My family started a new tradition last Lent: The Lenten field trip. We go somewhere faith related that the kids haven’t been before. Last year we went to the Cathedral in Sacramento. We both did a guided tour (which was fascinating) and went to Mass. Then, since we were already downtown, we combo’ed it with a trip to the state capital.
This year the original plan was to go to a Spanish California Mission, probably in San Francisco. Unfortunately our weekends in Lent got sucked down pretty quickly and we needed to find something smaller.
So the backup plan, that we exercised yesterday, was to take the family to Saint Stephen the 1st Martyr parish in Sacramento. The parish is served by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. This is who they are in their own words:
The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter is a Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical right, that is, a community of priests who do not take religious vows, but who work together for a common mission in the Catholic Church. The mission of the Fraternity is two-fold: first, the formation and sanctification of priests in the cadre of the traditional liturgy, commonly called the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite, and secondly, the care of souls and pastoral activities in the service of the Church.
In other words, they are experts in the Extraordinary Form, aka the Latin Mass. If someone in the Sacramento region wants to see the Extraordinary Form, this is the place to go. They’re the priests who know it best and do it at it was intended.
And the simple reality is that I’ve been wanting to go for a long time. I’m a fan of “smells and bells” Catholicism. I’m often frustrated by movements to make the Church “more relevant” or “more accessible”. They very frequently run roughshod over beloved Catholic traditions without any consideration for what they’re so willing to discard.
And the worst part of movements like that is that they are backfiring. If you talk to young people, they find “Youth Masses” boring and uninspiring. The attempts to find music that moves them merely shows how “out of touch” the choirs at your average Catholic parish are with the music teens enjoy. It’s like Grandma trying to dress like a teenager. It comes off ridiculous.
If that weren’t bad enough, if you talk to young Catholics about what they see in the Church that inspires them, it’s exactly the opposite: The Extraordinary Form. This year alone I’ve had 3 RCIA attendees, all young, leave our parish for St. Stephens. And I’ve got a 4th who just started coming to RCIA who may go the same route.
Thus, it was time for me to go and see what it was all about and the family Lenten field trip was the perfect excuse.
I’m going to break my observations into a number of different posts, one per day. Today I’m just going to focus on pre-Mass portion.
We arrived at the parking lot 20 minutes before the lone High Mass of the day (there were 3 other Low Masses) only to find that there were no parking spots left. (Ever seen that at your average parish?) Luckily there was plenty of street parking and so we were able to find a spot just outside the parking lot. As a seasoned Catholic I know the first thing to do when encountering a full parking lot is to rush inside and see if there’s going to be an available pew for the family.
Upon first entry into the Nave of the Church, I was optimistic. It was half full, perhaps a little more. But it turns out that was quite deceptive. Every single open spot had a Missal or a sweater over it. Clearly this is a Church that allows for people to save lots of seats. (This by the way is a pet peeve of mine, but I’m willing to accept every parish has their traditions.) Everyone gets there early, it looks like a half hour or more early, saves a seat and goes on to other things. The courtyard was indeed full of people.
We managed to find 4 folding chairs in the back of the Nave so we had the kids sit down and Wendy and I stood, knowing we’d be standing the whole time. Oh well, right? At least the kids had seats
But not long after we sat, I realized the back of the Nave was also where the confessional was. And in fact, there were 3 of them, all occupied with both people and priests. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, as this was the norm back in the day, but for me, I haven’t seen confessions just before Mass on a Sunday in my entire life. (I’ve seen them before the Saturday vigil Mass, but when I’ve seen that, it always ends ~30 minutes before Mass starts so the priest can prepare to serve at Mass.)
So while I saw the doors there, I didn’t think much of them. I didn’t think to consider whether they might be confessionals because who would be using them right now even if they were? I was so focused on finding a seat, getting the lay of the land wasn’t my top priority.
The next thing I learned, after the first person came out of the confessional, was the back two rows of pews, behind the main entry way, was not for general seating, but instead for the confessional line. Thus we were amidst that line and generally in people’s way.
Everyone was nice about it, they knew we had nowhere else to go.
This was actually a second answer for why there were so many pew spaces reserved. What otherwise appeared to be people already standing along the back wall of the Nave was in fact a long line for the confessional. These people would be waiting for and going to confession all the way up through the 1st 30 minutes of Mass. The 3 priests in the confessional were not scheduled to serve at Mass that morning, and continued hearing confessions as Mass started and continued. When people finished saying their confession, they’d go to the pew spot they had reserved well before Mass.
I must admit, if there’s a good reason to have reserving of seats before Mass, being in line for the confessional seem to me to be one of them. Although it seemed by the time Mass was in full swing that this accounted for only about half the reserved seats, perhaps even a bit less.
The other thing that was notable, and it became more clear as more people filtered in to take their reserved seats, was the demographics of the group. My home parish has a pretty good makeup of families, but we wouldn’t dare to hope for the demographics at St. Stephens. The group was almost entirely young families with lots of kids. The average number of kids was somewhere in the 6 per family range. Tons of babies. I’m sure there were some elderly people, but they were so overwhelmed by the number of young families, I sure don’t remember seeing them. Pope’s St. John Paul II, Benedict and Francis have all talked about what a thriving parish should look like. There’s no doubting that both by the demographics and by the frequent sounds of children and babies, this was it at it’s pinnacle.
And they all started filling the pews, so that the place was packed by the time Mass started.
(and I’ll pick it up there tomorrow)