|St. Mary Help of Christians, Aiken, SC|
There was a large crowd gathered outside the church when we pulled up (one of our parishioners kindly offered to accompany and drive) in front of the church. The clergy were gathering in a room in the school, and at the beginning of the service, processed up to the doors, where the head of the building committee, along with Fr. Wilson, greeted Bishop Guglielmone of Charleston, presented him with plans for the building, and the key. The Bishop unlocked the doors, and the choir started a hymn as the procession into the new church began.
It was just breathtakingly beautiful inside. There's a lot of room for growth of course -- the stained glass, the ceiling, plenty of room for more art, statues, etc ... but just walking in, one knew this was a sacred space, a temple dedicated to the honor and glory of almighty God. The elegant baldachin gleamed over the beautiful altar straight ahead, while the golden Tabernacle stood empty and open behind it, waiting to receive the Lord. One knows immediately upon entering what the focal point of the church is, what its purpose is, and what takes place here.
The clergy processed in, making no sign of reverence to the as yet unconsecrated altar, and empty Tabernacle. and filed into the choir stalls (yes, choir stalls!) on either side of the altar. As the 1000 or so strong crowd filed in, a very natural hubbub arose, as people took filled the pews, and the aisles. The Bishop said a prayer, and the choir started chanting the Vidi Aquam, and immediately the atmosphere changed. A hush fell. Folks shifted and moved, internally and externally, to an attitude of prayer. A beautiful reminder, right there, of the power of chant, of true sacred music, to focus our attention on things of heaven, to move us to adoration and veneration.
The Rite of dedication went off smoothly. The Bishop anointed the altar generously with sacred chrism, and he and the pastor then anointed the walls of the new church. Relics were placed underneath the altar (first class relics of St. Andre Besset and of the Apostles!), the candles were lit, and the Holy Sacrifice was offered. After the distribution of Holy Communion, everyone knelt and adored as the remaining Hosts were incensed, while the Tantum Ergo was chanted. The sanctuary lamp was lowered and lit by a deacon.
The music at the Mass was superb. Clearly the choir had done a lot of hard work. That a parish choir, under the direction of an able choir master, can offer beautiful and worthy sacred music for the liturgy, is not a pipe-dream or a fantasy. It requires direction and investment from the pastor and the parish, of course. But it can be done. The choir was in the choir loft, not in the front, which can (and often does), distract from the central focus of the Mass. There was no amplification -- the sound was natural, and filled the entire building.
|Detail of the altar|
|A statue from the 1940s, by a local artist.|
|An old discarded candlestick, restored to sacred use|
There was such an atmosphere of jubilation and praise. The people were rightly proud of their efforts, and immensely thankful to almighty God, and their patroness, Our Lady, under the title of Help of Christians. Fr. Wilson takes a lot of credit for his able leadership. And there was, of course, the hard work and sacrifice of so many, over many years. My friends in the parish have been talking about this day and looking forward to it for ages.
A new church if of course always a sign of hope -- hope for all the future generations who will be baptized here, married here, buried here. A sign of hope in the Lord and his provident care. However, a beautiful new church in our day and time is a sign of hope that perhaps finally, the era of corrosive iconoclasm has passed, that we are discovering continuity with the greater tradition of Christian art, architecture, life. May it be so!
This magnificent new temple is also, of course, also at the service of the "living stones," the living temples of the Holy Spirit, that are the faithful of this parish. The central act of the Christian life, of the Church, is the worship of almighty God. In this temple, also, the faithful will hear the Word of God, and receive the Sacraments of new life, especially the Most Blessed Eucharist, and they will be transformed, and go out and invite others to salvation, to eternal life, that is to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He sent (John 17:3).
|The beautiful Stations of the Cross|