25 October 2009

Holy Rosary Church

I was unsure about which church I wanted to visit this week when my roommate Loreto invited me to come to mass with him, his father who was visiting from New York, and some family friends. Of course, I accepted.

We went to Holy Rosary Church, in Downtown Washington, near the Judiciary Square Metro station (Red Line). Loreto explained to me that Holy Rosary is an Italian parish, and warned me that the Mass would probably in Italian. Always up for a new experience, we dressed in our Sunday best for the 10:30 Mass.

Holy Rosary is not a very big church, but it has a very powerful spiritual vibe. White marble dominates the space. Lining the way up to the altar was a series of intimidating white marble columns. The altar space was also covered in marble, with beautiful white angel statues on both sides. The flanks of the altar had candles and detailed statues of Christ and the saints.

The choir was sitting in the rear of the church, in the same loft as the organist. When Loreto and I first walked in, a prayer book fell from above, landing on the rearmost pew. Thinking it was a sign from God, I looked up, only to find the choir directly above me. Sometimes divine providence turns out to be a clumsy chorus member.

Mass in another language is quite an interesting experience. Though I am of partial Italian descent, I know absolutely no Italian. It was like watching your favorite movie in another language. It was a test of how well I knew the procedures and rituals of Mass: I didn’t know what they were saying, but I knew what they were doing. I caught on very quickly, reciting the penitential rite (“I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters…”) in English while the rest of the parish recited in Italian.

Shortly after, the crowd began to recite a prayer which had the cadence of the Nicene Creed. I was utterly confused, because the Nicene Creed is supposed to come after the homily. I thought this was a strange Italian tradition, until I realized later that they were reciting the Gloria (“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth…”). This completely threw me off, because the Gloria is usually sung. Later, a man came up to the podium, read for a minute, initiated a call-and-response sequence, and then did some more reading. I didn’t realize what was going on, but once the deacon came up to read the gospel, I figured it out. The first man had read the first reading, led the responsorial psalm, and then read the second reading. Most of the confusion I experienced was caused by a combination of atypical procedures and the obvious language barrier.

The most fun part of the Mass, from my perspective, was trying to interpret the priest’s homily. Through my limited knowledge of Spanish, (I took three years in high school, I know enough to ask where the bathroom is) and my intuition, I was able to pick up a few bits and pieces. In the beginning, I picked up “luminare” and “speranza,” which mean “to light” and “hope.” “Gesu Cristo” was pretty obvious, and in context I figured that “Signore” was “God,” though it turns out that it really translates to “Lord.” Today’s Gospel Reading talked about Jesus healing the blind man Bartimeo in Jericho (Mark 10:46-52). Before the Lord gives Bartimeo his sight, he says to him, “Go your way, your faith has saved you.” Some of the priest’s lecture touched on the reading, I understood that he was talking about salvation, and he referenced Jericho and Jerusalem. I heard phrases like “paso a paso,” “camino,” and “Gerusalemme” (Jerusalem), which made me believe he was talking about walking down the path to salvation step by step, just as Jesus took the path to Jerusalem after giving sight to Bartimeo.

The music was very good, the choir was backed by a beautiful organ, as I discussed early. I didn’t recognize many of the hymns, but one that I found remarkable was set to the tune of “Kumbaya,” performed during the offering.

I was in an awkward position during the offering of peace. I don’t usually think much about shaking my neighbor’s hand and saying “Peace be with you,” but here I wasn’t sure whether to say “Peace” or use the Italian word “Pace” (pronounced “pa-chey”). I ended up just saying “peace.” I don’t think I offended anyone.

The most remarkable thing about Holy Rosary was the tremendous sense of community. After the Mass ended and we walked out of the church, the socializing had already begun. Loreto’s uncle Enzo was laughing and chatting with some friends, and gladly introduced us. The Italian Mass is a way for these families to stay connected with each other to their ethnic and spiritual heritage. It is a fusion of Old and New World, a way for the generations of the past to connect with their modern descendants. It’s a nice tradition, and I hope that it lives on.

If anyone has any input on my interpretation of the Italian, please feel free to post a comment. In fact, if you have anything you'd like to share, feel free to leave a comment.

11 October 2009

St. Dominic Church

The mission has begun, and so far, is going well. Today I went to St. Dominic's Catholic Church in Southwest Washington D.C. I wanted to start with a church that was close to campus, but far enough to be exciting. St. Dominic's is located about a block from the L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop, which is a few stops from Foggy Bottom.

Looking on its website, the parish is over 100 years old, and is run by friars of the Dominican order. I don't know much about the Dominican order, but it doesn't appear that they have an overbearing influence at St. Dominics. The stained glass windows depict events in the life of St. Dominic, but if I didn't know that, I would have appreciated them just the same. Similarly, if I didn't know that the church was run by Dominicans before I got there, I wouldn't have figured it out during Mass.

The church was built in a very traditional style. Stained glass windows are on all sides of the church, as described before. A large stone bell tower flanks the main building. The inside of the Church is very beautiful. Large columns extend all the way to the high ceiling, leading from entrance to altar. The cross, which is usually a fixture on the wall, was suspended in mid-air from the ceiling by big metal wires. I've posted some pictures below.

As I entered the church, I was greeted by the priest. A very friendly man, he asked everyone who entered if they were a "regular" or not. I told him where I was from, and what I was doing there. I got the feeling that this was a church that was very used to visitors. After all, they were in the middle of Washington, D.C., near a good deal of hotels and tourist attractions. He made several remarks throughout the Mass about visitors; at first I thought he might be referring to visitors coming for the National Equality March on the mall today, either protesters or counter-protesters, but judging by the crowd, I didn't think this was the case. It appeared that "visitors" were a regular part of life at St. Dominic, the parish bulletin addresses issues concerning "regular parishioners" as well as "tourists" and "visitors." This may seem uninviting, but it is not inconsistent with the other Catholic Churches I have visited in other tourist areas, such as Newport Beach and Palm Springs.

About halfway through the first reading, I came across a phenomenon universal to Sunday morning church-going: the Cryin' Baby. It was not a huge disruption, and the reader didn't take offense. At home, if there's a Cryin' Baby during the homily, our priest will stop talking until the guilty parent brings the child outside. There is no crying room at home, and none at St. Dominic, apparently, they've been banned by the church.

I came on a special day for St. Dominic parish, it was the ninetieth anniversary of the consecration of their church building. As the priest explained during the homily, the parish was founded initially by Catholic immigrants (mostly Irish, I saw traces of this influence in the second reader, who had an Irish accent) in the 1850's. Their first church burned down in a fire, but they persisted, building their current church in 1919. The priest emphasized the importance of having a "holy space" in which to conduct religous ceremonies and to become closer to God. In today's reading, Jesus calls Zaccheus down from the sycamore tree, and goes to Zaccheus' home to bring him salvation. For the parishioners of St. Dominic, the father said, God calls them into their consecrated church, their "holy space," to bring them salvation. For this reason, he said, this consecrated church is "more than just the stones that make up the building."

St. Dominic's website touts the church's excellent acoustics. The band and choir, made up of about eight people, was certainly an interesting combination. There were about five singers, two acoustic guitar players, a flutist, and a pianist. The hymns were mostly familiar, and the singers were quite good. At St. Dominic, music is almost constant. The priest sang almost the entire consecration of the host. He would talk/sing through a prayer, often followed up by a chorus/hymn by the choir. I couldn't figure out what the musical style reminded me of, but at this point, I realized that it sounded a little like musical theater. This is not a complaint, the priest had a nice voice, and it made consecration less dry than usual.

Altogether, the Mass was very nice. I'm glad I chose St. Dominic as the first church, and I look forward to going to another church next week.


10 October 2009


Hi, my name is Michael. I am a freshman at the George Washington University, and I am a practicing Roman Catholic. I moved to Washington, D.C. a little over a month ago, and I love it here. I am happy to report that I found a very welcoming Catholic community at the GW Newman Center, and have been attending the masses that the Newman Center holds at St. Stephen Martyr Church, near campus.

I am overjoyed at some news I received from my hometown. My parish, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, in Valencia, California, has just completed the new church building that we have spent over a decade building. From what I am told, it is a beautiful building, and I'm excited to see it when I get home.

I have begun to think about the different ways that Catholics worship. Some parishes sing prayers, some recite them. Some priests may emphasize certain themes in their sermons, while others will find completely different narratives. Some churches have been around for hundreds of years, some are brand new. Parishes themselves vary in size, culture, race, and socioeconomic status. Despite these differences, the fundamentals of the celebration of Mass remains the same. I find these differences fascinating. I've decided to embark on an ambitious new project for the next two years or so: to attend Mass at every Catholic Church in the District of Columbia.

The goal of this project is not merely curiousity, or boredom, but to help me determine what it means to be Catholic in America. I also hope to gain a greater appreciation for the diversity and unique history of Washington, D.C. My goal is to update this page every week with a report on a different Church where I have attended Mass. There are approximately 50 Catholic Churches in the District. This should be a great challenge, and hopefully a lot of fun.