St. Patrick - St. Anthony Church, Hartford Connecticut
Finally I mustered again enough courage to reach out beyond the comfortable confines of mainline Protestantism and spend an hour of worship in a Roman Catholic Church. One of my buddies in exercise, with whose family we have shared bagels and coffee on a couple of early Sunday afternoons, extolled the virtues of a church in Hartford, across the street from the Civic Center, known as the scene, the center is, of the triumphs of the Huskies and the Wolf Pack. Fred, his wife, and two children, pass several Catholic Churches on their way to Mass each Sunday. He explained why: because St. Pat St Anthony is family friendly.
So I decided to go and see for myself.
Fred's enthusiasm, this Protestant critic reports, was not misplaced. There was much to like about the Sunday morning service. The interior of the building was as bright (light oak benches, plentiful chandeliers) as the exterior was dark. The side pews had been reset on the diagonal, to allow worshipers to face the table and pulpit without having to turn in place (Fenway Park, I have often thought and voiced, should go and do likewise, especially with the seats along the right field line). The vitality and smiles around me (some for me) were the subdued equal to the crowd at said ball park when Papi hits a homerun.
What I found especially curious was the apparent cross-fertilization in liturgy between Catholics and Protestants:
1. This Sunday there was a baptism... right, not before or after a Mass but during it! just like Grace United Methodist Church, Valley Stream. Even the questions put to the parents and godparents paralleled those I have asked a hundred times in years past. The baptistry was up front and center, near the eucharistic table, two bowls, one large one to catch the overflow of water off the infant's brow, the smaller one for the pouring. And, yes, the presiding priest, following the anointing, carried the infant into the congregation.
2. An order of worship was provided by an usher as I entered. No, it wasn't as replete with prayers and texts as most Protestant services, but it did include music for the hymns and responses. I thought I heard the congregation singing, but, then, I tend to sing everything so loudly I really don't hear anyone else... and the woman in front of me thanked me for my singing... which confirmed my conclusion that I had been singing too loudly. The opening hymn, "Loving Father, Ever Waiting," was set to the tune Nettleton, better known to Protestants as the setting for "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing." The concluding hymn was that poem written by a very Protestant sinner, John Newton. But the second line "that saved and set me free" was substituted for the original "that saved a wretch like me." Apparently some Catholic editors find "wretch" a mite too severe, just like the misguided editors of "The New Century Hymnal," the UCC effort at modern egalitarian lyrics.
3. Lay participation in the service was integral and numerous. Someone to hand the baptism pitchers to the priest, and help wipe the baby's brow with a towel. Several to assist the priests with the distribution of the communion. An organist/pianist who ran a marathon going between the console in the balcony and the grand piano up front. Ushers at the door. And a cantor, like an emcee, who welcomed the worshipers, led the singing, and made the announcements. I thought I had seen him somewhere before. I had. On CPTV, Ray Hardman, whose distinctive speaking cadence I remembered. His singing baritone was very, very appealing. I stopped him at the end of the worship and discovered that he has been the cantor at the church for eleven years, and that it is where he does such singing as he was trained for at Florida State University. A pity, since, as I've already said, his voice is most appealing.
4. The website is complete and, mostly, up-to-date. Talk about cross fertilization: compare these two photos, one of St. Pat-St. Anthony's opening page, the other of the United Methodist Church's website opening page. Do faithful minds run in the same paths? or is one borrowing from the other? Ray Hardman had no explanation, but he was aware, from the recent flurry of United Methodist Church ads on TV, that "Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors." was the motto of churches with allegiance to Nashville not Rome.
I suspect, however, that I was the only one present that morning who, during Fr. Mike Jones' sermon, was hoping against hope that he would extend the church's "Open" theme one step further, the way Methodists can and usually do on a eucharistic morning. Fr. Jones, in Franciscan robe of brown with a rope belt and sandals, roamed (just like too many Protestant preachers, obviously taking their clue from TV church programs) the raised platform at the center of worship. He preached on the Gospel text, Luke 15 (the same that morning in most Christian churches in the USA), focusing on Jesus' desire to include everyone left out from the community's circles of righteousness. He said the church, in this regard, did not always or often enough, follow Jesus' lead; that women and gays and divorcees and divorcers and people of ethnic minorities, the handicapped too, have often been excluded from the family of the faithful, if not intentionally, then by reason of insufficient effort by the faithful to open their minds, their hearts and their doors.
So there I am, sitting in a pew while others knelt, intensely aware of my Protestantness, wondering if anyone had seen through my cover, trying to say and sing the responses like a veteran of Catholic worship. But as Fr. Jones persuasively argued for inclusiveness, I was waiting for some hint that it might be all right for me to partake of the Eucharist. But, as generous as were his words, I heard only an echo, not the direct invitation I yearned for, in the words of Jesus, "Drink of this, all of you... all of you." But from the pervasive mood of inclusiveness at the table and in the benches, my guess is that Fr. Jones and his fellow priests at St. Patrick-St. Anthony would agree with my friend Fr. Gregory Cappuccino, who leaned toward me one afternoon during a nuptial mass and whispered, "Bob, I think it's a shame, but I am not allowed to include you in the Mass."
Open hearts, open minds, open doors, and, pray God to persuade Pope Benedict XVI, open table... like Methodists.
Rating: four haloes... when the table is open, five.