By DEXTER DUGGAN
PHOENIX — Various versions of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass may be offered legitimately in Catholic churches. The variations include the use of different languages. But how often does one think they also could use different lumens?
No, a lumen isn’t in the same etymological league as “catechumen,” although a ceremony for catechumens would necessarily involve lumens.
Lumen, says “vocabulary.com,” means “a basic unit for measuring brightness, just as the gram is a basic unit for measuring mass. A typical light bulb in your home might produce about 1,000 lumens. Lumen is related to the word luminous, which means ‘bright’ or ‘radiant’.”
The pastor of a large Phoenix Catholic church, St. Thomas the Apostle, tried out the lumen difference last Advent, and, because of subsequent positive reaction, plans to offer it again for Advent 2014.
It might be an adaptation worth thinking about in other liturgical seasons and celebrations, too.
St. Thomas the Apostle added an 8 p.m. candles-only Mass during the four Sundays of the Advent season in 2013. Aside from small reading lights turned on for the lector and priest to see Scripture, there was no electric lighting whatever in the central Phoenix church that seats about 1,100 people.
Each of the Masses also had meditative music before the service began, and continuing through the ceremony — a half-hour of music before two of the Masses, a full hour before the other two.
Still, this was a standard English-language liturgy that most U.S. Catholics attend — no legions of deacons or acolytes or foreign rituals added.
Impatient Catholics may chafe through the length of an ordinary Sunday Mass. But St. Thomas the Apostle attracted increasing hundreds of people each Sunday evening to sit reflectively through about two hours of music and liturgy before exiting into the crisp December night.
With the drastically lower illumination, there was no temptation to look around to see who else was at church, who might arrive late, or who wore what kind of clothes.
The church building was completed in 1960, before changes by Vatican II affected numerous facets of Catholic life including architecture.
St. Thomas the Apostle, with Spanish-colonial design and a big traditional bell tower, has all seating facing toward the main altar at the western wall of the structure. Seating isn’t semi-circular; the altar hasn’t been repositioned out amid the pews.
Explaining the idea for the candles-only ceremony, the pastor, Fr. John Ehrich, STL, told parishioners he actually had a dream about it.
Ehrich told The Wanderer: “I wouldn’t call the dream a mystical experience or anything. I simply had the image of my parish church dark with candles all around. From there I began to consider the idea of doing something a bit different during Advent — the idea of the entire world being in darkness until the Light of World was born of the Virgin, and tapping into that idea for our Advent observance. Also the idea of silence, contemplation, and also music, of course.”
He added, “I don’t suspect this was an original idea in the least.”
The main altar had six large candles on it, plus three large candles standing to either side. There were 72 candles in small, floor-level holders on the steps leading up to the sanctuary, and candles in holders at floor level on either side of the main aisle, next to every second pew. These extended all the way back to the vestibule, which also was candle-lit.
So, despite a number of candles, the large majority of them weren’t visible to people seated in the pews but cast their light upward.
Finally, there were the candles of the Advent wreath.
The Wanderer asked if Ehrich hoped to minimize distractions to the congregation by eliminating electricity. “I really didn’t think about that at all,” he replied. “In fact, it was so dark that I couldn’t really see the congregation at all from my vantage point.”
As to whether he thought this brought about a more reverent atmosphere, the priest said, “What I noticed most of all was the necessity to slow down and take my time a bit more. There was no pressure to finish on time or within a particular time constraint, which I found very rewarding.”
Still, the ceremonies didn’t extend deep into the evening. The Masses lasted only about ten minutes longer than a standard Sunday hour-long service.
People’s response, he said, “was overwhelmingly positive. People were very grateful for the opportunity to observe Advent in a special way. . . . Some parents weren’t pleased that I didn’t allow children under 12 to attend. However, the Masses were at 8 p.m. and were intended for a more mature audience. We do so much for children and families already, so I wanted to try something different. Many parents came and brought their teenagers, however.”
He estimated that about 700 people attended the first of the four Masses, and the number grew steadily to about 900 for the last one.
Because St. Thomas the Apostle’s final Sunday Mass normally ends around noon, the parish made extra efforts to let people know there would be Advent Masses also occurring in the evening.
Asked if he’d hoped to bring in new parishioners or even make converts from attendees, Ehrich said that because “we advertised it diocesan-wide I suspected there may be others,” in addition to current parishioners.
“We also had a number of non-Catholics, which we did anticipate, given that one of the musical groups was non-Catholic and has a local nondenominational following.”
Focusing On The Cross
Before becoming a priest, Ehrich was a professional musician. Drawing on this background, he staged two popular jazz festivals in a picnic atmosphere under the stars on the parish grounds during 2013, drawing perhaps 2,000 parishioners and others each time.
Many children dashing around and playing on the grass during the jazz events almost may have made one think this was back in the 1950s, before Planned Parenthood started destroying many families’ lives.
Asked about how he selected the musicians to play at the Advent Masses, Ehrich told The Wanderer:
“I have an extensive music background, having been a music director for a number of years and studying music theory and composition in college. The music I selected was varied. One Mass featured Palestrina, another featured more traditional chant and polyphony. The other two Sundays featured a more contemporary Christian group called ‘The Brilliance.’
“I was looking for music that didn’t demand an active response so much as music that set a particular ethos and experience to the liturgy. I was quite pleased with the result,” Ehrich said.
“I would say that, combined with the environment, the music allowed people to focus on the cross, the altar, and the Eucharist more intently. I don’t think it is something I would do every Sunday, but given how easily the season of Advent gets lost in our culture, I believe it bore a good amount of fruit for those who were able to attend,” he said.
A Corpus life-size or larger hangs above the main altar at St. Thomas the Apostle.
As to whether anyone stumbled in the dark, Ehrich said, “We did have a number of seniors present, which actually surprised me. However, we told people to assist each other and we…had active ushers assisting as well.”
Perhaps the greater danger of stumbling in the dark occurred when people left the spiritual enclosure of the church and had to return to the surrounding secular world, with its snares as near as the daily newspaper rack at the convenience store just across the street.
Yet the light shone in the darkness, though the darkness knew it not.