Weekly E-mail

Weekly E-mail: Sunday Mass

March 24, 2024

Sometimes I remember that I used to spend Sunday mornings attending Catholic Mass, and I have to pause. Was I really a member of a parish, a regular churchgoer? What a waste of time and energy! Mass was typically an hour long, but there was also the preparation: taking a shower or a “bird bath,” putting on dress clothes, and waiting for my brother and mom to also be ready. It wasn’t something that I could just do when 9am rolled around.

Wait: why do I think it was a waste of time and energy? Because if it wasn’t, I would still be doing it – right? Going to church was a weekly ritual that we practiced for nearly a decade. Every Sunday, the three of us would sit, stand and kneel in a pew of St. Helena’s Church at the top of Marion Avenue in Bellefonte, DE. There was even a stretch of time when my father attended. I close my eyes and remember him standing with his eyes closed, arms outstretched to better allow the Word of God to enter his mourning body.

And there are others just like him, people who found something meaningful in the pageantry of a Catholic service. I saw them filling the pews around us. Some were families I knew, my classmates and their siblings, with their own parents. We said hello and chatted briefly after Mass, another delay before I could return home and be away from church.

So why was I there, if I hated it so much? The simplest answer: my mom made me go. I was, after all, a child, and children in this country count as much as a plastic backward pawn. But why did she go? The tuition discount, probably. She might say she wanted us to be part of the community, to listen to Father Russell’s sermons, to sing along with the hymns. But mixed in with the stories and the songs was the collection. Two to four people would walk up and down the aisles holding one end of a weird basket. It was a normal-sized container, the kind of thing you’d see in grandmother’s house on the counter. But what made these baskets unusual were their handles. They were long enough that each basket could be put right in front of a parishioner while its holder stood at the end of the pew. Contactless payment, years before the smart phone.

This was, after all, a transactional relationship. Rather than allow us to receive our education through the local public schools, our parents sent my brother and me to St. Helena’s School for our elementary and middle school years. They paid thousands of dollars – reduced with every envelope in the collection basket – to ensure we had small classes and … well, did they really care if we were being taught about Jesus?

I’d say the jury’s out on that one, because there had to have been schools more Christ-like than St. Helena’s. Sneering, spiteful gargoyles masquerading as educators; preening, violent boys on the recess field. Jesus was watching, but he didn’t really get involved. Kinda hard when he existed only in Crucifixion form.

I imagine that some readers may have winced at that. It seems flippant, insulting to the dozens of people who found value in attending Sunday Mass. So let me confess: I was one of them. Of course I was. An intensely curious child, I wanted to figure things out, to know why people behaved the way they behaved, why the world existed as it did. I spent one Halloween attending a lecture given by Dr. Robert Bakker, whose paleontology scholarship bolstered the theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, caring creatures; I had to have been younger than 10. I played Reader Rabbit 2 and Number Munchers for hours on our old Tandy computer. Now, don’t celebrate my intellectualism – this was a survival instinct. Being curious about the world is just an optimistic version of anxiety, with its constant scanning for threats and permanent self-doubt.

What I valued about Sunday Mass was the ritual. Though the stories and songs would change, the structure of the service remained the same every week. In my daily religion classes, I learned that millions of other children were also spending their Sundays in church, hearing their own Father/Minister/Bishop Russell lead the congregation through life. These people may have had different steps in their ceremony, but the basics were the same: we gather together in this building to celebrate, to mourn, to gird ourselves for another week outside the gates of Eden.

I haven’t attended a Sunday mass since the George W. Bush administration, but I still recognize the beauty of the Sabbath. It’s the beginning of the week, an opportunity to rest in preparation for What Is To Come, whatever it may be. It’s looking over my calendar and seeing what I have scheduled; it’s figuring out what groceries I need to buy and what meals I need to prepare; it’s an opportunity to pause, to reflect. Then I pick up and continue on.

During my AmeriCorps service, I sent out Weekly Emails on Sundays. These missives from New Hampshire were stories about my prior week, thoughts about my life and the world I was in. A secular sermon, an expression of hope. I kept up with sending them for a few years after finishing my service, but gradually I fell away from it. I’ve tried to restart, to recreate their centrality in my life, a few times. It hasn’t stuck.

2024 feels different. It’s the fifteenth anniversary of my college graduation and move to New England; it’s the thirtieth anniversary of my beginning at St. Helena’s School. The past three months have been full of creativity and discoveries: the very things I celebrated in those emails, the things presented to me when I was a Catholic schoolboy. So let me mix all of these lessons and moments into a reborn version of the Weekly Email. (It’s not lost on me that today is Palm Sunday.)

These emails will exist here, on my website, as well as in the inboxes of anyone who wants the retro version. Why not? You have the choice in how you receive them, as well as in how you respond: in a communal comments section, in a personal and direct reply, or to yourself. I’m just grateful that you’re listening.

Would you like to receive these Weekly E-mails in your inbox? Send me a message: paul@pinpoints.community

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