The Joy of Community: My Visit (and a half) to the Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Americas by Marni Gillard
At St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, I am taking an elective called American Catholicism that requires me to visit a mass culturally different from Kateri parish. My first visit to the noon Spanish Mass at the ShrineChurch in Albany (Lark and Central) will forever linger in memory because I stepped into a sidewalk “imperfection” and fell right in front of the church, fracturing my left fibula. I found myself laughing that my prayers to the Blessed Mother to help me “slow down” have definitely been answered. Less than 10 minutes before, I’d been at a free-dancing class and left with a feeling of perfect inner and outer balance. Dance is prayer for me, a deep connection with the divine and a chance to “hang with” my beloved dead ones. Like song and story, dance lifts me into fantasy and a clearer reality all at once. I connect to my grandmother whose limbs hardly moved from rheumatoid arthritis. I invite her now-freed spirit to dance with me and she does.
I think that day in Albany, Mother Mary offered me a chance to “cross the border” into my grandmother’s disability, just as I was crossing into a different faith community. My fall introduced me instantly to fellow mass-goers with kind faces and strong hands. I didn’t dare stand until the pain subsided. I felt tears come but retreat instantly, an old habit. Eventually with both hands planted on the cement, I got up and then others’ arms supported me up the church steps. At a Welcoming Table, I met more friendship and received a sturdy bag of ice for my now-ballooning left ankle. After many muchas gracias, I asked for names and offered my own. I didn’t like feeling needy and “different” in a sea of Latin faces, but Mary’s compassion, through her beloved ones, flooded me.
I hobbled into the worship space, securing an ice bag to my elevated leg along the pew. Should I stay at all? An older man teased as he sat near me, “Well, you won’t be dancing much for a while I think.” I smiled at this “cultural” friendliness. Our suburban parishioners are friendly, but they don’t often mix flirtation with kindness. My dad, a real Maurice Chevalier, taught me not to disdain men’s playful attentions. I thought, “Yes, I’ll stay. I’ve got ICE!” But when I texted my husband, I knew he’d disapprove of my lingering for the whole mass. The phone’s “ding” showed “CALL ME!” but Mass had started. I texted, “Soon?”
Blessing the parish’s children was fun, watching families with big smiles send little ones toward the sanctuary. Clearly a weekly ritual. A parish member fluent in Spanish lovingly explained the purpose of their leaving for Word-liturgy. The elderly white pastor looked grateful for this lay assistant. The priest got through the mass in Spanish, but clearly it was not his first language. Mine either. A Spanish/English hymnal helped me with the Kyrie and Gloria. Then I stumbled through “Let your mercy be on us, O God, as we place our trust in You,” which I’d sung in English the previous day as Union St.’s psalmist. By the gospel, my ballooning foot warned me to get home. So as others stood, I awkwardly excused myself, using each pew as a crutch. My ice-bag dripped all the way, and white privilege reminded me I find treatment soon, thanks to insurance. That might not be true for those I was leaving.
I returned the next week in a clunky boot, moving slowly. I spotted faces that remembered me. My favorite moment was the congregation’s enthusiastic singing (in Spanish) of the “Our Father” (to the tune of “Sounds of Silence”?) I couldn’t stop smiling, and sure enough found an English version online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHxEkeBiFyc. Everyone also spoke Padre Nuestro, holding hands. My friendly teenage pew-mate this week reached for mine and hugged me wholeheartedly at the passing of La Paz. Suburban teens don’t so easily hug strange adults. I felt too shy to walk around the church as my young pew-mate did, hugging everyone she knew! I enjoyed watching all the families and friends sharing paz and take pleasure in traveling the church. I noticed a festive feel. Some parents kept little ones close, but others allowed children to run off to hug cousins and playmates. Parenting styles vary both within and across cultures I guess. Seeing teen boys hug their elders, as well as pretty peers, made me smile too. I’m a hugger by upbringing, and I liked this ritual which I’ve also experienced at the Black Catholic Church in Menands where I was once a member. Our big parish doesn’t seem to lend itself to such traveling and hugging. And I must admit, after years at St. Helen’s/Kateri, I still don’t know more than a small percentage of parishioners. I enjoy seeing our priest and deacons walk the church for peace-passing. I wonder if we could push through our reserve and try peace-hugging. Hmmm. It does lengthen the service a little.
I did OK on Spanish responses (printed in the book) and liked following readings, though I realized too late we were mid-Apostles Creed, not the Nicene one. I also followed the Spanish Eucharistic Prayer III pretty well and sang Santo Santo Santo and Cordero de Dios (Lamb of God) pretty well. I started to feel at home! Catholic ritual can be a blessing when you are in unfamiliar territory. Both Eucharistic ministers smiled broadly and I noticed how people sing familiar music easily at communion or other times. But unless invited, they just give unfamiliar tunes a try. That’s true everywhere. It takes time for a choir director or psalmist to teach congregants a new song, but in the end, it’s a bonding experience, especially if we can laugh a little. This entire parish applauded wholeheartedly for two teen girls who sang acapella after Communion was over. I like when people clap or laugh in church. That seems to unite us. Those girls looked so pleased. And I noticed a nearby woman quietly singing along with them, perhaps recalling being such a girl.
I didn’t really get the Spanish homily, but having heard all the readings earlier, I sensed the pastor calling us to God’s friendship through His commandments to love. My heart went out to him and to his listeners. Both seemed present to each other across the hurdle of the priest’s effort.
I missed a level of joy I expected to find. It’s something I look for at any Mass. My big Irish family loved Mass for the singing. I can enter joy alone; I learned that at First Communion and deepened my understanding in 4th grade when I first sang morning Mass in Latin. Cantoring once again, in recent months, I’ve tried to send my joy out to others. Sometimes I can feel it connect, like when I story-tell to listeners. Before and after this Shrine Mass, I did see the joy of community as people greeted each other, entering and exiting. But during parts of the Mass I saw a too-familiar mix of boredom and weariness. I guess Mass is where we get to let it all hang out. I do love watching Fr. Bob begin Mass so enthusiastically, then preach with a deep connection to his flock and toss the “napkin” basketball to grinning servers, then hold the host as if he really IS Jesus speaking to his apostles. I can’t help thinking we Catholics who sit in the pews – or wherever we gather – need to work on our joy. God’s love asks it of us, and in our parish we have so much to be grateful for.
At one moment during this second visit to the Shrine Church, I did find a Fr. Bob kind of exuberance in a girl of about 4 or 5. She caught my eye the moment she and her mother arrived. They were fashionably dressed and the tiny girl exuded a Latina Shirley Temple zest. I remembered being such a child once, happy to be in my church dress, watching for family and neighbors to arrive and sit in their “usual” pews. I communed during Mass with my favorite statues of Mary, Jesus and St. Therese to keep away the boredom of grownups doing something I didn’t really get. This little girl was a strong cultural connection for me, as was the teen girl who unhesitatingly hugged me her Paz. Our Lady of the Americas gave them both to me, undoubtedly sweetening my week-ago fall into grace.
Someone recently said to me that it will be St. Helen’s and Our Lady of Fatima until there is no one left from before the merger. On this accord, I suppose I am more fortunate than others. Fortunate because my history at Union Street, the better name to use, dates back to the 80’s and into the beginning of the 90’s. I spent two decades in Las Vegas, tending to my parents and sisters, when I knew it was time to come home. My return has made me the new kid on the block.
There were a lot of great places to worship when I returned. I have had a history with a few other parishes along the way. None of which was Rosa Road, the better name to use. Union Street became my most comfortable house of worship once again, my “home base”. This feeling of comfort, I am sure, is the very reason that most of the parishioners go solely to their own home bases.
When I had the good fortune to attend my first ever mass at Rosa Rd, I was amazed. It has an intimacy, a closeness that is breath-taking. The WORD carries so well in this majestic House of God. The music is upbeat, the parishioners friendly, even the priests rest and meditate down near the people. The organist and the announcements are close enough to reach out and touch. The choir, while clad in their gowns, raise their voices from a gently raised platform.
The social atmosphere after the mass is great. They have doughnuts and conversation, a tradition well entrenched in this half of our parish. The offices and the grounds, used for picnics, carnivals and of course the blessings of the animals, are more strong attributes of Rosa Road.
It is sounding like I have been converted from my old home base of Union Street. Not so fast. Union Street has the beautiful stain-glassed windows, the school, and the open spaces that allow so many faithful people to assemble. Periodically, the children from the school arrive at Mass and use their voices to enhance the Mass. Also special are the celebrations of Christmas, Easter, and the special event when all the teachers in the diocese attended one of the dwindling appearances of Bishop Hubbard as he prepares for his retirement. The P.A. System recently upgraded to bring the voices from the choir to all the areas of this grand old building. The carefully orchestrated movement of the readers and the Psalmist is addicting. I love the priests, during homilies, traveling the isles and enlightening us with their words, which carries to all corners of this half of our parish. Finally, one of my favorite events occurs when all the Eucharistic Ministers begin converging on God’s Altar, following the peace greeting and during the “Lamb of God”. They come from all different directions to lend their hands in the celebration of the centerpiece of our faith, the Body and Blood of our Lord.
So I conclude, if you feel an urge to proclaim you belong to either of the old parishes instead of to St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the real name, in honor our most worthy patron saint, then I suggest you wander from your own home base and experience the other half of your parish. Maybe you will see what has made this whole parish my new home base and why I love the beauty of both of these Houses of God. We are a truly great Parish of God.
Before beginning, I want to apologize that yes, you are hearing from ME again. I would love to have more writers for this blog. If you are feeling called to write about spiritual thoughts that YOU have, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 518-370-3136 X-239. This is our parish blog, and it would be so lovely to hear lots of voices here!
Silos are tall, cylindrical structures that store goods. They are usually for a particular farm’s use only. They stand alone. They have no other use other than their own purpose. Once they have been emptied, their purpose is obsolete until they are filled again. They have no needs other than maintenance and storage. They do not live very exciting lives.
This contrasts significantly with community supported agriculture (CSA). In CSAs, people pay for a share of the farm. In a sense, the community owns the farm entity. In gratitude for their share, the farm disperses a portion of their harvest. There is equality. There is risk. The portion is a mystery, of whatever is in season. There may be an abundance of one good and a shortage of another, You get what you get and must accept that. But there is always equality and portions across. So, there is plenty and gratitude in the sharing. You have to participate in order to be a part of that plenty and gratitude. CSAs exist for the win-win. Both giver and receiver benefit.
I’d like to think this is how we can exist more peacefully in the world – as CSAs not silos. Be sharers. We cannot exist on our own. Well, we CAN but not fruitfully (intentional pun). We are meant to be in relationship with one another. As we go about our days, we aren’t supposed to just get through our own agendas…are we? Is that living a well-led life? To that end, will we be happy simply checking off our own to-do lists? Life is better when we exist together. When we share together. When we help each other. Maybe things get messy in relationships (Some of my relationships are an absolute disaster!), but better to get messy in the sharing than to be a silo. Only gratitude and plenty will result.
Think outside the silo. Let us be a CSA. Not just in our parish but in our lives. It is a win-win, and God seems to be always in the win-win. When goodness helps others, it helps ourselves. God is that goodness! Take the risk and put in your share. See what happens. It could be an unexpected life. Be a part of the abundant harvest!