St Thomas More, Scranton, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Thomas More
Location: Scranton, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 15 August 2020, 5:00pm

The building

The cornerstone of ‘Lithuanica Ecclesia St Joseph’ was laid in 1895, one of 14 Lithuanian churches in the region, more than in any city in Lithuania until the closing of ethnic parishes in the 1980s and 90s. Situated high above North Main Avenue on a stone foundation, the brick building, exhibiting elements of the Colonial Revival style, is featured in Sarah Piccini's book Framing Faith. The entry doors are reached via a symmetrical switchback monumental stone staircase. The stained glass windows donated in memory of Lithuanian family members, and the Lithuanian wayside cross in the churchyard dedicated to Lithuanian victims of Soviet persecution, still survive as a permanent memorial to those who built the church, even as restoration and tasteful modifications are made for the needs of the present community. In May 2012, on the same day that the Catholic Community of St Thomas More became the first parish of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, the community purchased the St Joseph property, and with the campus ‘under new management’ the buildings are being continually renovated, making them ever more suitable for the worship and ministries of the growing parish. The beautiful altar rail with its mosaics of the twelve apostles is just one example of this restoration.

The church

The Catholic Parish of St Thomas More was the first parish erected in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter. The Ordinariate was established under Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, which provides for diocese-like structures for Anglicans entering into full communion with the Holy See and encourages them to share their rich liturgical and musical traditions with the universal church. St Thomas More was founded seven years earlier, in 2005, before Pope Benedict built this bridge over the Tiber. At that time a ‘pastoral provision’ was in effect, allowing former Episcopal priests, even those who were married, to become Catholic priests and to celebrate mass using those elements of the Book of Common Prayer that are consistent with the Catholic faith. The rector and several parishioners of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church felt the call to unity with Rome and formed this community, which has grown in diversity to include not just former Anglicans, but also lifelong Catholics, Protestants exploring the Catholic faith, lapsed Catholics rediscovering the Church, and non-Christians curious to learn more about Jesus. The Parish of St Thomas More is also the sponsor parish of a new community of the Ordinariate, which is to begin weekly masses this week at the former German Holy Ghost parish in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, near the Lehigh University campus.

The neighborhood

Scranton lies in northeastern Pennsylvania, an area rich in deposits of anthracite coal. An important manufacturing center and railroad hub, the city’s fortunes declined during the latter part of the 20th century as the demand for coal fell and once-busy rail lines were abandoned. The 21st century has witnessed Scranton’s revitalization as an historic tourist attraction, with many grand old buildings being restored and coffee houses, restaurants, pubs, and a thriving night life taking root. St Thomas More is located in the Providence neighborhood, one of Scranton’s oldest. Providence was an independent city from 1770 until 1856, when it and other surrounding communities were merged and Scranton was incorporated. It is shaped like a thumbtack extending across the entire northern border of the city, with its point formed by the intersection of North Main Avenue and the North Scranton Expressway, US Route 11. Homes in the neighborhood are inexpensive, with single-family property currently on sale ranging from $40,000 to $120,000. While the parish does serve the local neighborhood as a personal parish, many of its members travel a significant distance each Sunday and holy day to attend mass.

The cast

The Bishop of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, visiting from Houston, Texas, celebrated and preached. The pastor concelebrated with the bishop, and they were assisted by two chaplains to the bishop, a deacon, a subdeacon, the master of ceremonies, a crucifer, two torchbearers, a thurifer, a boat boy, and acolytes. Two of these servers are the pastor’s sons. From the loft, the music director served as cantor, assisted by a co-cantor. There was an usher, who greeted people as they arrived and at communion directed people to kneel at socially-distanced positions along the altar rail.

What was the name of the service?

Pontifical Solemn Mass: The Assumption of Mary.

How full was the building?

It was a time of pandemic. Half the pews were roped off. About 75 per cent of the other pews each had individual family groups maintaining social distancing. One might have expected more people on a visit from the bishop, but it was a Saturday evening, and he was to return the next morning for confirmation, giving other parishioners an opportunity to see him.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher handed out service leaflets.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. It was a standard wooden pew, with adequate spacing and a properly designed, soft kneeler.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet, reverent. If anyone spoke at all, it was barely audible.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘There appeared a great wonder in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.’ (The introit for the Assumption, King James translation, chanted by the cantor in plainsong as the bishop censed the altar.)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The very detailed service leaflet, which included every word spoken or sung (except announcements and the homily); directions as to when to stand, sit, kneel, or genuflect; the music for congregational responses; and a reference to an otherwise unused pew booklet for silent devotions before and after mass. There were copies of The Holy Bible, Ignatius Press Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition, available in the pews.

What musical instruments were played?

The excellent Allen G340 electronic organ, with its Walker speakers hidden behind faux pipes. The organ was purchased two years ago after a lightning strike destroyed the previous electronic instrument.

Did anything distract you?

Two things briefly distracted me: a large insect high up at the ceiling, which I watched until it disappeared after encountering a ceiling fan. Maybe he likes – or hates – incense! His flight made me notice some modern lighting that was not quite symmetrical. Once my obsessive-compulsive brain looked at the asymmetry long enough to decide that it must have something to do with the position of support beams above the ceiling, I forgot about it until answering this question. Brief distraction indeed.

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

On its website, the parish states that ‘in the midst of a culture clamoring for novelty and entertainment, at St Thomas More we are deliberate in offering worship that is timeless, beautiful, and ennobling.’ Everyone involved ‘read the black and did the red’, doing all things properly, but without any rigidity or slavish and unbending following of Fortescue. Those in charge in Scranton know quite well that the Ordinariate mass is ‘traditional’ but not the Traditional Latin Mass. The TLM tradition of singing the gospel facing the unbelieving North is a fine one, and is indeed the tradition of a few Ordinariate parishes, in use since the time of their original founding as Anglo-Catholic parishes within the Episcopal Church, but there are other fine traditions as well, and here the gospel was sung after a procession with lights and incense in the midst of the assembly, making it clear that it is being proclaimed to the faithful present today, as the Roving Ordinaut believes it should be. The bishop and the pastor administered communion in both kinds, on the tongue, each carrying an intinctorium and accompanied by an acolyte holding a patina.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

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

10 — A solid 10. The bishop is a brilliant scholar, teacher and orator, who is able to elaborate on a story we have all heard a hundred times, giving a broader and yet completely orthodox emphasis to that story. In today's homily he drew from all three readings, weaving them together into a consistent whole.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

In the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, we see the destiny of the Church and of ourselves. Heaven is opened, and its wonders are there to behold. When Paul writes of ‘first fruits’ in his First Letter to the Corinthians, he is writing about Jesus, and we see those first fruits fulfilled in Mary. But this is not just about Mary, as too many a homily on the Assumption might make one assume. This is about humanity's place in the embrace of the Father. We see our place when we see her, and we see God's superabundant mercy. God intends the blessedness of Elizabeth's exclamation for each of us. Heaven is the beatific vision where not only do we see God, but God beholds us as he intended us to be.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Traditional music is what transports me toward the sure hope of eternal life, singing God's praises in heaven. Congregational singing does this, but whenever I attend a mass where the ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei) are sung by the choir, I try to enter into the singing and imagine myself being perfected in heaven and able to sing as well as the finest singers. Because of what appears to be a legitimate concern about transmission of the virus, singing by the congregation during this time is restricted, and we instead participate inwardly listening to the cantors. The two cantors sang Healy Willan's Latin mass setting, the Mass of Saint Teresa, wonderfully. They also sang one of my favorite carols, ‘The Seven Joys of Mary,’ as the offertory anthem, and, of course, the aforementioned introit and all of the other minor propers. And they sang so well that I barely noticed that my part today was limited to singing the short responses and the Lord's Prayer.

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

It was a time of pandemic. The special measures in place are troubling and a constant reminder of the threatening presence of the virus from hell, prowling about seeking the ruin of bodies and souls.

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

Before I could even leave my pew, people were talking to me, making sure that I would come outside where there was an opportunity for a socially-distanced meet and greet with the bishop and the others present.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Forbidden, due to the pandemic.

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

10 — Ecstatic indeed. I bear the responsibility, along with every Ordinaut, Roving or not, to build my own community, as well as to support every other community issuing from the bridge over the Tiber that Benedict built. During each visit to a sister parish, I look for things I can bring home or share with other communities on social media.

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

Yes, as does every mass celebrated in the beauty of holiness. As the bishop placed the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ onto my tongue, I was reminded of the words of John Betjeman, England’s long-time poet laureate, who wrote in the final words of his poem ‘Christmas:’ ‘God was man in Palestine and lives today in Bread and Wine.’ What a great gift God has given to his Church!

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

The gorgeous mosaics of the apostles on the recently restored altar rail.

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