was somewhat relieved that I arrived at mass in my new car that has, as of yet, no bumper stickers. My old car sported a HRC sticker and a prominent bumper sticker that read “Pro Faith, Pro Family, Pro Choice.” It was nice to be invisible (besides being the only one in a gathering of hundreds not to take the sacraments of course). I did feel myself start to get angry. I have stood on the opposite side of those protests. I have joined other clergy inside the gates of Planned Parenthood, in support of the women who arrive facing lines of protesters reciting the rosary and others screaming at them for murdering babies. I must say that the Catholics seem to be the most respectful of the protesters. They just stand there praying and reciting the rosary. They don’t seem to be the ones hurling insults using religious language. But their intent is clear – they are expressing the judgment of the Catholic church (and thus God) against those women. I wonder what it feels like for a Catholic woman to arrive at Planned Parenthood and have to walk by a line of priests praying the Rosary. I imagine it could be very difficult. I can only imagine the guilt it could bring to the surface.
This is what I tried to keep in mind as I tried not to overreact:
There are many ways to be Catholic. When I posted about my experience at St. John Lutheran, which will not ordain women or give lay women any authority over their ministers, I was reminded by a member of Emerson that she grew up in that church and that her mother strongly disagrees with that position. We can’t assume that all Catholics tow the party line. In fact, I know of some people who attend St. Clare of Assisi and have some pretty strong feelings about the current state of affairs of the Catholic Church. They continue to attend because they are not going to give up their church to the religious conservatives. Someone had to be there holding on, first with John Paul II, now with Benedict. God knows who will come next.
They maintain their voice by staying and continuing to work from within for change. Also, I trained as a chaplain in a Catholic hospital. I worked alongside nuns, priests, and a pretty amazing ex-priest who could do theological exegesis in a way that I didn’t know was possible. I also attend Holy Week services at an off the beaten path former Catholic retreat center run by some very on the margins Catholic women who rock. They are eco-theologians, liberation theologians and feminists and they are on it! These experiences are a major part of what allowed me to approach Christianity with fresh eyes and see in it some pretty liberating powerful stuff. I would have to say I found new life, spiritual new life, because of my work with liberal Catholics.
So we should not assume that just because someone is attending mass that they agree with everything they hear. There are a lot of progressive Catholics who are hanging on, tired often, discouraged often, but they are not ceding their church. They are waiting for the day when there is enough critical mass to once again, effect life affirming change.
Think Vatican II, the most progressive era of Catholicism. It can happen again.
One other thing. I have grown in my appreciation for how much of a cultural shift it must be for former Catholics to come into the Unitarian Universalist church. Our service is incredibly Protestant in structure – in the way we sing, what many of us think liturgy is, in the prominence of the sermon, and how we pray, if we pray. I will hear many Catholics now UU say, “I don’t miss the theology, but I sure miss the liturgy.” I am getting a better sense of what they mean. There must be, at some level, a sense of loss.