My August Life Lines column, inspired by the renovations at St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Delmar:
My parish church in upstate New York is undergoing major renovations and reconstruction this summer. And so last weekend we filed into the school gymnasium for Sunday Mass, where metal folding chairs and raised basketball hoops brought back fond memories of my childhood Mass experiences at St. Aedan’s parish in Pearl River.
In those days, long before the parish built its current church, the gymnasium was our only Sunday option. Despite the center court markings on the floor and the stage that served as the altar setting, it seemed normal to me as a child, comfortable, and, in its own odd way, spiritual. Now looking at it with grown-up eyes, it makes perfect sense. Although I love beautiful churches and stained glass and statues, it is the action of the Mass that makes the surroundings sacred, not the other way around. That’s how it was then, and it’s how it is today.
When Mass was over at my parish last weekend, our pastor said, “See, we survived. That wasn’t so bad.” And it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. Scripture and song, Communion and community can infuse even cinderblocks and bleachers with a sacred awe all its own.
Although it might sound unlikely, in some ways the experience reminded me of Masses I’ve attended in Italy, where you can happen into any neighborhood church or even St. Peter’s Basilica and immediately feel at home despite a language and culture barrier that would otherwise keep you at a distance. Wherever we are—in a foreign country, in a soaring cathedral, in a suburban gymnasium—we are Catholics, and we speak a language that transcends the differences that would normally divide and distract us.
When I wrote my book The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass, I put it like this: “No matter where we go in the world, no matter what language we speak, no matter what our education or background or nationality, the Mass is the Mass. It unites us and reminds us that we are part of one holy, catholic, apostolic Church that spans the globe as well as the annals of history.”
Think back to some of your most powerful Mass experiences. Were they the times you went to Mass in a magnificent historic church or maybe the time you grabbed a lawn chair and joined your summer vacation community for an outdoor Mass in a friend’s backyard. When I reflect on the Masses that stand out in my mind for their sheer spiritual power, I flash back again to my St. Aedan’s days, when our CYO team of officers would prepare a liturgy for Easter morning, always hoping for a sunrise celebration outdoors but inevitably ending up in the gym due to rain. It never dampened our spirits, because as much as we wanted the atmosphere, we wanted even more to be together, singing our favorite songs, hanging our handmade banners, and praying as the family we had become.
So often when we go to Mass, we expect to be wowed—by the music, the homily, the beauty of the building. And all of those things can make the liturgy feel even more special, more sacred. But, when we enter into a situation where we know the superficial stuff is secondary and focus strictly on the sacrament, we sometimes find more beauty than we imagined possible.
As we sat in the second row of the gymnasium church, we were surrounded by all the usual familiar Sunday faces. The cantor seemed particularly joyful. The altar servers rose to the challenge of figuring out a new routine. Everyone seemed a little more patient and a little less fidgety. It was as if we were on our best behavior, and I think that made a difference. In fact, the homily was so good I almost burst into applause. It was a welcome surprise and a sobering reminder to focus less on the where and when and more on the who, why and how.