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My Parish Was Spared; Many Were Not
St. Louis Archdiocese's "All Things New" is a gut-punch to many St. Louis area Catholics
I got the news via Telegram on Saturday evening. The Latin Mass oratory to which my wife and I belong was left intact by the All Things New parish realignment plan.
Well, not exactly. We are actually gaining a vice-rector to assist our remarkable, holy rector, Msgr. C. Eugene Morris. This in addition to a permanent deacon appointed late last year.
At Mass Sunday, I cried several times. I cried when we knelt to pray before Mass. I cried when we bowed to the priest during entrance procession. I cried, again, when Msgr. Morris began his homily. I was a snotty mess most of the Mass.
Readers know that Traditional Latin Mass Catholics have been under assault from the pope and the FBI for some time. Many of us who belong to the Oratory expected that the All Things New parish reorg message would be the end of our parish. We prayed for the grace to handle the news well.
We now pray for the many Catholics who will lose their parishes.
Another parish left intact (sort of) was the parish of my baptism, Epiphany of Our Lord on Smiley Avenue in Southwest St. Louis. The parish famous for its bowling alley (recently closed) will remain. My dad and his siblings, I and my siblings, and my nephews, all graduated from Epiphany School—which closed years ago. We were all baptized at Epiphany. Many, if not most, of my Epiphany classmates still live in the boundaries of Epiphany.
The joke goes that people from St. Louis ask everyone “which high school did you go to.” But, if you’re Catholic, you remember that “what parish do you belong to” came first. (I am convinced that the high school question was a politically-correct update to the parish question.)
Before mass migrations, generations tended to live and die within walking distance of where their parents lived and died. For Catholics, this meant generations living their entire lives in the same parish. My father’s family was one of the patron families of Epiphany, scrimping to donate small amounts for the erection of the church building, to build the new school, to update the convent, to build the once-spectacular Fr. English Memorial Gymnasium (and bowling alley). Our roots in those parishes grew deep.
Though Epiphany was spared, many parishes were not. The living descendants of those parish’s patron families now must exhume their deep roots and find a new plot. The term used in the letters from the Archdiocese to area Catholics was “subsumed,” as in, “St. Luke the Evangelist will be subsumed into Our Lady of Lourdes.” Exhumed, subsumed. So sad.
So many disruptions to so many lives necessitated by mismanagement of Christ’s Church. Mismanagement, not at the parish level, mostly, but at the top. The sex scandals, the failed New Mass that drove Catholics, first into nondemoninational exile, then into the waiting arms of evangelical Christian sects who, at least, offered meaning and direction—things Vatican II successfully stripped from the day-to-day practices and preachings of the Catholic Church. With numbers and collections dwindling, with lawsuits and settlements proliferating, the parishes grew less vital, less central, less affordable. Something had to be done, and what had been done cannot be undone. But, please, don’t blame the Holy Ghost for the collapse of the Church in the United States. The Holy Ghost didn’t create the problem—men did. Men who are largely unaffected by the closing of so many parishes.
Perhaps Epiphany was spared because the parish saw remarkable growth and invigoration in recent years thanks its pastor, Fr. Michael Rennier.
Father Rennier recently wrote about the “revitalization” of Epiphany in The Dialog:
When I arrived in the parish, there were very few children. At some Masses, none at all. I love parishioners of all ages and particularly delight to chat with older parishioners after daily Mass, but a parish lacking the younger demographic lacks a future, so I asked visiting young families what was missing. They replied that they desire reverent worship. They want to be challenged by beauty and immerse their children in the fullness of Catholic culture and devotion. They want their children not only to be told that Jesus loves them, but for them to see, hear, smell, and feel it.
While the vast majority of Catholic pastors attempt to “reinvigorate” parishes and atract young families with Peter, Paul, and Mary music, felt banners, puppets, and “liturgical dance,” Fr. Rennier—a converted Anglican priest and father of five—took the opposite path:
I set out to offer a Mass that would appeal to children as well as adults. We started using incense, gave the altar servers cassocks, fixed up the unused organ, and added some Latin and chant. We reintroduced colorful old devotions like veiling statues in Lent, the Rorate Caeli Mass, and Eucharistic processions. In short, we used the already-existing liturgical treasures of the Church to curate a sense of imaginative wonder. The goal is not a consumerist worship experience but, rather, a transcendental one.
Bishops and consultants would have warned Fr. Rennier that his attempts would only drive away young people. They would recommend letting the parishoners rewrite the Mass to suit their tastes. “Have you ever considered using puppets?” they would ask.
But Fr. Rennier didn’t have time for consultants, so he looked to tradition for answers.
When we surveyed our parish, we discovered that the median age was only 25 years old, thus Mass at our parish is crawling with children, who are highly engaged. Altar servers debate fiercely over who gets the best tasks, storming the sacristy before Mass to claim coveted jobs. The children in the pews whisper loud commentary to their mothers, explaining that the Host looks like bread but is, in fact, Jesus. One little boy, in a symbolic act, once rolled an apple towards the altar.
Over a year ago, I looked in on Epiphany to see how things were going. I knew All Things New would close struggling parishes, and the last time I’d been to Mass at Epiphany—my aunt’s funeral in 2008—the place looked like a tomb. The church building was drab and empty, its beautiful statuary having been replaced with bleak, dark walls and nondescript sculptures. All the artistry and reverence was gone. The crucifix above the altar had been replaced with a Risen Jesus statue. It hardly looked Catholic at all. Few people attended, outside my family, though Aunt Mame had lived in the parish her entire life of nearly 80 years. That was before Fr. Rennier consulted with the Holy Ghost and broght Tradition to bear. I saw in my research that Epiphany now had grown to 2,000 parishoners—and grown every year for previous five. Fr. Rennier explains:
In five years, our parish has almost doubled in attendance and overflows with people of all ages. Every Sunday we give God our most beautiful liturgical gift, incarnating our worship into poetic prayer because the Mass is a lived reality, an open door to eternity. The sacramental grace of the Eucharist reveals itself to even the smallest child and draws us into the universal embrace of God’s love.
Father Rennier’s remarkable transformation of Epiphany was rewarded, not with a lifetime appointment as pastor of that parish he saved with God’s grace, but with a new assignment: as vice-rector of the Latin Mass oratory where I belong.
I feel bad for being so richly graced while many Catholics cried last Sunday, not in overwhelming gratitude, but in anguish. I’m sure the people of Epiphany were heartbroken to learn their beloved pastor had been reassigned. But the people of the Oratory are delighted to have Fr. Rennier—a man who lives his faith and reverence for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—as our vice-rector.
For those of you whose parish will soon be “subsumed,” I am deeply sorry. But, while your roots are exposed, please consider giving the Oratory of Ss. Gregory and Augustine a look. If you seek devotion and reverence and Christ alive, you will find them and Him in abundance. If you seek consolation, you will find it in the silent simplicity of the Mass and the grand-glorious celebration of His Passion. If you seek young, happy, growing families, the murmur of little ones, and the joy of life in faith, the Oratory is an endless well-spring. And if you miss Fr. Rennier, you will find him there, too, starting August 1.
For any displaced Catholics considering returning to the reverence of the Old Mass, I highly recommend reading Treasure and Tradition by Lisa Bergman. The book is such a powerful witness for the Mass that I keep a supply on hand to give to anyone who might be thinking about trying the Mass of the Ages.
Speaking of Mass of the Ages, you might also want to watch Mass of the Ages, an excellent documentary about the Traditional Mass. It features Msgr. Morris of the Oratory of Ss. Gregory and Augustine, as well as footage from inside St. Francis de Sales in South St. Louis.
Most of all, to those whose parish will soon be closed, I pray that this administrative move will not drive you from the church Christ founded but renew your faith as you join your suffering to Christ’s in the Passion and Cross.
For all of you, I pray. And I am truly sorry if your parish has been subsumed. You did not deserve this.