Sunday, January 18, 2009

And they don't even charge admission!



Every Monday evening at 7:00pm, before my wife gets off from work, I take my little, almost-four-year-old daughter with me to Mass at St. Josaphat's. It's an old historic Polish church with an ornate, brightly illuminated altar. The liturgy is the traditional usus antiquior, and ordinarily a Low Mass, although Solemn High Masses may be offered, such as the Requiem Mass on November 3, 2008 (as reported, "All Souls' Day Requiem Mass," Musings, November 3, 2008). Moreover, the St. Josaphat Sunday bulletin today announced that on feasts of significance (such as the upcoming Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary on February 2, also known as Candelmas), a sung Mass (Missa Contata) will be offered.

In any case, I always look forward to these Masses. I like going to them. The church is always quiet, especially if you arrive early, with the slight hiss of a radiator about the only thing audible. If we're early enough, I sometimes take my daughter around to the side altars, such as the one devoted to the Infant of Prague, Whom she especially likes, and we may light a candle and say a prayer together.

The congregation is small on Mondays, although I am always surprised that as many show up as do on these cold winter nights. St. Josaphat is a "commuter church," which means that most of those who attend drive at least a thirty-to-forty minutes to get there, since the church has no sustaining residential parish community residing in the inner city. From the seminary where I teach, however, it is only a ten-minute drive.

At 7 o'clock, a bell is rung, and everyone stands, as the altar servers and priest enter. The servers are each neatly vested is cassock and surplice, and the most visible vestments of the priest include his magnificent chasuble and biretta.

Almost immediately the Mass begins, with the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. If we sit close enough to the sanctuary, it is sufficiently quiet to hear the Confiteor being recited sotto voce in Latin, and to follow along in the Missal.

One of the things I like about this Mass, as I think about it, is that nothing distracts me from the focus of the liturgy (except, occasionally, my daughter). On the contrary, everything -- each part of the liturgy, every carefully-prescribed gesture of the servers and priest, their ad orientem disposition, their attentiveness and reverence toward the altar and the Tabernacle at its center, and even the silence -- seem to conspire to draw my attention toward the Lord. Not one gesture by priest or servers draws attention to itself, saying "Here, look at me!" but rather draws attention to what is going on at the altar in this great mystery of Redemption. Even the long reverent silences of the Canon, far from reducing me to a passive spectator, conduces to concentrate my attentiveness to what is transpiring, and so to promote -- in the truest sense -- my active participation in the liturgy.

Although it is a Low Mass, and so the Gloria and Credo are not sung, it is nevertheless a Low Mass with Hymns, and so there is some music. It isn't the Organum Chant heard here on Sundays, with the haunting ancient form of plainchant accompanied by a second voice on a single note, a drone, which always carries, for me, Middle Eastern overtones; nor is it the magnificent polyphony of the Sunday choir, with Mass settings by Palestrina or Victoria. But it is beautiful; and the music of the organ and cantor's voice floats above us from the choir at the rear of the nave, audible but out of view.

At some point in the Mass, I always feel like pinching myself to make sure I'm not dreaming. The sublime, austere beauty of this Mass touches the depths of my soul. Sometimes my thoughts avert to the question of how lucky I would feel if I were one of Detroit's homeless people who just happened to stumble upon this extraordinary purlieu. For over an hour, I could come out of the cold and enjoy the warmth of this hospitable environment, this transporting music, this magnificent altar and sanctuary, with the hushed reverence of this beautiful ritual unfolding before me. Even if I were a vagrant who didn't understand a single word or gesture of the Mass, I cannot believe that I would not find myself moved by its beauty. And they don't even charge admission!

But of course, my daughter and I are, by the grace of God, not vagrants, but profoundly privileged participants in the Mass. And just how privileged we are comes home to me at that moment when we file forward and ascend three steps to kneel at the altar rail. As the server holds the polished paten under my chin, I hear the priest say: "Corpus Dómini nostri Jesu Christi custódiat ánimam tuam in vitam ætérnam" ("May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve thy soul unto life everlasting.") ... "Amen," I think to myself, "and they don't even charge admission!" If religious were a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.

The Last Gospel (John 1:1-14) and conclusion of the Mass is followed by the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and a Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. We begin our Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with the hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas, O Salutaris Hostia, then sing O Mother of Perpetual Help during the Novena, then St. Thomas's other Eucharistic hymn, Tantum Ergo Sacramentum, before Benediction. I've come to love the Devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, as well as the Latin hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas that accompany Benediction. Their melodies often continue to circulate in my memory long afterwards. The Divine Praises, too, a regular component of Eucharistic Adoration, were among the first things I remember memorizing as a Catholic, because I thought the words so mysteriously holy and beautiful.

The closing hymn is invariably No. 100 in The Traditional Roman Hymnal, which I have also come to like for its ready singability: "Adoremus in aeternum, Sanctissimum Sacramentum," sings the congregation. Then the cantor's voice soars from the choir loft to the domed ceiling in a solo chant: "Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes, Laudate Eum Omnes Populi." Then the congregation responds with the refrain again: "Adoremus in aeternum, Sanctissimum Sacramentum"; and thus it continues through the remaining stanzas.

The priest -- usually Fr. Mark Borkowski, the parish priest and administrator of a small local cluster of inner-city parishes -- stands in the narthex or vestibule waiting to greet all the parishioners as they leave. As my daughter and I step out into the chill night air, often greeted by snow this time of year, my thoughts again return to the unfortunate homeless souls on the streets of the inner city -- and even those unfortunate suburbanites who simply don't know what they are missing. "And they don't even charge admission!" I think to myself, as we walk to the St. Josaphat parking lot, with a skip in our step and a song in our hearts. "So whaddaya say, sweetheart, shall we swing by for a hot fudge sundae at Ol' McDonalds?"


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