Socialists, drug addicts, gospel music — and Martin Sheen. Welcome to the coolest Mass in D.C.
In the beginning, I came to mock the Commie Mass. But then I was converted. I saw the light.
St. Aloysius Catholic Church is on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C. It’s a church run by Jesuits, and is therefore very liberal. You won’t find too many papal encyclicals being handed out, but there are plenty of stacks of the left-wing “Catholic Worker.” During the part of the Mass where the congregation offers prayer intentions, there is usually one or two harangues about Evil America. Martin Sheen has been known to stop by. There is a homeless shelter in the same building, and you may find yourself sitting next to a dude who hasn’t worked in a while and who isn’t making too much sense (of course, that could also be Martin Sheen).
But it is also a place that is filled with what we Christians call the Holy Spirit. This is evident in the faces of the poor who are there. To believers, they are the face of Christ. The gospel choir, led by Denyce Daniels, sings some of the best, most soulful gospel in Washington, and often I’ve had to fight back tears hearing them sing. Denyce’s husband, Deacon Willis Daniels, loves the Lord as much as any human being possibly could. This all takes place at the 9:30 am Mass on Sunday, which, until January 16, was held in a gritty basement below the much more resplendent upper church. In order to attract more people, the 9:30 Mass has moved to the upper church. Or rather, back to the upper church — the 9:30 Mass moved down there in the 1970s when renovations were being done upstairs, and when the upper church was ready people were reluctant to move back. The congregation seemed divided about the move, with some saying that intimacy will be lost moving to the larger space and others arguing that things downstairs had gotten too loose and it was time, as one woman told me, for “real church.”
I first went to Mass at “St. Al’s” a couple years ago. I’m an orthodox Catholic and regularly attend the traditional Latin Mass at Mary Mother of God in Chinatown, and my intention in going to St. Al’s was to see what nonsense the lefties were up to. The left took the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s as a signal to make worship all about themselves; they ignored the actual documents of Vatican II, the ones that spelled out what was and was not allowed, and pretty soon priests were doing comedy routines during Mass and folkies were inflicting “Kumbaya” on us. Yet even worse were the parishes that took some weak middle course. They made some changes to the Mass, such as letting the priest face the people, but tried to make sure the music, which was often the best part of the liberal Mass, didn’t get too lively. What you ended up with was the modern Mass, often a confusing and dreary 45 minutes of middle-ground mush that needs to be endured rather than enjoyed.
For many of us, the alternative to this is the traditional Latin Mass. At a Latin Mass, there is a powerful sense of awe and respect for God. Women wear head coverings, and the priest faces away from the congregation and towards God. The music is classical or Gregorian chant. Social justice, yeah, whatever — as a sinner, your primary job is to, as Pope Benedict once phrased it, conquer yourself. And the facts indicate that, in the modern world of a toxic culture, this truly countercultural approach is popular. One of the reasons that the 9:30 Mass at St. Aloysius has had to move is that in order to survive, the parish needs to gain members. They are running out of Jesuits to say Mass, because they are running out of Jesuits — even as the more orthodox seminaries thrive. In the age of internet porn and 40 percent of babies being aborted in New York City, people are turning towards not just freedom, but authentic freedom, which is a much different thing. To achieve authentic freedom, a person needs to be broken a little bit. They realize what George Weigel once noted — that every yes necessarily means saying no to ten other things. Anybody in the world can call for social justice and an end to war and more day care centers. But these things often don’t allow the exhilaration of the tough decisions that help a person grow in virtue and cast off in what Richard John Neuhaus called “the high adventure of orthodoxy.”
Still, for years I kept hearing about how fantastic the music was at St. Aloysius, and a couple years ago I decided to drop in. The Commie Mass did not disappoint: at one point kids gathered on the altar and carried the Bible off somewhere, and the “sign of peace,” which in most Masses is a chance to take 15 seconds to offer peace to your neighbor, dissolved into a happy hour with people wandering all over the place hugging each other, and the prayer intentions were a combination of AA meeting, liberal consciousness-raising seminar, and the Communist Manifesto.
Yet there was also felt, and felt powerfully, the spirit of belief — real belief, not the kind you get in the Washington suburbs where people like Chris Matthews pray for their kids to get into Harvard. The great priest and author Fr. Benedict Groeschel always talks about the depth of belief in black America — he always will preface it with a disclaimer for PC purposes, but then delivers the same message: if you want to see real faith, go to church with black people. They have suffered. They know what it means to rely on God when all else has failed. St. Al’s has a large black membership, and for me it was the example of their deep faith, fellowship, and authentic love that made me begin to warm to the place. They were also the ones who rolled their eyes a little when a white liberal from the suburbs launched into a tirade about America the Great Satan. My disappointment was that there was not enough emphasis in the church as a whole on the terrible genocide of abortion. It’s a common blind spot amongst liberals: they can see the workings of Christian social justice in the long journey out of slavery — indeed the basement church at St. Al’s exists because during segregation it is where blacks were forced to worship — but cannot see the pro-life movement as the same fight to defend a class of people who have been deemed disposable. I went to Mass at St. Al’s on Martin Luther King’s birthday weekend, and there was no talk of abortion. And why should they? After all, King was once honored by Planned Parenthood — the group whose founder, Margaret Sanger, was a eugenicist who wanted to eliminate the “inferior races.”
The schism in the Catholic Church, which is why you can attend two completely different services an hour and two miles apart, is there because we are still arguing over the nature of Jesus. For the conservatives, he is mercy, yes, but also Justice and Truth. If he was all social justice and mercy, there would have been no need for him to die. For the liberals, Jesus is the outcast who was with the people, for joy, and fellowship and friendliness — oh, and universal health care. Part of what the Catholic Church is trying to figure out is which Jesus the Mass will celebrate. For me, both are the truth. There is truth and beauty and the love — and justice — of Christ at the St. Al’s service and at the Latin Mass. What needs to go, and quickly, is the terrible middle-way Mass that has been punishing Catholics for the past 40 years. I just can’t sing those songs anymore.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.