Sunday Morning at Saint Teresa
of Avila parish, Washington DC
This past Sunday I was in Washington DC and had the opportunity to participate in Mass at Saint Teresa of Avila parish. Saint Teresa of Avila is an old parish—going back into the late nineteenth century when the “Uniontown” section of Washington began to develop in Anacostia—“East of the River”—and Catholics had to ferry across the Anacostia River to attend Mass at St. Peter’s Capitol Hill. Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore (at that time Washington DC was part of the Baltimore Archdiocese) opened the parish of Saint Teresa. Washington was a segregated city at the time and Saint Teresa’s was left a white parish when African-American Catholic parishioners withdrew to form Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish “just up the hill” from Saint Teresa’s. But all things change in time and as Anacostia became increasingly African-American Saint Teresa of Avila parish lost its white parishioners to suburban flight. When Father George A. Stallings became pastor in the 80’s he brought incredible new life to the parish introducing Gospel Music and vibrant African-American worship. Father Stalling’s departure from the Catholic Church to establish an “African-American Catholic Church” and become its presiding Archbishop decimated the parish as the majority of parishioners followed him. Father Raymond G. East was sent to Saint Teresa’s as its new pastor and in only a short time his dynamic preaching and worship style rebuilt the parish, even winning back many who had followed Archbishop Stalllings into schism. Monsignor East was pastor from 1989 until 1997 and then was brought back to Saint Teresa’s in 2005. He is still pastor there today. And Sunday’s Mass was Saint Teresa of Avila Parish in its full glory with Monsignor East at high energy and the congregation even more revved up “by the sweet Holy Ghost.” Mass lasts about two and a half hours and is filled with music and dance. Monsignor East gave a phenomenal homily of 40 breathless minutes opening up the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John and bringing it down to every day realities. Now you would think that a two and a half hour Mass with a forty minute homily might be a nightmare, but not at Saint Teresa’s—to the contrary! It is seeing heaven open before you—exactly what the Sacred Liturgy is supposed to do! The parish has the full complement of active laity: a permanent deacon, religious education coordinators, Eucharistic ministers, lectors, musicians, nurses, both junior and senior ministers of hospitality, dancers. Everyone has an active role in worship! Most impressive and to the heart of Saint Teresa’s is that over the doors of the Church when you leave are the words “Servants’ Entrance” reminding us that we go forth from the Eucharist into the world to serve.
This sort of experience was not available to us before Vatican II. I remember the old Tridentine Solemn Mass—it was lovely, but then too that last scene of the first act of Tosca is lovely with incense and candles and canopy in procession of the Blessed Sacrament. What the old liturgy did not do was to bring the scriptures home to daily life and call forth a response in faith. What the old liturgy did not do was call us into community, into being the Body of Christ. What the old liturgy did not do was to confront us with the call to service, the “vocation” given to each of us in Baptism. In traditional Catholicism the clergy were there to minister and the rest of us were there to be ministered to. And that simply is not the Church which Jesus established.
I was growing increasingly afraid over the past fifteen or more years that we were sliding back into this pre-conciliar Catholicism, this dead Church with its dead faith. I saw an increased emphasis—a disturbingly increased emphasis—on a (questionable) “orthodoxy” with little or no concern for the orthopraxis of the Catholic social gospel. I saw a reviving clericalism, a ghoulish revival of a clerical caste where “Father” was the only one whose opinion mattered. I saw a return to the triumphalism of the past where “we” had it all and everyone else—from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Dali Lama to that old Baptist lady down the street was in some benighted ignorance with nothing of worth to contribute and no Eternal Life to which to look forward. I saw bishops start to drag (deliberate choice of verb) out the princely regalia abandoned by Paul VI and I saw parish priests rooting around the attic for lace albs and old maniples. Unhappy and twisted souls felt they had a mission to go around from parish to parish registering what they perceived to be “liturgical abuses” for report to Rome or local chanceries. Voices like “Father Z” and Michael Voris and self-appointed canon law guru Ed Peters had their blogs and their you-tubes to reshape Catholicism in the image and likeness of their own eccentricities. I realized that one little blog wasn’t going to make a difference but I also knew that if one looks at the history of the Church one would see that the 1950 Cardinal Spellman Catholicism that was being pushed as our authentic apostolic faith did not in fact represent our two thousand years of tradition. It’s a small effort and it makes little if any difference other than being one voice calling out in the night. But I must say that the election of Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air—it is like seeing the end of the storm appearing on the horizon and knowing that the Church is steering back on the gospel track. And I am happy to hear from time to time from readers who find that it gives them some hope too.