This essay was originally published at Bearings Online, a publication of the Collegeville Institute, on November 5, 2019 at the following link: https://collegevilleinstitute.org/bearings/the-mystery-in-ordinary-churches/—Ed.
If only they would restore a sense of mystery to the Mass, Catholics could put God first and the Church could find its way back to vibrancy. So goes the argument from Catholic traditionalists. And so far so good. But mystery has its own mysterious ways. Unless we discern mystery amid the ordinary, we may miss out.
The strongest argument that Catholic traditionalists make when they press to restore elements of the pre-Vatican II Mass is a need to recover a sense of mystery. Perhaps post-Vatican II “guitar Masses” did leave too much informality in their wake, at risk of trivializing our encounter with God. The goal that made the risk worth taking, however, was to encounter Christ in the gathered community as well. To attempt to recover mystery by requiring priests to turn to face the altar and away from the community while using more Latin would be a medicine worse than the supposed disease.
What the traditionalist argument for mystery misses is the mystery to be found in the very ordinariness of ordinary gatherings of ordinary Christians to celebrate the Eucharist—even when the music is a little out of tune or the dedicated but artless priest preaches another banal homily. After all, we still get to meet Jesus in the bread and wine and in one another, passing signs of peace. The mystery is that we’re there! The mystery is that God has reached us in our dusty, motley, disagreeable, struggling communities. We are linked together through shared texts and creeds and sacraments and ultimately a shared relationship with God and one another—reaching out to the world throughout the world, crossing borders, and embracing every culture.
As a Catholic, I have been fortunate to worship at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, as well as the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, which bears a special designation as the church for all peoples. I have marveled at the beauty of Santa Maria in Trastevere, the neighborhood where Christians first found a home among the Jewish community of Rome. Not far from the Colosseum, I have descended to a lower level excavated from beneath the lovely Basilica of San Clemente to enter the worship space of one of the first public churches to be built after the end of Roman persecution of Christians. There I wondered whether any of the early Christian saints and theologians I have studied might have walked on the same stones.
The mystery that initially opened me up to all the beauty in Catholicism was just as wondrous, however. While living and working in Central America in the mid-1980s, my wife and I visited colleagues in San Francisco Gotera, pretty much in the middle of the bloody civil war in El Salvador. They were partnering with Franciscan priests and Poor Clare Sisters. Their courageous archbishop Oscar Romero had been assassinated while consecrating the Eucharist only a few years earlier. Though I was not yet Catholic, we joined them for Mass.
I remember nothing of the singing, lectionary texts, nor homily. But I do remember the gathering. Here were ordinary Salvadorans—los humildes—persisting together even though active Catholics who practiced their faith with more than pious devotionals were increasingly suspect. The priests who served them were perhaps less ordinary, given the savvy courage they needed to work in the middle of a war zone. Even so, what I recognized for the first time was something that in its own way is quite ordinary for Catholics. In their persons, and in the rubrics they were using to guide the Mass, the priests were connecting this vulnerable Christian community to the global Church. Here too is deep mystery.
Years later, after I had moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, my bike commute started taking me past another, seemingly quite ordinary church building. Without the sign identifying it as St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, and a statue of its patron saint on the front lawn, I would have thought that the low-slung structure, built in the era of ranch-style homes, was a “community Bible church” somewhere in rural America. When I began to visit, however, something about the unremarkable architecture of the church immediately evoked the ordinary mystery of the church in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador.
“Claver,” as parishioners affectionately call it, is the city’s African American parish, and it too has been besieged, yet persists. When the then-tiny congregation of black Catholics outgrew its first building in downtown St. Paul in the 1890s, it planned to locate on a property near the state capitol, only to have neighbors object. Instead, the parish built a building a few blocks farther west, where it remained for over fifty years. Old photos show a spired, vertical, traditionally Catholic architecture. The property lacked space for a parochial school, however, so in the late 1940s the community purchased a property a couple miles from downtown, in the heart of the Rondo neighborhood, home to most of the city’s African-American population. It took 10 years of fundraising, with a willingness to prioritize construction of the school even if the church building itself would have to be more modest. No sooner had it relocated in 1957, however, than urban planners displaced some 500 families and black-owned businesses to make way for Interstate 94. Though St. Peter Claver church and school narrowly escaped the devastation, memories and scars run deep. The church stands as one of only a few institutions remaining from old Rondo.
Now, as my wife and I plan for retirement in her hometown in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I am learning the history of another struggling parish and its relationship to the land. Catholicism in “the U.P.” traces back to the tireless ministry of Slovenian missionary Bishop Frederic Baraga in the early 19th century. Baraga learned multiple languages in order to reach out to indigenous peoples, and opposed Andrew Jackson’s policy of forced Indian removal. The settlers won, and we who attend Catholic churches in the Upper Peninsula now are mostly their descendants.
Any particular beauty associated with Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Grand Marais, Michigan, owes to its location in view of Lake Superior, not the artistry of its interior. What its plain wooden structure does embody is the hard-scrabble struggle that tourists and comfortable retirees may take for granted—again, because of its very ordinariness. The only prosperity the region has ever seen was a boom before a bust in logging, some hundred years ago. As the local community tries to keep its school going, the local parish has to worry that its bishop will have to shutter it too one of these decades. Already it is but one of four parishes that its priest must service, across many miles. Only during summer tourist season does the church occasionally fill, and then the visitors may hear an appeal for a special offering to help keep the heat on in the winter, when the year-round residents faithfully persist.
Yet right there is a glimmer of the mystery. There is the beauty in a liturgy far-flung yet linking the descendants of European settlers with the campesinos of El Salvador and with black Catholics whose ancestors migrated north only to face more urbane forms of displacement. The world strains even to imagine how to right the wrongs and heal the injustices that got us here. The Church struggles, sometimes to be truly together, or even just to be. But then we sing, break bread, and pass the peace, using a rubric that others are also using around the globe. And even when we do it ordinarily, poorly, artlessly—if we pay attention, God is showing up.
Gerald W. Schlabach is Emeritus Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and former chair of the Justice and Peace Studies department there, now living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He is a Benedictine oblate, and co-founder of the Mennonite-Catholic movement for grassroots ecumenical dialogue, Bridgefolk. In 2013-14 he was a Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute. His latest book is A Pilgrim People: Becoming a Catholic Peace Church. He posts occasionally in short form @GeraldSchlabach and in long form at www.geraldschlabach.net.