Yesterday I attended the funeral of my uncle, my deceased father’s last remaining brother, who died March 21 in his 89th year. It just so happened that the funeral was held in the church I attended for about fifteen years as a child and as a youth, the church where I was an altar boy, where my sisters were baptized, where my older brother was married. My uncle had been a member of the parish for 55 years. So despite the sadness of the occasion, I was looking forward to revisiting this church.
I was sorely disappointed.
Prior to revisiting this church, I had not thought much about what makes an individual church a place where a liturgy queen like me would be comfortable praying or attending Mass. I did not particularly like my own parish church when I first attended Mass there; I thought that the very high ceilings made it a rather cold place. In those days I had a car, so I decided to frequent a church in another part of town; the building was smaller and warmer and cosier, and I felt more comfortable there. It wasn’t long, however, before I returned to the church that was closer to home, and in the four years I have been a parishioner, I have grown to love it. It did not occur to me to consider why I loved it until yesterday’s experience. Now I am curious to visit other churches in the archdiocese and to see how they make me feel.
Let’s start with the bad news. My childhood church was just plain dowdy. The faux stained-glass windows, glass panels tinted in a variety of unattractive and uninspired colours, were a distracting eyesore. The steel girders, painted white, that held up the ceiling looked as if they had been salvaged from a railway bridge condemned to demolition for its ugliness. The back wall of the sanctuary might have been donated by a parishioner who decided to renovate her 1960s family room; the rest of the sanctuary was cluttered, not in the loving way that some spaces are cluttered, but carelessly. So much for atmosphere.
The funeral Mass was celebrated by the pastor, a man who appeared to be in his early sixties. He had not vested carefully as his alb was shorter at the front than it was at the back. He did not seem to have prepared well for the funeral as he often stopped suddenly, appearing confused or slightly lost, during the various prayers. His homily had not been carefully thought out and thus was singularly unmoving, especially disappointing given the long history of my uncle’s family in the parish (my aunt, who died in 2002, was very active in service to her church). During the homily, which was delivered right at the coffin, the priest’s cell phone rang to announce the arrival of a text message, and only after considerable fumbling in his vestments and after apparently replying to the message briefly, did he continue his already disappointing homily, albeit after several expressions of apology and embarrassment. All in all, I did not receive the impression that this priest was in any sincere way involved in this solemn ceremony. His disengagement and the uninspiring atmosphere of the church (the altar server was an ancient and pious man straight out of a Dickens novel who crossed himself several dozen times throughout the Mass, and the soloist, while generally on key, had an irritatingly shrill voice) left me no feeling whatsoever for what I had just experienced. I was not touched, I was not uplifted, I was not awed. I cannot imagine how my cousins and their families must have felt.
I am sure that some of my criticisms seem petty and certainly they could be misconstrued as resulting from my disappointment that my old church did not live up to my expectations. And there is no question that I was disappointed. But in retrospect this experience was a blessing in that it gave me a much greater respect and appreciation for the care and attention to detail that go into creating and maintaining an atmosphere of reverence in a Catholic church. And I am now more deeply grateful to my own parish priest for the love and the labour he has lavished and continues to lavish on the interior and exterior of the church and on every detail of the liturgy. The difference is remarkable, and our pastor’s effort is even more impressive as he does not have an assistant (my uncle’s parish does).
I am going to take on the study of local churches and parishes as a small, long-term project. While the pastor is a critically important factor in the sanctity of his church, I am sure that there are many other factors, like the number of parishioners, the socio-economic impact of the location of the church, the demographic of the congregation.
More to come.
(The church in the picture above is not the one in which my uncle's funeral was held.)