In enemy territory

Growing up Irish Catholic in New Jersey during the 90's did not make me stand out. I had lots of Protestant friends and one Jewish classmate, but just as many families in my neighborhood were Catholic. For St. Patrick's Day, my mom made me and my sister leprechaun shirts out of iron-ons and puffy paint, complete with buttons sewn in that played "When Irish Eyes are Smiling." At college, which was Lutheran by historical affiliation and Jewish by student population, I relished the 9PM Sunday Masses held in the dim Chapel, far away from the overly cheerful and bright Christian service in the afternoon. I, unlike my ancestors, could afford to be proud of my Irish Catholic heritage, and never felt like a minority.

Then I found myself living in London for a semester, and suddenly, I was in the minority. Don't get me wrong - southeast London is no bastion of old English Protestantism, though there were many Methodist churches in the area. There were also Egyptian and Ethiopian immigrants and their children, first generation British citizens, walking to mosque in the evenings. There was no Catholic church. This shocked me. Even on vacation in Disneyworld there had been a nearby Catholic church! I had assured my anxious father that I would find a church straight away and fit weekly Mass into my schedule. My dad's philosophy was that as long as he was paying my way in life, I was to attend Mass every week without fail. He didn't ask for a tally and had no way of knowing when I skipped at college, but being in another country, away from everything else familiar, made me determined to stick to his mandates.

I attended the student fair held in the Union at Goldsmiths College, where I was registered for the semester, and searched for a man in a collar, or at least a sweetly dorky group of students who constituted the Catholic Students' Association. Instead, I found a table marked "Religion" and asked the guy where I could find a Catholic Mass in these parts. He directed me to a regular street address and told me to be there at 5:15PM that Sunday.

Expecting to find, you know, a church, I had a hard time finding the address. It was a row house, festooned with scaffolding and construction materials. A sign was tacked onto a tree: "Go round to the back door even though it looks dodgy." I picked my way through weeds and brambles to the ordinary back steps and pressed the bell, Catholic anonymity be damned.

"Hi!" an extremely bouncy American girl answered. "Come on in."

I ventured into the house and was led to a small room, not much larger than the dorm room I was living in, set up with a few chairs and some colorful pillows scattered about the floor. A smiling boy handed me a hymnal. I took a seat and waited for the priest. Then I realized that the priest was already there. He was seated with his back to a corner, strumming a guitar, in front of a table about 6 inches off the ground. It was the alter. Someone said, "I miss that picture of Mary you had up." "Mary who?" said the priest with a grin.

After a few minutes, he turned to the group of young people. "Hello," he said in an Irish accent. "I'm David. Welcome to Mass. I suppose we should begin, should we not?"

Not Father David. Just David.

David launched into Mass as usual, except that it was not usual for me. It felt like I was having a conversation with him, and with the dozen or so other people in attendance. In a room smaller than the confessional chamber at my hometown church, people could tell if you didn't say "Lord, hear our prayer" with enough conviction. The priest could see clearly if you weren't paying attention. It was nerve wracking and exhilarating. When it came time for the sermon, David spoke about the Gospel reading, which we had heard from the American girl, sitting across from him on the floor.

"I will start by saying that this isn't my favorite of the Gospel stories, but we'll talk about it a bit, and from now on, everyone can feel free to chime in or raise questions during the homily, alright?"

By the end of the Mass, I had lost all reservations about the format (too Protestant) and was actually enjoying myself. And just in case I didn't get it, the first and last hymns we sang were How Great Thou Art, my mother's favorite childhood church song, and On Eagle's Wings, which I sang at my grandfather's funeral.

Afterward, David invited everyone downstairs for dinner. I didn't go that first week, but I did go a few times. There was a PlayStation2, cans of British beer, and a roast cooked by volunteer students. David bragged about his trip to perform a wedding in St. Tropez and told us about his hometown in Ireland. I met mostly American students, a few from other countries, and we all formed a little conclave of renegade Catholics. When I missed Mass, I wondered if I was actually, personally missed, and I probably was.

David treated the most sacred parts of the Mass with the appropriate gravity, and the consecration was no less holy than at the loftiest-roofed cathedral in Rome. It was the same God, the same Jesus, the same Communion, the same people. There was a bond in feeling like we were hiding out, like we weren't just going through the motions, but preserving something important. I wasn't just showing up; I was engaged.

I didn't get to say good-bye to David and thank him for instilling in me a new appreciation for Mass; I had to leave England a week early when my father passed away suddenly. In my grief that followed, I was comforted by the vast, cold spaces of the church I grew up in. It made God seem unreachable, and I needed Him to feel far away, because I could not feel close to a God who would take my father away. I went through the motions of Mass and didn't want anyone to look me in the face and ask me a question. It was easier to feel distanced.

A few years later and living, somewhat permanently, in Brooklyn, I finally want to feel that sense of connection again, to form a community. I admit that I haven't been diligent in attending Mass, and Tim and I have yet to decide on which of the several Catholic churches we should officially join. All of them are massive, monstrous structures of grace and beauty, over a century old, monuments to our faith and to God and gorgeous places to spend a Sunday morning. I just hope I can find, within one of these churches, a space in the back where the priest goes by first name only and starts off Mass with a wink.

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