Holy Rosary Catholic Church is located in the heart of East Memphis, situated not far from a public park and housing a parochial school on the grounds. I arrived at Holy Rosary on a brisk Wednesday morning before the sun rose. They offer Mass every day, with two meetings occurring each weekday. I attended the 6:15 AM Mass instead of the (more reasonable) 8:15 AM option, which I was unable to attend due to prior commitments. As I approached the doors to the sanctuary, I noticed that they were metal and painted a golden color, likely symbolic of the heavenly sense that the Divine Service is intended to emphasize.
To my surprise, the sanctuary was not empty. On the contrary, there were nearly fifty people in attendance. Quite different from typical evangelical churches, in which people generally attend whatever service happens to fit their schedule, the parishioners had gathered early on a weekday morning, on the day after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
As I walked through the doors, the bright interior sharply contrasted with the predawn light outside. The walls were a light creamy color, and inlaid were small icons. Immediately upon entrance, a small bowl of holy water awaits any who will anoint themselves with it prior to the service. This I did not realize as a Protestant. I also did not know to pay respect to the Lord (through the altar), whether by bowing or by making a sign of the cross, before you sit. My slight embarrassment began once I saw people enter after me making both movements.
Nevertheless, the altar is a beautiful sight. A crucifix hangs over the altar on the wall behind it. There are a number of throne-like chairs for the priests, deacon, and altar server. The elements of the Eucharist were hidden at the beginning of the service. On either side of the altar were two statues, at least one of which was of the Virgin Mary. The other was unfamiliar to me. There was also a deep smell of incense that pervaded the atmosphere. It was not unpleasant but different.
Although there were a number of people present for Mass on this day, I did not feel particularly welcomed. Whether it was the early weekday hours or the typical tenor of a Mass, nobody said a word or motioned to the fresh face walking up the center aisle to his seat in the pew. I chose a seat toward the middle of the row of pews, along the center aisle, where I could watch just enough people to know what to do and when to do it.
Many people seem tired. Others, like the woman next to me, were preparing themselves for Mass—alert yet contemplative. The parishioners ranged in age, although more than half of them were likely old enough to have retired. There were a number of middle-aged individuals, although not so many couples. I do not believe that I saw anybody my own age or younger.
The service began with the priests, deacon, and altar servant walking down the center aisle. The altar servant held a large crucifier, and he walked behind the priests, who wore large, white, flowing vestments, which had some kind of embroidery on the front lapels. As far as I can tell, the two priests were wearing albs.
The four men walked towards the front, each bowing and making a sign of the cross before he stepped onto the raised floor upon which the altar was situated. The altar servant began the service with a reading from the prophet Isaiah. The scriptural readings were interspersed with responses from the parishioners, who were given the response in the liturgy.
Following the first reading, one of the priests sang an Alleluia chorus, to which the parishioners were invited to response. His melody was beautiful. Without music, his voice echoed off the walls of the large sanctuary, and it was sensational to hear. He lead us in a gospel reading, the liturgical text being Matthew 11.28 – 30.
After this, the other priest presented his homily. This day was the memorial day for Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a saint who died in 1548 and was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II. Juan Diego is alleged to have been witness to a number of Marian visions, the most important of which was the vision in which Juan Diego was instructed to carry an apron-full of rose petals, which he had collected in the spring, to his local bishop, as a sign that the bishop ought to begin construction on a chapel in honor of the Virgin. After Mary arranged the rose petals in his apron, Juan Diego went to the bishop and dumped the winter roses on the floor, believing that the petals themselves were the sign. However, the petals had supposedly left a stain on his apron that resembled the Virgin, and this was the sign to the Bishop.
In another vision, Mary told Juan Diego that she desired to be known as Guadalupe. It is by this name that she is known in Latin America. A shrine was built near where Juan Diego supposedly received his visions, and there has been mostly uninterrupted pilgrimages to the shrine and Basilica (which is believed to still have Juan Diego’s apron) for nearly three hundred years.
The priest emphasized that Marian visions do not make one a special Catholic. He noted some Frenchmen who received a vision of Mary but later departed from the faith. His recommendation was to honor the Virgin, and accept the visions if they come as a blessing.
Following his homily, the priest led the parishioners in a number of payers, each of which were joined by the people with a call-and-response. And, following these prayers, the Eucharist was served.
All kneeled as the deacon and priests prepared the elements. A prayer was offered by the priests for the elements and for the people. As he prayed for one, he would lift it in the air, and the altar servant would ring a loud bell, which in some sense seemed to beckon the heavens to come down and bless the elements. The bells rung loudly in the quiet sanctuary, and when they rang the first time, they startled me.
The priest first offered the Eucharist to the other priest, the deacon, and the altar servant. After this, he left the altar and began to offer it to the people. At this point, I left the Mass, believing there would be little left for me to take part in. Over the doors, as one leaves the sanctuary, are written the words, “Euntes ergo docete omnes gentes,” which means, “Going, therefore, teach all the nations”: an intentional piece of decoration to remind these Catholics to teach the world about the Catholic Church and her doctrine.
Although there are certain elements of what some would call ‘formalism’ present in the Mass, this is no different a phenomenon than other churches with a clear ‘tradition’ (despite whatever misgivings some would have in referring to the habit of practice that most churches have) in service. There is much to appreciate about having a proper, normative ‘form’ to worship. Although this can certainly be taken to extremes, ‘forms’ as such are not problematic. One also must appreciate the kinesthetic quality of Catholic worship. Very little is passive reception. The single longest time that I was sitting was during the homily. The kinesthetic mode of corporate worship invites the whole person to enter into worship. I believe that it also teaches people that religious truth ought to penetrate one’s hands and not only their heart. That is to say, by emphasizing the tactile and kinesthetic in worship, the quality of Christianity as in-this-world is not ignored.
Nevertheless, there does seem to be a kind of distance between the parishioner and Christ. From the design of the altar to the presentation of the elements, all access to Christ is mediated through another. The presence of Christ on the crucifix behind the altar signifies that one must go through the priests to reach the Christ on the cross. The presentation of the elements in the Eucharist by the priests, after their prayer, and from their hands only demonstrates that one cannot come to Christ in a holy sacrament without the priest, although the New Testament perspective on the Communion does seem to emphasize a more communal, celebratory sense (in certain places). When the specific manifestation of the Eucharist is formalized into the melancholic normative for all instances of it, something is lost.
This presents both challenges and opportunities for evangelism, however. There are rich Protestant traditions that are adept at catering to those who believe that the ‘sacramental’ mode of worship is the only proper way and could not imagine themselves worshipping in a less reverent space. Such denominations are well-equipped to evangelize with a focus on the content of their message without having to worry about justifying aberrant, irreverent modes of corporate worship.
However, one will have to do plenty of de-mystifying the religious world. Protestants do not hold to anything similar to transubstantiation (although Lutherans, for all their pleading, are nearly identical with their doctrine of the Real Presence), and reworking a doctrine of Communion, Baptism, and the Church will be a long and arduous process, although one that could result in people turning from a religion that they may have inherited to one they’ve taken into their own hands.