“If you don’t like the rules of the Catholic Church, leave.”
We’ve all heard that admonition before, and many dissenting Catholics left the Church long ago. Others have stayed, hoping for eventual change.
But dozens and dozens have found what they call a transforming, small “c” catholic experience in the Currier and Ives town of Dover, a half hour outside of Boston, at the small, independent, 16-year-old Grace Church.
There, all are welcome at the eucharist, whether divorced, remarried, or gay. There, Catholics disillusioned by Church politics — or just tired of uninspiring Masses and ho-hum sermons — have discovered, in the words of parishioner Bernie Kane, a Sunday morning worship service that leaves you “with a high.”
Michaela Carlin, a life-long observant Catholic, a wife and mother of three, remembers the first time she slipped into a pew at Grace Church with her teen-aged daughter. “Honest to God, instantly we both felt such a presence, a wonderful warm presence.” Both got a bit teary. “It was, ‘excuse me, can you pass the Kleenex please?’ ”
Bernie Kane’s wife of nearly 60 years, Marie, 84, is a mother of nine, grandmother of 27, and lifelong devout Catholic always active in previous parishes. “But I have a relationship with Jesus now that I never did before coming here. This place,” she said, “really feeds our soul.”
This is what you find at Grace Church: a rare enthusiasm about Sunday Mass, as if you were talking about a Broadway hit instead of a liturgy. And if you closed your eyes last Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday, at 10 a.m. in this small chapel, you’d think you were at a traditional Sunday Mass. You’d hear almost the same prayers, almost the same order of the Mass.
But the mood and feel was so different: intimate, casual, friendly. Parishioners knew each other, hugged each other, chatted pew to pew before the service. As Mass began, pastor Peter DiSanto, a married priest in collar and traditional vestments, walked up and down the aisle swinging that metal censer filled with sweet-smelling incense. Then came his wife Amy, ordained a priest here at Grace Church. She sprinkled congregants with holy water.
Then Marie Kane took to the podium to recite not only the first two readings, but also the gospel itself, an act forbidden for a layperson.
Peter DiSanto’s sermon lasted a half hour, far longer than is typical at Mass. Yet it flew by, covering everything from The Big Game to Ground Hog Day to a scripture-based consideration of the evils that keep us from living our most abundant lives. He meant not just the big, bad 10 Commandment sins, but also the everyday, workaday envies and jealousies, the coveting and grasping, even workaholism — preoccupations that bind us and drive us crazy and keep us from being free.
Amy DiSanto followed with a meditation on his homily, asking congregants to pray to be able to “let go of fears, worries, doubts,” to be free to trust in God, whose “goodness conquers all darkness.” Later she rang the altar bells, which some of us can remember as “bells and smells” Mass staples pre-Vatican II.
All this took place in a small church, room for about 125. The DiSantos built it themselves, next door to their home, with thick pine beams, stained glass windows from a closed Lowell parish, and a light-filled downstairs gathering space where 30 or 40 parishioners headed for coffee, kale soup, and fresh breads after Communion. Such “fellowship” is common at Protestant churches, not so much at Catholic parishes, where most parishioners head straight out the door for their cars.
It was downstairs where I heard the stories of why people come to Grace Church. Some go to daily Mass at their own parish and come here Sundays because, they say, it’s spiritually richer. Some come because they’re divorced and denied Communion in their parish. One man bristled at the announcements his old parish priest would make weekly before Communion: “Only Roman Catholics in good standing can receive the Eucharist.”
They’re familiar tales of disillusionment. Parents unable to reconcile to teen-agers their allegiance to a Church that treats women and gays as second-class human beings. Parents stunned when a priest denied their baby baptism because they married outside the Church. Grown children disgusted by tussles with pastors over strict funeral rules dictating how they can eulogize their own mother or father.
Michaela Carlin said she and her family did not want to leave the Church. But neither did they want to leave Mass every Sunday “feeling spiritually empty, and not the good kind of spiritual emptiness,” she said. “Grace Church is completely different. You go and hear someone speak to what’s relevant in the everyday; you feel your faith growing deeper.” Now her husband and children are regulars.
Amy DiSanto says she does want “to come across like we’re bashing Catholicism, because we’re not. That’s our foundation. Without our Catholic heritage, we have nothing. Did it sadden us to leave the Church? Yes it did.” But given their differences with the Church on so many issues — from married priests to birth control to barring the faithful from Communion — she and Peter believed it better to move on and establish a church that’s less about rules and more about helping people “know God better, feel as though they’re important to God, that they are loved.”
Yet there’s no denying that a large part of the attraction of Grace Church, which now counts about 300 members, is the DiSantos themselves. They’re smart, charismatic, and able to attract and grow a congregation in a way that’s nearly impossible for the American Catholic Church. It can barely attract new priests and hold onto the faithful who remain.
Some Catholics are no doubt horrified at the notion of Mass as performance. But optics and spiritual uplift matter, and Grace Church congregants are hardly unique in complaining about boring liturgies, crabby pastors, and off-key singing. Even Pope Francis, in the “Joy of the Gospel,” writes of lackluster homilies.
Bernie Kane, now closing in on an unusually spry 88, said he and his wife are no rabble-rousing revolutionaries looking to upend Church teachings. “We love our Catholic Church. We’ll always love our Catholic Church.” But in their particular Catholic parish, said Marie, “We were no longer being fed. We knew there had to be something more. We came here. We felt like we had come home.”