Because Worshiping God is Important, Even If It Takes an Electronic Sign

Sometimes, I think of Catholics as a billion introverts. We Catholics are not known for proselytizing on street corners.We don’t tend to feature stereo speakers or percussion sections at our Masses. In general, our church bulletins are modest affairs featuring outdated fonts. Many practicing Catholics have rich interior lives but are tight-lipped about their beliefs. We tend to follow advice widely attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” So I was stunned to drive past an LED sign advertising Eucharistic Adoration at Saint Thomas the Apostle Church in Old Bridge, New Jersey. My first thought? Whoa. That’s in really poor taste.

Every Wednesday morning for months now I’ve been driving past this sign on my commute to my college teaching job, wondering what in heavens the parish leaders were thinking when they dreamed up this monstrosity. But through the long winter, my thoughts started to change about the sign. Truth, after all, should triumph over taste.

In the first place, this programmable, flashing sign doesn’t exactly sit in a garden spot in the Garden State. It’s on the southbound side of Route 18, a state highway that begins near Exit 9 of the New Jersey Turnpike and widens to as many as eight lanes. As it runs through East Brunswick and Old Bridge townships, the highway is a tax collector’s dream. It is packed with what New Jerseyans call “ratables,” retail properties that add lots of bucks to municipalities’ tax coffers. Starbucks. Kmart. Macy’s. Wendy’s. Sports Authority. AC Moore. It was here on Route 18, in fact, the other day, where I found Christ in the shoe department at Kohl’s. This sign lives amid the necessary detritus of consumerism: fluorescent flags fluttering along the edges of a used car lot; a man dressed in a minty green foam Statue of Liberty costume outside an insurance agency; and  massive, brightly colored inner tubes in front of a pool supplies store.

Secondly, I mused, the sign is advertising worship. Which matters more, a new Weber grill or worshiping God? We accept that retailers hawk their wares with colorful signs. Why can’t a church let people know it’s offering an opportunity for Eucharistic Adoration, a chance to pray in the presence of our very Lord?

I gave a call to Michael Luczkow, the business manager at St. Thomas the Apostle. The parish has 4,000 registered families, making it the biggest church in the Diocese of Metuchen. After talking to him, I felt more kindly about the sign.

Mr. Luczkow, baptized at St. Thomas a half-century ago, said parents with St. Thomas School’s Home-School Association had lobbied for the sign. The H.S.A. is primarily a fundraising organization. The parents felt thousands of cars were streaming past the parish and its elementary school daily without even knowing they were there. In the end, the parish and the Home-School Association split the cost for the sign, which, in addition to Wednesday’s Eucharistic Adoration, also advertises Mass times, school fundraisers, registration deadlines and so forth. On Monday and Tuesday this week, the sign proclaimed: “He is Risen.” Installed three months ago, the sign was instrumental  in the school hosting its most successful crafts fair fundraiser ever, Mr. Luczkow said. Next Wednesday on my way to work, I will pray for this vibrant parish and the more than 400 students at St. Thomas School as I drive past their sign.

“Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

  • Mary

    The sign doesn't seem tacky. And, hey, why shouldn't people know they're there?

  • Sarah Harkins

    You know what else many Catholics feel is tacky? Blogs. I've heard one of my parent's priests friends say, "This is what I think of blogs- BLAH, BLAH, BLOGS!". You can tell I don't value his opinion on the subject. I know many other people don't "get" blogging either. Tacky or not, the electronic sign, facebook, blogs and any other way us Catholics use to reach the public is not only fair game, but necessary! TOOOO many Catholics use that old line from St. Francis as an EXCUSE not to say anything. From my understanding, St. Francis used a lot of words to spread the faith, unlike most tight lipped Catholics. I wish more Churches used huge signs to declare Eucharistic Adoration. Then it may draw people away from all the other huge signs declaring many unholy things…

  • Allison

    @Sarah and Mary: So what is it about Catholics that makes us so reluctant to share the Good News? I had a heck of a time setting up a listserv and facebook page for my parish. One parish leader's objection? "Not everyone uses the Internet." In all the concern about taste, we are losing a chance to evangelize. Are we embaibeassed about our faith?And while we worry about being "tasteful," many other unholy things, as Sarah points out, are grabbing people's attention. Not to mention other churches, Evangelicals etc. who are unafraid to be enthusiastic about their faith.What is the solution?

  • EPG

    There are three Catholic parishes within roughly two miles of my home. None of them have a sign that even lists Mass times. Even Episcopalians (the original "God's Frozen People")generally manage to post service times on a sign out front. And don't get me started on the websites these parishes have. You actually have to dig around to find Mass times. Talk about hiding your light under a bushel. Or as Frank might say, "Sheesh!" :)Good for the parish in NJ.

  • Frank
  • Allison

    @Frank" B16 can say what he wants but the sad fact remains many Catholics are not embracing the digital world. The Diocese of Orlando, for example, essentially put the kibosh on social communications as a way to spread information about parish activities.

  • Frank

    To my dear brother priests, then, I renew the invitation to make astute use of the unique possibilities offered by modern communications. May the Lord make all of you enthusiastic heralds of the Gospel in the new “agorà” which the current media are opening up.With this confidence, I invoke upon you the protection of the Mother of God and of the Holy Curè of Ars and, with affection, I impart to each of you my Apostolic Blessing. -Pope Benedict XVIFrom the Vatican, 24 January 2010, Feast of Saint Francis de Sales.

  • Frank

    So the priesthood of the laity must pick up the standard and keep marching. St. Peter, our first Pope, proclaims the following about us:But you are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises" of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.Lead, follow, or get outta the way. We obviously have our marching orders as outlined above.

  • Frank

    I agree with you and think we should be doing more. Heck, the Vatican is saying so too. St. Francis De Sales (he says I can call him Frank) is a great role-model here.The pious ecclesiastic who undertook this mission was a timid soul who eventually withdrew in fear of personal violence and in despair of ever achieving success. The bishop now summoned his canons and put the situation before them, disguising none of the difficulties. When the bishop had concluded, Francis stood up to offer himself, saying simply, "Monseigneur, if you think I am capable, tell me to go. I am ready, and should rejoice to be chosen." To his delight, the bishop accepted Francis at once. Monsieur de Boisy tried to stop his son, but nothing could shake Francis' resolution. He departed without his father's blessing.Traveling on foot with little money, Francis, accompanied by his cousin, Canon Louis de Sales, set out in September of 1594 to win the Chablais back to its ancient faith. The Chateau des Allinges, six or seven miles from Thonon, was a Catholic stronghold where the governor of the province was stationed with a garrison of soldiers, and to this fortress the two cousins were to return each night for the sake of safety. At Thonon, the Catholic population of the city had been reduced to about twenty persons, who were too intimidated to declare themselves openly. Francis sought them out one by one for private interviews and inspired them with renewed courage. He and his cousin gradually extended their efforts to the villages of the surrounding countryside.The long walk night and morning to and from Allinges was a heavy tax on their strength and during the winter it exposed them to real dangers. Once Francis was set upon by wolves and only escaped by spending the night in a tree. When daylight came he was discovered by some peasants in such an exhausted condition that had they not helped him to reach their hut and revived him with food and warmth, he would have died. These good people were Calvinists. With his thanks Francis spoke words of enlightenment and charity and his rescuers were later restored to the faith. Twice in January, 1595, he was waylaid by Protestant fanatics who had sworn to take his life. On both occasions he was saved, seemingly, by a miracle.Although at first the missionaries had little reward for their labors, they did not lose heart. Francis continually sought new ways to reach the minds of the people. He began to write brief leaflets, setting forth the leading dogmas of the Church as opposed to the tenets of Calvinism. These little papers, on which he worked in spare moments, were copied and recopied by hand and widely distributed. Later they were collected and printed in a volume called . Copies of these leaflets in the original written form are still preserved in the convent at Annecy.St. Francis De Sales.

  • Frank

    Once, on a stormy day, he had but seven hearers. " It is not worth while preaching to that little group," said some one to him. But he said, "One soul is as precious to me as a thousand," and he forthwith began a carefully prepared discourse on the invocation of the saints. Among his seven hearers was a prominent gentleman of Thonon. St. Francis was speaking doctrinally and made no effort at pathos, but this man began, after awhile, to sob with such violence that Francis was forced to interrupt his preaching. After the sermon this man came to Francis and assured him that he had been the means that day of saving his soul. " When," said he, in effect, " I heard your bell ring, and saw only four or five persons going in, I said to myself, now if M. de Sales preaches only for the love of God he will give us few people a sermon all the same ; but if he preaches for his own glory, he will despise so humble an audience, which will prove to me that he is an impostor and teaches lies. Your zeal in teaching these few humble peasants edifies me greatly, and I am so affected at my own miserable state of error that I could not help weeping." This occurrence was soon spoken of everywhere, and helped the saint to larger audiences.St. Francis de Sales to local parish councils…we need more electronic signs!

  • skip

    I am a parishioner at another parish in Old Bridge. I think that St. Thomas' sign is fantastic! Other than the obvious fundraising value it has, it is a positive sign that the Church is alive and well! It is definitely in line with the Holy Father's views on using modern media to get the word out. If just one person went to Adoration that would not have, or attended an Easter Mass, or even just stopped in for a little quiet time with God, the sign has served an evangelical purpose! Imagine the possibilities of such a device! Congrats, St. Thomas!!

  • cathyf

    I definitely agree with the Holy Father's ideas about using New Media to get The Word out — but do you think we could get somebody else at the Vatican to agree? The pope's web site — how do I put this nicely — ok, there is no way to put it nicely — it sucks!

  • Anonymous

    I go to a parish on Long Island, NY that has a sign with the Mass times on it, plus it puts a ad in the local newspaper every week. Plus it is old fashioned in that it rings its bell about a minute before each Mass. It it rings the bell for the Angelus.

  • EPG

    To Anonymous — Now I am definitely all for the ringing of the bells. Anything from a full blown carrillon (which a parish I once was a member of had) to a single bell in a little country church. The ringing of bells plays a vital role the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions — so I am sure it goes back to the earliest days of the Church (and I am sure there is a reader of this blog with much more knowledge about this than I).

  • Allison This website has a great explanation. I also have read the bells before mass served a secular function of letting folks in a small village know church was starting. My pastor told me that at consecration, in large churches, they helped folks know to pay attention…