While in Louisville, KY, for the “Contemplation in a Technological Era: Thomas Merton’s Insight for the Twenty-First Century” conference I visited the parish of a friend for Sunday Mass. Over the years I had heard a lot about St. William Church, a Catholic community of faith that takes seriously the call to live the Gospel life in everyday sort of ways, calling the members of the faithful to live their faith more concretely in responding to the needs of the community, country and world. Catholic Social Teaching serves as the central focal point for a community that clearly strives to live after the model of discipleship found in the Acts of the Apostles.
I have been to hundreds of parishes and St. William is unique. I found myself immediately welcomed into the community of faith, both in the spirit of the place that was detectably alive with the energy of faith-filled people and literally by a number of ‘regulars’ who recognized that I was a visitor and came over to greet me. Like some other parishes where I’ve worshiped, St. Camillus in Silver Spring, MD, for example, the parish makes a point of welcoming visitors and guests publicly.
There are many things to say about the experience of worship at St. William, nearly all of which were positive for me. I can only really highlight a few things here. One of the most inspiring and uplifting aspects of the Celebration of the Eucharist at St. William is the liturgical music. As someone who is also a liturgical accompanist, music is one of the first things I notice while at an unfamiliar church. At first glance the setup of the musician area leads one to presume that the style is more performance than liturgical, yet this is not the case. I found that — whether by experiential balance on the part of the music director or the intentional participation of the assembly, or perhaps both — the musicians really led the congregation in a prayerful, if energetic, form of song. There was a wonderful balance of assembly and professional music that met to create a life-giving spirit of prayer that would have made St. Augustine — often credited with the line, “when you sing, you pray twice” — proud!
Another highlight of the worship experience at St. William was the attention given to the use of language in worship. I know that the prioritization of gender-inclusive language at St. William has been a source of sensitive reproach and concern on the part of the Archbishop and others who might not be on board with justice-based effort at work in such an initiative. I will admit that at times I was tongue-tied or thrown-off by the replacement of kyriarchal terms with more gender-inclusive words.
I am entirely sympathetic to that effort. There are many unnecessary instances of gender-exclusive language present in both liturgical and scriptural translations as there also are in too much public discourse. However, the one nuance I would offer as a critique is that at times such a genuinely positive effort can result in a changing of a theological position or even a more fundamental kerygmatic belief, of course without the community intending to do so. While offering a prayer directed to “God, Father and Mother,” does not change the basic monotheistic claim of Christianity, some of the other efforts to work around what is seen as kyriarchal language in creedal formulae, for example, does have a much more significant effect. If I was a regular worshiper in that community, this would probably be something I might raise for discussion (although, I presume it has been raised before). The adage, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, remains true today, despite the best intentions to be inclusive, the fundamental theological meaning risks being shifted by certain linguistic changes. This is a difficult, but necessary, tension to maintain.
Yet another highlight was the surprise (at least to me) guest homily by Fr. Anthony Gittins, C.S.Sp., a renowned professor of theology and missiology at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. To attempt to recapitulate his breaking open of the Word would fall miles short of what his inspirational, challenging and insightful homily offered those assembled yesterday for Church’s Liturgy experienced. I just want to say what a joyful surprise it was to be present for his guest appearance.
I was also greatly delighted to connect with a friend of a friend I had only met once before during one of my previous visits to Lousiville. Dawne Dones is an exemplary model of someone living her faith in action. The director of a youth social justice and retreat organization, CrossRoads Ministry, she and a friend have recently formed an intentional community in a Louisville neighborhood. It was great to spend some time with her and see the new community’s location over breakfast and conversation after Mass.
There is a lot that other parish communities can learn from St. William, although it strikes me as far from perfect still. The deep connection that its parishioners make between their Sunday worship and their weekly lived experiences reflects well what the Second Vatican Council strove to address in Sacrosanctum concilium, when the Church reminded us that the Sunday Celebration of the Eucharist should be the “source and summit” of our faith. There is much more that could be said, but lest I ramble on and on, I’ll leave it here. You should check it out yourself if you’re ever in the area!