Last night, for the first time in a long time, I attended mass on Ash Wednesday. It was kind of a surreal experience. The people I usually see when at Sunday mass were not present, the church lighting was weird because it was dark outside, people didn’t seem to be participating, and it was extremely hot. Because the priest is soft-spoken and the congregation was restless, I felt like I could not hear what was going on. I began to daydream, which reminded me of going to church with my parents.
Growing up, my parents were pretty inconsistent about attending mass. At six years old, it was pretty confusing. We were not C&Eers, but we had no pattern of participation. Sometimes, we would go for six weeks straight, but then not return for three months. I learned to go with the flow. On a Sunday morning, if Mom was awake and shuffling about before ten, I knew it was time to go put on church clothes.
When we did attend, my father had it down to his own church-going science. We were parishioners at St. Charles Borromeo in Parma, a church that has always boasted a very large congregation. It is one of those magnanimous, old Catholic churches built in the 1920s. It has large doors, a pretty expansive vestibule, large columns, an ornate alter, and enormous stain glass windows. It reminds me of a cathedral more than a church.
My dad would stretch it so that by the time we parked the car and got into the church, the priest would already be on the altar. Sometimes, we would be so late, the reader would already be delivering the first reading. Realizing that when we attended mass we were always late, I decided to question my father. We were on Ridge Road, and the clock on the dashboard already read 10:31. In my six-year-old mind, I felt like maybe we were doing something wrong because I knew the start time to be 10:30. In addition, it didn’t seem like anyone else walked in after the mass started. “Dad, I asked. “Do you think that God gets mad that we never make it to church on time.”
My dad, a two-pack a day smoker, looked in the rear-view mirror, took a long drag from his cigarette, and exhaled. “No, Honey. God’s not mad. It counts to Him as long as we make it to mass before the gospel.”
Well, okay. That made sense to me.
When we were in church, my parents were very reverent. If I tried to ask a question or say something, I usually got a hand across the back of my head. I learned quickly that church was not a place to talk; church was a place of quiet contemplation. Each of my parents would read along from the missalette, and it seemed like they were overtly trying to pay attention to all the priest had to say.
Personally, I liked the idea of church. The God I had been raised to pray to was loving and benevolent, so I really didn’t mind visiting Him in His house. When I did not understand what the priest was talking about, I would daydream about Lost in Space or playing with my Barbie’s; I would watch the people and look at the ornate architecture.
When it was time for the consecration of the host, we would kneel. I hated when the priest did the long prayer, mentioning every person ever sainted. My knees would start to hurt, and I really thought that it seemed like overkill to ask everyone to watch over us; couldn’t we just ask a select few and speed it up a bit? I watched my parents during this part of the mass as well. They closed their eyes and folded their hands. When the altar boy would ring the bell as the priest held up the consecrated host, my parents would clench their fists in unison and touch their chests right about where the heart is. After, they would grasp righ hands and squeeze three times. Without making eye contact, they would return their hands to prayer.
When the Communion procession started, I knew it was time to go. If it was winter, Dad helped me get on my coat and gather my belongings. I walked in front of my father when he went up the aisle to receive the host. Being too young to receive Jesus on my tongue, the priest laid a hand on my head and whispered a prayer. He then put the host on my father’s tongue. When we turned, I knew that unlike the other parishioners who were returning to their respective pews to kneel and pray, we walked directly to the rear of the church and out the doors. We would stand for a moment in the vestibule so my parents would each say a quick prayer.
As quickly as we opened the doors, my mother and father would be lighting cigarettes and talking about what needed to get done that day. I always wondered what happened at church after we left, but I knew I wouldn’t be finding out anytime soon because of my father’s aversion to parking lot traffic jams.
Last night, we stayed for the whole mass. The closing song was “On Eagle’s Wings,” one of my favorites. I do not practice my father’s church-going science. I like to arrive early and stay until the last note is sung.