Mystery Worshipper: Paterfamilias
Church: St Thomas Aquinas
Location: East Lansing, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 March 2018, 11:00am
It is of a modern design and was dedicated in 1968. Its most striking feature is the faceted glass window at the rear of the nave. It is a work of the Conrad Pickel Studio of Vero Beach, Florida, and depicts salvation history as it might have been envisioned by St Thomas Aquinas. At the time of the church's dedication, it was the largest faceted glass window in North America. Congregational seating is in a semi-circle surrounding three sides of the altar. Behind the altar, the tabernacle is against the wall. A large crucifix is suspended from the ceiling just above the altar. The parish has two pipe organs: one in the sanctuary area, with pipes above the tabernacle; and the other in the rear of the church, where the choir (some 30 singers) are seated. I gather the former is used for masses with cantor, the latter when the choir is present. There is a baptismal pool near the rear of the church (between congregational seating and the choir), allowing for baptism by immersion. Bas-relief Stations of the Cross are on the south wall. Adjoining the main worship space is the Cana chapel, with a mosaic depicting the wedding at Cana.
Together with the Church of St John the Evangelist, which ministers to Catholic students at Michigan State University, they comprise what they call the East Lansing Catholic Community. Regular services and activities are held at both sites. The parish is a large one, with quite an array of activities. As an example, a trifold brochure listed opportunities for the season of Lent: Friday fish fries, Bible study, a book club, a concert by the St Thomas Aquinas choir (Stainer's The Crucifixion), a parish blood drive, opportunities for confession and praying the Rosary, weekly Stations of the Cross, exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament, a contemplative prayer group, and Wednesday evening Soup and Substance, featuring stories of mercy and service devoted to social justice activities in the parish. There is a large Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults class. There are three masses each weekend, and at least one mass each weekday. The 4.30 Saturday mass is televised as the outreach mass for the Diocese of Lansing. The parish sponsors a school for kindergarten through eighth grade.
East Lansing is a suburb of Lansing, the state capital of Michigan. East Lansing is the home of Michigan State University, the largest university in Michigan, and one of the largest in the country. East of the church is an attractive city park; otherwise, the parish is largely surrounded by single family homes.
The Revd Ryan Riley, parochial vicar, was announced as being the celebrant and homilist. No bulletin or service leaflet was provided, so no other participants in the service were identified.
What was the name of the service?Mass.
How full was the building?
About half full. Michigan State University was on spring break, so I suspect a normal Sunday would have seen a larger attendance.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. St Thomas Aquinas does not use ushers (see below).
Was your pew comfortable?
Quite. The pull-down kneelers under the pew in front a bit less so.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly quiet, although the choir (in the rear of the church) rehearsed right up until the start of mass.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
One of the lectors began with a "Welcome," gave a brief introduction to the readings for the day, and then invited us to greet those around us. Following the opening hymn, Father Riley said, "Please be seated" and spoke briefly about a disturbance that had taken place in the church the previous week and steps that were being taken to prevent future disruptions.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The softcover We Celebrate Worship Resource by World Library Publications. Unlike other paperback missalettes, this one does not provide the readings for mass, enabling it to be used for several years.
What musical instruments were played?
For a prelude, a baritone sang the spiritual "Give Me Jesus," accompanied by piano. Everything else was accompanied by the pipe organ in the rear of the church.
Did anything distract you?
Mostly a number of late arrivals, although not as many as I have seen in some other Catholic churches. Also, the absence of ushers led to an unusual procedure for the collection. At the right end of each pew was a small basket. It was passed to the left, and the person sitting on the left end of the pew then took the basket up and dumped the contents into a larger basket.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A formal liturgy, in most respects quite like many Ordinary Form celebrations in North America. The preface, and dialogue preceding it, were chanted. Communion was in only one kind; whether this is standard practice here or a response to an especially virulent flu season I'm not sure. Hymnody was thoroughly traditional.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – The parochial vicar is an accomplished public speaker. He spoke from the head of the nave without (as best I could tell) notes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He began by reading from Exodus 23:14-17 (the three festivals) in order to provide context for the gospel reading of the Day (John 2:13-25, Jesus drives the merchants out of the Temple). In the passage from Exodus, God enjoins the Israelites to celebrate three feasts: Passover; Sukkot, or the Feast of the Ingathering; and the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost). On these three feasts observant Jews would travel to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice. Because of the difficulty of travel with the animals required for sacrifice, outside the Temple were sellers of these animals, so that pilgrims to the Temple would be able to procure the animals they needed for the sacrificial offerings. The Holy of Holies in the Temple was, for the Jewish people, the place where humanity met divinity, and where sacrifice was offered to God. After driving the sellers out of the Temple, Jesus says that if the Temple is destroyed, he could raise it up in three days. Here the evangelist notes that Jesus was referring to the sanctuary that was his body. Jesus' sacrifice on the cross corresponds to the sacrifices of Mosaic law; Jesus becomes the place where humanity meets divinity. Each one of us is also a temple, and we offer ourselves to God, as a holy, pleasing, and acceptable sacrifice. The spiritual life is not difficult - the first reading (the Ten Commandments) is our guide. If you let Christ into your life, he can heal you, he can forgive you.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The beauty of the space, a well-trained choir, and a congregation that sang fairly well...
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
...except for the sung parts of the liturgy (the hymnody they did just fine with). Visitors, I gather, aren't expected to sing the mass parts (including an attractive setting of the Lord's Prayer), as there was no indication, written or spoken, as to where music could be found. Paterfamilias is not happy when he cannot sing the mass.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I spoke with the couple sitting in front of me, curious if they could fill in some of the details about the disturbance the previous week. But they hadn't attended the 11am mass that week.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – There seems to be so much going on, it would not be difficult finding activities to be involved in. The music, though very well done, is fairly conservative.
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 faceted glass at the rear of the nave.