“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.“—Pope Benedict XVI, Catholic Insight (2013)
Lately my wife and I have been attending a small country church, Our Lady of Mercy, shown in the featured image (taken from the parish’s Facebook Page). We have to travel 10 miles further than to the parish church where we’re registered. Why are we doing this? Let me explain, emphasizing the positive aspects, the benefits of attending Mass at a small rural church. But before doing that, let me give some background material about the Church.
Our Lady of Mercy is located in a hilly, rural area in northeast Pennsylvania. As is the case nowadays, the parish population of several hundred families is weighted to the elderly, although a good number of families with young children attend Sunday Mass.
Compared to other Catholic churches I’ve attended, I would best describe the interior as plain, which is not a bad thing. There is simplicity, but reverence in the sparse decorations. “Less is more,” as the architect, Mies van der Rohe, put it so well.
Since the parish population is small, the parish faces the risk common to all Catholic dioceses nowadays, given the shortage of priests: consolidation. The population is not wealthy (the 2000 census gives a median family income $30,000 less than that of Langhorne, PA—Bucks County).
Accordingly, the Pastor has to be ingenious in obtaining funds and saving money for the church. He does so by using volunteers for necessary work and by promoting parish activities: picnics, classic car fair, yard and bake sales, etc. (See the facebook pages here and here for a good description—some friends and I plan to attend the classic car fair.)
WHY WE ATTEND
Let me emphasize that my wife and I have no complaints about our home parish, either clergy, liturgy or parishioners. As my wife puts it, it is just that when we attend Mass at Our Lady of Mercy, the path to God seems shorter and more direct. One reason for this is the liturgy, which, like the church itself, is plain and unadorned. I’ll say more about that below. Here are some of the other reasons.
The first reason is accessibility. My wife uses a wheel chair to get around; walking even a few feet is painful. That there is only a short distance from the handicapped parking space to the open front pew for handicapped persons, makes for easy wheelchair navigation. Moreover, during the service she can see what goes on in the Sanctuary and can receive Holy Communion directly from the priest.
Another reason is the welcoming atmosphere. Although we’re new to the parish, people say hello and greet us when we wheel up to the front row before Mass. When I attend daily Mass, it’s as if I’ve been there for many years.
And possibly the most important reason is the liturgy and the pastor, Fr. Dennis Dalessandro. (As you should know, this mixture is like a cheese omelet—it can’t really be separated into two parts—and, to save space, let’s call him “Fr. D.”) Fr. D. has 37 years of experience as a priest under his belt, has been pastor at Our Lady of Mercy since 2017 and before that at a larger parish in a town 20 miles away.
At Sunday Mass, there are no EOMHC (Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion). During Fr. D’s early days at Our Lady, EOMHC did serve at the Sunday Masses. But since the congregation is small, Fr. D thought he could get to know the parishioners better by serving Holy Communion himself. Parish members act as altar servers and lectors at Sunday Mass. At weekday Masses two sisters light the candles and set up for service, but there are no altar servers. At the weekday Masses Fr.D reads the entire Liturgy of the Word.
At this time there is not a cantor, nor choir, nor organist. At Sunday Mass Fr. D leads the hymns in his strong, melodious tenor. Belying the old adage “Catholics don’t sing,” the congregation at Our Lady of Mercy follows Fr. D in the hymns. At weekday Masses there are no hymns.
In the liturgy there is some chant and some Latin, not enough perhaps to satisfy Tridentine enthusiasts, but sufficient to make those familiar with preVatican II liturgy (like my wife) nostalgic. There was even a period when Fr. D celebrated the Mass ad orientem.
“There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented.” —Anthony Trollope, “Barchester Towers, Chapter VI, ‘War'”
Before discussing Fr. Dalessandro’s fine homiletic style, I’d like to make some general remarks about the homilies (not many) that justify the quote above. And let me preface these comments with one observation: it’s a good thing that a priest lets us know where he’s coming from. Remarks about his parents, his childhood, relatives, his training as a priest are all welcome, because they tell us what kind of man he is and what led him to his calling.
On past occasions it’s been hard for me to listen to a homily. When that has happened and I complained to my wife, she replied (justly) that you don’t attend Mass for the homily, but to partake in the body of our Lord. And I must admit that sometimes the problem has been with me. The audio system has been defective, so this old, semi-deaf person couldn’t penetrate an accent or make out a soft voiced mumble; or there have been scholarly and erudite lessons on Scripture that I couldn’t relate to my everyday world.
Fr. D’s homilies do what a homily is supposed to do: they explain the Liturgy of the Word and show how it is relevant to our Catholic life. It’s not easy to do this, using terms that the congregation can understand, situations with which they are familiar. But Fr. D does so. It is like a friend addressing another friend.
Let me repeat: “Less is More.” The simplicity of the liturgy and the lack of ornate decorations enables us to focus on what is important in the Mass: the reception of that great gift, the body of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Sometimes music and ancient forms brings us to God; but sometimes not, when the forms are not delivered with care and taste. I’ve written elsewhere how the Anglican Ordinariate usage makes worship special. And so does, in a different way, the Mass in this country church
And let me also repeat: the Church today is in financial trouble almost everywhere. The temptation to organize parishes “efficiently” puts those small parishes which have special virtues, like Our Lady of Mercy,” in peril. It would be a great loss to the Catholics they serve and to the Church were they to disappear.