A Peaceful, Easy Feeling:
A Contemporary Catholic Mass
By Yevgenya "Jane" Shevtsov
I attended a contemporary mass at St. Charles Catholic Church in North Hollywood. My parents went with me, and two family friends, Ron and Anna Crowe, accompanied us and functioned as key informants. Before the beginning of the service, I studied the interior of the church building. I closely observed the service, paying special attention to the music and to my own reactions to what happened.
In doing this project, I relied primarily on participant observation, formal (tape-recorded) interviews and informal (not tape-recorded) questioning of Ron and Anna. I expected to experience some culture shock, especially since I am not used to religious environments. To my great surprise, though, I felt perfectly at home throughout the service. I attribute this to the music, which was quite similar to the country and folk music I listen to, and to the presence of friends. In addition, the second reading during the service dealt with people's differences, which also helped put me at ease.
The church is a large building, decorated on the outside with elaborate stone carvings. Inside, there are half-circular brown and white paintings of scenes from Jesus' life on the walls near the ceiling. These are the 14 Stations of the Cross. Stained glass windows portray family trees of saints; one has women and one has men. Several wooden confessional booths are also located along the sides of the room. Up front, there is a large altar decorated with poinsettias. The priest's pulpit is off to the left side. The pulpit is equipped with a microphone (the church is fairly large) but the speakers are not visible. An organ loft in the back of the church is used for more traditional services. There are large statues of Mary and Joseph on either side of the altar. I took one look at the rows of hard wooden pews and decided to stay in my wheelchair. Each pew has a padded kneeling bench for people in the previous pew to use.
The mass took place at 5 P.M.. In recent years, Catholic churches have tried to get more people to attend by offering services at different times of day, to suit people's schedules and preferences. The service was an hour long but it felt like less, probably because I was very interested in what was happening.
The participants were of all ages, but there was a disproportionate number of senior citizens. Most were white, but some were Latino, Asian-American (including Filipino), or African-American. Socioeconomically, most were upper middle class because the church is in a fairly wealthy neighborhood. They dressed casually. Most had no special roles, but some were choir members and some children were altar boys and girls. Before entering the room, people dipped their fingers in water that had been blessed by the priest and crossed themselves. Those coming in late knelt momentarily to show respect before entering the pew.
The service (conducted in English, except for one song) consisted of a mixture of music, readings from the Bible (printed in a small paperback book with readings for each week), prayer led by the priest and a short sermon. The music was very simple and resembled folk or country more than anything. The contemporary choir consisted of about a dozen people, including a guitarist and keyboard player. The songs were mostly songs of praise, but their content seemed less important than the comfortable, almost cozy feeling they imparted to the room. The sermon drew on the story of Jesus turning water into wine, which the priest related to turning ordinary things into extraordinary ones in everyday life, especially in marriage. The priest also talked to the congregation about choosing to follow Jesus. Several times, he used the phrase, "walking in darkness." The binary thus created, plus the imagery and repetition made the sermon effective, if not exciting. At one point during the service, the congregation recited a basic rundown of Catholic beliefs. This probably strengthens their religious identity. After the sermon, people went up to the altar to receive Communion - a round wafer and wine - from the priest. I did not have a good view of this procedure because of where I was seated, but the people coming back from Communion looked very peaceful. Finally, people hugged or kissed their neighbors. After one last song, everyone left.
The main religious idea I saw expressed was belief in a personal and forgiving God. Tolerance was also stressed. The songs, readings and overall style of the service were oriented more to the community than the individual. Ron and Anna Crowe, my key informants, said that they came to church partially out of tradition (both had been brought up Catholic), partially to express a belief in a higher power and partially because they like "starting each week with a clean slate." These reasons probably also apply to many of the other people who attend. If I returned, I would focus more on people's reasons for attending and any disagreements they have with church doctrine. It would also be interesting to analyze the music and the priest's speech patterns, since those can act in an almost hypnotic manner under certain circumstances.