Church of Saint Peter Claver, West Hartford CT
Finally, I gathered courage to do what I had promised myself and some of you a long time ago I would do: review a Sunday service of worship in a Roman Catholic Church. My friend, Fr. Gregory Cappuccino, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Valley Stream NY, encouraged me in January of 2002, when he found out that I would in my retirement be reviewing Protestant worship services, to include Catholic churches too.
But I have been hesitant. I thought my Protestant prejudices about Rome might disqualify me. Such brief encounters I had had with Catholic piety, if for the most part in recent years positive, suffered from a certain conviction from my early years in Stamford CT, in the 40's mostly, that these other Christians were aloof and, in a phrase they once used for Methodist me, "invincibly ignorant." I assumed that preaching would be slighted and the sacrament overemphasized. Besides, I certainly wouldn't and wouldn't be able to genuflect upon entering the pew. I wouldn't know when to stand, when to kneel, and when to sit. I expected the singing of hymns I had never previously heard. I just knew the priest would use the sermon as an opportunity to ask for money or to skewer the faithful for failures to obey Catholic law.
I was this Sunday, happy to report, wrong on most counts:
1. The liturgy of the Word received equal time and emphasis with the liturgy of the table... just like Peter Steinfels said Vatican II said it should (see on this website the Epilogue to my book).
2. I didn't know when to sit, stand, or kneel, but fellow-worshipers showed me when to do what, even to handing us a Missal opened to the right page.
3. The selection of hymns would have pleased most Protestant congregations: "Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty"; "The King of Love My Shepherd Is"; "How Firm a Foundation"; and a communion hymn with which I wasn't familiar but enjoyed singing.
4. The priest delivered a direct, sensible, and informative sermon, explicating the text from the Gospel and connecting it with the people sitting in front of him. More on the sermon down the page.
But, yes, genuflecting and kneeling were rampant, and though I longed to let it be known to those around me that I had had bilateral knee surgery less than a year ago, the opportunity to plead for sympathy never presented itself.
The priest stood at the door following the service (sound familiar?) to, as one cynic put it, collect compliments, if also to greet parishioners personally. I waited to be the last in line. As I shook the pastor's hand I said, "This is the first time in seventy-two years that I had attended a regular Sunday Mass at a Catholic Church." He asked, "Where have you been all those years?" I told him where, briefly, that I was a retired Methodist preacher. He seemed puzzled by the news. I chuckled to myself and walked to the car.
Building: modern "form follows function" structure with massive (!) roof beams exposed and interior walls matching the exterior stone masonry, a single story on a large campus with a very ample parking lot, a wood beam bell tower with the bell exposed: the overall effect for this Methodist was to be startled with the similarity inside and out with churches of comparable age in his own denomination. The table, lectern, and pulpit were spare. A small, thin stylized crucifix of bronze was hung with inconspicuous wire over the table. I thought it too small when seen against those massive beams; but my companion in reviews, Barbara, thought the crucifix just right, none of the tormented Savior to be seen on versions common to pre-Vatican II churches.
Welcome: an usher greeted us with a cheery, "Good morning!" as we entered; then he inquired about how our summer went and weren't we sorry it was over. It was barely ten minutes before the service was to begin at 10 AM and seniors that we are, we found ourselves in the company of ten other gray hairs. But quicker than you can say, "Let us sing hymn 19," the room filled with worshipers, maybe 200 of them, of every hue, from two to ninety-two. It seemed to me I had happened upon a very large and happy family.
Children: no formal provision in the ritual was made for them, no children's sermon, and no exit for catechetical class. They sat throughout the hour-long service with their families. Four young servers lit candles and assisted the priests with communion. Cooing and restlessness hummed in the background throughout the morning, a little like the drone of a bagpipe to the piper's melody. When it was time to go forward for the sacrament, the children, those receiving and those not, went with mom and dad and siblings. Protestant services devote an hour to words making it difficult for little ears to tolerate the auditory boredom; but if you can get up and move around, see the priest's pretty colors, and fidget with the kneeler, the hour passes more quickly.
Music: like I said, the hymn choices pleased this old Wesleyan. I was grateful that the Roman Catholic church had apparently passed beyond its Hootenanny phase. The cantor led the singing with her own crystal pure and resonant mezzo-soprano: I could have listened to her for hours, pitch perfect, diction clear, just right for the singing of hymns, music with messages. The organist played a rousing postlude. But I missed a choir and an anthem. In fact, I had selected this Catholic church, one of five in our hometown, for my first try at a review because a neighbor who would know credited it with an excellent music program. But with four services every Sunday morning it would have been difficult to fit in an anthem or two... and which service would you favor with that specialty?
Sermon: the Gospel lesson for the morning, Jesus' parable of the unrighteous steward, received a thoughtful explanation. The priest began by noting that fundamentalist Christians take the Bible at face value, whereas Catholic Christians approach passages contextually, bringing to bear upon it the studies of scholars who can help the faithful to understand what Jesus was saying and how it was heard by those to whom he preached. The latter approach provides better access to the Sunday lection's parable, which, at face value, might seem to give Jesus' endorsement to self-serving larceny; when, in fact, the Lord is praising the unjust steward's resourcefulness in the face of adversity. Which led to the main thrust of the sermon, that we too are stewards; and we are expected to use our ample gifts - energy, intellect, time, Holy Spirit, money - given us with resourcefulness, not for our own sake, for God's sake. Concluding, the pastor did, that especially we should be resourceful in finding new ways to spend our treasures for the kingdom. All in all, an excellent message, better, I note, than many I have heard in the past two years in denominations with storied traditions elevating the office of the preacher.
Website: terribly outdated. The most recent newsletter posted was for March 1999. The latest minutes of a Parish Council meeting was for January 2003. I can only guess at the reason for this dereliction in electronic ministry. Probably the editor, a volunteer, was gung-ho in 1999, at the peak of the technology boom. Then he either left the parish or just couldn't find enough interest to continue. Whatever the excuse, the better consequence would be to post a one page website with information about church location, service times, and staff, and nothing more, instead of material of no current interest. An affluent church like St. Peter Claver, in which 90% of the parishioners have computers hooked up to the internet, is missing a haloed opportunity to extend its reach and effectiveness when it fails to maintain a website. That's where the world is going, and the church of Jesus Christ had better go there with it and, even better, ahead of it.
Rating: three and a half haloes, which would have been four with a choir and, dare I say it?, a relaxation of the rule against non-Catholic Christians receiving communion.