Rather than concelebrate the Paschal Vigil this past Easter, I decided to attend the service at a local church to experience this solemnity from the pews. I checked the times for the nearest churches just over the Massachusetts line from Woonsocket.
The two Blackstone parishes scheduled their vigils at 7:30 pm; Millville was listed at 8pm and Uxbridge at 7pm. Selected for the early hour, my choice of St. Mary’s Church, Uxbridge, turned out to be heartening as well as opportune. St. Mary’s Church, a bright, substantial, Norman Gothic edifice, is tastefully appointed, respectfully traditional yet liturgically current. The congregation filled two-thirds of the nave. Choristers and instrumentalists filled one transept; a generous baptismal font occupied the other. Two baptisms and confirmations of young adults were scheduled. A generous number of servers assisted the deacon and the pastor.
The vigil began with the blessing of the Easter fire and candle at the door of the church.
The congregation received the Easter flame as the procession wended its way to the sanctuary. The Exultet was nicely chanted. The vigil readings were clearly spoken and the responses adeptly sung.
The pace was deliberate but not delayed. The Gloria introduced full illumination to the church as servers lit the sanctuary’s numerous candles.
The service of the Word concluded with the pastor’s homily suggesting that, thanks to the resurrection, the Church, as it were, has become the body of Christ and now Christians must do his work.
The sacraments were administered to the young people with clear invocations and responses. The congregation welcomed them with sustained applause. The parishioners renewed their own baptismal vows, amply sprinkled with Easter water.
The Eucharistic gifts were prepared, incensed, and consecrated, again in a very measured and deliberate manner. Both the Body and Blood of Christ were reverently offered during the Communion rite. The ministers met the congregation at the church door as the one hour and fifty minute service concluded.
The reader is probably considering that the above information is available in the pages of any missalette and was probably witnessed by many subscribers to the Rhode Island Catholic in their own parish churches. And frankly I hope it was. The vigil service at St. Mary’s, Uxbridge, followed exactly the ritual outlined in the Roman Missal. No ceremony was neglected nor was any novelty introduced. The ministers “did the red and said the black,” referring to the ceremonial directions printed in red and the authorized prayers printed in black in the Roman Missal. In other words, the pastor and staff at St. Mary church let the rite speak for itself. The instructive teaching from God’s Word and the timeless beauty of the Church’s liturgy contain their own message. The Scriptures were read distinctly, re-enforced by a paced arrival and departure from the lectern. The Gospel was proclaimed solemnly with incense and candles. The sermon did not upstage the Word. The singers and musicians supported but never supplanted the liturgy. The somewhat complicated celebration of baptism and confirmation during Mass was adroitly administered. The Eucharistic and Communion rites were all “by the book” but meaningfully and conscientiously celebrated.
I left Uxbridge sensing that I had just taken part in something much larger than an Easter festival in south-central Massachusetts. The two thousand year history of the Catholic Church was present in St. Mary’s parish that evening enshrined in the ever-ancient, ever-new rite celebrated from the Roman Missal. The thirty-five hundred year Judeao-Christian tradition was there that night thanks to the earnest reading of the Holy Scriptures. Christ himself was truly present in that church certainly in the hearts of the faithful assembled to commemorate the Resurrection but most reassuringly and explicitly in His sacred Body and Blood made real on the altar through the solemn words of the ordained priest.
The sometimes loosely constructed and spontaneously developed ceremonies that some Catholics have endured over the past fifty years might have been instantly gratifying and momentarily engaging. But authentic liturgy is first of all respectful of sources and only then appropriately amplified by local touches, tastes and talents. Too often the latter have overshadowed the former. Liturgy that stems from the church’s roots will bear the most effective fruit in a believer’s life.