by Michael Raia
From time to time one stumbles on a rare liturgical gem – a beautiful church with a beautiful and very intentional liturgy and a wonderfully engaged parish community. Earlier this year I had the privilege of visiting a parish I had heard for some time was worth the visit: St. James in Lemont, IL aka St. James at Sag Bridge. The church building (1833) is one of the oldest in the state still in use, and it has been tremendously well cared for. Perched atop an idyllic hill in the center of its peaceful cemetery, the walk up through the gate to the front doors is picture-perfect. A plaque just inside the door describes a well-known incident in 1991 when the roof was lifted off by a tornado, and set right back down in place – an incident many locals are familiar with and proud of given the church's age.
The interior has seen a variety of informed and tasteful updates in recent years; quality craftsmanship considerate of the original style, but also sacred art and furnishings arranged in a way that demonstrates a careful and deliberate understanding of the liturgy and a desire to engage the assembly more deeply. Many gothic churches can easily become an overwhelming collection of beautiful but unfocused sacred art, which can pose a challenge when it comes to respecting the need for a certain order and gravitas for principle furnishings such as the freestanding altar of sacrifice. In truth I was unable to locate historical photos to understand what the church looked like in its earlier days, but I do know that it is an exercise in discipline and good formation to keep a sanctuary neat and beautiful in symbolizing and making present the glory heaven.
Many folks who have spent time in Chicago are aware of the sometimes jarring contrast between city and suburban parishes; the former are older and often much more beautiful, and many of the communities that worship within tend to lean, to varying degrees, more traditional in observance (one poignant exception being Old St. Pat's downtown). Many suburban churches built in the 1970s or later, however, tend to be quite modern in style and progressive in liturgical leaning. Curious to witness and be a part of the community responsible for this little gem at St. James, I was very pleasantly surprised by how intentional and pastorally sound the liturgies were planned. Between the Ash Wednesday and First Sunday of Lent liturgies I attended, a few things stood out as worthy of mention. The first thing to mention is that the Extraordinary Form (known to some as the Latin or Tridentine Mass) is not celebrated here, and I did take notice that I didn't spot a single mantilla (veil) – that is to say that the congregation is not composed of Catholics who would otherwise only be attending the Extraordinary Form if it were offered. Like many Extraordinary Form / Latin Mass communities, St. James is diverse, young, and growing. More on that to come. The small church seats, by my count, just over 100 people comfortably – maybe up to 150 for packed Easter or Christmas Masses.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the experiences on both Wednesday and Sunday was the gentle spirit of approachable orthodoxy. There was nothing that seemed out of place or forced. There was a peaceful joy and enthusiasm on the part of everyone present about what was being done, and it should be said that this was not a crowd that seemed ostensibly different from the average crowd at any other parish I've visited; it was your average Sunday Mass crowd. It was a very diverse crowd, in many sense of the word: ethnically and inter-generationally. The attendance included a fair number of elderly people, but also many young families. It is evident that the work of the Council – that of joining minds and hearts of the Mystical Body to those of Christ the head for the sake of transformation in holiness – was alive and well here; a testament to the latent efficacy that awaits a truly integrated approach to liturgical renewal and evangelization for parish communities.
I'll briefly mention a few of the things that stood out as interesting. Again the backdrop to all of this is the often sharp contrast in extremes in many parishes in the area. To find such a balance was truly refreshing.
For the distribution of holy communion, multiple clergy were present (3 priest and a deacon), meaning the parish had the means to use the ordinary ministers of holy communion without enlisting the help of extraordinary lay ministers and did so. Clearly this is not the reality in many parishes, but I was impressed that was something that was not taken for granted at St. James simply because it is a largely ubiquitous American practice. Furthermore, they provided an option for receiving kneeling at the altar rail or standing in line were offered. Aside from the gray area of how strict the interpretation of the norm for a united posture – all standing vs. all kneeling, whereas the norm via indult in the US is standing (read more on that here) – the fact that this was simply offered as an option in a very no-fuss fashion that accommodate all was very nice.
For the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the celebrant used simple Latin chant settings alongside some of the well-loved and better Gather songs. It was clear he has a love of sacred music and the liturgy – enough to sing simple antiphons and teach the assembly – but also has the pastoral sensitivity to know he would have visitors who would feel more at ease with some of the known standby options. He also celebrated ad orientem for the liturgy (read more on that here), but it was not repeated the following Sunday. This indicated an ongoing and very gradual introduction to the practice, which seems very healthy. It's hard to describe how natural it felt in a typical Catholic parish, since the only other places I have typically experienced ad orientem celebrations have been the Extraordinary Form (and Latin Novus Ordo in typically Extraordinary Form parishes), Byzantine, and Ordinariate (Anglican Use) liturgies.
The music for the Sunday liturgy was very well done; again it featured a balanced blend of music from different sources, saving the most traditional piece – Attende Domine (Latin polyphony) – for the communion meditation. While the schola clearly had the talent, in no way did they give the impression of being a performance or show choir; they did an excellent job of worshiping with the assembly and gently supporting the singing as a way to enter into the spirit and prayer of the liturgy. It is hard to describe something that is as it should be but is rarely experienced as such; the natural and peaceful experience of worshiping with a choir.
My hats off to the clergy and lay ministers who work hard to do the good work that is being done at St. James. I pray the inspiration of their example might serve to encourage others. To close the loop with this post's title 'Seeds of the New...'; New what? Liturgical Renewal? Evangelization? Yes and yes. Perhaps if we begin to view these efforts at complementary, integral, and mutually inter-dependent, we will begin to more effectively realize the fruit of new life in Christ that has long been desired for the Church.