The junior priest who is an excellent homilist, singer, and confessor was transferred to another parish in the Diocese last week. I was thinking I should wait and see how his freshly-ordained replacement would do, but the Lord sent me a clear sign it was time now to flee this white-washed sepulcher of a parish. The very next day, the pastor gave a homily putting one person’s refusal to serve someone in a restaurant “just because of the Administration they work for” on the very same moral footing as the systematic refusal to serve Black people in restaurants in the segregated Virginia of his youth. That was immediately followed by “I worry that we are becoming like the Jews” (alluding to the first reading that day, in which the King of Assyria was threatening Jerusalem) and “destruction is coming” (the opposite of the prophecy in that reading, but who is holding homilies to consistency with the readings?).
This was hardly out of character. The same pastor has multiple times compared “political correctness” with the murderous regimes of Nero, Hitler and Stalin. He has declared “what is wrong with the world” is “ungrateful people,” like “athletes making millions of dollars a year who refuse to stand for the National Anthem” or Oprah Winfrey for threatening to move to Canada if Trump were elected (shortly before said election). But without attachment to any other cleric in the parish, this one-two punch of minimizing the evil of Segregation and using anti-Semitic rhetoric was the last straw for me.
What I left is an architecturally impressive building, just 12 years old, adorned with 19th century altar pieces and statues from closed and renovated sacred spaces, combined with new stained glass windows of a classic style, and gold star constellations on the semi-domed ceiling. Five phallic-shaped arches of varying sizes mark off the no-go zone for females at the front of the church (except, of course, for a white marble statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary positioned under one of them, looking closed and distant). The largest of these arches frames a massive white marble reredos featuring a statue of Christ the King with hollow eyes. The crucifix hangs from the ceiling above and slightly in front of the altar. The life-size visage of Jesus is artfully painted, with blood flowing from His hands and feet and side, and the inside details of His loincloth inexplicably painted in gold. On the backside of the crucifix, large engraved and gilded letters proclaim: IN HOC SIGNO VINCES. Thus every time a priest lifts the Host in consecration, he is bound to look upon Constantine’s claim of divine authority for his conquests.
Small children are not welcome in this sanctuary. On Sundays, the ushers are instructed to usher out any little ones making noise during the homily—not only those wailing, mind you, but even just babyish babbling or banging of objects on the hard wood pews. Pre-schoolers rushed to the potty during the homily also are not readmitted until the pastor has finished his oration. At weekday Masses, the few families with young children simply position themselves in the vestibule for the duration, only quickly venturing to the front at the end of the communion line. Occasionally a mother will dare to sit in the pews with her toddler, in which case the pastor will stop, stare, and make disparaging “jokes” if the child makes any noise whatsoever during his homily. Most of the daily Mass attendees are white retirees, many from the community for retired military officers next door to the parish. For all the hushed stench of spiritual death masked with incense in this place, the only actual funeral I have attended there was for a 2-month-old baby girl, whose mother I had witnessed shamed out of the sanctuary with her toddlers for babbling, rushing to pull them from the pews a week after her emergency c-section. The right of the retirees to have their quiet time and focus on his homilies cribbed from Fox News trumps the right of parents to fully participate in the sacrifice of the Mass, the pastor told me when I privately expressed my distress about this incident and general treatment of young families. Parents really should leave their little children at home and just come to Mass separately without them, like his parents had done, he said. And I’m quite sure Jesus wept.
I will not let such men keep me away from Jesus, though. I have started getting up 40 minutes earlier to go to the other parish in town. Here daily Mass is offered in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel. About 60 loose chairs with kneelers are arranged as three sides of a rectangle, the fourth side formed by a wood altar with diagonally-clipped corners, which when covered with Ordinary Time green cloth looks a bit like a pool table. A byzantine-style icon of the Crucifixion hangs on the wall behind the altar, and Our Lady of Guadalupe looks down in stained glass from the peak of the low ceiling, arms outstretched, extending maize in one hand and a rose in the other. Mass is said by Atonement Friars, who have preached on the scripture passages and saints, not culture war themes. Prayers of the Faithful (not said at my old parish at daily Mass, nor the Sign of Peace given) have been offered for the honesty of journalists, relief for the homeless, openness to the transformation of the Holy Spirit, and repentance for those who sit in judgment like Pharisees and do not examine their own lives. The Eucharist is offered under both species, and anointing of the sick is offered immediately after Mass on First Fridays.
Here instead of the body of Christ claimed by Constantine, I see the body of Christ described in Galatians 3:26-29 and Revelation 7:9, under Our Lady’s attentive gaze. There are white retirees here, too, who generally have lectored the First Readings and Psalms. A suited Vietnamese man serves the altar and offers the Precious Blood every day. I see a white mother too, sit in the front row with her baby in a car seat and preschool girl with olive skin and big attentive dark eyes. I see a black woman with hair wrapped who greets me with a Haitian accent. I see elderly Vietnamese gentlemen whose gaunt faces whisper stories of terrifying deprivations decades ago. I see a woman with the visage of a stately Aztec walk through the communion line with a nursing wrap over her chest and toddler shoes peeking out, trailed by her husband and several children. I see a scruffy older white man smelling of tobacco smoke slide in front of me next to a young black woman in a pretty white eyelet dress, a minute after Mass begins. I see an obese man whose shorts don’t fit and his butt crack keeps making a quick appearance every time he stands or kneels. I see a middle-aged Indian woman in a t-shirt emblazoned with big red, white, and blue letters USA. During the Eucharistic prayers I can hear heavy sighs, and whispered prayers in unknown languages.
Here is the great Supper of the Lamb. After several Masses I still cannot discern the pattern in which we shuffle from our kneelers to come, just as we each are, to receive the life-giving Presence of the Body of Christ. What I do discern is faith, hope, and love. I discern people without pretension who are eager to be there for God’s healing touch. I discern people sent forth into every walk of life, inspired by Our Lady and the Holy Spirit. I see a reflection of my true homeland.
I waited too long to come here because the white-washed parish was easy. But in this day and age when the American Catholic Church is struggling to grapple with resurgent racism, when immigrant children are being ripped from their parents and many pastors will not lift a finger or say a word, when priests in their clerics sit behind President Trump and clap as he makes racial slurs and jokes about sexual assault, it has become incumbent upon us lay faithful to take a stand for the universality of our faith and call to solidarity and social justice. The scourge of clericism will not be broken simply by Pope Francis excoriating haughty members of the Curia. To break the mystique of the collar and call out failures of our religious leaders, we must have the courage and make sacrifices to speak up against Pharisaical leaders. We must walk out of white-washed sepulchers into fellowship that is worthy of the name catholic.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, pray for us.