When I was a girl, I was a voracious reader. My school librarian knew this, and she would frequently recommend books for me to read. I liked her recommendations, but I remember one time I rejected her suggestion.
I was somewhere about the fourth grade, and Mrs. Z pulled me aside during library time. “Chrissy, I think I have a really good book you’ll like!” she said. And she pulled this book off her desk:
I hate to say it, but that book cover turned me off. “What a baby book!” I thought derisively. I thanked her, but turned her down.
Years later, when I was in college and majoring in education, I picked up a copy of the book from the library and read it. I discovered an amazing story, one that I would, indeed, have loved at the very age Mrs. Z recommended it to me. My decision was based completely on the cover (which I think also had the extra-babyish letters in bubble gum). I took one quick look at the cover and didn’t pay attention at ALL to the description on the back. No thanks, not my style! I’m way too mature and cool for such a dumb little kid book!
Books aren’t the only thing we judge by covers, though. Sometimes we take one look at a church and think, “Oh, no! That’s not for me!”
When our family travels to visit Nathan’s relatives in South Dakota, we usually attend Mass at a parish near his mom. The parish isn’t much to look at, and, in fact, the first time I saw it, I said, “Oh, I can tell it’s Catholic — or at least that it was built in the 70’s.”
The building itself is something truly awful to behold. It has one of those rooflines that go all the way down to about 8′ from the ground, with window spaces cut into the roof/sides, evenly-spaced around the building. It’s round. Inside, there is a skylight directly above the altar, which throws natural light onto it. It’s not subtle, though. It’s a huge tube whose diameter is almost as large as the altar itself, that comes down out of the high ceiling and ends somewhere around 15-20′ above the altar. (The sanctuary area is three steps up from the pews, so yay!) The lights inside are all circular — all pot lamps — and are all around the ceiling. I think there’s a pattern, but it is definitely giving off a space-ship vibe. The Stations of the Cross are in that primitive style where everything kind of looks flat. In addition, they are done in what appears to be embroidery. The stained glass is very abstract, and the Tabernacle is a simple gold box that is hung on the wall in a niche to the side of the altar. The pews are arranged in a kind of semi-circle, but they are attached (at least from the back) in a kind of W formation. This means that there are wedges actually cut out of the rows from the back of the church. It’s really, really awkward, and it makes Communion time quite confusing for people who aren’t familiar with the setup.
So, on its face, this parish looks like a sort of nightmare for someone who’s tradition-minded. Crazy architecture, pretty ugly art, uninspiring atmosphere. Some people might walk in, and walk right back out again to search for something not so reminiscent of the Age of the Spirit of Vatican Two.
And those people would miss out on one of the best parishes we’ve ever visited when we travel.
The first time we went there, we arrived a good 15 minutes before Mass began. As we entered, we heard the Rosary being said. It wasn’t a special occasion, either — the parish recites the Rosary, beginning 30 minutes before Mass. All the time. We have started moving back in our seating, since our girls don’t need to be up front to be able to pay attention any more, and we noticed that there are lots of families there. Big ones. With little kids holding their MagnifiKid magazines and older ones who knelt in prayer before Mass began. The Altar Servers (both boys and girls) were reverent and attentive. A couple of them genuflected before receiving Communion. The priests were careful and reverent. And the homilies were out of this world!
The parish has a Life Runners chapter, they have Confession half a dozen times each week, they have a vibrant Knights of Columbus council and a school. They’re starting a family catechism program so that parents are better equipped to share the faith with their children. They’re promoting NFP and Na-Pro Technology. They encourage their youth group to take a bus to the March for Life — from South Dakota!
Their prayers of the faithful are mainly the same each weekend (or they were the two weekends we were there last month). In them, they pray for the Holy Father, their bishop and all bishops, for clergy, an end to abortion, and for some world issues. Both weekends we were there, they not only prayed for persecuted Christians everywhere — but especially the Middle East — but they also prayed for the persecutors to come to a conversion of heart!
In short, this is exactly the sort of parish that we need more of in the Western world.
But if you go by the building, or even by some of the hymns sung at Mass, or by the numbers of people showing up in jeans or shorts, you wouldn’t know it. If you judge the book by its cover, you’ll miss what’s happening inside. And if you judge a church by its architecture, you’ll miss what’s happening inside there, too.