The church was packed: St. Patrick’s Church in Arroyo Grande had a Mass of Remembrance –Communion and Consolation-at six last evening for All Souls Day. I expected there to be very few people there, after all, it was time for Sunday night football but there was almost no room by the time the priest began the Mass. In the back of the church was a small family with their son; immobile on a hospital type bed, completely paralyzed with a machine rhythmically providing humidified air through his tracheotomy.
We worshipers looked like an ethnic soup: Asians, Hispanics, Filipinos, Blacks and Anglos, young and old, a large number of farm workers and I thought of the remark a friend had made in reply to my observation about the number of Catholic Churches here in the central valley of California…’It’s because of all the illegal immigrants, they’re all Catholic.’ He was right of course, the growth in the American Catholic Church is in large part due to the influx of Hispanics, true in Texas, California, and I imagine, in most of the border states.
This church has a unique starkly white ‘crucifix’ that is not at all a crucifix hanging on the wall behind the altar; rather it is an emerging resurrected Christ, head and torso visible but the lower half of his body still tightly wrapped in a shroud with only bare feet visible. The overall image highly reminiscent of a chrysalis; I have never seen anything like it and I stare at it frequently during the two Masses I have attended at this church. Last night, the metaphor was even more fitting as the priest talked about the belief we have as Catholic Christians, a belief that the world does not understand, that the world often ridicules: We believe that the relationship we have with those who die does not end with their death. As he speaks, I recall the decision of the early Christians to use the word cemetery– the word meaning bedroom for our burial places. We believe rather, the priest declared, that these souls can intercede for us and we for them in a way, perhaps, more real than all that we think normally comprises reality. We are invited, the priest reminds us to pray for the dead so that their souls may be reunited with our Creator; our prayers matter– as does their absence -to this mysterious Lord of ours- this man who chose to empty himself of every shred of divinity so that he could walk the paths we walk, each and every one of us.
After his homily, the priest sat and one of the parishioners stood to address the congregation to explain how this remembrance would be conducted: Each family is invited to take a candle for your loved one who died this year or many years ago, whisper their names to one of us and place the electric candle on the altar, she explained. And so we did. Hundreds of us lined up as all the names, the dates of parishioners at St. Patrick’s Church now dead were shown scrolling down the wall of the church to the left of the altar, we whispered the name and carefully placed our candle; hundreds of tiny lights blinking like stars throughout the Consecration.
The disorientation is at times, overwhelming, complete. One minute exultant because of the Patriots’ victory over the Colt’s; Brady over Manning- Yes; the next, this otherworldly Mass of Remembrance celebrating a community of immigrant pickers, tattooed Hispanic young men, aged Filipinos, the Community of Saints -ever present and eager to help- and me.