Mass in small-town Pennsylvania

I’m always a little trepidatious about attending Mass when I get outside of my liberal Chicago suburb. I opted against going while in the Wisconsin Dells when, checking for Mass times on the local parish’s website, I came across a posting from the pastor arguing that Pope Francis wasn’t really Catholic.

But I also don’t want to get caught in a bubble either.  Not being challenged in faith can lead to the sort of self-satisfied shallow Christianity that I don’t want to profess, so apart from avoiding openly schismatic parishes like the one in Wisconsin Dells, I figure the worst case scenario is if the pastor decides to use his homily as an opportunities to proselytize for Tr*mp instead of Jesus, I can always walk out.¹

I arrived a scant couple of minutes before Mass started thanks to spacing out a bit before leaving writers’ camp for the 10.30a mass at St Agnes Parish in Morrisdale. The congregation was, unsurprisingly, all-white. Presiding over the mass was an imported priest of indeterminant ethnicity and accent and his homily was a straightforward explication of Sunday’s gospel.

What caught my attention, though, was the organist/cantor. He played one of those electronic imitation-pipe organs, often referred to derisively as “church warblers,” and except when he had to fill a cantorial role, like during the psalm, didn’t sing. He caught my attention from the first song, playing a swinging rhythm that I discovered was his accompaniment for “Alleluiah, Love Is Alive” a relatively recent addition (2012) to the corpus of songs that usually belong to guitar masses rather than organ masses. I really expected the music to be a lot more of the traditional hymn variety, the canon of songs gathered for the GIA Worship hymnal in the 50s and never expanded.

The final hymn, was “This Is my Song,” and I was considering departing during the song as is my practice whever a music director decides to use some patriotic song at Mass.² But then I noticed that the lyrics that seem patriotic at first glance⁴ are a little different on further inspection:

This is my song, O god of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;⁵
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,⁶
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

There’s a third verse, but I’ll skip it for the sake of space, but I have to say that I rather loved the choice of this music minister to sneak into the consciousness of the parishioners a bit of thought outside their usual ambit, and perhaps to also sneak into my own mind, a reconsideration of the character of rural types (although the hand-made Tr*mp 2024 signs I saw on the road also made me reconsider some of the reconsideration).

  1. I should point out that this has never happened, but after an encounter at a McDonald’s in downstate Illinois in the spring of 2021 when I was on my way to get my first dose of the Covid vaccine, where a local berated me for wearing a mask (oddly, he declared it a “selfish” action), I’m a bit more wary of rural folks than I had been in the past.
  2. In my youth, the local Catholic parish would, on Scout Sunday, have the Boy Scouts process into Mass with the priest and ministers bearing an American flag, a practice I found distasteful even then³ and one, that thankfully, I have never seen recreated  in my adulthood.
  3. As the son of the scoutmaster for the troop, I ended up having to attend every Mass on Scout Sunday which only made the practice that much more agonzing.
  4. In fact, the title of the song is sometimes given as “This is my song: A patriotic hymn.”
  5. This was the line where I wondered if I should leave.
  6. And this was the line where I said, “Wait, what?”






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