Paying Attention to Advent in the Ozarks

A glimpse of the Church's universality is seen at a parish in Mountain Home, Arkansas

The altar at St. Peter the Fisherman in Mountain Home, Arkansas
The altar at St. Peter the Fisherman in Mountain Home, Arkansas (photo: Mark Mann)

My husband and I rented a cabin set alongside the White River at the beginning of Advent. We attended Mass twice on the First Sunday of Advent at the Catholic church in Mountain Home, Arkansas, St. Peter the Fisherman: first the 11:00 a.m. Novus Ordo in English and then the 5:00 p.m. Latin Mass in the Extraordinary Form. The celebrant at the 11:00 a.m. Mass was a retired priest who was born in Poland; the celebrant at the 5:00 p.m. Mass was a priest from Nigeria whom the bishop of Little Rock had asked to learn the traditional Latin Mass to serve the community in Northern Arkansas.

Before Mass, two Dominican sisters from a Polish congregation lead the gathering congregation in the Rosary. We said prayers before and after Mass: the USCCB “Prayer for Religious Freedom”, a prayer for families from the Knights of Columbus (written by Archbishop Lori of Baltimore), and the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

The parish was welcoming to visitors. From reading the bulletin and seeing the literature displayed we surmised that they are focused on many good works and Eucharistic Adoration. After the morning Mass one of the parish’s deacons processed from the sanctuary to the adoration chapel with the Blessed Sacrament. As the server rang the sanctuary bells, all of us still gathered in the vestibule were silent and knelt or bowed profoundly in our places.

When we introduced ourselves, Father Stan Swiderski immediately made some connection with our hometown, mentioning some former parishioners who had moved to Wichita. We learned more about Father Swiderski from a parishioner we talked to after lunch at Fred’s Fish House (good catfish!), that he was retired and that he did not often celebrate Sunday Mass, so we were very fortunate to have attended today.

Father Swiderski told us that the message of the readings for the First Sunday of Advent could be summed up with the imperative to “pay attention”, pointing out that this phrase emphasizes that there is a cost to us. Paying attention costs us time, our focus, our effort; we have to stop doing something else, to be aware of something.

He warned us that we can be so caught up in activity and busy-ness that we aren’t aware of what is happening around us that demands our complete attention. The coming of Christ, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, is the one thing that should demand our complete attention. Father Swiderski offered two means for paying attention and preparing for this coming. First was to know and love our Catholic faith, studying the Holy Bible and The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reading good Catholic books and finding other good Catholic media and resources. Second was to be aware of the dangers of secular culture, because the first activity will help us see that our faith is counter-cultural. He warned us that this is very hard because we can be so part of our culture, so embedded in it, that we don’t realize what it is doing to us—unless we pay attention. We have to pay attention and prepare for Christ in Advent and always.

We happened to meet one of the ushers, still wearing his nameplate and badge, at the local Wal-Mart after lunch. He told us about the associate pastor, Father Christopher Okeke, who would celebrate the Extraordinary Form Mass; that he was from Nigeria, and that you had to listen carefully—you had to pay attention—because of his accent.

We drove back to our cabin on the winding roads from Mountain Home, through Salesville and Norfork, relaxed on the deck and watched the White River flow by. Then we drove back on the same winding roads to attend the 5:00 p.m. “Tridentine” Latin Mass, making it with minutes to spare just as the congregation finished praying the Rosary.

Father Okeke and the solitary server processed to the sanctuary, using the Altar on which the Tabernacle sat flanked by tall candles. Since there is no altar rail, the communicants knelt in the front pews across the nave when Father distributed Holy Communion, which seemed to us a creative and appropriate solution. We are very fortunate in our home Extraordinary Form parish to have both an altar rail and a movable main Altar, so that our priests celebrate Mass at the original High Altar at St. Anthony of Padua. At St. Peter the Fisherman, the main Altar is fixed, so it remains between the congregation and the “high” Altar. We did pay close attention to Father Okeke’s sermon, which in many ways re-enforced Father Swiderski’s message of being alert and staying awake. Since Mass ended just at 6:00 p.m., we prayed the Angelus after the Leonine Prayers.

After Mass, we spoke to the man who seemed to be in charge of the practical aspects of this Latin Mass community, who immediately gave us information about the other churches in the area offering Sunday Mass in the Extraordinary Form. A table in the vestibule provided many resources for the Latin Mass: the readings in English and Latin and booklets with the Ordinary of the Mass in English and Latin AND in Spanish and Latin. There was also information from the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, including a newsletter and holy card.

Father Okeke told us that Bishop Taylor had asked him to learn the Extraordinary Form of the Mass for the community. He commented that it was a supreme grace of God that he had been able to learn this Mass, having never experienced it before. He regretted that he would not be able to celebrate Mass on Christmas because he was going home to Nigeria for the 25th anniversary of his ordination.

Continuing the theme of paying attention, we drove back to our cabin again on the winding roads in darkness and pouring rain. As we navigated the twisting road, reminded by signs to slow down, watch out for deer, and be prepared for falling rock, we reflected upon the two Masses we’d attended and the glimpse of a parish community we’d experienced on the First Sunday of Advent in the Ozarks. We’d seen the universality of the Church with priests from Poland and Nigeria and Dominican Sisters from a congregation founded in Poland, the ageless celebration of the Mass in both forms of the Latin liturgy, and the welcome to the stranger that a parish community is prepared to give, knowing that visitors are sure to come to Sunday Mass.