Tuesday, April 6, 2010

St. Stephens is a Parish in Transition: Catholic Tradition Reborn

Many of the members of this troubled inner city parish have left it for the suburbia of protestantism. It's part of an overall transformation going on in the Church where things that haven't worked seem to be getting replaced by things that have always worked, but were ill-used and discarded, like the High Altar that once graced this lovely Neo-Gothic edifice in the midst of post-modern decay and housed Minneapolis' finest and most Catholic families.

Father Williams won't deny it, he's definitely running behind, but Latinos are now making up the difference both in numbers and fervour, where the dwindling Irish and English descendants have mostly left. But Father Williams isn't exactly deterred by this, he's looking for a High Altar. You might think this bodes well for tradition and we'd like to think it does; for Father has trained in the Immemorial Mass of all ages, but says he likes to say the Mass according to the New Rite, however, he's a big fan of JRR Tolkien and has no doubt read Tolkien's thoughts on the matter.

In any event, the Immemorial Mass isn't a preference, nor should it be a cause for division, Father Williams has a very kindly demeanor and suffers fools gladly. He is even liked by his visible opponents who've left the Church to found their own social-justice community nearby. Not to be too naive, but there's hope in this as there is hope in the Catholic Faith, that no matter how terrible things seem, there is a game at play we only dimly understand but will be filled with Joy one day to see it in its fullness when we persevere in the truth.

Father Joseph Williams came to St. Stephen’s in April. “Some people said I was hand-picked by the bishops to dismantle the church. If I was, they didn’t tell me about it.”

By JON TEVLIN, Star Tribune

Father Joseph Williams came "from the farm to the hood" less than a year ago, to a congregation in a spiritual crisis and a neighborhood riddled with poverty and crime. He is only 34, but as he sits in a low-ceilinged office in the basement of St. Stephen's Catholic Church, it seems like the weight of the 110-year-old structure, and the centuries-old institution itself, sit squarely on his shoulders.

When Williams arrived in April, there were 350 families at the church, maybe more. On a recent Sunday, during the only remaining mass in English, coughs echoed off the empty pews as a couple of dozen people mumbled through the service.

That's it, he said.

The rest have fled, or just given up.

Williams, under the direction of a new pope and new archbishop, has steered one of the country's most liberal churches in a more orthodox direction. No more services in the "egalitarian" school gym. No more laity saying mass or celebrating the eucharist. No more prayers to "our father and mother in heaven."

The collection plate is down 90 percent. This spring, the priest who not long ago led a congregation in an idyllic small town, will tell the charter school known for a peace-and-justice curriculum that it must go because the church needs more rent.

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