(The 50th Anniversary of the First Service in the ‘New’ Church of the Holy Cross: Dallas, TX)
Joseph Peiper told the story of a Colloquium of Medieval Scholars meeting at Cologne. During a break the participants were invited to take a tour of the Cathedral, although when they arrived at the Church they had to be told to put their cigarettes out. It is easy of course to feel indignation about that sort of thing. But when I first read that I just hoped that they did not think the holy water stoups were ashtrays!
On holiday in France, I recently had my own encounter with people behaving badly in church. On the feast of SS. Philip and James I went to Mass at the Basilica of Sainte Epeve in Nancy. The dedication is to a rather obscure local sixth century bishop and the basilica built in the 19th century is not really noteworthy except as a perfect example of neo-gothic clutter. But the Mass was really lovely: the ordinary of the Mass sung in Latin, seven con-celebrants and one hopelessly confused server, who showed up at the altar with the thurible but without the boat and received from the priest a scowl which I recognized immediately. At any rate about the time of the intercessions 30 or 40 loud and enthusiastic German tourists poured into the church. What is it about these Germans? I mean apart from obvious things like Martin Luther? One of the con-celebrants hastily left the altar and showed the tourists the door. What they missed was the secret of the place, what the guide books can never tell you: “the purpose of a church” wrote Sir Ninian Comper, “is to move to worship, to bring a man to his knees, to refresh his soul in a weary land.”
I have never had an attraction to ‘bare ruined choirs’. Places like Fountains make me unspeakably sad, never mind churches turned into museums or puppet theaters. When I visited Mont Sant Michel what made the 370 steps up to the Church worth it was to discover that the religious of the Community of Jerusalem are now in residence, Mass offered daily, Lauds and Vespers sung. It is impossible of course but if I could I would arrange my itinerary so as to never visit any church except at a time when worship is being offered. However beautiful, however tawdry, grand or plain, that is all that justifies the space that a Church takes up, that utterly non utilitarian business of worship, adoration and praise.
It is entirely right to mark the anniversary of the first Mass offered here. That after all is what made and makes this place a church.
And it is meet and right that we do so on the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lady. What Joseph Peiper said about Christian religious ceremonial is also true of the building in which that ceremonial is carried out: “the first thing that one must realize is its derivative, subordinate, and secondary character , , , the rendering present, the becoming present of an event, which occurred in the remote past, namely, that event which we customarily designate by the theological term ‘Incarnation’”.
The oldest Christian Church is the womb of the Mother of Jesus, the oldest tabernacle, the oldest monstrance and her swift journey to visit Elizabeth the first procession of the Blessed Sacrament.
There was the necessary recognition of the essential secret:
“why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
There was that burst of praise at what God has done: the Magnificat: magnifying the hidden Lord, enlarging his hidden presence. The Magnificant moves so effortlessly from the domestic and ordinary to the universal and extraordinary: from Mary’s soul and her lowliness to her magnification and beatitude to the wondrous transformation of all things, the world turned upside down by the Incarnation:
His mercy on them that fear him : throughout all generations. The strength of his arm which hath scattered the proud, hath put down the mighty and hath exalted the humble and meek, hath filled the hungry with good things and hath sent the rich empty away.
Every Church must somehow reflect this Marian combination of the domestic and the majestic.
Etienne Gilson expressed it perfectly when he tried to answer the question “Where is Christendom?” He thought of all the parishes which had welcomed him as he moved from teaching post to teaching post:
“How can I name them all? They are too many to remember, and there are some I no longer remember by name, although their images still bring back to me, after so many years, the very same emotion that I once experienced on entering them.
What was the name of that church in Chicago, not far from the station, to the right and near to Michigan Avenue? I no longer know. But how good it was to be there, and what peace of mind awaited me there as I entered from the streets of the great city! Nothing in it disturbed the silence, save for a thin trickle of water from Lake Michigan that fell drop by drop in a grotto of Lourdes.
Where was I? Neither in America nor in France, nor at any geographical point on earth. Yet I had surely reached a journey’s end, since I was at home: I was in Christendom.”
Although we should expect that out of any church, every church, we know better. But never mind here at least is the journey’s end, home, the reality of Christendom.