Ponte Sant'Angelo Methodist
Church--just up the Street from
Saint Peter's--cookies and tea for
all, including Catholics.
I remember Church in the 50’s. I made my first communion in 1956. I never missed a Sunday or Holy Day Mass in the 50’s. Not in my family did we miss mass. You would come to Church in a hush. Once you crossed the portal there was no more talking. Jesus was there and respect demanded total silence. You didn’t greet friend or neighbor—not even a nod or a wink. You went to your pew and you genuflected towards the Tabernacle—in the center of the main altar, of course. You knelt for a minute or two and then you could sit.When Father came out from the sacristy door to begin Mass you stood and then you knelt during the “prayers at the foot of the altar.” In fact you remained kneeling until after he read the collect and then you could sit. If it was a sung Mass and there was a Gloria, you could sit a little earlier when he went to the sedilla (the bench) and sat with the servers, but when he returned to the altar you knelt again for the prayer. Of course all the prayers were said silently, or truth be told, in an inaudible mumble. Most Masses were “low Masses” when you would hear nary a word. A sung Mass, or High Mass (as we called it) the organist would sing or perhaps the choir if it was a Sunday Noon, and then you would hear a few sung prayers (in Latin: I said “hear,” not understand) and perhaps some versicles and responsories now and then such as the occasional “Dominus Vobiscum.” You stood while he read the Gospel and if it were a Sunday, he would usually then turn towards you (in those days the priest stood at the altar with his back towards you: it wasn’t important to him if you were there or not as long as he was there; Lay people were peripheral, at best, to the Mass) and read the gospel a second time, this time in a “thee” and “thou” bespattered English. Then there was the Creed and when you saw Father go down on one knee, you went down on one knee even if you were in the middle of the third decade of the rosary or your fourth novena booklet (you needed something to keep busy while Father said Mass, though ideally you had a missal and read along. Most people didn’t bother with missals, private devotions were good enough and the occasional daydream broke the tedium.) Soon you were back on your knees through the Secret, Preface, Sanctus, Canon, Lord’s Prayer, and Agnus Dei—a long time stretch. Never at any time was your attention diverted from either the altar or from the prayerbook or rosary in your hand. Silence reigned supreme. If the gentleman two rows back decided to have his myocardial infarction, he had better do it silently—and the little old lady from County Monaghan would sternly hush the ambulance attendants as they carted away his lifeless body. There was no need to talk, especially him being dead. Up to communion in no apparent order, kneel at the rail, close your eyes and stick out your tongue. There were no “amens” in those days: you think we were Holy Rollers or something saying “amen.” Back on your knees until after the final blessing when you stood for the Last Gospel. Then Father disappeared into the sacristy not to be seen again until tomorrow’s Mass. Only Protestant ministers stood at the door shaking hands. You then left not saying a word until you were out in the sunshine—or snow, or rain or whatever. And then you could hear the “Did you see the hat she had on herself? And she at her age! She has no idea she looks the fool” as the cats began their scratching at one another.
Speaking of cats—and in this case, their curiosity—when I was about 12, I snuck off down the street to the Methodist Church. Was I in for a shock—and an embarrassment! Somebody came up and shook my hand and said “Welcome to Woodside Methodist. You’re a visitor—what is your name? And as if that weren’t bad enough, once the service began the Minister introduced me and two other visitors. O God, what if one of our Protestant neighbors told my parents I was in their “Church” that morning. Fortunately we didn’t speak much with our Protestant neighbors in those days so I don’t think my parents ever found out. And it probably wouldn’t have bothered them all that much anyway. They were more open minded than Monsignor or Sister Serena and Company at school. But I hadn’t figured that out yet. And these Methodists listened to every word from the Pastor—it was all aloud and in English. You could listen if you wanted to. And the sermon wasn’t some fairy tale about angels talking with the Blessed Mother about what sinners we were and how we should all be dropped into the fiery pit and the Blessed Mother assuring them not to worry, she had it under control. The sermon actually said something about looking after our neighbor. And they had something called “the right hand of fellowship” which was a handshake. And before and after the service they talked to one another and caught up on how each other was doing. Granted the Church wasn’t as pretty as ours, but the music was good and there were nice flowers on the altar. And everyone was very nice. I had no desire to go back. I couldn’t see the point in going back. After all they didn’t have Jesus sitting there in the Tabernacle, but I appreciated the friendliness even though I didn’t stay for coffee and cookies afterwards. I liked cookies, but wasn’t old enough to drink coffee and was afraid of people asking too many questions. These Methodists were a chatty group.
Nowdays you go to the Catholic Church and it is more like the Methodists back then. People talk to one another. They shake hands, or hug, or kiss. You can’t possibly say a rosary or read a novena unless you have balls of wax in your ears. I mean everything is in English, how can you help but understand? To be sure, there are periods of silent reflection. There certainly times of attentive listening to the Word of God. There are times we focus on God—in the prayers, in the scripture readings, in the hymns. And there are times we focus on our neighbor—the sign of peace is the most notable. And there are times that the Word of God focuses us on our neighbor—mostly the homily or the prayers of the faithful when we consider the needs of the Church, the world, and our neighbor. Granted we are much more busy nowadays with singing and saying the communal prayers, but you know I think it is much healthier. There is a good balance and inter-connectedness between God and neighbor and that reminds us that Christ gave us “Two” Greatest Commandments, not just one. And indeed it is good to have the reminder that unless we love our neighbor we do not love God because whoever says that he love the God whom he cannot see and yet fails to love the neighbor whom he can see is a liar. As for the 1950’s—I’m looking forward to Grease but I have no desire to return to the Mass as it was on those bleak befuddled days. While I am Catholic through and through, and would never give up on the Catholic Church, if the Latin Mass made the comeback for which the New Liturgical Movement and other fring groups are calling, I probably would find myself Sunday after Sunday in the Methodist Church, if only for the cookies and tea. Well, no only the cookies and tea but for authentic Christian worship.