A Short Series recording my childhood memories of the most avant garde Catholic parish in the nation.
Part I: Confetti and Streamers
About the same time the new Roman sacramentary came out, there was in the Washington, D.C. area an enormous and dynamic movement among Catholics to put into motion the Spirit of Vatican II which was then sweeping the globe with promises of great radical changes. The Charismatic Movement was sweeping through at the same time.
One such movement was the Mass People movement in the District which set up liturgies in various public places around the city, in parks, community centers, at national monuments, anywhere on the city streets. The radical idea these liturgies embodied with the new erradication of the divide between the sacred and the profane. With the elimination of the communion rail and the sanctuary open to all, there could no longer be a real separation between the holy and the ordinary. This was a liturgical embodiment of the the Spirit of Gaudium et Spes, as well, the joys and hopes of the world becoming the joys and hopes of the Catholic Church.
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Born in 1965, my first memory of going to church was walking there when we lived on an Army base in 1969. At four, somehow was etched in my psyche a church with blue curtains (military chapel), the men in their uniforms and the boys, like me, in shirt and ties.
My next memory was at our new parish when we moved to Northern Virginia, Good Shepherd Catholic Church. I remember my mother taking me over to the statue of the Virgin Mary to the left of the altar and explaining to me that I should light a candle with her and say a prayer for my sister who had died and needed my prayers. It was a sweet memory. I knew my prayer was important and that it made my sister and God happy. That was the last truly traditional Catholic experience I would have for many, many years. Our new parish had a new pastor…
Not long after we lit that candle together, I remember the statue was moved to the entryway along with the candles. Not long after that, the statue and the candles disappeared–permanently, as did the kneelers afixed to the back legs of our folding metal chairs which was the seating in this church. First, the kneelers in the front of the church were removed, then the middle and then the smattering of kneelers left in the back area of the church just dwindled away each week til they were gone. I remember that I kept asking about this. I learned that there was something kind of funny about people who wanted to kneel in church, something not quite right.
We were not like those kneeling people, we sat up front and we sang, sang out loud. I remember watching a girl, probably a teenager, with long, long hair parted in the middle with jeans on rattling and banging a tamborine alternately between hand and hip, with her long blonde hair swishing to the the rhythm. For a little kid of 5 or 6 then, church was often fun, with a lot of things to see and do. Sometimes they showed movies during mass, one of the films I remember best was called “nail soup.” I think someone found a nail and everyone pitched in a made soup with it and it must have had something to do with the nails on the cross and food.
We sometimes had plays during mass, especially on big occasions like Christmas and Easter and Pentecost. One year it was a play on the theme of a Christmas Carol. One year we had a big procession with Snoopy, a female St. Nick with mitre, a black Uncle Sam and other characters I dont remember. I mostly remember these because my parents thought they were so fun and funny.
Good Friday was an amazing day at Good Shepherd. Area Catholic schools were closed so we used their buses to go from one place in the city to another to enact a “Moveable Stations of the Cross” the scripts for which my mother wrote. Each stop we got off the buses to sing, watch a little skit on a topic of the day, and to pray about the world’s problems which were Jesus’ wounds today. I remember having stops at the city jail, a gas station during the gas crisis, I remember “acting” in a skit about war in which several kids stood in a circle with toy guns and fired at one another and we all fell down. I suppose that was about the Vietnam war.
Palm Sunday was another special day, each year having its own twists. I remember the now famous/imfamous Palm Sunday ca. 1973 when we waited and waited for our pastor to arrive at our church with a surprise for us. I asked outloud once “When is “TQ” gonna get here?” My father scolded me for not calling our priest “Father,” though my parents called him “TQ.” I knew I had done something bad, but I wasnt sure why. Finally, he arrived at the far end of the parking lot, and we all went inside the church. We got out seats and my dad made sure I was on the aisle. Suddenly we heard a big roar and Fr. Tom came down the aisle in a bright orange convertible VW Beatle. We threw bon voyage streamers and confetti and sang with gusto “The King of Glory comes, the nation rejoices…open the gates before him, life up your voices…”
For Easter, the parish used to rent a large Potomac river boat that was mostly falling apart and wasn’t going to be busy that day. We would get on the boat in the wee hours and time the mass so that the Gloria would come at about sunrise. I remember the procession at the beginning of mass being lead by a huge cross covered in pink and white striped shag carpet. It had bells hanging from its arms and children would “ring the cross” during the Gloria. When mass was over the boat would stop at a small run down amusement park and spend the day riding the rickety rides. Again, it was all great fun.
To Be Continued…