This was my third week at St. Thomas, and I'll admit that I had no idea what to expect. It's the only Catholic church in the Hyde Park neighborhood, and when I went to scope it out a few days after I moved in it was locked up tighter than a drum - not surprising given that we're in a big city, but it would have been nice to get inside to have a look around. Apparently it was not meant to be, so my first glimpse was when I came in for Mass the first time, three weeks ago.
At right is what I saw - a baldacchino that reminded me strongly of the Vatican, not to mention enough hardwood (pews and floor) to make a purist weep for joy, beautiful stained glass, a carved altar rail, iron grilles with gates in front of the altar to the Madonna and various other saints, painted statues, an ornamental pulpit, candles hanging above the altar...at some point I'll come to Mass very early and take lots of pictures to share (most interesting is the Moorish and Byzantine feel going on in the church - high ceilings, stucco, slightly Islamic ornamentation) - I felt guilty snapping this one on my phone a few minutes before Mass began, but I couldn't keep this treasure under my hat any longer. More pictures - and pretentious gushing about art - to come.
St. Thomas isn't just an architectural gem, though that was what first caught my eye. Upon picking up a worship aid I was discouraged to see it full of modern music, the bland and uninspiring performance of which I am well familiar with from my church in Appleton. "What supreme irony is this," I thought bitterly, sinking into my pew and slipping off my vest (the blue one), "that such a beautiful space should be fouled with insipid and meaningless noise?" But I was soon corrected, for although the music is modern, the six-person choir, with a pianist and a recorder-player accompanying it, has more life in it than several full-sized choirs I have encountered. Furthermore, the music director very cleverly interspersed several old tunes (Lord of All Hopefulness, for example) with the new ones, using the contrast between styles to make each song - all of them well-led by the choir and well-sung by the congregation - stand out as a piece of art. I will not say that this is musical heaven - I see they have an organ they're not using - but I must now reevaluate my opinion of modern church music. Could it be that what has made it so revolting in the past has been the utter blandness of its presentation, and not an inherent flaw in the music itself? Perhaps so....
I am missing out on the most important part (for shame!): the congregation itself. St. Thomas' "catchphrase" (for lack of a better word) is "God's People in Extraordinary Variety," and they're not kidding. The congregation has no clear ethnic majority, though the biggest group is probably people of African heritage. But alongside them are many other groups: not just European-Americans, but also people of East Asian and South Asian heritage - three rows in front of me this morning was a family of (I think) Indians (as in the subcontinent), the women dressed in muted saris, and last week several African-American women were wearing turbans and full-length gowns of, I think, West African origin. What I'm trying to say is that this parish is very ethnically diverse (there are also people of just about every age, from babes in arms to blue-haired old ladies of various ethnicities), and everyone seems to get along. What gets me most is that people get out of their pews during the sign of peace and seek out others, sometimes on the other side of the church, and some simply walk the aisles giving the sign of peace to everyone they can reach. In my former parish, that's simply not done - you don't leave your pew, and you shake hands with everyone within reach. It feels forced. Not so here.
Today's second reading (James 2:14-18, quite possibly my favorite biblical passage) sums it up perfectly:
14 What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him? 15 And if a brother or sister be naked, and want daily food: 16 And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit? 17 So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself. 18 But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.
In short, there's something much more alive (and also more liberal - their bulletin runs social justice articles every week) about this church than the churches I've been involved with in the past. Perhaps it's the big city dynamic - perhaps it's the ethnic diversity - perhaps it's a more tolerant atmosphere (this neighborhood is very heavily Democratic, and Illinois' 1st congressional district, of which it is a part, hasn't elected a Republican since the 1930s). But whatever it is, people, place, or politics, I like it. This is a church worth going to.