(Some backstory here.)
I didn’t grow up Catholic, but Lutheran. Well, mostly. Mom is Lutheran and Dad Catholic, and we mostly went to her Lutheran church, except for sporadic Sundays, maybe once a month or so, when we went to the nearby Catholic church, though my dad never was a registered parishoner there. I don’t know if they had a pattern or how they decided when to go where, but anyway, I never liked the fact that it always seemed like I, and the cantor, were the only ones singing, and everyone would hightail it out of church at the beginning of the closing song, and the church itself was very utilitarian, only one step above a meeting room with pews. (The church has since then changed a great deal, with a building project for a properly-churchy-looking church, which supposedly caused a good number of people to leave, feeling it was a waste of money, and the remainder, and some new members, to be more committed.) But I liked the more contemporary “glory-and-praise” type music, compared to the fairly dour organ hymns at the Lutheran church, and, besides, the homilies didn’t last nearly as long as the Lutherans’ sermons.
Went off to college. Went to Lutheran church with my Lutheran roommate, then later went to Catholic church with my Catholic friends.
Went to grad school at the University of Notre Dame (I was studying medieval history), and alternated between the local Lutheran church, the smells-and-bells basilica (the Holy Week Tenebrae and the Triduum were breathtaking), and a local, and very enthusiastic, Catholic church — one where the parishoners did sing and didn’t make a mad dash for the door.
The summer after my first year in grad school, I attended a language course in Germany (this was before I met my husband). It was the Catholic part of the country, so I attended mass at the nearby church — a beautiful old building, as the student dormitory was in the center of town — and appreciated the fact that Catholic liturgy was the same world ’round, so I could make sense of what was going on, even though, a mere beginning in the language, I could understand very little.
After the class was over, I travelled for a couple weeks. One destination was Chatres, where there was a group of young people, both French and English, stationed at the cathedral to welcome tourists. Not only did they welcome me, but they invited me to return for vespers followed by dinner, and ultimately a ride back to the hotel I was staying at. Coming at a point when I was finding travelling alone difficult, this was a beautiful and memorable experience of liturgy and community.
After returning to school, I continued to alternate churches, but ultimately decided that I felt more at home at a Catholic church because of the liturgy, entered RCIA, and was ultimately prodded to study and take seriously Catholic doctrine (I even bought the catechism in French because I was too impatient to wait for the English version to come out, as I wanted to see what, specifically, it said about particular points of doctrine) by two friends, one of whom later became a priest and the other of home, ironically, abandoned all manner of things she had believed and had herself ordained by a splinter “Catholic” group, and now calls herself a bishop.And after several more years, I got married and we moved to the Chicago area — and that was a shock!, as the churches were much more like my early experience of indifferent churchgoers, though things have improved. Then, almost exactly a decade ago, we moved to Germany for our 2+ year in Munich, and engaged, again, in a hunt for a good church, a much more challenging hunt because of the sad state of churches in Germany in general. At one church, I was scolded by an old lady for having insufficiently-quiet kids. Other churches were ruled out because there were no restrooms (not family friendly for a 2 and 4 year old), in addition to general kid-unfriendliness. Finally found two viable options. The first was a church in a neighboring suburb, in a relatively new building in which the parish offices and, yes, restrooms were in the same building and which, more importantly, genuinely welcomed children every week, not just for a special once-a-quarter service. The second was the English-speaking St. Killians Irish mission. We were never in regular enough attendance to get to know the others, because it was a bit of a drive to go into the city, but everyone there certainly knew each other, and the sharing of the peace could last a good long time. Between this feeling of community even among strangers, and the music, too, it was an oasis.
Which brings me to tonight. A birthday party for a friend, hosted at another friend’s home, with large numbers in attendance especially to show their support in the face of his cancer diagnosis. And after the buffet/potluck, everyone settled down to sing “Gather Songs,” and afterwards to celebrate mass presided by what I later learned was the resident priest when many of the attendees were students at U of I, at St. John’s, the Catholic parish there, and also by one of this tight group of friends who went on to become a priest. And the priest preached on his belief in miracles, and the power of prayer, and included into the service the anointing of the sick for our friend.
I am not a prayerful person. When I try to pray by myself it turns quickly into any number of distracted thoughts and lots of doubts about the usefulness of the endeavor.
But liturgy — shared prayer and, especially, the age-old prayers of the mass and the liturgy of the hours — that’s something different. That’s what moves me.
And when we speak of “how to bring people (back) to the church” — it’s liturgy. It’s praying together that is powerful, and has the potential to move others, too.