Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Move over flash mobs in the mall, Catholics in western New York are pioneering the “Mass Mob,” and it’s getting attention in a big way.
The Associated Press has run this cool story about Catholics in the great city of Buffalo, New York, who are using social media to get faithful Catholics to pack the pews at some of Buffalo’s most beautiful churches in parts of the city where native parishioners are sparse.
Buffalo Mass Mob’s website explains the city is “known for its incredible architecture,” especially thanks to its many churches.
“These houses of worship helped shape and define the city as we know. It is Buffalo Mass Mob’s hope to help create more awareness and appreciation for sacred sites in Western New York through the simple act of experiencing them in their intended purpose and encourage people to attend Mass more at Buffalo’s historic churches.”
The AP reports that Our Lady of Perpetual Help had 800 families at its beginning in 1900, and now has about 50 congregants who show up for Sunday Mass. It’s just one of the many churches that suffered from a Mass exodus of the immigrant communities that once supported it.
Voting is going to be underway for the next Catholic Church to be the site of Buffalo’s March 23 Mass Mob. They have six beautiful choices.
Father Donald Lutz told the AP the Mass Mob experience was “wonderful” and seemed to indicate that it also helped with paying the bills. Parishioners were also surprised to find the pews so packed they had to stand in the back (some for the first time they could remember since childhood).
Apparently Buffalo may be kicking off a hot new trend, and one that inner-city Catholic churches (all too often left behind by the ethnic communities that moved out of there and into the suburbs in the mid-20th century) might find very helpful. Postings on Buffalo Mass Mob’s Facebook page show that the idea has inspired similar Mass mobs in Covington, Kentucky, and possibly Cleveland, Ohio within days of the AP story’s national impact.
But double check to make sure that the Mass Mob’s destination in your area is actually a Catholic Mass. Why? Well, over in neighboring Rochester, the ROC Mass Mob’s first destination is…the First Universalist Church. Before anyone jumps to conclusions, the ROC Mass Mob is the project of two guys who’ve been exploring and sharing the church architecture of upstate New York at Exploring the Burned Over District (check them out, they've done a lot of great work!). So, there's potential for a little brand confusion here, because Mass Mob (for me and a lot of people) means going to Mass on Sunday at a Catholic Church. But, this is still in its infancy, so we have to see where this goes. ROC Mass Mob is exploring it as a potential evolution: Luke Myer shared with me why they're giving it a little different focus: "We really want to be able to invite others to experience different faiths across the board and feel this is a great way to do so." So, we'll stay tuned!
While there's not anything wrong with visiting the Unitarians’ church -- the architecture is probably fascinating -- there are a couple things to keep in mind. As a Catholic, I’d be going as an observer, not a participant, and I would have to go find another Mass. I’m really not sure that many Catholics are motivated to do that as they would be for a Catholic destination, but no doubt some will be up for it and come away enriched by the encounter. So if you’re in Rochester, and want to check out the First Universalist Church with the ROC Mass Mob, and you're looking for nearby beautiful inner-city churches to fulfill your Sunday obligation, then I would recommend visiting St. Michael’s on Clinton Ave. or St. Stanislaus Kostka on Hudson Ave. as architecturally beautiful places to go. St. Stans (as we call it) also has a 1:30 p.m. Mass in the extraordinary form every Sunday.
The Buffalo Mass Mob could be a reaction in part to the closing and planned demolition of St. Ann’s Church in Buffalo. It’s an absolutely stunning church testifying to the faith of the German immigrants who built it in the late 19th century. It also comes with a $12.5 million price tag the Diocese of Buffalo estimates is needed to repair it and avoid a costly personal injury lawsuit waiting to happen. There are two sides (if not more) to every story.
While the Mass Mobs are drawing attention to the churches, the churches draw attention to the neighborhoods: they’re not pretty. They have many, many people in need of mass evangelization, who would benefit from knowing they have a home in these churches.
Probably what Buffalo’s and Rochester’s inner city churches need is some of the “Miracle of Memphis” that Archbishop Charles Chaput in Philadelphia is trying to bring to his Catholic schools. The idea is that re-opening Catholic schools would bring neighborhoods and the churches back to life. It would be beautiful to see these churches revive and become beacons of contemporary faith rather than monuments of faith long ago. With prayer, God’s grace, and a lot of effort, I’m sure we can get there.