There was a lot of routine associated with going to Mass in the San Fernando Valley of the 1960s. It was a time when any self-respecting Catholic kid had three sets of clothes. You had your school uniform, your play clothes and your Mass clothes. Of course, none of these three ensembles occupied the same space at the same time in their entirety — much to the chagrin of many a frustrated mother as the start of Mass bore down.
I thought of the simplicity and Catholicity of the good old days this past June while attending my daughter’s end-of-Catholic-school Mass. To close the Mass, our pastor gave a brief talk to the assembled children and the attending parents. He wished one and all a pleasant and safe summer. Then he added an admonition about not forgetting Jesus between then and the resumption of classes at the parish school in the fall. He said he hoped to see their smiling faces in the pews throughout the summer.
Now, like a lot of present-day parish schools, ours has its share of parents who enroll their children for reasons other than formation in the faith. That’s partly why our pastor has had to make a plea or two about the use of budget envelopes. It was clear he wanted to address, in particular, parents of the parish school’s students. You see, if you are a supporter of the parish, you get a break on your kid’s tuition.
One Sunday the pastor expressed that he is more interested in having the parents at Mass than having their money in the school’s mailbox. In other words, he’s more concerned about winning their salvation than earning their business. In making his point, he described how one father approached him, checkbook in hand, and offered to write a single check to cover all Sunday envelopes. Along the same sad lines, my wife and I have observed beachgoers sneaking into the back of church to drop their envelopes into the basket before racing off, un-churched, for fun in the Sunday sun.
Now that summer is winding down, I am again thinking back to the Pleistocene Era — also known as “the days of my youth.” I recall the occasions that would find us away from home on a summer Sunday. If we were camping, which was the singular summer vacation “event” we experienced every year, Dad and Mom found a place where Mass was being celebrated. It was kind of cool to go to Mass in the woods. I even thought so then.
Later, in my adult life, as I traveled around the world and did all of the excellent things one can do when he has money and no children, I had the good fortune to attend Mass in a variety of locales, some of them downright exotic. Even in the places where I neither spoke nor understood the local language, I found a truly “catholic” experience in receiving the Blessed Sacrament wherever I happened to be. Now that I have a wife, children and no money, the most exotic place I go to Mass is when the timing is off and I have to hit the local “folk” Mass.
So the end of summer approaches, and, like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, the children and parents who attend our parish school will soon return to the fold. Even if they only come to qualify for the tuition break, I’m sure God can surprise them with grace while they’re going through the motions.
Still, when the missionary priest comes to visit this year and tells a tale of distant lands where people live in mud huts but walk from far and wide to hear the word of God and receive his precious body and blood, I will think to myself: What we need is a missionary satellite station right here in the San Fernando Valley. I can see the sign: “Open All Summer.”
In God’s time, it may yet happen. Come Holy Spirit!
Robert Brennan writes from Los Angeles.