Catholic Mass. Not the words you hoped to read on a secular perspectives blog? Perhaps, but yesterday, that’s where you would have found me, me who was raised in the Jewish faith and who is now an ardent atheist. Don’t misunderstand me - I have no interest in conversion, no belief in a god and no belief that the Pope deserves my special attention unless it‘s for reasons other than religion or faith. But I’m an academic through and through and I thought I ought to know, as I come to define my own secularism, what it is that thousands of people, including some otherwise scientifically minded friends, are up to every Sunday morning…or, as I soon learned, Saturday night…or Saturday morning…or heck, any weekday, sometimes twice a day.
I am not an expert on any religion, and learning that Mass was not a Sunday-only thing was the first surprise. What to do? I was advised by someone familiar with all things Catholic to go to a Saturday night Vigil rather than a Sunday morning Mass or a weekday Mass. ’Vigil’ would get me the pomp and ceremony of a full Mass, and ‘Saturday’ would allow me to avoid the crowds who went to Church just to be seen. Wait…’just to be seen’? In a big impersonal secular-ish city like Washington, DC? Oy vey.
Where to go? St. Mary’s is where one of my favorite authors (F. Scott Fitzgerald) is buried, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception has many beautiful mosaics and St. Patrick’s is the oldest Catholic church in DC, built for the masons who built the White House. History won out in the end, and I decided to go to St. Patrick’s for a Saturday night Vigil.
So, how was it?
Depressing, though not because of the religious teachings from the priest nor the readings from the laity. One could barely understand these given the echoing acoustics of the interior space. (The priest’s message encouraged parishioners to say ’I do’ to Jesus multiple times a day and to work hard to sustain that commitment.)
No, it was depressing for an unexpected reason - no one wanted to be there! Ok, that’s probably (I hope) a bit of an exaggeration. As I sat though the Mass, a sense of emptiness or obligation seemed to come from the entire congregation. Let’s take a look at the three parties I followed most carefully throughout the ordeal.
First there was the lone young woman (mid-to-upper 20s), short black hair, fashionably dressed, sitting to my right. Let’s call her Mary. Mary entered the nave on time (bravo!) but failed to cross herself as she entered (minus one point). Throughout the entrance of the officiants, the opening hymns and first prayers, Mary was deeply occupied with an amusing text conversation (minus one chance at eternal Heaven?). Rather than excusing herself to finish the conversation outside the nave, she went through the motions (kneeling, head bowing, crossing, etc.). For whom was she doing this? Wouldn’t standing outside be more comfortable than sitting on those hard straight-backed planks of wood?
There was the family in front of me. If I had to guess, I’d say it was Grandma, Elder Aunt, Mother, Father, Child. They arrived about halfway into the 50 minute Mass (minus 10 points), got to the front of the line for Communion and then left (for those of you unfamiliar with the structure of a Mass, there was a hymn/exit processional after Communion). Was Communion the only reason they were there? Did they believe they were taking in the blood and body of Jesus Christ and that was all they needed to do to check off ’Mass’ from their weekly list of things to do? If that IS the only ‘necessary’ part of a Mass, why don’t more folks show up just for Communion -- after all, isn‘t everyone busier these days?
Lastly, there was the family behind me: Mother, Father, Young Daughter (who was quite clearly ill), Older Daughter, Older Son (~8 years old). Father left to take phone calls (bravo!) throughout the Mass (minus 5 points); when he was present, his arms were folded across his chest and he stared resolutely at the back of the pew in front of him. From this posture he did not deviate. Son didn’t once crack an ‘Amen’ or ‘Jesus, hear our prayer’ and seemed to have inherited the ‘resolutely staring‘ gene from his father, but who can blame an 8 year old for wanting to spend Saturdays otherwise occupied? Mother was busy comforting red-cheeked Young Daughter who couldn’t stop coughing throughout the Mass. Poor girl. What sense of religious obligation/guilt makes it ok to have taken her out of the house that morning?
It seems that my source for all things Catholic had a different experience of Saturday Vigil than I did. If the people I observed were not there just to be seen, what were they there for? Certainly, the three parties I observed could not have been the only, or even main, contributors to the atmosphere of emptiness that permeated the nave throughout the Mass. I’ve been to other religious services relatively recently and for various reasons - Unitarian Universalist; secular Judaism (Shabbat on Sundays!); Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism; nondenominational/born again Christian; and various Protestant - but whether it was because the congregants were warmer or more sincere, or because I was in a different mood, I did not detect the same feeling of wanting to be elsewhere as I did at the Mass.
There was one person who clearly demonstrated her fervent wish to be exactly where she was. Older Daughter (~6 years old), I’m quite convinced, is the next Pope (you know, when they get around to allowing that sort of thing). Every ‘Amen’, every ‘Jesus, hear our prayer’, every invocation of God/Jesus, every line of every hymn and every word of the Lord’s Prayer issued forth from her mouth with perfect timing, but…but! also with clearly detectable ardor. How informed is her religious passion? One wonders to what it would be put if her parents weren’t churchgoers…or more to the point, were raising her in a humanist or secularist household.
As I write these lines, I realize that Older Daughter’s zeal, or rather that it should be directed at religion, is as saddening to me as the observation that hardly any (autonomous!) adult I saw showed signs of wanting to be where s/he was. We can reflect on our own childhoods, or we can observe our own children or those of others, to remember how much energy and curiosity we had to invest into figuring out the world around us. Imagine the potential contribution to human knowledge if this energy were invested in rational, critical thought at an early age.