Monday, December 15, 2008

The "Doorbuster Mass" Returns

Before all else, a Saturday report here placed the 12 December turnout at Mexico City's Guadalupe shrine at five million.

All apologies for the error, but scratch that -- make it six million.

With another massive Morenita feast safely in the books, attention can now focus squarely on Christmas and Advent's other emergent juggernaut on these shores: the Filipino tradition of Simbang Gabi ("Night Mass") -- the nine-day liturgical vigil (usually followed by big breakfasts) that'll fill parishes from far-flung exurbs to over one in ten churches in the nation's largest diocese as it begins tonight or early tomorrow.

Heralded by the sounds of church bells and brass bands parading through neighborhoods, the Masses invariably have a 4 or 5am start back in the Philippines, where churches tend to keep their doors flung open to accommodate the overflow crowds -- that is, where they don't ditch the buildings altogether to celebrate the Eucharist outside. (To boot, in one crime-ridden area of the islands, last year's patrol to protect parishes and parishioners at the early hour was led by... local Muslims. And at one Manila parish, there actually was a "doorbuster" for this first night -- free tea for the first 600 to queue up.)

In its Stateside incarnation, however -- where the Masses are often moved to day's end to reflect parishioners' work schedules -- while the celebration remains an organic, parish and family-based one, an increasing number of dioceses are working to gather the communities at the novena's beginning or end for one big cathedral liturgy, often highlighted by the blessing of the traditional star-shaped lanterns, or parols, that symbolize the days' central focus on the imminent Arrival, the Star of Bethlehem.

While the best-known of the openings take place in LA and Seattle (where the parols yet again descended from the oculus of St James Cathedral during Saturday's "commissioning" rite), the tradition -- its roots traceable to the late 16th century -- entered the mainest of mainstreams this year with its debut in the US church's most prominent sanctuary: St Patrick's Cathedral in New York, where a launch for the archdiocese's 20 parish observances took place last weekend.

Beyond Gotham, Archbishop John Favalora will close out Miami's celebrations; one SoCal parish is expecting a nightly turnout as high as 6,000; Wednesday night will see a traveling DC circuit hold its Mass in the capital's St Matthew's Cathedral; Cardinal Daniel DiNardo will preside at Houston's consolidated closing of novenas in over one-fifth of his 150 parishes while the USCCB chief Cardinal Francis George will celebrate Chicago's last of the Masses; North Carolina's observance is hoping to coordinate its potluck by alphabetically assigning food contributions, the Arlington diocese's traveling celebration takes a page from the recent papal visit with its theme, the novena's DisneyWorld edition begins at 4.30am... and, of all places, there's even a cathedral kickoff taking place tonight in Anchorage.

Yet regardless of where they are or what form they take, the celebrations all have one key element in common: no effort is spared to underscore the degree to which, Pinoy or not, "all are welcome" -- and the more, the merrier.

Along those lines, as 2008 winds down, it's important to recall that one of the year's big stories on the beat was an especially jarring one: the findings that one-tenth of the entire American population has left this church (...and less than one in four who remain take part in its life every week).

No question, it's a deeply uncomfortable commentary to face, and that probably goes a long way toward explaining why this difficult reality (and how to change it) hasn't been approached with the degree of substance or urgency it deserves.

That said, though, don't be fooled: it's not as if no hope's to be found... knowing it just takes a bit of scratching beneath the surface. And in this, our pilgrimage on these shores provides a useful guide, albeit one some of us might find pretty challenging in itself.

See, for all its fruits and glories, it wasn't long before the Revolutionary church of the Carrolls and Mother Seton fell prey to divisions and disputes that served little purpose but to distract God's people from their mission and mar their witness in the world.

Born of the young flock's success -- and the complacency that quickly set in with it -- its self-indulgence climaxed in scandal: the greatest crisis American Catholicism had ever known... at least, until another surpassed it in our own day.

After the decades-long trusteeism wars of the early 1800s finally boiled over, the project briefly languished before its needed reboot came. By the early 1840s, like a rushing tide, a church that had recently been humbled suddenly found itself infused with fresh blood -- an energetic piety born beyond the water's edge that renewed the face of this earth, restored its proper focus, grew and attracted the masses in ways prior generations could barely have imagined, channeled its energies as one, and, as tides tend to do, washed over the residue it found on the shoreline before sweeping it out to sea.

Yet just like its predecessors, once this vanguard consolidated its ascent, even some of it would become comfortably stale. Even some of it would come to cast its lot with power and property, prestige and politics, giving stones when the people hungered for bread. Even it would reach the point where many found it to be less a refuge of sinners and house of prayer for all people than a rarefied society limited to the seemingly spotless few. And so, just as he did 170 years before, God laid it low in the sight of the world, that we might get the message, find our soul anew and return to him with our whole heart. In other words, where its conversion was needed, a culture that lost its way was upended... that, from its ashes, a church might rise again.

Suffice it to say, the work continues... yet even along the way, the Lord is good. He always provides for his church. And just as it was in the 1830s, even in our darkest hour, his agents of renewal were already present in our midst and ready to rock, both to remind us all of the best of what we are and call us back to the essence of what we need to be. All that remains is to recognize these as such.

And in that light, whether it's the 80,000 of our own gathered for an August weekend on a Missouri field, the 150,000 walking miles to huddle and pray on a frozen Chicago night, or the hundreds upon hundreds of star-shaped lanterns hanging in crowded sanctuaries from coast to coast over Advent's home stretch, an invigorating next chapter of the American Catholic story is already well in progress just under the surface. May we ever give its spread the attention, support and welcome it deserves... but even more, may we realize that its rites of passage -- and the ever-ancient, ever-fresh fire of faith they represent -- are no mere spectacle to be observed, but a treasure and renewal of the very body, that very life, in which each of us are called and blessed to play a part.

PHOTOS: St James Cathedral, Seattle