Mystery Worshipper: Paterfamilias
Church: Sacred Heart
Location: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 September 2008, 10:00am
Smallish, French Romanesque structure dating from 1897. Statuary, side altars, etc. are very traditional. in 1976, the building was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The parish sponsors a host of outreach ministries: an AIDS ministry, Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, a prison ministry, and the St Vincent de Paul Society. It has a companion relationship with a parish in Haiti, and works with campus ministries at the Atlanta University Center (a consortium of historically black institutions) and Georgia State.
In 1897 the parish took pains to site its new building "at some distance from the business district." But today the church sits squarely in downtown Atlanta, an area full of convention hotels, rental car agencies, chain restaurants, and a significant homeless population.
The Revd Roy Lee, a supply priest, was the celebrant and homilist. William E. Krape presided at the organ and led the choir.
What was the name of the service?Mass, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
How full was the building?
At the start of the service, 80 percent full; by the time of the sermon, 95 percent.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher greeted us as we entered and handed us a leaflet with the mass parts.
Was your pew comfortable?
Comfortable wooden pews, with the standard pull-down kneelers underneath the pew in front (but see below).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A bit chattery. There were a number of children in the congregation, and, as the church is not large, the conversation from the ushers greeting worshippers filtered into the church.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, and welcome to Sacred Heart Church."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Worship, a combination hymnal and missal; and Breaking Bread, a paperback hymnal. It is a bit unusual to see both of these in an American Catholic church. Also, the leaflet with mass parts. The mass setting was the work of Mr Krape, the organist, who has composed several sacred pieces.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Sacred Heart may well have the noisiest, creakiest pews in Christendom. Whenever the congregation as a whole stood or sat, there was such a ruckus!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A formal liturgy, which seemed warm, though, in large part to Father Lee's presiding style. He is a young African American priest with an infectious enthusiasm. He seemed to be improvising the collect, secret and post-communion prayer (and did so very effectively). Also, at times, he altered his part of the dialogues with the congregation – for example, "The Lord be with you, the Church". The music was very much on the traditional side.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Father Lee's rhythm and pitch were quite captivating, although on occasion sentences seemed to run on and on – at times, for us Midwesterners, it was hard to follow. He effectively tied this week's gospel to the gospel heard the previous week, and noted the gas shortages that Georgians were experiencing that weekend. He also noted that he is required to make a retreat each year, and that he alternates, one year spending it at a monastic community, the other with the homeless where he does not identify himself as a priest.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He focused on the gospel (Matthew 21:28-32, the parable of the two sons whose father asked them to work in the vineyard). We need to find common ground. We need to avoid ego – that's "e-g-o", "erasing God out." How do we come together as a community of faith? We must open ourselves to those who are different and who are sinners. We need to see God in ways that we have not seen him before.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Seeing such a diverse congregation – African-American, Caucasian, Latino/a, Asian, and a group of 20 exchange students from Germany – all entering actively in the parish's worship. A retired minister and his wife from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) visiting the parish were invited to bring the gifts of bread and wine to the altar.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well ... there were those pews. And I was surprised that the congregational singing – in the South, nonetheless – was not more vibrant (Mr Krape's mass setting is very attractive and eminently singable). I thought it unusual that there was no singing during communion, congregational or choral.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I sat in my pew to listen to the concluding organ postlude, while Materfamilias snapped a photo of the beautiful sanctuary area. An usher came up and asked if we would like to have our picture taken in front of the altar. We accepted his kind offer. We talked with him for a while about the gas shortage and the cost of visiting his kids (who are spread out all over the continent) and the bank bailout. Then Father Lee stopped to shake hands and warn us, "Don't believe a word this man says!" (I gather they are on different sides of some political issues.) Both were quite friendly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. Some of the congregation gathered on the sidewalk in front of the church to talk after mass.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – We were in Atlanta for a convention, and it would be hard for us to move there; we wouldn't know what to do without 120 inches of snow a year. But if we did, we would definitely consider Sacred Heart. It has a vibrant liturgy, and seems to have a real commitment to social outreach. I wish the congregational singing were more enthusiastic.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The racket from those pews! And the delightful gentleman who took our picture.