Sabbatical 2014 – Week 1
Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian Roman Catholic Church – Washington D.C.
My Sabbatical has three goals – (1) To write a book on prayer, actually a prayer autobiography – not my story, but God’s story with me; (2) To begin to understand the dynamics of “Finishing Well” as a minister who can see the end of his ministry as he has known it for the past 35 years on the near horizon; and (3) to explore how other churches have become authentically evangelistic, not by adding another program but by changing their culture as a community of faith so that evangelism is part of their faith formation and expression. It was in pursuit of this last goal that I made my first Sabbatical trip. Our Sabbatical policy as a church requires that I bring a report of where I have been, what I have done and what I have learned while away, and while I will be bringing a final version of this report at the end of June when I return, I thought that I would use my weekly blogs during the weeks of my Sabbatical to bring you along with me on this journey of discovery and growth. And so, here is my first installment of “Bring Back a Report” – Sabbatical 2014 – Week 1.
The first day of the Sabbatical (5/1) began with me heading off to Washington DC for a weekend with a predominantly African American Roman Catholic Parish on Capitol Hill, Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian’s. Last fall I stumbled over the blog of Msgr. Charles Pope, the pastor of this parish, and I was instantly captivated. Here was a Roman Catholic priest who wrote about evangelism like Billy Graham. A couple of his blogs will help get you “oriented” to Msgr. Pope, to his personality, style, priorities and perspectives (http://blog.adw.org/author/cpope/) –
“Why do many miss experiencing Jesus in our parishes? How can we change this?”
“He Kindled a Fire that Never Died Away – How I Met Jesus”
“What does Remnant Theology have to teach us about the Church Today?”
“Seven Habits of Divinely Inspired Evangelizers”
“It’s Time to Obey Christ and His Command that we Evangelize”
“I Wonder if it’s Unrealistic to think I Could Double the Size of My Congregation in One Year?”
Since bumping into him in the blogosphere, I have systematically worked my way through everything that Msgr. Pope has written about what he calls the church’s #1 job – bearing witness to the presence and power of Jesus Christ and inviting people into a personal relationship with Him through the sacramental and pastoral life of the church. What intrigues me so about Msgr. Pope is not what he says, although it’s all really good, solid, well-conceived and well-articulated stuff, but rather, who it is that’s saying it: a Roman Catholic priest… not the first visual image that comes to my mind when I think about an evangelist – and to whom it is being said, and more importantly, being embraced and acted upon – a Roman Catholic Parish in the heart of major metropolitan center… not the model church that comes to my mind when I think “evangelistic.”
Troubled by the decline in attendance at mass at his church and the closing of churches in his diocese, Msgr. Pope has used these “signs of the times” to return his congregation to the basics, and it’s worked. Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian’s is an “evangelical” Roman Catholic Church that has turned around their steady institutional decline. It’s reversed the trend, not dramatically, but steadily. Msgr. Pope has helped the good folks at Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian’s reclaim the ministry of evangelism as an essential part of their spiritual DNA, and that’s what I am interested in learning how to do here at Northway and putting in place as my last and hopefully most enduring act of ministry with you. Our institutional vitality in the future depends on our ability to do this, but even more importantly, I believe that our spiritual vitality hangs in this balance as well. As Msgr. Pope puts it, this is a matter of obedience to our Lord. Will we do what He asks us to do? Becoming evangelistic begins with just this simple a decision. And so I went to Washington DC the first weekend in May to experience Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian Roman Catholic Church for myself.
Everything I’ve read and heard about them prepared me for worship that celebrates the real presence of the Risen Living Christ; dynamic preaching, engaging liturgy and stirring music that moves people into a deeper relationship with Him lived out through the traditions and rituals of the church; a community of people who are authentically welcoming, inviting and witnessing – people who “overflow” with God’s grace in Jesus Christ because they are personally and profoundly rooted in God’s grace in Jesus Christ themselves through their connection with their church; and a practical challenge to move this experience of God’s grace in Jesus Christ from the sanctuary to the world. And I wasn’t disappointed. I worshipped with the community at Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian Roman Catholic Church four times on the weekend of May 3-4, at 4:30 pm on Saturday evening, at 8 am and 11 am on Sunday morning for Masses, and at 9:30 am on Sunday morning I observed/participated in a most unusual processional around the park and through the neighborhood of the church as part of a Marian devotion known as the “May Crowning with Flowers.” I took copious notes during each worship service I attended recording their actions and my reactions, and while I am processing lots and lots of details, I have five early general observations about what makes Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian Roman Catholic Church such a contagious congregation –
- They have real Confidence in the Gospel. It is clear that they think they have something that the world desperately needs, and they have no hesitation in saying so and reminding the members of their community of faith that it is part of their commitment to Christ and His Church to tell others about it and to invite them to come with them next Sunday. Even the iconography in the sanctuary drives home this point about the urgency and necessity of witness.
Written on the canopy over the high altar were the words: “Spiritus Domini Replevit Orbem Terrarium” which is Latin for “The Spirit of the Lord hath filled the whole earth” which is the introit for the Mass of Whitsunday or Pentecost Sunday, and then around the sanctuary on the walls from the front to the back on each side were images of some of the great Christian witnesses from across the centuries and around the world – on the left side of the sanctuary: Saint Peter, 1st century, Italy; St. Thomas, 1st century, India; Saint Chrysostom, 5th century, Constantinople; Saint Augustine, 7th century, England; St. Ansgar, 9th century, Scandinavia; St. Francis of Assisi, 13th century, Italy; Saint Francis Xavier, 16th century, China and Japan; Saint Francis Borgia, 16th century, Portugal; Saint Joan of Arc, 18th century, France; and Saint Isaac 17th century, Canada; on the right side of the sanctuary: Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas – 1st Century, Greece; St. Matthew, 1st Century, Ethiopia; Saint Jude, 1st century, Syria; Saint Gregory the Illuminator, 4th century, Armenia; Saint Patrick, 5th century, Ireland; Saint Boniface, 8th century, Germany; Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, 9th century, Russia; Saint Elizabeth, 13th century, Hungary; Saint Teresa of Avila, 16th century, Spain; Saint Rose of Lima, 17th century, Peru; Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, 20th century, United States. Every Sunday morning “surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) would keep the assignment to be a witness fresh in heart and mind. And at Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian they are. They are serious “making visible to their neighbors the faith that’s invisible in their hearts.”
- They are authentically welcoming and inviting. A.W. Tozer said that he knew when a greeting was genuine in church. He said that it came from years of being welcomed to churches by ushers who shook his hand like they were “trained seals.” There was none of this at Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian. I was warmly and repeatedly welcomed without it being intrusive or artificial. They expected guests to be present, and they extended genuine hospitality to us in their midst. In fact, at one point in the service, after the preaching, before the Eucharist, Msgr. Pope told the usher to open the doors of the sanctuary because Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian is a church that is open to outsiders, to guests, and to new members. They expect them to be present every Sunday and they want them to come back and become a part of the community. In fact, Msgr. Pope invited anyone who was there who might want to become part of the church to “come forward” right then and there to an open microphone to introduce themselves to the community. This is the only “invitation” I have ever heard extended in a Catholic Church. “Come and tell us your name” Msgr. Pope encouraged, or, he said, if you would prefer to do it more quietly, people were invited to come and talk to him after the worship service. Evangelistic encounters every Sunday are the expectation and not the exception at Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian.
- They explain their beliefs and interpret their practices making participation in their life of worship meaningful. Here at Northway we say that we “weave education into everything we do,” well so does Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian Catholic Church. Actions and rituals were helpfully explained, and Msgr. Pope was intentional and enthusiastic about connecting the dots between their traditions as Catholic Christians and the Scriptural foundations of those traditions. His instructions and introductions throughout the worship experience were not intrusive, but informative which enhanced their formative power.
- They effectively blend the traditional with the expressive in their worship. Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprianis a Catholic Church with all of the elements of highly ritualized and liturgical worship that you would expect, including incense! At the same time, especially with the use of music, there was nothing rote or mechanical about their worship. It was energetic and expressive; it moved and it was moving. This was “blended worship” at its very best. Even the Scripture readings at every service were read evocatively and effectively by lay readers reminding me as a Protestant Christian of just how worshipful and powerful the public reading of the Bible can be when it is approached with reverence, understanding and genuine feeling.
- And finally, they worship in the vernacular – in the “language” of the people. Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian’s is a predominantly African American congregation. Their beautiful church sign in front of their Sanctuary has the name of the church engraved over an outline of the continent of Africa with tongues of fire (think Pentecost) in the upper left corner where Egypt is. This symbol of the church perfectly captures the parish name – the outline of Africa for Saint Cyprian of Carthage, an African Saint, and the tongues of fire for Holy Comforter, a familiar name given to the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John.
Because Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian is a Roman Catholic Church it is rich in tradition and ritual, and because Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian is a predominantly African American Roman Catholic Church there is a vibrancy to its worship, especially in its music, that is so characteristic of Black worship. The energy of their musical worship responses was palpable and their special music was deeply moving in the style of Black Gospel music. But this doesn’t fully explain what Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian achieves. They connect at the level of “soul.” One of the most powerful moments of the service was the singing of a traditional Marian hymn Salve Regina (May is a special Marian month) led by a choir member who brought incredible expression and devotion not to mention an amazing vocal quality to this most traditional of hymns. She connected with the congregation at a very deep level and they were effusive in their appreciation. In fact, the congregation repeatedly participated in the worship and preaching in the familiar call and response style characteristic of Black worship, and even applauded Msgr. Pope’s sermon two of the three times I heard it, when what was going on externally connected with what was going on in the worshippers internally. This freedom of expression brought real energy and even excitement to the worship experience at Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian that I found effective and incredibly appealing.
All in all, not a bad start to my Sabbatical. I still have much to see and learn, but I’m not sure that anything to come will threaten my experience at Holy comforter ~ Saint Cyprian Roman Catholic Church in Washington DC as the “high water mark” of this journey of discovery. DBS+