The Mass on the 14th for the Virgin Mary

Our Mother of Perpetual Help, a 15th Century M...

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The sky at 4 a.m. was nothing short of swimming-pool blue and I wondered if I should both to wake up my son Mack, who was only 13.  Since we had met Sister Mary Pastry last month at the European Market in Chesterton, IN, he insisted he wanted to attend the mass of the apparition.  After a few moments of thinking about it, I knocked on his bedroom door and whispered, “Do you really want to go to the Mass?” half-thinking he would roll over and go back to sleep.  But he woke up and dressed and we were in the car by 4:40 driving to the Austin neighborhood in Chicago.  It was eerily silent as we drove, increasingly moving into what I would call the ghetto area of Chicago, blighted and scary, black men standing on corners with no specific purpose.  As we pulled into the parking lot, it was just as Sister Mary said — police officers patrolled the lot and we slid into a parking spot, escorted into the church for the Mass of the Apparition. 

As we entered, a nun in full habit handed up a head set and I asked her what it was for.  She looked quizzically at me and I realized she spoke only French.  “Pour quoi?” I asked her and she only pointed us toward the pew.  My friend Gloria was already waiting for us in the pew and Mack and I silently slid in toward her.  We gave each other the “eye”.  What were we in for?

St. Mary de Frechou is the mother house of Fraternite Notre Dame in a dicey area of Chicago.  Across the street from a hospital, it seemed imposing with an iron gate enclosing the parking lot.  As Mack and I sat with Gloria, we took in the church.  The ceilings were low but dressed with religious murals and a massive set of organ pipes.  Soon, no less than 18 men in religious vestments entered the church in a processional.  Jean-Marie, the bishop, entered last with an elaborate peaked hat. 

The mass began in Latin and I gasped.  This was the traditional Latin mass.  I made a mental note — I had grown up and been married at St. Michael’s Church in DePere, Wisconsin via Father Hector Bolduc.   My children were baptized there as well, as much for convenience as the fact that a family member had started the church amid a great deal of Vatican II controversy.  I was not prepared for this.

It soon became apparent that the headphones were for simultaneous translation of the Latin and French mass into Spanish and English.  As I looked around, the predominant attendees were Hispanic with a high proportion of Filipino’s. This was one organized Church.

Personally, I like to think that I come to religion from a wide variety of spiritual traditions.  Raised as a Catholic, I have studied Buddhism, Judiasm, spiritualism and a wide variety of approaches.  I’ve come to believe that we are a conglomeration of experiences and that there is no right and wrong in belief, which would probably excommunicate me from the Catholic Church, particularly the Tridentine Mass I was currently experiencing.

As I looked in front of me, I saw at least 20 nuns in full garb — white for a high mass and the black habit.  It was something of a culture shock to witness and as much as I searched for Sister Mary Pastry, I could not differentiate her from the others lined up in front of me. 

Mostly what I thought about as the Mass progressed was the Bishop.  If he had truly seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary and been guided by her, what did it take to do a Mass of this magnitude every month? To commemorate the apparition?   It was impressive. 

As Mass concluded, two nuns appeared with hundreds of white and yellow roses — roses being the sign of Mary.  Bishop Jean Marie gave a rose to every one in attendance, including Mack and me.  I kissed his ring as he offered me a yellow rose, so schooled in Catholic tradition was I.  We looked up and it was already 7 a.m., two hours since the start of the mass.  Mack nudged me and asked if we could leave as the Bishop began the rosary.  We had already been there 2 hours and we were ready to go.

It was not at all as I expected in that the Mass was a high ritual, the kind of service where you get lost in ritual.  It was a meditation on a grand level, but maybe Mack and Gloria weren’t there as I was.  For me, it was a place to lose self and commune with a larger purpose.  I had to pull my awareness back to the church, if that makes any sense at all.  “Yes Mack, let’s get going I said as I came out of the trance.”  

For one of the first times in my life, I understood the rapture.  It could have been a yogi meditation as well.  It was a moment of leaving time and space, and spending time with a higher power.  Sister Mary Pastry told me that the Virgin Mary is there for these masses and I felt the presence in the quiet space of meditation.  If there is a power beyond us, it was here. 

I thought of fruit tartes and the Chesterton European Market where this all began.  Maybe there is magic to their pastry.  I’m okay with that.

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Ash Wednesday Penance

Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian o...

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Arriving back to the office after receiving my ashes at 8:15 a.m. mass at my children’s school, the dark oily cross on my forehead reminded my colleague G that she too needed to get her Ash Wednesday ashes as the Lenten season started.  “How was mass?” she asked as we began our workday.  “Fine.  It’s always good to go to the all-school mass when my kids have their all-school mass,” I said, then lamented, “Well, except that I didn’t get my regular pew this morning.”  “You mean, you sit in a particular pew at church?” G inquired.

I laughed.  Of course I did.  But once again, what seemed intuitive to me for so many years was a revelation to someone else.  “Oh, you have to blog about this one,” G said when I explained my usual practice.

The truth is that I don’t like to kneel.  More pointedly, it hurts to kneel after a certain amount of time.  It’s something about the skin on my burned knee, which may be too thin, too physically addled or just too banged up from all the surgeries.  It’s another area where I need to make do and in the case of going to church, it means avoiding the pews with  in the front of the seating bench .  I’ve been doing this so long it doesn’t seem novel  anymore, just routine coping.  To get along, go along.

At St. Josaphat, the church is dark and cavernous, never falling prey to the 1970s “modern” church movement that carpeted so many structures and took away their original details.  Here, the original, beautiful tile floors are intact, as are the original wooden pews with pull-down kneelers in the front of the seating bench in almost all the rows.  As you enter, the church has a wide vertical wide aisle all the way to the altar.  Mid-way through the church another wide aisle cuts horizontally across.  It is here at this intersection that there is a row of pews with no kneelers.  When I go to church, that row becomes my usual spot.  No kneeler, no problem, no attention drawn to me because the people sitting in these rows cannot kneel.

On Ash Wednesday, the all-school mass meant there were 200 some children taking up the first rows of the church; adults found there spots in the back.  With a kneeler to contend with and people on either side of me, I simply did the modified kneel at the appropriate times in the mass — kneeling with the left knee while half-sitting on the edge of the pew so my right knee did not have to bear the weight.

My colleague G found this church practice of mine somewhere between amusing and awkward and odd.  “I wonder how many things you do like that,” she said, “Where you just adapt and don’t think about it anymore.”

I didn’t know the answer.  It’s something I think about now as I try to compile all the pieces of my story.