Saturday, January 03, 2009

St. Stephen the First Martyr parish in Sacramento, CA. Especially its altar guild.

Herewith I give a recap of my trip with three friends last weekend, in which we hung around an FSSP church and bummed around Sacramento

1. After a lovely dinner at my parents' house, we spent Christmas night at Christie's house. For NO GOOD REASON, Adonela's audible prayer just before going to sleep was: "Dear Lord, please forgive Rachel for what she did."

2. We had Mass the next morning at the San Fernando Mission and asked the priest (an older man) to bless us since we were embarking on a road trip. "Of course," said he. "May the blessing of Almighty God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, descend upon you pretty ladies and grant you a safe journey!"

I've been blessed before but the "pretty" part was new....

3. It was December 26, St. Stephen's Day. I was too sleepy to benefit much from the Fr. Mullady lectures played in the car. We made the drive from southern to northern California in good time and got to St. Stephen's church early enough to explore it before 7 pm Mass.

4. You know you're at a serious parish when the kids are making stuff like this. Note especially what appear to be pictures of dead relatives... in the flames of Purgatory! I wish all funeral sermons were that clear on Catholic theology. Note also the borderline placement of Mother Teresa. Of course many are saints without the official recognition of the Church... she'll have it soon anyway, I'm sure. Why they have Benedict XVI in the Church Suffering, I can't say, but I speculate that it's a comment on the difficult nature of his job. He's pictured in the Church Militant as well. I thought this must be a project of the academy that's attached to St. Stephen's, but a parishioner let me know later that it was actually made by the home-educated high school students of the parish. She said that for all the kids who go to St. Stephen Academy there are many more who are home schooled: "They live prayerful lives and work hard developing excellent educations as well." Anyway, I thought it was an awesome project.

5. I love a church that looks like a church. This one was bought from the Lutherans around 2000 and extensively Catholicized-- they even added a choir loft in back. Similar work has begun at the newest FSSP parish in San Diego, which made us wonder if courses in church renovation are necessary for all traditional priests.

6. For St. Stephen's feast day they had a Solemn High Mass. I loved it. I'd never seen one before. Somehow I'd gotten the impression that a Solemn High Mass is too stiff and formal, not as nice as a Sung Mass. But the one I saw was just beautiful; solemn in a joyful way (this post here has a quote from C.S. Lewis that gets at what I mean.) I liked the way the movements of the deacon and subdeacon kept directing attention straight to the celebrant (especially when they would line right up behind him!)

7. The music at St. Stephen's is so good it's been in the news. Small-ish parish, but awesome schola. (I think that reporter is dead wrong that "politics is behind the growth of chant", but otherwise it's a great article and you can tell he worked to understand his subject.)

8. St. Stephen's has ninety altar boys. Ninety. And the great majority of them were at that Solemn High Mass. They couldn't all fit in the sanctuary, but they were there-- their Altar Guild was having a ceremony after the homily and some of them got promoted. Here's a shot of it. They all wear medals and cords of different kinds to signify their rank: "Boys like the military stuff," I was informed.

9. From the adorable little First Communion boys to the college-aged Masters of Ceremonies, those altar servers knew how to behave at Mass. I noted especially how disciplined they were with their eyes, never letting their gaze wander into the congregation but always focused ahead, even here in the recessional with crazy folks like me taking pictures of them. Later I was told that any lapse in this area leads to a warning, and three warnings leads to a three-month suspension from serving Mass. They don't mess around.

10. Incidentally, the ninety altar boys constitute more than ten percent of the parish. "That has to be some sort of record," remarked one of the priests.

11. Thought from Fr. Z: "A liturgical octave is an eight day period following and including the feast. In a way, the Church suspends time so that we can rest within the mystery we have celebrated while contemplating it from different angles." That's what we got to do with Christmas while at St. Stephen's.

(I wonder if the idea of an octave originates from the eight days from Jesus' birth to His circumcision? Someone look that up for me.)

12. After the Mass there was a reception in the church's gym/auditorium with cider and homemade cookies. We found some other folks from our home parish of St. Peter Chanel, and chatted with them.

13. When the crowd had begun to thin a bit, Fr. McNeely suddenly began to shout, "Dodge Ball! Dodge Ball!" In a trice the altar guild had the room cleared and secured for a nice hazardous game. They're always asking to play it, Father told us later, and he felt that on this night that was so special to them he had to permit it. Indeed, he and Fr. Masutti joined in, cassocks and all. I watched carefully from a doorway; those balls were thrown hard.

14. The next day was Saturday. Most of us went to confession. Absolution was long and in Latin, said at the same time as the act of contrition, and ending with this beautiful prayer in English: "May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints and also whatever good you do or evil you endure merit for you the remission of your sins, the increase of grace and the reward of everlasting life. Amen."

(In case any Protestants are wondering: one sentence can't be a comprehensive statement of Catholic theology. Although that prayer after absolution doesn't say it explicitly, we're very well aware that Jesus Christ is the source of all merit and the only reason any of our actions can possibly be pleasing in God's sight.)

15. There was a lovely Mass that day for St. John the Evangelist, ending with the blessing of wine. Afterward we went to tour the Sacramento Cathedral. It looks the way a cathedral should look. We loved it. Adonela said from now on she'll think of it as our cathedral. Why our own L.A. Cathedral isn't good enough for her, I can't imagine.

16. I enjoyed the wall of American saints. They're mostly North American at that, though obviously not Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego. I see they've saved a spot for me. Incidentally, St. Katherine Drexel always gets to me because I know a mother superior who looks just like her.

17. I passed a sweet picture of some saint or other cuddling with a lion. The love of God tames even the savage beast. Then someone asked me, "Did you see St. Ignatius getting eaten by lions?" and I realized I hadn't looked at the painting quite carefully enough. St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was martyred in A.D. 110. On his way to Rome to be thrown to the lions, he was allowed to write letters to the churches in various cities; these letters survived and became very important to Catholic theology. The letter to the Smyrneans is the first known to use the phrase "Catholic Church" to describe the true church as opposed to heretical sects. (That page I link to amuses me; they've got a picture of St. Ignatius of Loyola instead of St. Ignatius of Antioch. There's only 1400 years' difference!)

18. We toured the state capitol building as well on Saturday, and that was fun, but it's late and I'm trying not to let this post get too long so I won't describe it.

19. Dinner was at the Cheesecake Factory. When three of us had to squeeze into the backseat of the car afterward, it seemed more difficult than it had been before. The car drove past an ad for the new Will Smith movie, "Seven Pounds," and I mused out loud, "I wonder what that's about?" The answer came: "It's about some people who eat dinner at the Cheesecake Factory...."

20. Sunday: we hung out at church all morning and afternoon, hitting two Masses and hearing a beautiful afternoon Vespers. (From the old breviary-- all Latin, all chant.) It ended with Benediction and the best arrangement of O Salutaris Hostia I've ever heard. What a wonderful way to worship God! Also we hit the bookstore, very well stocked for such a small parish. There was a very red lace mantilla there, "for when you want to be inconspicuous at Mass," someone suggested. Personally I think those neon-colored veils are great... for someone else to wear. :)

21. Around five o'clock we were very ready (having skipped lunch) for dinner. It was then we discovered that the keys of Christie's car had been locked in her trunk.

22. A man from AAA arrived within half an hour but the theft-proof car defeated him. A second, better-equipped AAA man was summoned, but he was a long time coming.

So we had about two hours total of waiting. During that time we were joined by various parishioners who offered to use their AAA memberships for us (but we had our own). We were also provided with cookies and company, both much appreciated-- I learned interesting stuff about dairy farming and the various ailments cows can have. If you're going to have car trouble, try to do it in the parking lot of St. Stephen's. The real fun came when about six of the older members of the altar guild assembled and did their best to open the car with their own assortment of jiggler keys and coat hangers. Here they are going at it while Christie looks on. They eventually found the tool the first AAA man had lacked-- a long stiff rod with a hook at one end, to poke through the seam of the car door and unlatch the trunk. But right before they could try it the second AAA guy arrived with the same tool and opened the car. We were rather sorry that the altar guild hadn't had a crack at it first.

23. Monday: we had a final Mass at St. Stephen's in the morning. As at the Low Mass on Saturday, there was only one altar boy, a young one, and he reeled off his long Latin lines without a cheat sheet and looked very focused and devoted. I reflected on how much altar servers, by their reverence, can help everyone else enter into the spirit of worship.

24. Afterward we delayed our departure as long as possible by touring the little parish school and going out for breakfast, but in the end there was nothing for it but to go home. We'd really enjoyed the four days of being churchmice at St. Stephen's. A traditional Latin Mass is even better in a parish that's entirely devoted to it; then everything from the behavior of the people to the decoration of the church tends to harmonize well with it.

25. But hey, even here in the Los Angeles archdiocese we have a number of TLMs, at least on Sundays. That's something! And it's thanks to B16's motu proprio that we have them. You know you're Catholic when a decision of the Pope in Rome has a direct effect on how you worship every Sunday.

26. The day after getting home, just before Mass at my own beloved church, I was about to put on a veil but suddenly I bunched it up in front of my nose instead and inhaled deeply. It was still carrying the scent of the sweet incense they use at St. Stephen's. I missed it.


farfarolla said...

and let us not forget about the many cookies we consumed while we waited for the car to be opened.

The Cellarer said...

The number of altar boys (and girls) a parish has is often a good indication of it's health. As is children's liturgy numbers (if you have one)

We have a healthy number of altar boys, one girl I believe and a well attended children's liturgy.

I had to go (on official business) to another parish in our diocese, I reckon 150 people there, children's liturgy of 4, 1 altar boy. I think I was the only person 20 - 40. How long can they survive?

JimAroo said...

I will be a contrarian here....
my experience is that the presence of a "children's" liturgy is always a bad sign. Splintering up the Masses of a parish leads to disunity instead of the unity that the Mass proclaims.

Eanah said...

Looks like a very fun road trip! The dodgeball cracks me up. :) Glad you got home safely, and hooray for AAA (and for people who know how to break into cars, but use their powers only for good).

P.S. EVERY TIME I scroll past the title of this entry, I read it as "Stephen Fry" instead of "Stephen the First." Send help. My brain is in need of repair. I wonder if it's out of warranty yet.

Rachel Gray said...

Farfarolla, I've forgotten but the scale hasn't.

Cellarer, if you mean the number of children in a parish is one indication of its health, I quite agree. (One could measure nations that way too.) I don't really know what children's liturgies are but I feel suspicious of them...

Eanah, I told the altar guild, "I'm glad you're on our side!" Christie's car was nearly theft-proof but they could easily have broken into most others.

Kay said...

Oooooohhh--I love dodge ball! Even if the girls can't serve Mass, are they at least allowed to play dodge ball?

Rachel Gray said...

It looked like an all-boys game. And thank goodness; the girls would have gotten creamed! Maybe not you, Kay, but most girls for sure.

When I was young I both liked and feared dodge ball. :)