St Francis Xavier, Phoenix, Arizona

St Francis Xavier, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Francis Xavier
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 April 2008, 11:00am

The building

The parish was established in 1928 but the church building was completed in 1959. Located on Central Avenue just south of Camelback Road, it is a large cruciform structure in the Spanish mission style, with a dome containing 120 star-like small stained glass windows adding a Byzantine flair to its appearance. The facade at the liturgical west (geographic south) entrance features statues of St Francis Xavier; Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino, a 17th century Jesuit who ministered to the Pima Indians; and Blessed Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions. If truth must be told, the exterior reminded me a bit of Los Angeles' Union Station rail terminal. The interior is spacious and bright, with six large, heavy chandeliers reinforcing the rail terminal motif. Side chapels line the nave, with statues of various Jesuit saints plus the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Infant of Prague. The high altar of white marble rests under a baldacchino held aloft by Corinthian columns. Behind the altar is a large crucifix bearing a life-size corpus. Side altars are dedicated to the Blessed Mother and St Joseph.

The church

They sponsor all the usual Roman Catholic ministries (Knights of Columbus, Legion of Mary, St Vincent de Paul Society, etc.) as well as a variety of social and spiritual outreaches. Noteworthy is their prison ministry, by which they visit local jails and prisons to pray the Rosary, celebrate mass, and hold Bible studies.

The neighborhood

Phoenix's Central Avenue marks the division between the city's fashionable east side and its more plebeian west side. The area is just now emerging from having been dug up for the installation of a light rail system. Businesses devastated by the construction are struggling to revitalize themselves. The area around the intersection of Central and Camelback is known in some circles as the "gayborhood" because of the relatively large number of restaurants, discos and shops that cater to the gay community.

The cast

The Revd John Martin, S.J., associate pastor, was the celebrant, assisted by the Revd Deacon Jose Orozco. James Gerber, director of music and liturgy, presided at the organ.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass.

How full was the building?

The church can hold about 1,000 people and was three-quarters full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher said, "Good morning. How are you?" and held the door open for me.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

No visiting, no conversation. The organist offered a prelude while the 12-voice choir, wearing their street clothes, sat quietly on chairs to the right of the altar.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Welcome to St Francis Xavier Catholic faith community."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The paperback English-Spanish United in Christ/Unidos en Cristo missalette and an announcement sheet in English and Spanish. There were only one or two missalettes per pew.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ, grand piano (for one anthem), violin and trumpet. The choir sang very well, but the leader of song indulged in that annoying habit of raising her arms when she wanted the congregation to sing. She looked like she was about to jump off a diving board! It was all for naught, though, as no one in the congregation made a peep. I can't blame them - no page numbers or hymn numbers were given for any of the hymns.

Did anything distract you?

A gentleman operating a large camera (I couldn't tell whether he was filming the mass or if it was a television camera) kept moving about, side to side, up and down the aisles, standing up, sitting on the floor, etc. It was most distracting and, to put it charitably, he was not exactly dressed for church.

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

For the most part a nicely done novus ordo low mass, although I'll have some specific critiques to make directly. The entrance procession consisted of crucifer and acolytes in white albs (but unacceptable haberdashery), the lector in street clothes, the deacon in alb and white deacon's stole, and the celebrant in a white chasuble. The psalm was done to one of the Gelineau settings, always a pleasure to hear. The gospel was both preceded and followed by a flourish of alleluias. No chanting, no incense, no bells, not even at the elevation. The hosts were consecrated in what looked like a large silver salad bowl, not a proper ciborium. Everyone held hands during the Lord's Prayer, even the celebrant and deacon! The peace ceremony was friendly but not overdone. Communion was orderly, with the ushers directing each row up to the altar in turn. We received under both species but the person in front of me took the last sip of wine just as I approached, and the chalice was not replenished!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

7 – Father Martin spoke from in front of the altar, not the pulpit, and did not refer to notes. He established good rapport with the congregation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He began by referring to the crisis of faith experienced by author CS Lewis after his wife died of cancer. The disciples, too, had a crisis of faith - they did not understand what it meant to be a disciple, that having Jesus is having the Father. We must beware of the human tendency to downsize God. We must stay focused on Jesus in the liturgy, scripture and prayer. The doctrine of the Trinity is a practical one: the Son and the Spirit lead us to the Father and to salvation. Look at how the Holy Spirit transformed Peter from a man who denied Christ three times to a preacher who couldn't be silenced. Like Peter, the Spirit calls us out of the darkness to walk in the light.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Despite the reminders of Union Station, I thought the church was attractive and very well done architecturally. The dome with its stained-glass stars added an especially nice touch.

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

I said I'd have some critiques to make of the mass. I don't like it when priests take it upon themselves to improvise rather than follow the prescribed texts. After the opening blessing, Father asked for a show of hands as to how many had been watching the Pope's American visit on television. He did, however, tie this in with a prayer for the Church in America. There were several other places, too, where he added extemporized words and phrases. This happened most notably during the silent period following communion. It was the noon hour, and the church bells struck the Angelus. Father might very well have launched into an Angelus Domini at that point, but instead he improvised a lengthy off-the-cuff post-communion prayer. And the deacon's final words of dismissal cannot be found in any version of the liturgy.

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

Everyone beat a hasty exit. I went up and told the choir director how refreshing it was to hear traditional music in a Catholic church, and the organist and I had a bit of a chat regarding musical states of affairs in general.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

A coffee urn and boxes of assorted donuts had been set up on a table outside, presided over by an elderly gent soliciting donations. A sign announced that the coffee was fair trade. It was tasty and hot. I helped myself to an orange glazed donut, but thought that a donation of one dollar was rather steep for a single donut, and so took another one when the elderly gent wasn't looking. I browsed around the gift shop, which had a nice assortment of hand-made as well as mass-produced crucifixes, medals, Rosaries, wind chimes and the like, although there were also some rather maudlin statues. I did, however, like a statue of a decidedly jolly looking St Nicholas in cope, stole and mitre.

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

7 – It seemed a nice enough congregation, and the liturgy was for the most part well done. The music and preaching were both good. Who could ask for anything more?

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


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

That the communion wine ran out just as I approached. Had they never heard of the wedding feast at Cana?

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