Monday, February 15, 2010

The Philadelphia Experiment

I'm going to step away from the eucharistic prayer today to tell you about a neat liturgical experiment I saw over the weekend. I was doing a baptism at Old St. Joseph's Church in Philadelphia. Old St. Joe's is in the historic district, a stone's throw from the Liberty Bell. It's been a parish of the Jesuits since 1733 -- 277 years!

At their 11:30 Mass, which is their high mass, they have the interesting tradition of having the presider proclaim the Gospel from in the midst of the congregation. At the time of the Alleluia, the presider gets the Book of the Gospels and processes along the main aisle to about a quarter of the way up. This isn't very far, it's not a very big church, but it's far enough that the presider is standing among the people, with some actually behind him. And he proclaims the Gospel from there.

This photo is not from Old St. Joe's, but St. Ignatius in New York. But it has a similar feel to it; imagine that the presider was facing the congregation rather than looking away, and you'd have it.

I found it a rather remarkable experience. Standing among the people eliminates the distance between the presider and the proclamation of the Word and the listening people. This heightens the connection made via eye contact, both between presider and parishioners and among the parishioners. It also creates this sense of a shared experience. Everyone is close to the action. And there's a feeling of something alive, of something all its own happening in our midst.

The style touches into the charge and immediacy of a theatrical production, without ever turning the proclamation into some kind of performance. I wonder a bit what it's like for those who are behind the presider; but otherwise, it's quite startling. If you're in Philadelphia, you should come check it out. And if you're not, and you have the opportunity to try different things at your worshipping community, you might try this. It has its risks -- it could easily devolve into the presider-doing-bad-Shakespeare -- but there's something there.


Michelle said...

I'm in Philly, not at OSJ (my experiences of that parish have been encountering Christ is a very different guise than at high Mass), but my parish does this at daily Mass -- so maybe it's something in the air here?

The readings and Gospel are proclaimed from amid the congregation (in a small chapel -- not the main sanctuary). It's odd at first being behind the reader, or if you're short like me, unable to see the reader at all from many places (I suspect the eye contact part "works" only for those on the aisles and the tall...). My experience is that it does heighten the sense that the Word indeed dwells among us, not on some high mountaintop. Overall, I like it as both reader and listener.

Did they ring the bells?

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

At the very beginning of Mass they rang a bell, but not otherwise.

Interesting to hear of this at other Philly Masses. Thanks, Michelle!

Michelle said...

Neither parish is diocesan -- so that may be the more critical common factor?

I haven't seen it anywhere else at Mass, though I have seen similar things more often done for the readings at Morning Prayer, which would make me wonder if the practice has "leaked" over from the monastic side except that I know that Jesuits don't celebrate the LOH in common.

I'll have to ask in the morning to see if anyone here knows why we do it that way...