I had the pleasure of meeting Anthony Ruff, OSB in Pittsburgh, PA in July after I gave the keynote address for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. We struck up a conversation about the new translation of the Roman Missal in relationship to people surviving poverty. I told him that our parish had some unique reactions to aspects of the translation, and he asked if I share some of those experiences here at Pray Tell.
Let me first give you an idea of our parish ministry in downtown Portland, Oregon. Our parish mission is quite clear. We welcome people who are on the margins of life. Our hospitality center is open six days a week. We serve people who live on the streets and who are surviving long-term addictions and various forms of mental illness. Our young, vibrant staff creates a safe environment to build relationships. Our volunteers come from the parish and all around Portland. Students arrive during the year from nursing schools, colleges and seminaries from around the country. We serve an evening meal on Thursday and Friday evenings. We hand out 25 food bags on four weekday afternoons. The purpose of our parish is to simply to provide hospitality to people who live in isolation on the streets and in single-room occupancy hotels and to provide healing that only our faith can offer.
Our entire mission is based on the Eucharist and the sacramental life of the Church. We have just changed the name of the parish from “the Downtown Chapel” to Saint Andre Bessette Church. We are now named for the first member of the Congregation of Holy Cross (the religious community of which I am a member, and which serves the parish) to be canonized. Andre, a Holy Cross brother who lived in Canada, was known for his hospitality and for the healings he performed. In the almost eleven years I have been at this parish, Saint Andre Bessette Church has really changed my life and experience of the Eucharist through creating a parish of the poor, not just a parish that serves the poor.
This background about our community provides some context about our struggles with the new translation of the Roman Missal. We started our parish discussions a year ago before people really had the texts in hand. Our small group conversations first raised much fear and anxiety in the parish.
If you do not have much experience with people who suffer mental illness, understand that for so many people in our community change itself is very difficult. Many people need a safe and stable place to be in life. Liturgy here is not just about worship, but it is also about a home. The streets are really brutal. People expect the parish to be a safe island of continuity and peace. Even as I write that I know it is so unrealistic to live that out. However, stability, consistency, reverence and calm are important to people who live with a great deal of instability in life.
Our Masses draw people from all walks of life. Our conversations first started with much anger about the change itself. Many community members were really angry that like so much for people in poverty, they are always being told what to do and how to do it. They cannot sit on the sidewalks in Portland or sleep on the park benches and now the one place where they thought would provide a little more continuity in their lives was also changing.
It is impossible to articulate how much so many people feel put down in life. Society, structures, organizations and even the Church put people down when it comes to fulfilling their basic needs. Several people really spoke up about this notion when we gathered to discuss the liturgy. Let me share a few examples that have really changed my thoughts and prayers.
People picked up immediately the thread of sinfulness in the text of the Roman Missal. So many of our people have been sexually abused as children. Many of them still blame themselves for their abuse. The constant thread of sin suggests that they will never be good enough for God no matter how many times they stand in a confessional line or come to Mass. They experience the authority of the Church restating their inadequacy with the constant language of not being worthy of God. In other words, some of the language of the new translation opens the past wounds of abuse.
The instructions of the Penitential Act are an example of how this happens. During that Act we say, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” Many of our folks hear in these words the Church reinforcing their abuse, which what happened to them was, in fact, their fault. They never hear the end of the prayer of redemption. This Act is not prayer but violence for many people in our community. These words are toxic for people who have spent their lives striving to get out of the darkness of such pain.
Last Christmas a man came to confession with tears in his eyes and said to me that he read the Penitential Act before Mass and struggled to pray the words. I knew from my relationship with him outside the confessional that he had suffered severely in life trying to get over his childhood. “I will never be good enough to pray this prayer. I am nothing but a failure. God will never love me.” I told him to never pray that prayer again.
The same people reacted to the striking of the breast. A woman from a wealthy suburb with breast cancer said that she could never strike her breast in public. She does not want to be reminded of the scar. A woman who has been in therapy for thirty years told me that she cannot be told how to manage her healing. She was so angry. Beating the scars is not what we want in the liturgy whether those disfigurements are physical or emotional.
The stilted language of much of the Mass is a real problem for many people in recovery from addictions. They feel many of the words are very clerical and not healing for people. Many people in recovery for alcohol, heroin and other substances need the liturgy for healing. When they cannot understand the language, healing seldom happens.
One example is the word, “chalice”. We serve our community beverages from donated mugs in our hospitality center every day. On Sunday we sometimes use Styrofoam. People in recovery feel alienated from the Blood of Christ in the first place. The word chalice reminds them of this separation. It drives home the fact that priests drink from gold or silver chalices and alcoholics will always sip from Styrofoam.
One of our Eucharistic Ministers who is in recovery shared in a group that she is a minister because she cannot receive from the Blood of Christ. This is her way of participating in the liturgy. Even though she cannot receive the cup her ministry is to share it. She really opened up my perspective on what being a Eucharistic minister really means.
We also discussed the word, “roof.” One more time before receiving communion we say we are unworthy. Then we invite God under our roof. This is a very difficult phrase for people who do not have a roof under which they live. They do not have the opportunity to be hospitable. They cannot invite people around a table or share a meal or stay dry or to pray under a roof. This phrase has really been a new moment for me and for many people to pray just before communion among people who live outside. This word is still being talked about in our community and evokes much prayer and thought.
We have not resolved the movement from “We” to “I” in the Creed. Some of our people in recovery see that each person has to take responsibility for faith much like an addict for sobriety. “I” say the prayer, make the commitment and walk the talk. Other people are devastated that community is taken out of the Creed. In no other prayer, gesture or action of the Eucharist is the celebration about individuals. I also wait to see how this change in the Creed will form a new generation of clergy, especially in their understanding of their pastoral role in the community in which they serve.
Many people have disappeared from our community since the new translation began. I am sure that each and every one has an individual reason for moving on. I have spoken with some members of our LGBTQ community who told me the new translation of the Mass finally nudged them out of the Church. They long for real honesty in prayer. I have spoken with some women who also cannot take the male dominated language any more. They long for real equality in prayer.
Our discussions led into this year of actually praying the translation of the Mass. I have yet to learn the chants. We still make mistakes. I still lose my place in the massive new book. We still stumble over phrasing. We are still being formed by the integrity of the liturgical seasons. We are settling into prayer.
Our community of urban poverty realizes that the real translation of the Mass comes when the Mass is over. Our volunteers still prepare soup for the weekends. We wash feet every Wednesday and sort used clothing from donations. We distribute hotel-sized hygiene products and cut greasy hair. We teach art classes and offer flu shots. We sip coffee in old mugs with new strangers. Many volunteers attend daily Mass and I see others on Sundays. “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” This is the mission of the Eucharist, the translation that we will continue to pray and witness here in our parish for years to come.
Ronald Patrick Raab, CSC ministers among the vulnerable and marginalized of society and the Church. From his experiences in living the Gospel among the poor, he speaks and writes about prayer and service and knowing the love of God through our common poverty. He hosts On the Margins, a weekly radio scripture commentary on KBVM 88.3, Catholic Broadcasting Northwest. He is active as a retreat director, workshop presenter, blogger, and award-winning author. He contributes regularly to several liturgy magazines, including Ministry & Liturgy and Celebrate!. Fr. Ron serves as associate pastor at the Saint André Bessette Church in Portland, Oregon.