Caveat: This article is not an indictment of religion or religious people. Although I am not religious, there are many aspects of religion that I appreciate and the spiritual nature of my Jesuit education is deeply ingrained in me.
A few weeks ago, my aunt sent me a text message telling me to come to a mass that would be held in memory of both my mother and grandmother, who died 10-years ago this year.
It wasn’t really a make-it-if-you-can suggestion so much as it was a setup for the guilt I would receive should I choose not to go.
Aside from a couple of weddings — including my own, which was a private ceremony to appease our families prior to our public outdoor wedding — the last time I entered a church must have been around the time of my mother’s funeral.
I knew I could not escape this mass, though, and ultimately chose to dress my kids up and head to St. Monica’s in South Philly for the 10 a.m. service.
As I walked through the stained glass doors, I remembered just how beautiful the elaborate church was, from the attention to detail in the architecture to the ornate paintings on the ceiling. When I saw my family taking up three rows of the church, I felt a sense of relief. This was a beautiful place and I was happy to have an excuse for all of my family to gather.
I sat down and the priest announced that the mass was being held in honor of my mother and grandmother. I was glad I went.
As the mass began, those sentiments began to dwindle. The priest’s messages felt like targeted advertising, hoping to appeal to its parishioners on a number of different levels. When we were asked to pray for the deceased, it was emphasized, “especially for our benefactors.”
I waited to hear the names of my relatives for whom this mass was being dedicated. Instead, I was asked to pray for the dead who gave lots of money to the church.
The priest preached humility, living simply, and diminishing the gap between the haves and have-nots. Yet there we were, in a ridiculously oversized church that was filled with gold and priceless art and was easily worth millions of dollars.
As a grade schooler, my parents made me an altar boy at St. Monica’s. I assisted with every 6 a.m. mass during the weekdays and the late mass on Sunday nights. I saw every room in that church and the rectory behind it. It was gorgeous.
Our spiritual moderator, a priest, who always drove new Cadillacs, was one day arrested for buying cocaine off an under cover cop in North Philadelphia.
I did not feel the humility, nor did I witness simple living and there certainly was nothing that indicated a diminishing gap between the rich and the poor.
As the old Italian ushers walked up and down the aisles to twice collect money from the parishioners, I noticed that most people did not give cash. They either wrote checks or gave money in one of the blue, church-distributed envelopes with their names and addresses written on them.
I suddenly recalled that my parents did the same thing when they took us to church as a kid. I asked my dad why. He said it was so that the church knew who the money came from, as if he was unconsciously buying some sort of indulgence and inching closer to heaven.
Once a year, the priests would walk door-to-door within the parish boundaries accompanied by an altar boy to hit the parishioners up for more money. I was one of the altar boys who would go around and help the priests.
Families would offer the priests gifts, food, and wine in addition to checks. By the end, the priest I usually accompanied, was barely able to walk straight or form sentences. I would have to run the show.
All of this came rushing back to me as I sat in the pew listening to the dichotomy of giving and humility in quite possibly the richest parish in Philadelphia.
I began to wonder how much it cost to keep up the church, why those who ran the church did not decide to perhaps sell off some of the elaborate and unnecessary elements in the building to help diminish that rich/poor gap within the parish and have a simpler, humbler church.
Mostly, though, I wondered how much my family paid to have the names of my mother and grandmother briefly mentioned at the beginning of mass instead of deciding to go to the cemetery in the beautiful weather where we could spend time together in the presence of the loved ones that we lost.