We passed by my aunt’s small mountain parish on the way home from RCIA one icy mid-winter night, the “Tolerance” bumper-sticker on her black minivan covered in slush from the snowy Utah roads. It was the parish I was most familiar with, which isn’t saying much; I had driven past it hundreds upon hundreds of times and had even been to Mass there, very rarely — my cousins’ first Holy Communions, an Easter Mass or two. My family went to make her happy, because we loved her in spite of her crazy Catholicism; we knew she was eccentric and it was important to her.
That parish embodied everything I thought the modern Catholic Church was: unsightly, liberal, watered down, bland, and ecumenical. Inconsequential. Another blip on the map. The walls inside were sparsely decorated, painted barely off-white. A few faded pictures hung from the walls. A small, detached wooden table stood apart from the wall where an altar might have been. Sad-looking plants in nondescript wooden stands endeavored to breathe life into the barren room. Attempts at making the church feel humble made it instead feel bare and empty. The god of lumpy brown carpet was all that reigned supreme here. (In fairness, it is an old mission church, so I try not to be too harsh. The outside is kinda cute and homey, in a good way, for a small country parish, but inside it is certainly nothing special and decidedly modern.)
The people, clad in jeans, sandals and faded polo shirts, were warm and welcoming. The lovely couple with the electric acoustic guitar sang well. They all hugged each other with heartfelt brotherly (and sisterly) love at the Sign of Peace. They held hands and swayed at the Our Father. It was all very sweet. I, the unchurched, cynical atheist, was critical. I couldn’t wait to get out and hoped never to return.
“…and when it came time to give us the Easter blessing with holy water,” my aunt said as we drove home that night, “instead of sprinkling us like usual, he squirted us with a squirt gun.”
“What? A squirt gun? Are you serious? Like, a big one?” I asked.
“Yeah, a big one, like a Super Soaker,” she said. Her voice betrayed an uncharacteristic embarrassment, as if she didn’t really want me to know. “He ended up being transferred, that priest. The people weren’t happy about it; even in our parish, it was too far. At least something like that would never happen at St. James,” she was forced to admit.
St. James is my parish, the one I chose after my grandmother’s death led me to an unanticipated interest in the Catholic Church. My aunt was right: there are no squirt-gun liturgies within its walls. A significant amount of our liturgy falls solidly within the “reform of the reform” category; beautifully celebrated Novus Ordo Masses with traditional elements (Latin, the Roman Canon, chant, traditional hymns, etc.) incorporated. We also are fortunate enough to have a traditional Latin Mass celebrated every Wednesday night and on the first Sunday of every month. A weekly Sunday Latin Mass would be ideal, but what we have is a blessing.
My aunt disagrees and would like the Latin Mass to go away entirely.
“Why are you picking St. James, anyway?” she asked me, indignantly, at the beginning of my RCIA journey. She was somewhere between legitimately confused and irritated. “We have a good program at our parish up here, and you wouldn’t have to travel all the way into town.”
“Yeah, I just saw online that the priest there does the Latin Mass, and I am kinda curious about it,” I responded. “Just figured it made more sense to do it there.”
“I don’t know why you are interested in the old Latin Mass. They changed it when I was just a little girl, and I can barely remember it, but I know I am glad to have left it behind. I just don’t really care much for the way the priest there does things. He is really orthodox, very pious and holier-than-thou. He is the only one in the whole state who wears a cassock. He is a little too old-school and conservative for me,” she responded.
“Yeah, he wears a weird pom-pom hat. I haven’t seen one on a priest before except in movies. Is that kind of an orthodox thing, too?”
“The pom-pom hat is called a biretta.” (I remembered that sounding vaguely familiar, now that she mentioned it.) “No one wears that silly hat anymore except for him,” she sighed.
“Well, as much as you don’t like it, it sounds like I am probably in the right place. You know how I am. Stodgy and stuck in my ways,” I joked. “I will probably like it there.”
“Yeah,” she conceded, sounding slightly exasperated and defeated. “I am just happy you are interested in the Catholic Church. I will be your sponsor, even at St. James.”
I thought back to a day, a few years ago, shortly after Pope Francis was elected. She was elated. The Church was entering new era. Finally, a Jesuit pope. “The Jesuits are the smart ones,” she informed the rest of the non-Catholic family. They would get women as deacons now (maybe even priests!), and he would expand gay rights in the Church and be so much more loving and accepting than Benedict XVI was. I have never seen her beam so brightly. I rolled my eyes, uninterested, and kept drinking my soda.
She became a lay ecclesial minister shortly thereafter; it was the “highest a woman could go in the church, unfortunately,” she lamented. For now, anyway. Her beloved Catholic Church, after so many centuries in the Dark Ages, was finally going to catch up with the times, after all. She spent part of last summer at a Buddhist monastery in France to grow in spirituality and came back to the U.S. feeling very refreshed and renewed.
I realized that I couldn’t have asked anyone more different from me to be my sponsor, but she was the only active Catholic I knew, and we are close, despite our differences.
Upon coming to “reform of the reform” Mass with me the week before my baptism, in her cutoff jeans and high-top Converse sneakers, a “Holy Thursday tradition” for her, she was genuinely surprised by the whole experience. “He uses Eucharistic Prayer I and says all the stuff in the parentheses. No one does that. And those vestments are beautiful. It makes me a little sick to think of how much they cost… The priests can wash the feet of women now. There is no way he is going to do that, though,” she speculated, correctly.
As the Triduum began, I felt her attitude shifting. “You know, something about the way Father says Mass here just feels so different. They way he sings so much of the Mass, the way he seems so intently focused on the prayers, like he is actually concentrating on them and on what he is doing. The Mass feels important here. He has a rare gift. And there are so many people here who receive Communion on the tongue. Some were even kneeling on the floor. You don’t see that anywhere. It would never happen in my parish.”
On Good Friday, my cousin, her college-aged daughter, came with us. “I actually kissed Jesus on the cross today. I haven’t ever done that before. I usually just touch the cross, but today I felt like I needed to just get over being weird about it and do it.”
As we were leaving the Easter vigil (I a newly minted Catholic) my aunt pulled me aside. “I took Holy Communion on the tongue tonight,” she said. “I don’t remember the last time I did that. Not since I was a little girl. I always receive in the hand. I always have.” She had tears in her eyes. “I just felt something so powerful and it felt so important to do it that way. I was really nervous, and I can’t explain it. I was shaking. It was hard, and I was embarrassed, but I did it anyway because it felt right.”
“That was the most beautiful Easter vigil I have ever been to,” my cousin said. Her sister agreed. “The Mass was just amazing. I haven’t ever seen anything like it.” They still joke with me to this day about the “St. James Mass.”
I wish I could report that all of them had powerful conversion experiences and are now faithfully attending the traditional Latin Mass with me, or at least that they had switched parishes. All of them had transcendent experiences at the “St. James Mass,” but their liberal liturgy is, for the time being anyway, still their norm. I pray that the small taste they got of tradition will be enough to lead them, eventually, to the true beauty of authentic Catholic liturgy. I would chase the Latin Mass to the ends of the Earth, and I want them to feel that, too. But perhaps it was just enough orthodoxy for them to handle, and perhaps any more would have been overwhelming. The Spirit works in mysterious ways, after all. I don’t always have to understand how.
Although I never wanted to, I did return to their parish, years after my brief childhood and teenage experiences, shortly after my conversion, for my first confession. There was no anonymous option behind a screen; I had to awkwardly ask the slender old priest, while he was in the middle of vesting for Mass, if I could confess to him. In we went to the reconciliation room, transparent windows all around us. A fishbowl confessional. He held my hands almost the whole time. I didn’t feel worthy to touch those hands. We joked about my sins. He absolved me and told me I could do a little better, and I was on my way. It was both more and less uncomfortable than I was expecting. He was kind. He was gentle. He shone with the light of Christ — truly a servant of God.
But it was in my more orthodox parish where my liberal Catholic family finally felt the transcendent nature of the Mass, something they had rarely, if ever, truly felt before. What they mistook for the “rare gift” of the priest was actually just the phenomenal power of a beautifully celebrated, by-the-books Mass, said reverently, intentionally, and infused with traditional elements in a humbly beautiful church. It was powerful, and it was profound, and I will never forget it. Neither will they. Deo gratias.