‘Poetry of the Mass Is an Open Door to Heaven’: How a Revitalized Liturgy Has Reenergized a St. Louis Parish
Under Father Michael Rennier’s pastoral leadership at Epiphany of Our Lord Church, drawing on the treasures of the Catholic liturgical heritage has resulted in a notably young and vibrant parish family.
ST. LOUIS — When Father Michael Rennier asked visitors and parishioners at Epiphany of Our Lord Church what they wanted most from their parish, the answer was often “a beautiful, devout Sunday experience.”
Their response resonated with Father Rennier, a convert and former Anglican priest who had been drawn to Catholicism by the beauty of the Mass, a topic he addresses at length in his new book, The Forgotten Language: How Recovering the Poetics of the Mass Will Change Our Lives. At first, he set out to make a few small changes, such as showing the servers how to be respectful in the sanctuary and improving the quality of the altar vestments.
Then, he introduced incense and chant at one of the Sunday Masses and slowly began to make other adaptations, like cassocks for servers and the ringing of the tower bell at the consecration, making sure everyone understood what was happening by providing some liturgical catechesis from the pulpit, insights and explanations in the bulletin and talking with the parish children in their religion classes. At the same time, he provided Mass options for parishioners who preferred fewer traditional elements.
As a result of the changes, some parishioners switched to a different Mass and others left the parish altogether, but new parishioners came — and within five years, Epiphany has seen its attendance nearly double.
When Father Rennier arrived six years ago, the parish had been in a transitional stage because many families had relocated after the closure of the parochial school. Today, the median age is 25, and the parish is abounding with children.
Father Rennier told the Register that before he arrived at Epiphany, his predecessor, Father Thomas Pastorius, had already begun to explore ways to restore vitality and new identity to the parish, providing a foundation on which to build.
For instance, Father Pastorius created the Little Flowers Girls’ Club and Blue Knights Catholic Club for children.
“I think he was a visionary,” Father Rennier said, “because they’re really wonderful ways to teach our children through what’s basically a Catholic scouting curriculum, how to pray, who the saints are and how to develop virtue.”
Father Rennier subsequently added a Children’s Chant Camp to encourage younger parishioners’ participation at Mass by teaching them the parts of the liturgy, the meaning of certain Latin words and how to sing.
“Younger Catholics do not need kiddie music,” Father Rennier said. “They respond extremely positively to chant, and I have multiple videos that parents have sent me of their little ones singing Kyrie Eleisons at home while they’re playing.”
Enthusiastic Altar Servers
Today, one mark of the renewed life of the parish is that it has gone from having just a few altar servers to a full complement whose members compete to perform the best duties.
“The servers absolutely love the responsibility they’ve been given to keep the incense going, use the patens, put out the torches at the Sanctus and ring the tower bells at the consecration,” Father Rennier told the Register. “The children have come to learn that they are full participants in the Mass, and their contributions are valuable. It’s fun to see the transformation in some of them from being dragged to Mass by their parents to literally demanding that their parents bring them because they want to altar-serve.”
Father Rennier has seen other fruits, as well, from his efforts to enhance the beauty of the Mass. For one, he has had to keep adding new confession times as the lines have lengthened.
“I see this as a sign that the Mass has been turning [parishioners’] hearts toward God,” he said. “They are thirsty for a strong interior life, to know Jesus better, to clear out space for him in their hearts.”
The parish also has many baptisms, a group of men who fast on First Fridays for particular intentions, a Holy Hour led entirely by young adults, and a new mothers’ support group. Additionally, there is now a coffee hour after the main Sunday Mass.
“I know that sounds like a small detail,” Father Rennier said, “but it is so gratifying to be in a parish in which the people like each other. They look forward to Sunday worship and seeing their friends. The kids play together, some of the older parishioners mingle and meet new people, and I know that the younger parishioners really value the advice and life experience of the older parishioners.
“But, overall, the most important development underlying all of these surface-level details is the continuing development of our interior lives, the contemplative aspect of our existence that places us daily in the presence of God.”
Bill Lux, a longtime parishioner whose memories are mainly of the Mass that grew out of the Second Vatican Council, said he had been experiencing a hunger for something more in the liturgy that made him receptive to the use of what Father Rennier calls “the customary treasures of the Church.”
“I didn’t know what I was missing and what was deficient,” Lux said, adding it was a bit of a shock when he realized that many elements from the Church’s rich liturgical history had been removed in the wake of Vatican II at his parish.
For Lux, elements like incense, chant and Latin point him to Jesus and his sacrifice. “These are not just superficial things, but things that turn your head and say, ‘Look here; see this. This is where you should be focusing your attention.’”
With the renewal of the liturgy at Epiphany, Lux added, also has come a more balanced parish demographic. Young and old are attracted to the Masses there, and those who come, he said, are more focused on their own prayer lives and on talking about their faith.
Mary Young, a parishioner since 1973, said the renewed liturgy at Epiphany has brought back the reverence and beauty she remembers from her childhood when the traditional Latin Mass was the norm. She also appreciates other changes Father Rennier has made to a church that she said was left almost colorless after a 2002 renovation, including using altar and tabernacle coverings in the color of the liturgical season and adding a crucifix with more hues than brown and gray.
“All of those things speak to the senses that you’re in a holy place,” she said, adding, “I think it has strengthened my faith. It just helps me to pray better when I’m at Mass.”
Converted By Beauty
Father Rennier, who was raised as a Protestant Pentecostal and holds degrees from Oral Roberts University and Yale Divinity School, believes the symbolism, poetry and physical, sensible beauty of Catholic worship creates a divine language spoken by God into hearts. “Essentially, it’s the moment of spiritual re-creation, and the Eucharist is the ‘Let there be light’ moment.”
He wrote his book, which will be released March 21 by Sophia Institute Press, to share his experience of how beauty not only converted him but changed his life.
“To me, it’s one of the little ways I can draw attention to how attractive and evangelistic beauty really is. The more beautiful the Mass is, the more beautiful our Christian lives become and the more that people who are searching and hurting will be introduced to an authentic encounter with Christ. The Mass causes an interior conversion, a remaking that transforms us into the image of God. The poetry of the Mass is an open door to heaven.”
Although his efforts to draw out the inherent beauty of the Mass have involved the addition of what are often called traditional elements, Father Rennier said, “I shy away from the word ‘traditional’ because the way Catholics pray the Mass isn’t to simply do old stuff for the sake of being conservative. The Mass is living and vibrant. ... [It] is about beauty and imagination and reverence. All that’s needed, regardless of the music or style of the Mass, is that everyone present be attentive, to wait for the love of God, to keep silence in our hearts and look for Our Lord’s arrival. We rest in his presence and contemplate his beauty.”
On his own, Father Rennier said he probably would have changed very little in the four Masses offered at Epiphany.
“But I was hearing from so many people who were telling me how much they longed for and desired more beauty in their worship, that as a spiritual father I simply had to find a way to meet the pastoral need,” he recalled. “Business as usual isn’t cutting it anymore in the Catholic Church, and courage needs to be shown in recovering elements of our liturgical identity so we can give God the beauty he deserves. This will allow the Mass to become even more clearly a source of grace that will cultivate the inner life and draw people into the heart of God.”
Father Rennier will be sharing his conversion story on The Journey Home on EWTN on March 6.