An unusual report, in the secular press, on a unique liturgy being celebrated in Norfolk, Virginia:
St. Mary’s should be felt both ways – empty and full.
With no one in the pews, it’s a monument of soaring arches, stained glass and carved marble, where your voice instinctively sinks to a whisper – so impressive it’s the only Catholic church in Virginia to earn “basilica” status, chosen by the pope as a special place of pilgrimage.
Packed with worshippers, it’s even more remarkable: the only African American basilica in the country, a place where an overwhelmingly black flock is led by a white priest with Irish roots and the formality of ancient rituals pulses with stand-up-and-shout soul.
“This is a Catholic Mass,” said the Rev. James Curran, “but done unlike anything you’ve ever seen. There are times when I have to look down to see if my feet are still on the ground.”
…Parishioners at other churches have let him know they like his homilies – or sermons – best when he keeps them short. At St. Mary’s, if listeners tap their watches, it’s usually to let him know he didn’t talk long enough.
“When I first got here,” he said, “a woman came up to me and said, ‘You’re used to preaching to white folks, aren’t you?’ ”
These parishioners want not only to learn something but to feel something.
“They’re hungry and they expect to be fed,” he said. “Don’t skimp on it.”
Father Jim gives credit to one of his predecessors, Father Thomas Quinlan, who led St. Mary’s from 1974 to 1985. White, salty and intense, T.Q. was a maverick who pushed the congregation to express its ethnic side:
“He’d tell the people, ‘You’re not ‘black’ enough.’ He knew the Latin Mass didn’t speak to their experience, and he wanted them to bring that here – that part of them they’d not been permitted to be. He told them, ‘You are African American. We’re not going to worship like you’re not.’ ”
Read on. And see a sample of the Mass below.