Just Griping Over Liturgy…

St. Augustine's Rolling AltarSaint Augustine Church in Andover has gone onto a summer schedule. The weekday liturgies have all been moved out of the church and into a room in the new Ministry & Education Center they recently built across the parking lot from the church, one that might best be described as a cross between a foyer and a small seminar room. It features a rolling altar, which I’m guessing is usually stored behind a nearby collapsible, sliding false wall – like you see in hotel function rooms. At least there’s a small tabernacle built into the real wall behind the faux one.

The seating is contemporary plastic stackables, which leaves the tile floor to serve as kneeler. The front row of seats, however, consist of typical churchy chairs with kneelers on the back, so you can kneel on them if you sit in the second row. So that’s my new location – second row. The front row is consistently empty. No surprises there.

One of the interesting things about these new arrangements is the physical consolidation of the congregation. There just aren’t enough remote locations to go around! The seating distribution has always been a bit curious at St. Augustine – at least during the Noon Mass. It must look quite peculiar to the celebrants. I figure the nave of the main church probably holds about 350 people comfortably, and the typical daily Mass crowd is about 10% of that number. There’s usually a moderate dispersion of congregants in the back 10 to 15 rows, with a light sprinkling of folks closer to the front. Even a row of seats against the back wall usually has occupants (OK, sometimes including me), while the vast majority of seating in the pews is empty. No doubt we’re all just taking Jesus’ words to heart to sit in the cheap seats, and wait to be invited to sit in the seats of honor (c.f. Lk 14.7-11)!

So, we’re much more intimately co-located these days, which I suppose is nice, but there’s no place to kneel without moving to the handful of seats up front. The downside to that is that, while we might all be sitting closer together, we have some liturgical disunity now. Kneeling on the stone floor is not a practical option for most of the congregation, and very few people are doing it. Even fewer people are standing, as this is not a familiar position in this context – and no one has been instructed to stand, which would probably be the best solution. Most people are, by default, continuing to sit, which is certainly not the end of the world, but makes for a congregation that is doing a little bit of everything – which is pretty disorderly – and sitting is not a proper disposition during the sacrifice, anyway.

All this might seem rather trivial, but liturgy is intended to produce and express unity, and I think it is a shame that some simple steps weren’t taken to better facilitate that expression at the most profound moments in our liturgy.

So, being a little frustrated at St. Augustine, and open to at least a temporary change of pace, I meandered over to St. Robert Bellarmine Church in West Andover last Friday to attend their Noon Mass. The lector took her seat after completing the first reading, without leading the congregation (which I could have counted on my fingers!) in the Responsorial Psalm. The priest seemed to delay several moments, perhaps hoping the lector would return to the ambo and complete her assignment, but when he finally did rise, he went immediately to the reading of the Gospel, rather than lead the Responsorial himself. OK. So he reads the Gospel, delivers a brief homily, then approaches the altar and begins the Offertory prayers. No Prayers of the Faithful! Maybe it was just a general brain-lapse day, but I sure had the sense that I couldn’t win.

Things like this really help me appreciate the attention to the liturgy at St. Patrick’s.