I started going to daily Mass recently. I’ve been there before. First, when I was an altar boy serving at 6:45 a.m. After those Masses, my mother would take me to the diner for breakfast and I’d order french fries with cheese and brown gravy before heading off to school.
I went to daily Mass a lot my senior year of high school, four days a week. My buddy and I were the only two students sitting in the tiny chapel before classes started. His dad had cancer, and I needed extra prayers to get into the college I wanted to attend.
That was 23 years ago. I haven’t had regular-attendee status at the music-less short form of the Sunday celebration since. This time around, I go for the spiritual nourishment, for the boost I hope receiving the Eucharist might give my prayers — maybe they’d be answered sooner. I leave my phone in the car. I go to quiet my mind, to step back and take a breather from the busyness of life, to be open to what God has to offer.
Each day by 8:30 a.m., about 60 people spread out among the two dozen pews inside the red-brick church. I’ve laid claim to a spot on the end of the pew closest to the center aisle, about three-quarters of the way back on the left side, near the baptismal font.
Daylight pushes through the stained-glass windows. Hexagonal Tudor pendant lights drop from the Gothic arches above the pews. The white walls and ceiling are accented by gray trim and touches of blue and gold paint on the baroque cornices.
A bishop laid the church’s cornerstone in 1881. Since then the parish has expanded with the country. Today it offers Mass in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. A contemporary chapel, which holds more worshippers, was added in 1980. But this place has that old-school feel.
Sitting among the devout, I am a newbie. Over there is the grandfather — and I know he has grandchildren because he wears those goofy “World’s Greatest Grandpa” T-shirts. All around us are the couples, retirees who start their days here. Nobody can miss the special pray-ers, those who pray a decibel louder and a syllable slower than everyone else. My Grandma Lily mastered that move in her day.
One woman wears sunglasses even on the darkest days. She always clutches her cellphone to her chest. A disheveled man — he doesn’t clean up that often — sits on the steps by the side door before Mass, hunched over, puffing a cigarette. He gets up from his pew after the homily. Maybe a smoke break? But he returns to kneel before Communion. Another man wears rosary beads like a necklace. He sits toward the front on my side. He’s taller than everybody else and during certain prayers he raises his right arm over his head in a big sweeping motion, as if to pull in more blessings from the air.
Within my first few Masses back, something happened during the prayers of the faithful. After offering some from the lectern, the deacon cued the congregation. I’ve always found this to be a powerful moment, joining together behind a prayer. That day someone prayed for the souls in purgatory — which, admittedly, made me ask myself, Do we still believe in that?
People prayed for “special intentions” and for family members by name. I didn’t say anything, but the woman in front of me did.
“For a special intention and a new kidney.”
Holy s---, I thought. (To be truthful, my thoughts don’t always come with the holiest of language.) This prayer halted me. People are dealing with very real stuff in their lives, and we seldom know it.
About a week later, I changed seats. Not permanently; I’m still attached to my seat near the baptismal font. But this was the first Friday of the month and the seventh- and eighth-graders from the parish school filled a bunch of pews. I went to the right side, about four rows back from the sanctuary, and sat close to the stained-glass windows.
A woman sat behind me. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a Baby Bjorn, that front-loading baby carrier. Her baby was covered and I couldn’t see it. She said her prayers differently: clear diction, one syllable ahead of everybody else. Not a racer, but one steady syllable ahead.
At the sign of peace, I turned around. It wasn’t a baby she held. It wasn’t a Baby Bjorn she was wearing, either. She reached one hand out and maintained her grip on a stuffed animal, a shaggy, indiscernible creature with those big, half-ball, brown-and-black eyes. She kept it under a baby blanket, the thin kind you get from a hospital maternity ward.
We offered each other peace. I thought I should ask her about the stuffed animal — I had asked prying questions so many times as a journalist. After Mass, maybe I’d flash my dimples and try to be unobtrusive while being completely intrusive.
I didn’t, though, because as I sat in the pew, I realized something. What a mess we are, a beautiful, hand-waving, kidney-needing, cigarette-smoking, purgatory-praying, stuffed-animal-gripping, prayerful mess. This comforted me, all of it. We all have a place to come together, to be together and be welcomed, a place to bring whatever we’re dealing with — out loud, or kept to ourselves. We’re there with each other, showing up Monday through Friday at 8:30 in the morning.
Jerry Barca is a producer and co-writer of the forthcoming documentary film Hesburgh. He has produced two ESPN 30 for 30 films, including Catholics vs. Convicts, and his two books include Unbeatable: Notre Dame’s 1988 Championship and the Last Great College Football Season (St. Martin’s Press, 2013).