27 July, 2008

You can't go home again, unless you speak a different language

When I was a seminarian for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, I had two home parishes of sorts. One was the parish where I had made the decision to enter the formation process. This was the small parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount, Virginia. It's a nice parish, and probably ordinary in many ways, although at the time that I was there it was a little extraordinary in that its "pastoral director" was a religious sister instead of a priest. (They received a priest in residence when she left, which was shortly after I entered seminary. I doubt any of these events were related.)

The second parish was Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a large parish that I frequented when visiting my parents in Newport News. The pastor of Mt. Carmel at that time was Monsignor Michael McCarron, a large man with a booming voice who exuded confidence both in himself and in the Catholic Church.*

One could probably write several books about Msgr. McCarron, and perhaps someone will one day. During the time that he served as pastor of Mt. Carmel, it grew immensely. If memory serves, the RCIA class topped out over 100 for several years in a row. New buildings were built; new ministries were developed; etc. The one building that wasn't expanded was the worship space; during the morning masses it was regularly packed to overflowing. Easter and Christmas celebrations presented logistical nightmares that involved several simultaneous masses. Three priests served at the parish, and for a while it incubated a number of seminarians and deacons destined for the priesthood. Much of what went on was started and carried on by an active laity with the full blessing of the pastor & his vicars. It was, in many respects, the epitome of the mega-parish, which Msgr. McCarron frequently described as the future of the Catholic Church.

Since I've been in town… I returned to Mt. Carmel today. Msgr. McCarron has long since moved to another parish, but if memory serves the number of Masses, along with their scheduled times, remains the same. The number of priests at the parish has diminished by one. On the other hand, the once-legendary, packed-to-overflowing 11·30 mass is far different.

How? To begin with, it's a Spanish-language Mass. (I knew this going in; I had visited the website, and I am sufficiently familiar with Spanish that I was happy to visit and see.) Many of the ministers speak English, and the parish pastor speaks English and Spanish. However, he delivered the homily in English, with a native Spanish speaker translating each sentence. The alternation of language takes the edge off some of the jokes.

This may not seem remarkable, except that I last remember visiting the 11·30 mass not so many years ago. At the time, it remained a mostly English affair, with nearly everyone in attendance a "white Catholic", and the music of an abysmally bland variety that one usually finds in "white Catholic" parishes. I recall an announcement being made that they would start introducing some Spanish hymns and/or phrases into the Mass, in order to make their Spanish-speaking sisters and brothers feel welcome. Back then, the 11·30 mass was packed so badly that I avoided it whenever possible, even driving longer distances to other parishes.

By now, both the white Catholics and the English language have virtually disappeared from that Mass. Today it seemed sparsely populated. I'm sure it was more than half full, but in comparison to the old 11·30 masses, where people were lined up along the walls and outside the doors, the place looked empty. Where did all those people go? I have a hard time believing that they shifted to other masses, both because of the less convenient times and because those other masses were also fairly well packed. Strange.

On the other hand, this Mass sounded louder and more raucous than my memories of the old 11·30 masses. This is no mean feat; the old 11·30 mass was often noisy and at one point Msgr. McCarron ordered the bathroom doors locked because people rose too often to visit the bathroom. All this commotion was only worsened by the design of the worship space, where two halves of the congregation "face off" with the altar between them. The design is supposedly inspired by the choirs of monasteries, where monks do indeed face each other during the Divine Office—but the altar is not between them, and in my experience they turn to face the altar during the Mass, facing each other only during the Divine Office.

In any case, the Spanish choir sang vigorously today, accompanied ably by guitars and various instruments of percussion that characterize folk music south of our national borders. Unfortunately I didn't recognize any of the hymns from the repertory of Spanish hymns that I do know. I would have liked to sing along, but the Spanish-language missalette was hard to come by, and once I did come by one, it contained zarroo musical notation, so I couldn't figure out how to match the words to the music. How these modern hymnals are supposed to assist us with singing is a bit of a mystery to me.

Another strange thing: even the English-language missalettes are out of date. I don't say this because I was unlucky enough to sit in the one spot in the church where someone overlooked the 2007 missalette. After mass, I found a copy of the pastoral council minutes posted on a wall. "A parishioner" had raised the concern that the missalettes were out of date, to which the pastor replied that "the decision was made" to update the hymnals first. Now it's July, and the missalettes are still from 2007. Odd.

A few other things looked to be in disrepair, such as some plaster peeling off a doorway, but one can hardly extrapolate from one visit on one Sunday after several years.

So, you can't go home again, unless you speak a different language. A few things remain the same:

  • kneelers are absent, keeping with the Diocese of Richmond's longstanding notion that kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer is a sign of repentance, rather than a sign of adoration;
  • the Eucharistic bread remains a tough confection that one must chew;
  • the Mass was bereft of sacred silence.
So, as a matter of style, the Spanish-language mass appealed to me just as little as the English-language masses used to.

Nothing in this is inherent to Spanish-language masses or to Spanish speakers. Some of the quietest, most dignified, and most traditional masses I have experienced take place at the Catholic Church that I visit in Kazan, Russia, which is run by an Argentinean order of priests and sisters. It seems rather an inherent trait of the Diocese of Richmond.

The strangeness doesn't stop there. A local Catholic Charities outfit was recently racked by a scandal that strikes me as bizarre: four members of the staff helped an immigrant to obtain an abortion, and the bishop knew about it beforehand. Never mind the teaching of the Catholic Church; this was worsened by the fact that the immigrant was not yet a legal adult, so that the staffers broke a law of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

There is an explanation to all this (there always is):
  1. the bishop admits he knew, but says he was misinformed that nothing could be done to stop it;
  2. neither the girl, nor the staffers involved, were Catholics (strangely, the diocesan spokesman insists that Catholic teaching on abortion is "clear"—just not to people who work for the Church);
  3. Catholic Charities claims that the staffers were ignorant of the Church's teaching against abortion, and in any case they have been dismissed.

I'm sure that Msgr. McCarron, and many of the other priests of the diocese, had a solid, reassuring answer for parishioners who came to him, troubled by this story. It probably started with the observation that one cannot rely on the AP for reliable news on the Church. I am sure that not a few of them shrugged to hear it. There are a few priests in this diocese who openly dissent from Church teaching, and a few more who dissent quietly, or only through wry comments that misrepresent the Church's teaching.

I also doubt Msgr. McCarron's confidence in the Church was shaken by the story. I cannot say the same for myself. As I wrote previously, this character flaw of mine is part of the reason I walked away. In my opinion, my current reaction is all the evidence I need that walking away was the right decision. His response would likely be what it was when I left formation: I need to open myself to grace.

There are certain issues where, like Peter, I never walk on water, but sink into it.

*A perfect example of his confidence in the Church, as well as his ability to turn the perfect phrase, was related to me by another priest, who described an incident where Msgr. McCarron asked a clerk in a Christian bookstore where the Bibles were. The clerk remarked, I didn't know that Catholics read the Bible, to which Msgr. answered, Read it? We wrote it!

I can turn a phrase rather quickly, too, but they tend to be perfectly tactless, which figured into my decision to leave formation. This decision, along with the haste in which I made it, dismayed Msgr. McCarron, who reminded me in a long conversation that what matters is not our weakness but God's strength. (Something to that effect. The precise words escape me now.)

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