Sunday, May 9, 2010

White Week

On the way home, he asked "Is Poland a holy place?" An odd question from a five year old. Unless, of course, you were with us at Mass that morning. It was the usual Saturday morning Mass at the Cathedral in Aberdeen. However, the pews were all decorated in white, especially the first two on each side. The altar rail was also festooned in white flowers with silky material elegantly draped. And soon those first two pews on each side began to fill with children. The girls on one side, in matching white dresses that resembled albs. Each dress had an embroidered patch on the front shaped in a circle, like a host, with IHS in the middle. They had flowers and bows in their hair. The boys sat on the other side and they wore a short alb-type garment with the same Eucharistic symbol on the front. It looked like a hooded white jacket. There were about 35 children in all, including the 7 boys on the altar. All three priests were there to celebrate Mass.

At the beginning of Mass, the young Polish priest explained that this was the last day of "White Week". The Polish tradition began the week before with First Holy Communion. Then, each day that week the children came to Mass in their First Holy Communion garb. The weekday Masses were at 5pm and in Polish. Saturday's Mass was in English, though the gospel and homily were in both English and Polish. Throughout the Mass the children sat, stood, and knelt with folded hands, without any obvious adult help. There was the normal 7or 8 year old wiggly-ness, but the kids for the most part faced forward and did what was expected. They seemed to be getting their cues from the priest on the altar. As the children went to Communion, they each filed out of their pews in order and lined up at the steps in front of the altar. An acolyte moved a decorated kneeler to the top of the stairs, and each child took their turn walking up the stairs, kneeling, and receiving the Eucharist. Again, there were no adults standing in the aisle, telling them when to go. They each returned to the pew and stood until the whole row was back and then the knelt in unison and folded their hands.

I understood why he concluded that Poland was a "holy place". These kids looked serious about the business of being at Mass. At least more than most kids he normally sees at Mass. But, I know from experience that some probably came from families that didn't attend Mass as regularly as they should, not all had great examples of Catholic living at home, and many were probably day dreaming for most of the Mass. However, they had been doing this everyday. All week. They had it down. The ritual was ingrained.

Some might say "See, ritual just makes you automatic in your worship. Where is the heart? Where is the love? Where is the feeling?"

Well, the heart is in the middle of that body that is standing and kneeling and dressing itself in white. The heart is being formed by the senses that feel the kneeler beneath the knees, feel the hands pressed together, see the bread, the wine, the white altar cloth, the priestly garments, the stained glass. The sense of touch helped that child dress each day in their special white garments.

And somewhere along the line perhaps they noticed that the Altar cloth is also white, and maybe they remembered that this was all about the Eucharist. And when the priest reminded them that Jesus was living inside them, even the most distracted child...the one with the least support in their faith at home...even he felt a little stirring in his soul. Someday, he would tell his children about his First Communion, because how could he forget all that ritual?

The ritual, the tradition, gives us shelter when we are not entirely comfortable with the reality. It allows those whose lives still need to be conformed to Christ (ie: all of us) to be a living, breathing, moving part of the Body of Christ, and to get close to that Sacred Heart, Whose love makes it possible for us to live.

So, yes son, Poland is a holy place. But so is Scotland. In both places we have the great privilege of celebrating Mass. And the smells and bells of Catholic worship do give an air of holiness. But that is the point. If we hope to "put on Christ" we need to engage all of our senses in that effort. The liturgy wraps us up in holiness, and we hope some of it rubs off on us.

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