December 10, 2006

God is good! All the time!

I just got back from St. Matthias Cluster Parish. It's a "cluster parish" because it has temporarily absorbed a bunch of nearby parishes, because of numbers and because of building condition. Even this one is still rebuilding. I walked in and I don't know what I was expecting, but all the pews were gone and people were sitting on an assortment of chairs, there was no heat, and the plaster was ripped off the brick up to a height of about a foot and a half. The altar majeure was ok but the active altar was a temporary wooden affair set on a big oriental rug in about the right place. The church is huge and it looks like the murals and such were safe, although currently covered with thin plastic duct-taped around the edges, so you could see them but they were protected from assorted ongoing reconstruction. In one of the chattier moments towards the end of Mass, the priest mentioned that there was a priest shuffle over at Holy Ghost, where he's staying (because the St. Matt's rectory hasn't been rehabbed yet), and he hoped that they'd let him keep staying there or he'd be homeless---at which one of the women in the row ahead of me turned to someone and gave the aside "we all homeless."

But let me tell you, black people know how to throw a (liturgical) party. As my indie friends would say, there was a ton of mojo flying around in there; a more traditional Catholic would say that you could feel the Holy Spirit suffused through that place. It's primarily an African-American parish; I saw one family I think was Indian Indian and maybe four other white people besides me. The music and the style were, well, about as different from a weekly Mass at St. Pat's as they could be and still fit inside liturgical norms. There was a lot of call-and-response stuff: the priest says "God is great!" and the congregation responds "All the time!", and then they repeat it the other way round. At virtually any point in the Mass, you might hear a chorus of isolated "Amen"s from around the church. And the music was drawn from a range of African-American sources: "Come by here", "Soon and very soon", etc. Even the Mass parts were distinctly in that style: the Memorial Acclamation was "Jesus Christ is risen, Jesus Christ has died, Jesus Christ will come again, deep in my heart I believe, Jesus Christ will come again"---to the tune of "We shall overcome", which throws in a whole extra subtext of which I totally approve.

Subtexts were actually pretty prominent in this Mass. When you hear about living in exile and missing your home, your food, your place of worship, it's more or less abstract, but for these people, it's a reality they've lived and some of their friends and family are still living. Themes of hope and anticipation and fresh starts also tend to strike rather close to home here. The priest was a master homilist, talking about all these things and making the messages of the liturgical day highly relevant to the congregation. The dominant theme was good news/bad news: the latter sells better, and people tend to dwell on it, but we need to focus on the good news (and the Good News), and proclaim that to other people---it's a message of optimism and hope that is very well received in this population.

The Mass ran to a full ninety minutes, but I didn't even notice. I'm not sure where all the extra time went; maybe all the singing (we sang at every opportunity), maybe the long homily (not that it was boring). But it was a great pick-up and motivator and spiritually awesome. I felt bad for the white couple with the baby that was in my line of sight, because they looked really dour and not into it, which I guess wouldn't look out of place at a white suburban parish but seemed kind of weird here.

So I'm really really glad I went and didn't talk myself out of it, even if it did require breaking a couple of rules. I think Emily's mad at me now: I took a van with less than five people, and I went out without a "buddy". Which wasn't entirely my fault, since I asked around and couldn't convince anybody else to go (their loss!). I did ask at breakfast if it would be ok to take out a van "with less than five people", and it was, especially because half the people weren't up yet, but she didn't realise it was just me. That was slightly intentional on my part, since I didn't feel like getting a lecture about going out alone, although at that point I was still hopeful of getting more takers. In any case, I'm not sorry, both because the buddy rule is a little extreme (the van one makes sense, but what could I do? I suppose I could've called a cab...) and because the experience is already looking like a major highlight of the trip.

Posted by blahedo at 12:15pm on 10 Dec 2006
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