Mystery Worshipper: Paterfamilias
Church: National Shrine of the Little Flower
Location: Royal Oak, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Monday, 17 December 2012, 7:00pm
One of the most unusual structures I have encountered. It is octagonal, with the altar in the very center of the church, and seating surrounding it on all sides. This is not due to a renovation after Vatican II; rather, this is the way it was built in the early 1930s. The altar is of solid Italian marble and weighs 18 tons. Over the altar is a baldacchino, the top of which is made of oak, with stained glass underneath the oak representing the flames of the Holy Spirit. In front of the church is the Charity Crucifixion Tower, with a 28 foot high figure of Christ on the cross. The Ku Klux Klan had burned crosses on the church property in the parish's early days, and this was intended as a cross they could not burn. This just begins to describe the richness of the building and grounds, described on the parish's website. It was declared a national shrine by the United States Conference of Bishops in 1998.
The parish began when the then-Archbishop of Detroit, Michael Gallagher, went to Rome for the canonization of St Therese de Lisieux (widely known as the Little Flower, hence the church's name) in 1925, only 28 years after her death at the age of 24. He was determined to build the first parish in the United States in St Therese's honor. He chose the charismatic (and later quite controversial) Father Charles Coughlin as the church's first pastor. To help fund the building, Father Coughlin undertook a radio ministry that eventually was attracting an estimated 30 million listeners weekly. However, his vigorously expressed fascist and antisemitic political views led to the cancellation (in 1942) of his radio broadcasts and newsletter under threat of being defrocked and charged with sedition. Coughlin remained pastor of the Shrine until 1966. Today the parish boasts a membership of over 4,300 families, with eight weekend masses (one in Spanish) and two masses each weekday. They support several schools, collectively providing education from age 3 through high school. There are the usual social justice, bereavement, and social activities, and a strong emphasis on Christian formation.
Royal Oak is one of Detroit's northern suburbs. In front of the church is the busy Woodward Avenue, with fast food restaurants, gas stations, etc. Behind the church can be found middle-class, single family housing.
I am guessing (from photos on the Shrine's website) that the prayer service was led by the pastor, the Revd Msgr William Easton, and that the pianist was Greg Grobis. However, there was no printed bulletin or service leaflet, so no clergy or musicians were identified.
What was the name of the service?Taizé and Communal Penance Service
How full was the building?
The building seats 3000, but that includes an extensive balcony. I will guess 400-450 were in attendance, but given the unusual design of the church, I'm not sure how accurate my guess is.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. There were no ushers.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet, as appropriate for a penance service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Gather Comprehensive, a hardbound hymnal published in 1994 that is found in many Catholic churches.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and violin. There was also a quartet of singers. Music texts were projected onto two large screens, in front of the balcony on either side of the altar.
Did anything distract you?
I had expected a typical Taizé service, but I realized after it began that the Taizé chanting would come later, as the service was to be primarily an opportunity for everyone to make their private confession to one of the 16 or 17 priests who were present. I actually thought about leaving (this Lutheran would not be so brazen as to ask a Catholic priest for absolution). But I stayed, and ultimately was glad that I did.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a formal liturgy, but only as a prelude to private confession. It lasted about 25 minutes and opened with a prayer, followed by scriptural readings, a brief homily, an examination of conscience, and a litany. The Taizé part of the service began as congregants lined up for their confessions. The six musicians began singing and playing the simple refrains and ostinati from the Taizé tradition, and a few of us in the congregation joined with them quietly. The singing continued in this vein for a bit more than an hour.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
As I had never experienced preaching in a Taizé service before, I did not bring my watch, but I would estimate 6 to 7 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The pastor was very low key but an effective speaker. He moved around a bit, as he was surrounded by congregation on all sides.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He began by noting the school massacre in Connecticut that had happened only three days earlier. He said that while the murders might show us to be a sinful and more godless society, we cannot point fingers at others we are here this evening to confess our own sins. We must ask God to strengthen us, so that this Christmas his coming will be more concrete, more real.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singers, pianist, and violinist were superb; they obviously have experience with Taizé. Everything was very reverent, very peaceful. The pianist's improvisations between different refrains were restrained, yet beautiful in their simplicity.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As I noted above, I was expecting something a bit different; I felt more than a little out of place at an evening where private confession was the primary event. But ultimately I'm glad I remained.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Once individuals had made their confession, they either left or came back to their pew and joined in the singing. But by the time I left, there were very few congregants remaining, and all left quietly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I think I'll remain Lutheran. But I would love to go back to a Taizé service there that is not in a penitential season, especially if these wonderful musicians were going to be present.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
As I drove home, I could not help but think about the Connecticut parents who had buried their children earlier in the day. As the father of two, I could not imagine what it would be like for a parent to go through such a service. I found the songs we sang so appropriate ("Our darkness is never darkness; in your sight the deepest night is clear as the daylight") at this time of our national trauma. I'm glad I didn't leave.