As I am back on Cape Cod sand after a weekend of exotic services in Istanbul, today I went to Christ the King, a large Catholic church in the neighboring town of Mashpee. This is the second Catholic church visited in this project, the first being a Latin mass in San Francisco over the holidays, but one I had highlighted as a key visit in my local peregrinations. I have visited the large, white and relatively new parish twice before: once for my eldest son’s soccer banquet and the second for the funeral of a friend’s father. It is the largest Catholic congregation in the immediate area, perhaps on the entire Cape, and the church itself is the largest local church visited so far on the Cape.
Massachusetts is a very Catholic state due to the high influx of Irish and Italian immigrants in the 19th century. I estimate half of my childhood friends were Catholic, and over time I felt I was in the minority as a non-church going, non-affiliated quasi-Christian. Those friends would talk about going to “CCD” (catechism class) and when visiting me on overnight stays, would need to make arrangements to attend Mass at a local church. Catholicism is an integral part of eastern Massachusetts culture, and I’ve always felt excluded when in the company of friends for whom the church was a fact of life. As a WASP I was part of a different tradition that was more English and austere than Latin and emotional. As the local political columnist Howie Carr once observed, Bay State WASPs worship in wooden churches, Catholics in brick. WASPs tend to have roman numerals after their names, Catholics’ end with a vowel.
In the 1960s and 70s the Catholic parish that went on to become Christ the King was in temporary quarters on Route 28 in the Portugese section of Cotuit near the intersection of Newtown Road. I remember attending Mass there with a visiting friend one summer, the services were held in a tent evidently because the congregation swelled in the summer months and needed additional seating. My memories of that first Mass were of being confused by the Sign of the Cross, the genuflection before entering the pew, and the large amount of memorized rote evidently taught in the catechism classes. I was lost and felt very left out of the internal workings of the church.
Cape Cod become more Catholic after World War II and with the construction of the Mid-Cape highway and Route 3 from Boston in the late 50s/early 60s as well as the ascendancy of the Kennedy mystique during the JFK administration, the tenor of the Cape began to tip away from the Protestant Yankee Republicans of the old Cape to the Irish-Catholic influx seen today. The massive scale of the Parish of Christ the King is proof the demographics have shifted significantly from the days when the Catholic parish was housed in temporary quarters or in the strange pre-fab building that houses the current children’s museum near New Seabury.
I attended the 8:30 a.m. Mass in the misbegotten belief that it would be uncrowded and more aimed at the seriously devout. Instead it had all the decorum of a nursery school. I had little ones in front of me and little ones behind me. There was a large youth choir, replete with boys dressed in Cub Scout uniforms (Pack 36). The choir master, a jovial Falstaffian figure of a man, made the rounds of the aisle and loudly complimented me on my bow tie.
The church was quite large, quite wide, and had two wings, or cruciform floor plan, with a bank of votive candles on the right or starboard side beneath a large wooden sculpture of Christ, and a choir area across the way on the southern, or port side of the church. The apse and altar were wide. A crucified Christ was in the apse with a painting of Jersusalem in the background, three figures in adoration, and two discs — one perhaps signifying the sun, the other the moon. Two sets of silver organ pipes flanked the apse. At the entrance, above the doors from the narthex, were three banks of brass horns. The windows were decorated with stained glass. Some icons hung between them (the Stations of the Cross according to reader Craig M.); and along the ceiling ran a painted frieze with large letters proclaiming Christ.
The nave was very wide with two large banks of pews, and a cross aisle to speed cross-processional traffic and post-communion seat returns. In all it was the largest church I’ve attended on Cape Cod, and the second largest after Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. All in all it is a very new building with none of the darkness and well-worn aspects I imagined in a Catholic church.
The choir director got things started by coaching the congregation in the hymns which were printed in a periodical of sorts on the same cheap paper stock as a phone book. Those were inserted in plastic sleeves in the hymnal racks. The organist noodled a little off-key tune and then the processional started, with some choir boys and girls in hooded robes, the priest in green vestments, and other priests in beige robes. It was difficult to tell who was the priest, pastor, or head officiant, and some women took turns taking to the lectern for the readings. The priests, especially the choir director, spoke with familiar Massachusetts accents and the overall tone of the service was informal and in keeping with the family atmosphere in the congregation.
The hymns were contemporary. One bore the footnote that in August 2008 the Vatican struck the use of the word “Yahweh” from the hymn and that it had been edited as a result: I assume to the word “hallelujah”, which as devoted readers of this series will remember, is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh.” This week’s religious word is “tetragrammaton” which refers to YHWH, the word which may be written, but not uttered. Therefore it makes sense that we would not try to sing it.
Following the reading from Isiah, the story of Jesus and the Fishermen, and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, a priest summoned the young people to the altar and then he explained to them the meaning of the readings by comparing them to video games. He made a joke about liking to play golf on a Wii.
At the conclusion of the service the children of the congregation were resummoned to the altar where they were blessed by two priests who made the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
I couldn’t follow much of the service because of the child-noise throughout the church. It was okay though, I was relaxed and not annoyed in the least, though I probably will contract some infantile rhinovirus as a result of close proximity. I must resist the tendency to expose my inner W.C. Fields.
The transubstantiation of the host is always of keen interest to me as it is when the priests and the service get the most intricate. Bells are rung, napkins are folded exactly so, and words and prayers invoked to make the miracle of bread and wine into body and blood occur. So it was this morning, with delegates sent down the aisles with communion which the congregation partook of with great efficiency. I did not participate.
Two offerings were conducted which confused the heck out of me. The first one took the obligatory Churbuck fin, the second one found me declining the basket. I don’t understand the double-pass of the basket and have never seen such a thing. even at Kettleers’ games when the little kids pass the kettles with great rapacity.
- What happens to any left over communion bread or wafers? After transubstantiation I find it hard to believe the orts would be thrown away; donated to the hungry. Me? I would feed it to the birds who would appreciate it on a cold February day.
- It is dawning on me, as I am now twenty-five percent through this process, that the different ways people worship is the true wonder and miracle of all this. It is staggering how similar but how different we all are. From the silence of the Quakers to the mass prayers of the Muslims to the aggressive campaigning of the pentecostals …. and I have yet to visit a synagogue, witness with the Jehovah’s, or find the Latter Day Saints.
- I wonder to what extent the evident prosperity of Christ the King has to do with the declining fortunes of Catholic parishes elsewhere in Massachusetts? Meaning, is there is a demographic shift away from Worcester, Lawrence, Lowell and Fall River to a more modern Catholicism in the affluent suburbs?
- The warmth and familiarity of the service this morning is at odds with my stereotyping of Catholicism as a “top-down” faith where there was more aloofness and mystery between the altar and the pews.
- I definitely prefer solemn, baroque and dark experiences to sunny, light ones.
- The service was very much a celebration of the family and children. This was reinforced with the anti-abortion and end-of-life sentiments contained in the program handed to me as I exited.
- I thought about the abuse-scandals of the Catholic church during the service and tried to imagine the impact that has had on the faithful.
- Seven days ago I was struggling to watch Muslims pray in the Sultanahmet Mosque overlooking the Bosporus. Today I was in Mashpee looking at a Patriot’s logo on the back of a man sitting two pews in front of me.
Next week: I need to visit a temple but want to save Touro in Newport. Perhaps the Cape Cod Synagogue? I am also remiss in writing up the second Orthodox church I visited in Istanbul last Sunday. That would bring the church count to 15.