There’s no replacement for Church
When did you feel your Freon kiss?
This is no idle question in our neck of the swamps, especially after an idle post-Ida week.
Jen and I rode out the storm with my now tried and thankfully true Costco generator. It took us exactly one week to wade into some cool air, sitting for an hour while the breeze just lapped over us.
Well, we were sitting only for part of the time. We also were standing and kneeling and even processing a bit.
Our first taste of post-Ida air condition came inside church.
Church — the steepled place, the big institution, the ongoing project — can get a bad rap. I mean, it can also produce some pretty bad rap, but as is so often the case, I digress. (You won’t get me to guess the denomination there, btw.)
We’ve heard the stats. Funerals outstrip Baptisms. Expenses exceed income. Parishes outnumber priests.
And that was all before COVID-19, when physical attendance transformed into digital attendance and now into…maybe-attendance? Personal health choices cannot be in dispute during a time of pandemic, but the continued holes in pews can lead to some questions. As we were taught in grade school, virtue builds on habits, after all.
For all the negative — and often quite realistic — press, I don’t think the Church is slowly going out to sea. Sit down again for that post-Ida Sunday and the only thing swimming about are those air condition waves.
There’s no replacement for entering into our big, beautiful monuments to God. Sometimes I sit inside Holy Name or St. Ant’ny of Padua or the Cathedral and think I need to pay an admission fee. And then the basket comes around, and I quickly think something else. A collection at a daily Mass? When did father go Jesuit?!
If I had to phrase the Church’s mission, it would be to connect, comfort, and challenge. Put another way, I’m not in this alone, I’m not suffering without relief, I’m not my own god. Physical, in-person worship offers those goals up, alongside the bread and the wine.
Especially when the air condition is circulating.
After we had cooled down some and adjusted into Mass mode, our post-Ida lector sent another soothing wave over the congregation. The first reading was from Isaiah, a messianic prophecy, included as a tie into Jesus’ healing of a blind man in the Gospel. But it really was for us, right? It always is for us.
“Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication.”
It has been a week, Lord. How reassuring to hear of your protection.
“Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water.”
In a hot place, cool relief will come. Even after a fifth straight heat advisory day? Yes, please. I’d like to see Jen’s 80-year-old neighbor in a shirt again. How we need to drink this in.
With that setup, I was ready for the echo in the Psalm. “Praise the Lord, my soul!” we recited over and over again. And I believed it, being in that place.
At its best, Church does that. It places us in a context bigger than ourselves to better return us to those things around ourselves. No YouTube ministry or self-help series or even committed personal prayer can do as well. (Not that there’s anything wrong with all that.)
Sure, the homilies often ain’t good — I heard the same guy drone on and on for 10 years! But every time I slide into the pew, something challenges me to think and feel in a different, better way.
Which is how I was on the verge of tears at Pentecost this year.
Perhaps this goes without saying, but when you leave the pulpit, you get to pick your pew. There’s only one pulpit, after all, and it’s located where the archbishop strongly suggests you find it. But pews…there are so many of those.
And don’t get me wrong: I appreciated my pulpits, loved my communities, grew from my different parish stops. But it was never my job to saddle a Sunday congregation with my preferences. Nudge the people, but respect the church you walk into.
The laity, though, can pick anywhere. Any collection of ministries. Any type of music. Any Mass time!
We decided on Our Lady of Guadalupe, the church on Rampart St. with the little St. Jude statue out front.
Fifty days after Easter, Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, preserving a rare liturgical element in the process: the Sequence.
Don’t know what a Sequence is? Mon Dieu!
A Sequence is a chanted hymn inserted between the 2nd Reading and the Gospel, at this point found only on Easter and Pentecost (and optionally on Corpus Christi). The story goes the Vatican wanted a theological reflection (read: a decent homily) on the biggest feast days.
Sequences can be musically beautiful, but they’re kinda long, priests usually offer a nice theological reflection (read: a really decent homily) on the big days, and invariably most people just stand up at the sound of the organ in expectation of the Alleluia.
Sequences, thus, had never been occasions for chills up my spine. Until I came to Guadalupe.
On Pentecost Sunday, choir director Steven Lee stood in front of the silent congregation and, in a cappella chant, called down the Holy Spirit. The traditional words breathed anew.
“Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!
Come, Father of the poor!
Come, source of all our store.
Come, within our bosoms shine!
You, of comforters the best;
You, the soul’s most welcome guest;
Sweet refreshment here below.
In our labor, rest most sweet;
Grateful coolness in the heat;
Solace in the midst of woe.”
Veni Sancte Spiritus. In our labor, rest most sweet; Grateful coolness in the heat; Solace in the midst of woe.
On a late-May Sunday at midday, three blocks away from Congo Square, a Black man intoned the faith he had received, a faith describing how he and all of us got through, a faith that can offer rest and coolness and solace even these many years later. Years from when Jesus first sent the Spirit, from when New Orleans was the slave trade capital of the world, from when we have known storm and pestilence and pain. Years distant. Years close.
Only Church can do that.
That connection, that comfort, that challenge.
For New Orleans Catholics especially, in our hymns, in our history, into our very hands.
There’s no replacement, and for me, that’s more than enough. Veni Sancte Spiritus.
For another take on Veni Sancte Spiritus, enjoy the setting from Taizé.
And on a different, but recurring note, this week was marked by another personal celebrity loss: Norm Macdonald. Surely, you have seen selections from his greatest hits by now. I won’t include my favorite from Norm because of its repeat possibility. (It’s also a bit of barrier pusher!) Better is his homage to Rodney Dangerfield. Eternal rest and joy to all who go before.