Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

An Unplottable Parish: Lovable and Loony



A lot of us Catholics (or Catholic bloggers, anyway!) like to categorize parishes as being conservative or liberal or moderate, orthodox or un-. The problem is that this doesn't always work. Just as with people, a parish can be difficult to explain with a single word.



Presented for your consideration: St. Alexander's in Farmington Hills, Michigan...or, excuse me, "The Servant Church of St. Alexander". That was the first thing that had my eyebrows raised as we went into the former school building now acting as a church. Was this some kind of Eastern Rite parish? Or, God forbid, had I misjudged the guy who invited me and was about to enter some kind of weird RadTrad or superliberal parish not in communion with Rome? I mean, science fiction fans have been known to be a bit wacky, and I was going with this guy I knew from the local science fiction convention....



A look at the multiple bright banners and posters in the parish hall portion of the church complex could have given me the answer. But my native guide filled me in. The parish is very big on service, particularly to the poor, and spends most of its budget (and more than their budget, sometimes, said my native guide) on that. The "Servant Church" thing was supposed to remind them of that. But among the bright banners also hung, in a place of prominence, a big old brightly painted crucifix. Usually in your really liberal parish, they try to hide any Catholic art which predates the sixties.



It's a small parish, but apparently very tightknit. The people were very welcoming to me, and, like my native guide, seemed very proud of their parish. (My native guide drives a decent distance to attend here.) There was a veil-wearing sister, a bright-eyed, cheery older lady who reminded me strongly of the nuns at my school. The priest at our Mass was the short beardy guy who's second from the right in the back row of their webpage's picture. The photo doesn't show that he has a walker and some kind of breathing apparatus. (I don't know the story on that; I didn't like to ask my native guide.) He gave me the impression that he was a good priest, both personally pious and beloved by his congregation. We'll get to the other impression he gave me later.



The church area itself...hmm. Well, it seemed to have been renovated recently. It wasn't totally unattractive, either. But...um. I think I've seen and disliked the renovators' work before. You know -- build a little tile dais, with the altar and priest's chair and oils and such standing on it, all in the same wood? (I must admit it looked a lot nicer in a converted school building than that old German church in Toledo. Mostly because it fought wildly with said Toledo church.) But I can deal with tile -- though why there wouldn't be a handicapped ramp in a parish that has a priest with a walker baffled me. (The Toledo church had ramps galore up to the dais. Stupid ramps, but ramps.) It took me a while to figure out where the tabernacle was, because it was in this BIG tube thing of decorated wood. But at least it was right next to and behind the altar, instead of somewhere halfway to BFE. (The Toledo church had it over in the wall off to the right, where many would be seated with their backs to it. It made my skin crawl, sitting there. If I'd realized, I would never have sat on that side.)



The thing is...why would you renovate a church with tile floors and then choose gray and gray-blue as your tile colors? In Michigan, where it's winter most of the year? Dang, they could have made pictures on the floor in green and gold and red and deep blue!



The walls are pitilessly white. Most of the windows are plain, but there are two or three abstract blue pattern ones. I think they portrayed water. There was one cheap-looking framed print; I couldn't tell the subject as it was toward the back of church -- maybe Jesus, maybe St. Alexander. No statues. There were flowers in front of the altar, though, and the priest wore a bright-patterned stole. (He apologized for it making him "look like a Christmas tree", but explained that it had been made by the parish kids by putting their handprints in rainbow-colored paints on the material.) There's a dignified-looking but very plain wood screen behind the altar and dais. At first I thought there was no crucifix; that was brought in in the procession. It was a very nice metal crucifix which seemed to have the crucified Christ on one side and the risen Christ on the other, though I didn't get as close a look at it as I'd like. No pews, but wide and "churchy"-looking wooden chairs with some kind of carpet seat.



I was there to help out with the music. This was an unalloyed pleasure. The music director is (said my native guide) the youngest in the archdiocese of Detroit, and I'd believe it. He was just turning 21 this Monday, was just this year taking his first formal music classes, and had been music director since his teens. A quite talented pianist, he also had good taste in music. Most of it was more modern stuff; he knew how to make it work. The choir area was to the left of the altar dais all the way to the windows. There were four or five levels of sturdy carpeted tiers for putting chairs on. We used microphones, but honestly, if the acoustics weren't quite so school cafeteria, you'd hardly need them. The tiles and wood did do a good job of helping the acoustics, I think. The piano was adequate. I think we did a good job with the music. (For once in my life, my voice was cooperating and singing in that weird new silvery way I've picked up now that my voice has matured and I've been in choir.)



Anyway, Mass was fine and inspiring and all that...mostly. I could really have done without the weirdy bits. "God, have mercy" instead of "Lord", and as little use of "Lord" as possible. "God, you remember how the rabbi Jesus...." was perhaps the weirdest bit. It just sounded so Arian! But clearly, that wasn't how Father meant it, since he didn't do anything like that anywhere else. Meanwhile, there's apparently a "Hail Mary" every week for the unborn killed by abortion. (I think this came after the Creed and before the petitions.) Okay. Then the petitions were almost all the "add your own" I remembered from college. You've seen that before, too? Well, would you believe that the petitions lasted almost ten minutes? People had brought lists of prayer intentions! It was obvious that a lot of folks in this parish know sick people, a good many with cancer. (Father prayed especially for a cure for cancer before bringing the petitions to a close.) It was moving but also...very different. Very. Much more conservative in bent, somehow, than these things usually are.



And just when I was feeling those pre-Vatican II vibes...Father apologized to all Catholic women for their oppression by "the machine" and prayed for justice for them. Um. Well. I just feel soooo oppressed, I'm tellin' ya.



Father also prayed for our soldiers in Iraq and the Iraqi people. His obvious love of peace and of people would have swayed my heart more, if he hadn't seemed to be under the impression that our soldiers had caused all the violence and death, instead of greatly reducing it. At this point, the informality of the setting caused me to be doing some audible muttering into my praying hands. This was inexcusably rude and wrong of me, and I hope nobody could hear me doing it. Mass is not the time to be talking.



ANNNNyway, of course we held hands during the "Our Father", but that's not really a biggie to me. I was startled to find myself being ushered over to the dais to hold hands with the eucharistic ministers as well as my native guide the choir guy and the music director, but eh. With a parish that small, no biggie. I already mentioned the bizarre Arian image created by Father's creativity with the Eucharistic Prayer, but on the whole he was even more solemn about it than most. Everything was going along great. (No, I didn't see how the fractioning thing was handled. I was back over on the choir side and singing the Lamb of God and thus pointed out at the congregation, not the altar. For the first time in a long time, I only had to sing the thing three times, so I was happy.)



Then we came to the forgiveness thing. Of course everyone was shaking hands with everyone else, and of course there was much roving. But...it must have lasted a good five to seven minutes! We're not talking a quick "Peace be with you" and a muttered extra comment here; we're talking whole little conversations! Usually I don't feel that this "breaks up the Mass" or takes away from the solemnity of Communion. This time...um...sorry, guys...this time it took me all the way out of any sense of contemplation I was contemplating.



Finally, it was actually time for Communion. The choir and music director took Communion before the singing started. We did a good job on the Communion song, I think, but it was a good thing there was music for me to focus my prayer with. "One Bread, One Body" does do a good job of putting people in a meditative state. But the whole solemn mass of the Mass is supposed to be what sets you up for the supreme moment of taking Communion, not one song.



Announcements. Um. Well. This is where things got contradictory on the Ursula K. LeGuin "That kid in Omelas? Oh, well, it's a darned good thing for all of us that she's imprisoned there, and all my happiness, marriage and kids depend on my decision to abort my first child" scale.



(That poor confused and sorrowful lady. My heart goes out to her, since her dad (Kroeber the famous anthropologist) could obviously at times be a BIG JERK from what he sounded like in his book Ishi. It sounds like he and her mom pressured Ursula into going along with the abortion. Otherwise, she'd be "useless" and "never get married"...geez, you can hear the family ranting at her, can't you?)



Father announced that he was only reading this announcement because the Cardinal said so. The announcement was just asking people to sign petitions for a law against partial birth abortions! Sheesh! Then Father announced that, although he was absolutely opposed to every form of abortion, he was also absolutely opposed to any limiting of a woman's right to choose.



So, like, does that mean he also hates murder, but believes that outlawing murder is wrong? Is he an extreme libertarian or feminist or Constitutionalist or what?



After that, I honestly wanted to sing the last song and get the heck out of there before I said something truly injudicious. Because, really, they were all such nice people and so obviously full of love and devotion that I'm fairly sure they're closer to God than I. But...they were so far out there! People in Yellow Springs are more logical than this! The looniest loon I met at the science fiction convention was more logical than this! But how can you go and harangue a nice priest who can hardly get his breath enough to say Mass but still does it?



God love 'em, I couldn't help but feel for these folks. They've got so much going for them, but they obviously need some basic instruction in logic and doctrine to help direct all that love!

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