Catholic Outreach Ash Wednesday Service, Glendale Community College, Glendale, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Catholic Outreach Ash Wednesday Service
Location: Glendale Community College, Glendale, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 6 March 2019, 1:30pm

The building

The service was held in a room in the college’s Student Union, a rather plain nondescript building on a campus of like buildings – not an unpleasant collection, but not as elegant as if oodles of money had been thrown at designing the campus of a private university. A table to serve as the altar had been placed on a platform and covered with a white cloth down the center of which unfurled a purple pendant. Crucifix and candles rested on the altar. A smaller table had been set up as the credenza, and another to hold the urn of ashes. A projection screen had been pulled down behind the altar, but nothing was projected.

The church

Glendale Community College is one of ten schools that comprise the Maricopa County Community College District. As a two-year school, they offer Associate of Arts and Associate of Science diplomas; most graduating students go on to register elsewhere for advanced degrees. They are especially noted for their strong programs in criminology, music and nursing. The college includes among its prominent alumni one Vincent Damon Furnier, better known as the singer Alice Cooper; and Janice Brewer, a former governor of Arizona. Catholic Outreach is one of six – count ‘em, six – religious based clubs on campus. Admirable, I thought, for a public institution of higher education.

The neighborhood

The college campus is at 59th Avenue and Olive Avenue in this western suburb of Phoenix. The area is marked primarily by working-class apartment complexes and strip malls. The campus itself is pleasing, with benches and tables scattered about under shady groves.

The cast

A very young priest, vested in alb and purple chasuble, was the celebrant. He was assisted by a server in t-shirt and shorts (it would be pointless to comment on his footwear), a lector, and a leader of song. The lector arrived wearing a hat and did not remove it during the entire service. He looked old enough to know better. Listen carefully, now; Miss Amanda is not going to tell you again: gentlemen remove their hats indoors, especially in church.

What was the name of the service?

Ash Wednesday Mass.

How full was the building?

About 70 chairs had been set out. I counted 26 people in attendance – eventually, as people continued to trickle in after the service had started.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

Conference room style chair – comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Advertised as starting at 1.30, things actually didn’t get underway until about 2.00. The half-hour was spent in puttering about setting up things.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

We chanted “Spare your people, Lord …” to the Gregorian setting. The text was given in Latin and English, and I was hoping we’d chant in Latin, but no.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A handout had everything we needed.

What musical instruments were played?

Digital keyboard, played by the leader of song.

Did anything distract you?

I was keen to compare today’s mass with the one I attended here on Ash Wednesday last year – to see if shortcomings I noted then had been corrected. I was pleased to see that most of them had been: proper missal stand, proper cruets, proper lavabo bowl, a server who actually served. I did find all the pre-service puttering about distracting, though. Things could have been set up beforehand.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

I was impressed with the dignity of the service. The priest chanted the propers, the sursum corda and the preface in a sweet but somewhat timid tenor voice. We chanted the Lord’s Prayer, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei (but, alas, in English, not Latin). No bells. The leader of song sang beautifully and the congregation chimed in as best they could (which really isn’t saying much). The leader of song also played the digital keyboard minimally, using only the grand piano stop (except for her offertory solo, where she switched to a lovely sounding unda maris). At the end of mass, there were some consecrated hosts left over, but no tabernacle to put them in. The priest placed the ciborium in the center of the corporal and then folded the edges of the corporal over the ciborium to cover it. I had never seen that done before.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 — I’m going to flip all the cards because it was one of the most interesting sermons I’ve ever heard, even though the priest spoke rapidly and too softly at times to be well understood (I’ll write it off to his young age).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Imagine three people: Perfect Patty, Mean Mike and Sad Sally. Perfect Patty always does everything to perfection. Mean Mike is just a nasty jerk and doesn’t care. Sad Sally prefers to be alone in her misery. Three radically different people – but they have more in common than you might think. Perfect Patty’s parents drive her to be more and more perfect – she’s never good enough in their eyes, no matter how hard she tries. Mean Mike lives in an abusive, dysfunctional home; his parents think he is no good and he takes it out on everyone he sees. Sad Sally is shamed by something she did long ago that she can’t forgive herself for – she’s no good in anyone’s eyes, including her own. And we are a little bit like each of them. But we can all benefit from the same thing: repentance. What we do is not who we are. God sees our sin but it does not define us in his eyes. It doesn't freak him out. He enables us to see the difference between what is our fault and what is not. Repentance brings us back to God. The ashes we receive today remind us of repentance. We may have long lives ahead of us, or today may be our last. Either way, today’s the day to repent. O God, help me to see what you see in me.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Despite the rather confused start, I thought the whole service was heavenly. How wonderful to be celebrating mass in a room at a public institution.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

But if I have to complain about something: Why advertise the service for 1.30 when it couldn’t get started until 2.00? Why not advertise it for 2.00? And please, somebody, give that server an Almy catalog and show him where the cassocks and surplices are. And take him out shopping for proper shoes while you’re at it. And once again I thought the Catholic Outreach Club missed, as they did last year, an opportunity to mingle with and introduce themselves to visitors. Finally, in the sacred post-communion silence the obligatory cell phone went off … and went off … and went off!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

People applauded (ugh!) and then cleared out quickly. I told the server that I thought he had served admirably even though he hadn’t vested, and I handed him the Mystery Worship calling card (there had been no collection).

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 — I really like the idea of holding religious services at a public institution, and I would gladly return to this service next year or to any other that might be held, especially if it was celebrated with the same dignity as this one was.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Perfect Patty, Mean Mike and Sad Sally.

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