A statue of the Infant Christ wearing a king’s crown stands to the left of the altar at St. Anne’s. Today, the statue also wears a purple robe trimmed with pearls over his usual finery because purple is a penitential color, and today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent. When Father Dennis Gordon ascends to the altar, he is draped in a heavy purple cope. Latin words surround the gold cross on his mantel: Lux, Pax, Vita, Via — light, peace, life, way. Almost the entire Mass will be in Latin; translation books are available at the church entrance.
This is a High Mass. The priest chants substantial portions of the liturgy as he faces the altar, his back to the people. Other parts are chanted or sung by the choir — sometimes a single soprano voice floating overhead from the elevated loft, sometimes a back-and-forth between male and female voices as they implore God’s mercy, sometimes all together. Because it is Lent, there is little organ accompaniment, but the sameness of the form highlights the differences in tone — now somber, now magisterial, now almost convivial.
The congregation, meanwhile, is largely silent, except for the crinkled turnings of onionskin Missal pages as the people follow the Mass; and the communal rumble of movement as they stand, sit, and kneel. Now and then, the priest turns and faces them, saying, “Dominum vobiscum” (the Lord be with you), and they respond with “Et cum spiritu tuo” (“And with your spirit”). They sing little, except for the “sed libera nos a malo” (“but deliver us from evil”) line during the Our Father. Their longest speech comes after the priest turns and presents the host prior to communion. “Domine non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tanta dic verbo, et sanibitur anima mea.” (Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”) Then they say it again. And again.
The liturgy begins with the blessing of the ashes. The priest chants over them, sprinkles holy water over them, waves a thurible of incense over them. Throughout, he is assisted by a team of servers in cassocks and albs, all of whom move with crisp precision, genuflecting in unison whenever they pass in front of the tabernacle. A second priest sprinkles Gordon’s head with the blessed ashes, and the two of them descend to the altar rail and the kneeling congregants who wait there. The priests mark the people’s foreheads with a cross of ashes, saying, “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” (“Remember, man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”) The choir chants verses from the prophet Joel:
Immutemur habitu, in cinere et cilicio; jejunemus, et ploremus ante Dominum: quia multum misericors est dimittere peccata nostra Deus noster.
(Let us change our garments for ashes and sackcloth: let us fast and lament before the Lord: for plenteous in mercy is our God to forgive our sins.)
The readings are given in Latin, followed by English. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, who disfigure their faces in order to appear to men as fasting.... But you, when you do fast, anoint your head and wash your face...and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth, where rust and moth consume...but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.... For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.’”
The homily is given in English, followed by Spanish. “Everyone of us right now is marked with the cross.... Our Lord Himself said, ‘If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me’.... Every one of us has a cross to bear, no one escapes it.... But our Lord shows us the path. He led the way. He says, ‘Look, you can do this. I’ve done it before you. And look at the glory it brought Me, through death to life’.... The whole point is that it’s through the cross that we gain eternal life.” Gordon quotes heavily from Scripture and from the saints. “Saint John of the Cross points out that ‘Faith is foreign to all feeling.’ We have to be detached from the world....” The cross, he says, means suffering, but meaningful suffering: “A piece of marble doesn’t understand why the sculptor is striking at it, but the sculptor knows the image that he’s trying to bring out in that marble. Our crosses can shape us into the image of our Blessed Lord.”
After the homily comes the Liturgy of the Eucharist — long stretches of silence as the priest hunches over the elements on the altar, stretches broken by the clatter of bells following the words of consecration. Not just the bells shaken by the server kneeling at his post but also the big bell in the steeple, pealing out into the night as the host is raised aloft.
What happens when we die?
From the homily: “The whole point is that it is through the cross that we gain eternal life. It’s completely backwards from the way the world thinks because they want their pleasure now. And they’ll get it now, to a certain extent. But not in the next life.”
621 Sicard Street, San Diego
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Founded locally: 1921
Senior pastor: Carl Gismondi
Congregation size: 500
Staff size: 3
Sunday school enrollment: 50
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to formal
Sunday worship: 7:30 a.m. (Low Mass), 10 a.m. (High Mass), 12 p.m. (Low Mass), 6 p.m. (Low Mass)
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 20 minutes