God Bless Midwest Catholics

Over the weekend of June 8-10, I traveled to Washington DC for a wedding. It was held in St. Veronica’s church in Fairfax County. The ceremony was not particularly sentimental. The vows were traditional. The readings were appropriate and mildly unexpected: no 1 Corinthians chapter 13.* The homily was neither moving nor eloquent but was down-to-earth and accessible. The consecration was professional rather than grave or solemn. Nobody exclaimed in penetrating whispers after the mass, “What a beautiful ceremony!” The best accolade I heard while exiting the church was a simple, “that was very nice.” And it was nice. It was simply nice.

For me, the simple niceness of the ceremony had a lasting effect and rare value. The clumsy analogies in the homily referenced the groom’s profession as an artist and the bride’s profession as a doctor to point out that a successful relationship requires both creativity and imagination from the artist’s side, and discipline and precision from the doctor’s side. He pointed out that the practical foundation of a good marriage is, in essence, good business sense (the organized hospital); while the personal or spiritual element foundation requires quiet, comfortable, inspired interaction (found in the studio). The entire content of the homily, in fact, was plain advice on how to make a permanent, close relationship between two people work.

In essence, the priest made the wedding ceremony one of commitment. He invited us, the family and friends of the new couple, to witness their bond. The advice he gave, not preachy, was a resonant blueprint for a good marriage. Sentimentality is pretty, but steadiness is more lasting. Steadiness is made of loyalty and care–and while it springs from the more erotic love of two young people who have “fallen for each other,” it is in a sense more romantic. It is the source of contentment and happiness over a long life, instead of over a short period.

Then, before distributing Communion, the priest reminded his congregation that the Catholic Church refuses the Eucharist to those who aren’t Catholic themselves, because the sacrament is not only the body and blood of Christ, but also represents the recipient’s full accord with the teachings and laws of the Church. Since about a quarter of those present did not appear Catholic, I thought this was an awkward thing to say. It seems rude and demeaning, probably, to them, who consider themselves as much a Christian than any Catholic. But, as a priest, he is bound to respect and uphold the laws of the Church, even when it is unpleasant. And I admired him for it.

During my trip back on Sunday, I had a two and a half hour layover in Chicago’s Midway airport. As I walked through the terminal to my next gate, so I could find a place to settle down and read, I heard over the intercom an announcement for Mass. Though I had planned to go to Mass that evening (my church offers a 5:30 PM Mass), I was intrigued. I changed course for the chapel and took my place in one of the seats.

Slowly, the place filled up. There were several families with children, many couples of all ages, and many solitary travelers (like me) in the room before Mass started. Eventually it was standing room only. The priest entered quietly, we all stood, then he started by admonishing that we all should stay after communion for the completion of the Mass. He also offered confession afterward to anyone who was interested. Again, I found this admirable — admonishment discussing others’ sins are not something one does gracefully, if at all, in our culture. The prevailing attitude of “who are you to judge ME?” makes such religious matters awkward, like stating the Catholic Church’s position on communion. Too often, then, are these subjects ignored. It is easier to talk about other aspects of the faith. But this priest–frail, old and a stranger to all of us–invoked his ecclesiastic authority.

I should point out here that I don’t think many of the “parishioners” at the airport Mass needed the priest’s reminders. We were a motley collection, consisting mostly of private, sometimes ugly people quietly going about our business. There was nothing exceptionally social in our demeanor, nor particularly inspired about our worship (though we did sing at times). I felt, though, a strong and solid faith among us; everyone there seemed to be enjoying their duty to God in a quiet, satisfied, and lasting way. It reminded me of Notre Dame, where I saw the same thing — students and professors who rarely spoke about religions went to Mass quietly every weekend and led essentially good lives of kindness and generosity.

Was the priest at the wedding from the Midwest? I don’t know, but I heard the trace of a flat “a” sound while he spoke that reminded me strongly of the Midwestern accents. His homily was a study in the plain, practical common sense that Midwesterners bring to their religion and religious duties, which characterized the short Sunday travelers Mass at Midway airport. And though I go to a church now that is much more charismatic, I recognize a lot of value in good sense and practical discipline in my own life, spiritual or otherwise.

I certainly don’t think the Notre Dame Mass experience lacked inspiration or that my current Mass experience lacks values–neither is true. But like a relationship between two people, a relationship with God also requires both inspiration and work. And since I have become so used to the inspiration side, it was good to be reminded of the “work” side.

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