We were in Houston this weekend for the memorial honoring Craig’s Uncle Wade (which was lovely), and lo and behold, there was a Syro-Malabar rite Catholic Church about three miles from our hotel. We had visited the Hindu temple and gone out for Indian food the day before, so we decided to make it a trifecta: the First Official Baker Family Cultural Awareness Weekend…or something like that.
Background: the Syro-Malabar church traces its founding to the missions of St. Thomas the Apostle. The story is that St. Thomas evangelized India, and that these communities have been Christian as long as anyone, anywhere. Their church has a complicated history, but now is in full communion with Rome.
So we were prepared for a different sort of liturgy during the Mass (which they call a Qurbana, from the Aramaic word for sacrifice), and for being the only white people in the room, and for heavy accents that made understanding the homily difficult (Clare was convinced the priest was speaking another language until we told her afterward that no, it was just rapid, heavily accented English.) We were prepared (and excited) to see the gloriously beautiful saris. We were not disappointed in any of these things.
We were surprised to find ourselves in the midst of a youth Mass.
Surprised, but not disappointed.
I admit Craig and I exchanged glances when the liturgy began with “Bless the Lord Oh My Soul” – Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons. And from where we were sitting, near the back on the left side, it looked like the whole building was filled almost exclusively with teenagers. What on earth had we gotten ourselves into?
This is what we eventually figured out: there is a 9AM Mass, which is in Malayalam and (most of) the adults attend. (Malayalam is the vernacular – the Mass was said in Syriac until the 1960s when it was translated. The English translation we experienced is from the 1990s, and was made for the diaspora church which less often spoke Malayalam in daily life.) This service ends around 10:30, and at 10:45 another Mass begins for the young people. When we arrived at 10:30, there were no parking spaces available. At 10:40, when we made it inside, there were hardly any seats left. All but the last few rows were filled with children and teenagers, seated by age, and essentially without adult chaperones.
Before the Mass (or possibly after, it wasn’t clear to me), was the Catechism class, which all these hundreds of children attended. Our parish in Baton Rouge was at least the size of this one, and Lucy’s CCD classes averaged 15 students. (Many others went to Catholic schools and got their religion classes there, but still.) What was abundantly clear was that this community is focused on a goal: to pass on the faith to the next generation.
It’s not a perfect community, I’m sure. Craig tried to ask the teenagers seated in front of us how to follow the service in the missal, and they said they didn’t know how either. (Thankfully the young woman next to him took pity on us and helped us out!) There were some of the same slouchy postures and wandering stares that I see often enough in “white church.” And the priest did stop at the end of Mass to warn the First Communion class that if they didn’t think the Mass was important enough for them to be still and attentive during it, then maybe they should wait until they felt the proper reverence before approaching the sacrament. He suggested he would be happy to give them their First Communion whenever they were ready, but that they would be better off to wait until that time.
As he pointed out, yes, Jesus is your friend, but He is also God. And He ought to be treated with the respect due to God. Which the liturgy itself, I have to say, makes abundantly clear. Over and over the congregation is encouraged to “Listen attentively,” and there is an emphasis on the greatness, power, and mercy of God which shines through simple, straightforward language.
So there is all of that. But what it really brought home to me was, as I said, the focus this community puts on its youth. There have their traditions, ancient and beautiful traditions, but they are not so strict about them that they can’t accommodate the tastes of the youth and make them feel welcome. The youth Mass is celebrated in English. (Which is why we were at it instead of at the earlier one!) They organize a massive CCD effort. And, even though a good part of the Mass is chanted, the incense is there, the priest faces East with the people…the readers were youth. The ushers were youth. The praise and worship band was made entirely of youth. Here was a place that both encouraged the parish’s young people to participate, and held their participation to a high standard.
The combination of old and new, Indian and American, was totally unexpected for us, which just goes to show how narrow our experience and imagination are. On the other hand, it was a blessing that we (and our kids) were able to participate in the music confidently, even without hymnals or song sheets.
The whole experience reminded us how wide and welcoming the Church can be, if we let go of our preconceptions and personal preferences long enough to let her.