Common Wisdom: Church Lady

It’s safe to say my daughter attended more Masses in three weeks abroad with me this summer than she had before we left.  For reasons coincidental or supernatural, her tourist’s timing twice delivered us to special circumstances:

Once we heard Mass celebrated by a Cardinal in his cathedral, and at another time, by a priest who, along with the congregation, faced the altar, a position only seen by this daughter in her mother’s missals.

Directionally challenged and inept as a traveler, I never leave hotels without a guide. My companion readily filled the bill, quickly catching on to currency and subways in London and Paris. We arrived at Westminster Abbey precisely as angelic, soprano voices soared in the nave, prepubescent choir boys practicing Purcell for a concert. Reeling from auditory ecstasy, we risked sensory overload by a trip to the Tate Gallery, after which I wanted to call it a day. But my daughter urged us on to the imposing neo-baroque Brompton Oratory, where an acolyte lit altar candles as we entered. Feigning innocence I whispered, “What do you suppose is going on?” To which came her droll if exasperated reply perceiving an impediment to further touring, “How about a six p.m. Mass?” Bingo. Not only Mass, but, prior to it, recitation of the Angelus, led by the priest.

At the Sign of Peace, peace reigned. No one jostled anyone in programmed bonhomie. An organ played, we prayed. It was dêja vu, the Mass of my youth, and a revelation to my daughter, whose formation entails chatty clerics, guitars, and meager devotions.

At the end of our first day in Paris, I was cajoled into forging ahead to Notre Dame, even though my feet begged to quit. My acquiescence was rewarded. Once again we encountered Mass, this one in progress. Casual tourists were restricted to the narthex, but my expressed desire to participate allowed us to proceed down the left aisle. It was time for Communion and we found an opening in the area cordoned off for standees. “Corps du Christ,” said the priest, and I felt tears of gratitude, so blessed was I to be in that place, at that time.

After Communion, I noticed a white-haired priest in a sedilia on our side of the altar. Suddenly he reached to his right and in a sweeping arc raised a slash of red to his head. Stunned, I realized I was looking at Cardinal Lustiger, third highest in my clerical pantheon. Before he gave the final blessing he spoke to the large crowd, his French lost on me. He then turned to a statue of Our Lady and led the congregation in Salve Regina. Latin! Alleluia! Liberated from the confines of English, I blended with the assembly in words and song.

Later that week we returned to hear Mass. It reminded me of the last Mass I heard in France at Sacre Coeur in 1964, when limited vernacular made its (intrusive) entrance. I recalled the chilling sense of alienation and discomfort in those moments, mercifully dispelled when we resumed familiar prayers in Latin. In 1995, no such respite. I listened to the exquisite sound of French, even as it isolated from common worship those who could not speak it.

My conviction was renewed that the most damaging post-conciliar mistake was the de facto scrapping of a universal liturgical language. Documents and pieties about keeping Latin notwithstanding, the reality is that the dead language is a dead issue. For my daughter’s generation there is no such deliverance at Mass in foreign lands as there was for mine. Latin is strange to her ears. The aggressive push by those who rushed to dispose of Latin exactly as air travel became more available to more people — thus enabling Catholics of diverse nationalities to experience the universality of our Mass as concretely expressed by a common tongue — remains an egregious paradox.

Equally bewildering to this Amercan, watching our own churches go down like bowling pins, was the sight of a church every time we turned a corner. No signs saying “For Sale.” Here in San Francisco, beautiful St. Brigid is boarded up and sealed; in neighboring Palo Alto, St. Aloysius has become Ananda, Church of Self-Realization. By every poll, Americans score higher in Mass attendance than do the French. How do we reconcile the contradiction?

Only in Paris did my daughter and I share a room, revealing routines usually private. At bedtime our first evening she exited the shower to find me kneeling for nighttime prayers. “Mother!” came the bemused outburst. “Stop bothering God! You’ve pestered Him enough for one day.”

She knows, of course, that love for Christ and His Church is the core of who I am, and that this love remains no matter where I kneel or how far I may be from my own bed. Looking back on our summer adventure, I remember all the churches and all the bedrooms, where continuity and contact and comfort were initiated merely by a gesture and words which begin, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Despite my daughter’s admonition, I will continue to bother the Lord wherever I go.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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