It is hard to jump back into routine after three weeks on the road. Although I downloaded Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium  to my Kindle for the trip to review and share on the Professional Development stream of the blog when I got home, it was not until I got to the airport to come home that I broke out some serious theological reading. As my trip home originated in Las Vegas, I could safely assume I was the only person in McCarran Airport reading up on Catholic ecclesiology, no small feat considering that this airport is full of slot machines as well as the usual distractions.
I did find auto traveling from Omaha to Las Vegas to be captivating and exciting. Our primary targets were natural ones, places for hiking like the great national parks of the West, such as Badlands in South Dakota and Arches and Zion in Utah. But we had opportunities to visit Father Flannagan’s Boys Town, several noted schools and cathedrals, some major cities in states we had never visited before [hello Omaha, Bismarck, Casper and Las Vegas], and a countless number of small-town gas stations and coffee stops as we avoided the interstate system as much as possible. I can honestly say that I encountered nothing but genuine hospitality and some surprisingly good coffee over the broad central expanse of our country.
As noted, I did not do much book reading, though I followed both national and Catholic media online throughout the trip. When sunset rolled around after a full day of travel and outdoor activity, we were too tired and heat exhausted for heavy literary pursuits. I am embarrassed to admit that my wife Margaret coaxed me into binge watching “The Gilmore Girls” on NETFLIX across the country. At least the writing is clever, though in every episode I quietly mumbled to myself, “Is there a decent therapist in that town? Or even a mediocre one?”
One of my great pleasures in traveling is visiting churches. Naturally, celebrating the Eucharist in a new community is always a lift for me and a lesson in the vitality of the Church. One of the most overlooked catechetical opportunities for children and adults is the chance to encounter other ecclesial settings while traveling, and when I look back over my vacation albums, I can recall nearly all the churches we visited and particularly where we had the opportunity to attend Mass. On this last vacation we traveled over three weekends and thus celebrated in three quite different settings.
In Omaha we were the guests of the principal of Mount Michael Benedictine School, an outstanding high school establishment of the Benedictine monks. Monastic liturgies are remarkable for their simplicity and focus, among other things. The chapel had recently reopened for Sunday Mass to the lay community of supporters as the Covid restrictions were just mitigated. Here, as in Mepkin Abbey, SC, where Margaret and I go for retreat each year, the community Mass is offered with devotion in about forty minutes. The monastic tradition has much to teach our parishes about focus and simplicity; my sense is that parochial liturgies get “cluttered”, and this is what makes them feel “boring” to participants of all ages.
Our host suggested that we may want to visit the Omaha Cathedral later Sunday. After Margaret and I walked across the Bob Kerrey pedestrian bridge between Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the late afternoon heat we decided to take up the suggestion. As luck would have it, I messed up the directions and we visited or passed four churches in the Omaha city limits in our quest to see the church. All the churches were celebrating 5:30 PM Sunday liturgies. The Cathedral itself resembled most inner-city churches, but it was interesting to see the early twentieth-century construction of several parish campuses which featured large edifices for schools, rectories, and convents. Many of these buildings have been converted into social outreach centers or childcare facilities. Again, a catechetical opportunity to see and appreciate the development of twentieth century Catholic parish mission in the United States.
Before I leave Omaha, I need to add that Margaret and I had the opportunity to tour the above-mentioned Mount Michael Benedictine School and the famous Boys Town of Father Flannagan fame. While these institutions address distinct populations, it was most encouraging to see well financed and excellently managed ministries at a time when there is a mood of gloom and discouragement in many quarters regarding the future viability of parishes, schools, and social outreach agencies.
After a week in Wall, South Dakota, Badlands State Park, and Mount Rushmore, we found ourselves the following weekend in Bismarck, North Dakota. We took a walking tour of the city and came upon the Cathedral of the Diocese of Bismarck. It was a large but unpretentious church; one would not guess that it is a cathedral. I was impressed with a large and well-appointed social gathering room accessible to the church vestibule. As the cathedral was close to our Hampton Inn, we decided to attend the Saturday vigil Mass later in the day.
I was impressed again by the appropriate simplicity of the Mass here. The parts of the Mass, including the music, were undertaken with devout simplicity and community engagement was energetic. I felt compelled to sing, which is not true of Mass in my home parish which tends toward the theatrical. What I most remember, though, was being surrounded by little children. We were in the third row, and it was evident that the little members were not routinely shuffled off to a noise-insulated designated site. I was particularly moved by the mother who sat behind me. She appeared to have four or five little children under her wing. The oldest curled up in a corner of the pew for his afternoon nap, but the others engaged with the children from other families in the vicinity, much in the fashion of the prairie dog villages we had seen at Badlands Park. None of the adults seemed unduly disturbed, nor did the celebrant.
Again, I was struck by a contrast with my own parish, where little children are by far the exception and not the rule at the Saturday vigil Mass. Why the difference? I cannot honestly say, though we noted in our earlier walk through the neighborhood that the cathedral sat in a middle-class neighborhood with the homes near the church. This is precisely the kind of neighborhood I lived in, just a half block from my church and school. For just about all my elementary school years I virtually lived on the church grounds for my sacraments, school, sports, and CYO activities. My dad was an officer in the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society and Catholic War Veterans. My first crush and my first “date’ involved a parish girl.
The Bismarck cathedral church had that sort of feel. If I lived there, I would probably become active in that sort of parish. In any event, at the end of Mass I felt compelled to say something to the mother behind me, who was gathering her miniature quintet to go home for supper. I told her that I was inspired by her efforts to bring her little children to Mass by herself and that God would bless her for the effort.
Our final weekend of vacation found us in the beautiful mountainous village of Springdale, Utah, less than a mile from the entrance to Zion National Park. Our accommodations there took the colorful name of “The Bumbleberry Inn.” We checked in on a Friday and inquired about Catholic Mass. We were given a welcome sheet to a “Catholic Service” in the Canyon Community Center at 8 AM on Sunday. I should point out here that while all the national parks are very crowded this summer, Zion was extraordinarily full. Given the heat and the number of visitors, Margaret decided that we would not even attempt a morning entry. Our neighbors at Bumbleberry told us of going to the park at 5 AM or 6 AM to do serious hiking.
Even with these challenges, I was a bit surprised with the attendance at a Communion Service held in the community center. Led by a local lay woman who read a brief reflection in place of a homily, there were eight of us in attendance—six locals from Springdale and two tourists, i.e., Margaret and me. I do not know what to make of that, as the city was teeming with tourists. Later in the day, we encountered a boy in the park with a “Loyola” tee shirt. Margaret quipped, “I didn’t see him this morning.” [School principals never die; they just go on doing their thing.]
I noted in the beginning of this entry that I am currently reading up on ecclesiology, the branch of theology that studies the nature of the Church itself. It is a timely subject that covers a lot of territory, but the theologians who work this discipline agree on several points. First, the mission of the Church is to live as the sacrament of Christ himself on earth. Second, our spiritual strength as a Church resides in our unity. And third, the heart of our unity on earth is the weekly Eucharistic sharing of the bread and the cup. Any amount of travel opens our eyes to the unity we share and the work that remains to be done.