Saturday, January 28, 2012

Returning to St. Thomas More

Four winters ago, I was preparing to become a Catholic. On vacation in Sarasota, Florida, I attended daily Mass in the side chapel at St. Thomas More Church, and although I could not receive the Eucharist, I enjoyed walking the two miles each way and arriving early to say the Rosary with a group of parishioners. I will not easily forget this large, affluent Sarasota parish, if only because I have been on their mailing list ever since.

This evening, on vacation again, Katie and I attended Mass in the main sanctuary of St. Thomas More for the first time. We were moved by the experience in a way that surprised me in particular. Katie is open-minded about most things, while I am an old dog where new tricks are concerned, although as a Catholic I guess I’m an old new dog.

After four years, I have settled comfortably into the Old World ambiance, liturgical rhythm, traditional music, and strict but caring pastorship and preaching of our parish church north of Boston, and I enjoy the fellowship of my kindly but not always demonstrative fellow parishioners. Everything, seemingly, about the Sarasota church, parish community, and liturgy is strikingly different. But one or two essential things are the same, which is what finally moved me.

My New England parish was founded by Irish Americans after the Civil War, and the present church, completed in 1908, was built with the support of a large new generation of Italian American immigrants. It looks it. The stained-glass windows are pure nineteenth-century; the statuary—Mary, Jesus, St. Anthony, and Joseph left to right across the front of the nave—is straight out of an Italian village church; the Stations of the Cross are carved, detailed, and stern; and the apse is glory itself. The picture at left says it better than I can.

By contrast, St. Thomas More is all stone and glass—straight lines where my home church is a feast of curves. The Florida light pours in from side windows and especially from a hidden skylight that bathes an enormous San Damiano–style crucifix hanging over the priest’s chair. St. Thomas has an in-the-round sanctuary (although that may be an oxymoron) with a massive altar raised three steps on a central platform, in contrast to the high marble altar and face-front lower altar in our sanctuary back home.

While my fellow parishioners are mostly typical of New England, which is to say reserved, the 4:30 vespers service at St. Thomas More was aglow with the joy of faith. Dressed in bright vacation colors—lots of white pants on the men—many looked like they had lost their way en route to the Early Bird Special, but after all, this is Florida in January. If old or at least mostly older, they were also surprisingly energetic. When I receive the Eucharist from an extraordinary minister in my home parish, I sense that something serious is happening. The 75-ish woman who gave me communion this evening seemed to have a secret she was bursting to share: the Body of Christ! She could barely suppress a grin.

The music in our parish church is traditional. The hymnal probably is unchanged since the 1970s or 1980s. An organ plays alone in a high loft over the back of the nave, backed by a talented choir for the 10:30 Sunday (who never wear uniform robes like the St. Thomas choir seen at the top of this post). The song choices in our church will seldom make you raise an eyebrow or tap a foot.

By contrast, it is doubtful whether St. Thomas More himself would recognize as Catholic the music in his namesake church. True, the processional hymn was an old favorite of mine, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” but the rest was a musical smorgasbord. The warm-up tune—there’s no better term for it—was the lovely spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead,” sung feelingly by a soprano, but when the congregation applauded her final note, I wondered if I hadn’t stumbled into a concert. The organist-pianist was a young man with a pony tail, a wide grin, and a high bounce to his step, which I noted every time he jumped from the organ console to the Steinway, both of which were positioned closer to the altar than the priest’s chair. I’m glad the maestro never jumped to the full drum kit beside the piano, which must be reserved for Sunday’s highest Mass, although he did coax some drumlike effects out of the organ. Then there was the offertory hymn which had a distinctly Incan quality to it. I could see my pastor’s eyes rolling.

At my parish church we no longer have bingo nights. At St. Thomas More, if you want to play bingo, it turns out you have to make a reservation. Neither does my parish church usually offer a 50s sock hop hosted by the men’s fellowship, a luncheon and fashion show at which our assistant pastor models clothing, or a Tootsie Roll sale put on by the Knights of Columbus on the sidewalk after Mass. All of these and more were on the docket at St. Thomas More, according to the entertaining announcements delivered at the end by the pastor. The most exciting thing that usually happens at the back of our New England church is a blood-pressure screening—or a single handshake from our irrepressibly effervescent assistant pastor.

Still, old dog that I am, I would be inclined to spend the rest of my life going to Mass at my traditional parish in Massachusetts, in preference to the peppier one in Sarasota. Except for a couple of things.

Most important of these was today’s celebrant, St. Thomas’s assistant pastor, Fr. Jan Antonik, whose picture I stole from the parish web site (left). Though I’m no accent expert, I’m guessing he was born in Poland, or at least somewhere east of the Danube. His English was exceptionally clear and distinct, however, and not merely because it is his second language and therefore one he has to work at.

Every word of the liturgy, of the Gospel, of his homily was enunciated with intentionality, feeling, faith. He was such a compelling presence, in fact, that I began to think the music—for all of its heterogeneity—was falling into rhythm with him. By the end of the Mass, celebrant and music and liturgy had combined to provide a seamless faith experience for me. I am pretty sure Father Jan was the glue that made it all cohere.

“Amazing Grace” made for a moving meditation at the end of communion, but I did not recognize the new piece to which we all exited, something written long after our home hymnal was published. But by then I had received the Eucharist—which I could not have done four years ago here—and a fulfilling feeling of certainty, thanks to Father Jan and a large congregation of joyous, youthful, elderly Catholics.

Katie squeezed my hand as we left the church, and we shared a Tootsie Roll on the way to the car.

1 comment:

  1. it's always so interesting to visit other Catholic churches on vacation. what an eye opener, eh? Loved the descriptions, W.


If you have trouble posting comments, please log in as Anonymous and sign your comment manually.