An American parish's formula for success

An American parish's formula for success

Judy Trajanyi

The first sign that something is different about St Joseph's Church at Locust and Erie streets, Toledo (Ohio), is a polite request posted on the door that asks visitors to observe silence out of respect for the Blessed Sacrament.

Inside, the Blessed Sacrament is still kept in a tabernacle located on the high altar towards which worshippers genuflect before taking their seats - and they are expected to refrain from socialising in the pews after they sit down.

Once Mass begins, there are other distinguishing characteristics that set this church apart from the typical late 20th-century American Catholic model. The priest still faces the altar for part of the Mass while Communion is received at altar rails at which recipients kneel and it is distributed only by the priest assisted by male altar servers dressed in black cassocks and white surplices.

Although St Joseph's seems in many ways to be a throwback to the days preceding the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the pews of the church are full, and not just with older, nostalgic Catholics. Young families, many of whom never knew the "pre-conciliar" Church of their parents and grandparents, are coming here for the reverent atmosphere and style of worship, which includes a Latin Mass on the last Sunday of the month and on Thursday evenings.

Mass attendance

Weekly Mass attendance here is one of the highest in the Toledo Diocese at nearly 100 per cent. The parish has 500 registered members, many of whom have been generous with their financial support. One recent weekend, when contributions were sought for hurricane victims in Honduras and Nicaragua, the parish collected $4,100 without any advance notice of the collection.

"St Joseph's attracts people who like the traditions of the past, but it's not stuck in the past," says Chris Scarlett, a 39-year-old mother of seven who belongs to the parish and drives there each week from Maumee with her husband, Bob, and their children. Mrs Scarlett says what she enjoys about the church is the way it preserves the best of the past and blends it with the good of the present.

Located in a poor neighborhood in the heart of Toledo's north end, St Joseph's was established as a mission parish in 1854 to serve French families. When change swept through other churches in the Toledo Catholic Diocese after the Second Vatican Council, St Joseph's retained its traditional flavour, says the current parish priest, Fr Stephen Majoros.

While other churches removed communion rails, moved altars or added new ones so that the priest could face the people, relocated the tabernacle to side chapels, closed or remodeled confessionals, St Joseph's put its money into old-fashioned upkeep and restoration. In the last few years, major improvements have included painting the sanctuary, adding a new sound system, replacing the boiler, refurbishing windows, and paving the parking lot.

At St Joseph's, the choir still sings in the loft at the rear of the church, the statues remain in their places, and there often is a line outside the confessional before Mass. And even at the English language Masses, some Latin texts and hymns are used.

Some St Joseph parishioners and attendees say they have left other Catholic parishes because of priests whose preaching has not supported official Church teaching or who have tampered with the Mass by changing the prayers or rubrics of the ritual.

At St Joseph's, worshippers say they get a clear message from the pulpit and a Mass that is celebrated correctly. "We always come away after the homilies feeling like we learned something," Mrs Scarlett comments. "And we don't forget it immediately." At other churches, she says, she has heard preaching that could best be described as nice. "But it doesn't help us to change anything in our life."

Although Fr Majoros says he tries to keep his homilies to 10 minutes or so, he remarks that the nicest compliment he has received since coming to St Joseph's in 1994 is, "Father, you don't talk long enough." He suggests, "People want to know the unvarnished truth, even if they don't live it."

Father Majoros knows, of course, that the people he preaches to are among the most faithful to Rome and more likely to applaud, rather than disagree with, pronouncements from Pope John Paul II. "We consider ourselves to be orthodox Catholics," Mrs Scarlett says. "For us, that means we follow the teachings of the Church whether they be hard or whether they be easy. When the Church speaks, we don't sit around and discuss whether we're going to go along with it. It's just part of our faith. I can't think of anything in recent times where I felt uncomfortable with it, or felt was especially burdensome. I especially appreciate the fact that the Catholic Church takes a strong stand on life issues. That's not always easy to find."

Real presence

Despite the presence of many children, St Joseph's has no crying room or nursery. "A crying room is a playpen to learn bad habits in church," Father Majoros says, adding, "A nursery divides families." He recommends instead that parents sit with their children towards the front, where the young ones can see what is going on. Having the priest face the altar during the focal point of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, during which the words of Consecration are said, helps her younger children to believe in the real presence of Christ, Mrs Scarlett says.

Pauline Giedeman, 36, of Bellevue, a mother of four, says that in other churches where she worshipped before coming to St Joseph's, "The liturgy was like a show. It's 'let's put everybody on stage,' rather than have God as our focus."

Trevor Fernandes, a 30-year old father of two who grew up in a Catholic parish with "dancing nuns and maraccas," says, "When you go to Mass [at St Joseph's], whether it's in English or Latin, the priest and the people all face towards God. You always know what the purpose of your being there is. We're not worshipping each other in assembly. It's not a lot of glad-handing, a lot of feel-good fluff religion. It's an act of worship to God and I'm grateful to be able to do that in a solemn manner, not to mention we have a beautiful church that has not been disturbed."

Mr Fernandes said a previous pastor, the late Msgr Lawrence Mossing, realised there was no reason to change what didn't need to be changed. "And St Joseph's has had that tradition. This is the only parish in the diocese where the norms of Vatican II for celebrating Mass are followed as they were intended." Mr Fernandes, who is enrolled in the diocese's ministry program in hopes of becoming a permanent deacon, explains that he believes from his study of the Vatican II council documents that many changes made under the banner of Vatican II were optional, not mandatory, or were the result of misinterpretations.

Reverence

Dr Jeff Schmakel, 51, a Toledo optometrist and father of three who directs the parish's choir, agrees. "A lot of churches went overboard with what they thought Vatican II taught. They threw out the Latin, threw out Gregorian chant, threw out all our traditions that were very good." Yet, Mr Fernandes points out, Vatican II provided for the continuation of Latin and Gregorian chant.

Father Majoros says he thinks people are also drawn to St Joseph's because of the reverential atmosphere that emphasises the real presence of Jesus Christ. "In the US, we live at a fast pace. Everything is push, schedules, demands. On Sunday morning, people are looking for an atmosphere in church where they can feel everything stops for a while."

St Joseph's future apparently will depend to a large degree on its members. For his part, Father Majoros (now aged 67) plans to stay as long as he is able. "I'm here to fill a need and because I enjoy caring for the people. As long as my health is adequate I will continue."

Toledo's Bishop James Hoffman, who recently visited the parish to confirm several young people, says that although he is committed to what he calls the renewed liturgy, he sees a place in the diocese for churches like St Joseph's. "I think that St Joseph's meets the needs of a great number of people in the greater Toledo area in terms of their strong focus on the traditional."

Judy Tarjanyi is the religion editor of 'The Toledo Blade'. This is an edited version of her original report.

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