Maybe you have noticed the Twitter storm regarding Father Michael White’s recent blog post. Father White is the pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland. Nativity is an incredible place and I haven’t seen anything like it across the country. There is a lot of negativity circling around online recently and I would like to offer my insider thoughts….
Have you read Rebuilt?
I have. I read it as quickly as I could get my hands on it mainly because I worked at Nativity for the summers of 2005 and 2006 as a youth ministry intern and I was hired as the Director of Children’s Ministry in 2007. I didn’t stay long because my heart was truly in serving teens and a position opened up for me at my high school Alma Mater as well as pursuing a Master’s degree. Needless to say, my exit from Nativity was abrupt and I was incredibly nervous my name or at least my story would have been a chapter in Rebuilt.
Nativity has successfully built a parish centered on making an irresistible environment on the weekend. As Father White would say to us, “It’s all about the weekend!” The weekend experience for someone coming to Mass needed to be engaging, attractive, comfortable, and even spiritually challenging. All of this I believe to be in line with the New Evangelization and what is necessary to bring Catholics into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and to engage fallen away Catholics.
However, the perception of this can be very odd. When I was working at Nativity, Tom Corcoran was recording informational CD’s for parishioners titled, “Why We’re Weird.” It was very helpful for longtime parishioners to understand why changes were being made to parish life such as a cafe serving coffee and donuts after Mass, no longer printing a bulletin but having all communications online, a nursery for children under age three etc. How many times is a change implemented in a parish with little to no explanation whatsoever?
You can read a little bit about Nativity’s children’s programming on their website but the main take away that I received when I read Rebuilt was:
“If you do something for my kids, you do something for me.”
As a former Director of Children’s Ministry, a former leader of Vacation Bible School, and a former Catholic school Assistant Principal, that statement is absolutely TRUE. I have seen so many adults return to a relationship with Christ and a church home because of their child’s positive experience with faith. I believe that advice is dead on and not embraced enough in Catholic parishes. How many times have you been scolded as a parent in a Catholic Church by those sitting around you? Have you ever been scolded by the ushers? How about by the parish staff? Because I have experienced all of that and it’s devastating.
Have you been to Mass there?
So my next question is….have you ever been to Nativity? I used to love attending Nativity as a single, young adult. The music is top notch, pretty much Hillsong quality. The preaching by Father White (most weeks) is convicting and easily applicable to daily life struggles. The atmosphere is energetic and uplifting. There are greeters at every door, there are parking ministers directing traffic, there is a gorgeous cafe that has free coffee and lemonade after every Mass. Oh and did I mention, there is a sign on campus as you pull up that welcomes you and if you are elderly, handicapped, pregnant, or have young children you can put on your flashers and the parking ministers will direct your car to the front row!
I mention this because the atmosphere is infectious at Nativity, you can’t deny it. Everyone WANTS to be there. You don’t experience the grump who is upset you sat in his pew. You don’t see eye rolls when Stewardship Sunday comes up. And the youth ministry programs are PACKED with teens. Enjoy one of their Worship nights:
I loved attending Mass at Nativity as a young adult except for a few items that made me uncomfortable:
- The lack of kneelers in the pews in the old church (which has now been rectified since they built the new sanctuary in 2017)
- The amount of people that used to “watch” Mass on the TV’s stationed around the cafe and narthex (also has been eliminated since new church was built)
- And finally the co-homilies when Father White and a lay person would tag team. I found this to be very concerning and had brought it to Father White’s attention personally. There seemed to be a work around for many years after I left, when the priest would give a short homily based on the Scripture readings and then a lay person would stand up after communion to give a teaching. This format was somewhat more acceptable to me liturgically; however, it felt like a forced prayer meeting experience wherein a lot of people just left after communion and to be honest none of the lay person’s teachings exceeded Father’s White’s homilies in my opinion. That is my personal opinion because I am sure many Catholics around me had never seen a lay person speak with passion about their faith or reflect with a depth of knowledge on the Scriptures. But growing up in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, that was a weekly occurrence for me as a child.
What went wrong with the Blog Post?
A lot. My first reaction when I read it was…why didn’t he mention the cry room? When Nativity built their new sanctuary, they also invested in a beautiful cry room area behind glass that overlooks the sanctuary. There are restrooms with changing tables right beside the seating. There is an elevator that transports you from the first floor to the loft which also made this easily accessibly with strollers and wheelchairs. There is signage that points you to the cry room if you hadn’t already been greeted by a host minister to escort you there personally. And finally, what I loved the most was the Eucharistic Minister who comes to the cry room to distribute communion which I have not experienced in any other Catholic cry room. They always seem to come with the collection basket to the cry room, but not to bring communion…..Hmmmmm.
Secondly, his tone is condescending and I fully relate to the outcry online as a response. As a mother of young children who strives daily to raise my kids Catholic, the last thing we want to hear is parenting advice, let alone admonishment. I will never forget when I was 8 months pregnant hauling it up to the choir loft of another parish with my 2 year old in tow a little bit late to Mass, and the organist walked over to me and said, “You know the Mass started at 10:45?” and then looked down at his watch teasing me. And then continued to say, “And don’t forget the choir loft carries the sound of children far worse than if you stood in the back downstairs.” My heart starts beating wildly and I practically laugh/cry remembering that moment when I looked directly in his eyes and said, “You should be happy I’m even here.” I have also served on a Parish Council that was attempting to place a Mass Manners pamphlet in the pews that listed a slew of offensive comments regarding parenting, dress code, and body language in Mass. Thankfully, I worked diligently to have that shredded. But the intention was pure…people don’t truly know what’s going on at Mass. Adults and children included. They do not know the miracle taking place before them and people like me (theology degree and all) need to be reminded and encouraged in our worship at Mass! So when it comes to kids, do I think the answer to poor catechesis for decades is a Mass Manners pamphlet or Nativity’s kids programming?
The answer is Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
My daughter has been attending Atrium since she was 2.5 years old. Those first 2.5 years of parenting and trying to attend Mass as a family were incredibly difficult. My local parish does not have a cry room, they actually don’t even have a narthex. When your baby is fussy, where do you go? Outside the back doors to your car. There aren’t restrooms connected to the church. To be honest, it is a downright struggle and often ended in tears (Mom, Dad, and babies).
Then by the grace of God, a different parish in the area accepted my daughter into their Catechesis of the Good Shepherd religious education program. My daughter attends what she calls “Bible Class” once a week for an hour and a half. During Atrium, the children ages 3-5 are brought into an experience of learning about Jesus through a Montessori style of education. For example, they take off their shoes before entering the Atrium to show respect for the cleanliness and holiness of a Church interior. They take turns around the room at stations where they get to practice parts of the Mass or moments from the Scriptures. One of my daughter’s favorite activities at Atrium is to gently pour water into a cup from a cruet like the priest does at Mass when preparing the wine. Yes, my 2.5 year old was handed a glass cruet and didn’t break it. Atrium is a calming experience. The children chant songs of praise, they speak in soft tones of voice, and learn a deep reverence for the Lord and His Holy Church.
If you haven’t experienced CGS, there are Open House experiences at St. Ignatius in Hickory, Maryland which you can find on their website.
And to wrap up with my point. My daughter is now angelic during Mass and she is turning 4 this week. She sits quietly and follows along with her children’s missal. She even will whisper questions in my ear about the readings/homily. She loves to light a candle after Mass and to talk to the priest or any religious sisters in attendance. Mass is a joy for our family and I owe all of that to CGS. And I can’t wait until my 2 year old son starts attending Atrium because he still keeps us on our toes. 🙂
I write this to affirm that children do belong in Mass, while at the same time, I do recognize Father White’s point (although poorly written). We are suffering as a Church. Mass attendance is plummeting, finances are bleak, Catholic schools and parishes are closing at an alarming rate. And WHY is that? Poor Catechesis. Hands down. Nativity is absolutely trying to do something different and you know what….it is working for a lot of people. And I do truly cherish the times we go to Mass there occasionally. As a Franciscan University of Steubenville graduate, I call it my “FOP shot in the arm”. The music is true, holy worship and I am so moved every time. And just so you know, we have come down from the cry room and/or pulled our kids out of the nursery to go into the sanctuary at the end of Mass to dance in the aisle to the incredible worship song. I haven’t been kicked out ye
A response has been posted to the Pastor’s Blog which you can read here.
It’s important to note two things:
- I’m disappointed a woman’s voice was not included in this conversation.
- I have had multiple conversations over the past 10 days with Catholic priests and Catholic parents…almost everyone agrees that they would invite an unchurched family, a single parent, a fallen away Catholic, (and the list can go on) to Mass….but possibly not at their local parish. They would definitely invite them to Nativity.