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52 Masses: What it Means

Welcome to 52 Masses. Thanks for joining me.

My name is Daniel Markham. I’m a lifelong practicing Catholic who worships at Nativity of Our Savior Parish in Portage, Indiana. I have also been writing professionally for almost 30 years. Sometime soon, these two biographical data points will collide.

Once our country is operating more normally following the devastation of COVID-19, I plan to attend Sunday Mass in each of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. At each parish I visit, I will write about something going on there, a short profile of the many interesting and inspiring people and endeavors in the Catholic Church in the United States. Upon completion of my year-long trip, the journey will be chronicled in the book, 52 Masses.

These won’t necessarily be groundbreaking types of stories – merely interesting ones. It’s my assertion that every parish has at least one story to tell, if not many. Every day, Catholics across the country are doing amazing things, putting their faith into action in innumerable ways. The hope is that through this collection of stories, I can paint a broader picture of life in the Catholic Church in 2021.

Here, I’ll update the progress of the book over the next two years, then chronicle highlights of the trip as it takes place. I welcome any and all to join me, with thoughts, comments and suggestions. I hope to have many of you accompany me on this journey, at least in the digital sense.

Vaccines Work, in More Ways than One

On Sunday, while my wife stayed home still feeling punchy from her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, I did a solo trip to St. Gerald in Oak Lawn for Mass. Nothing unusual about that, we’ve become regulars at the 9:15 a.m. liturgy since we moved across the state line at the end of July last year.
I certainly wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary on the third Sunday of Lent. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered – the pews nearly packed, or at least as packed as COVID-19 rules will allow.
Since I started returning to in-person Mass last summer at my previous parish, attendance everywhere I’ve gone has consistently fallen well short of even the limited capacity. Good seats were always available.
Not this past Sunday. A rough estimate suggests about 50 percent more people were in attendance than the previous week. I hadn’t seen that many people in church since the pandemic began, including this past year’s Christmas Mass, which brings out the otherwise occupied.
What could account for the difference? Sure, the weather was nicer than it had been through most of February, but not any better than it was the prior Sunday. The only explanation that really made sense to me was the fact COVID cases were going down and, more important, inoculations were going up. I reckon people are finally feeling a little more comfortable going to Mass, more certain they will either avoid catching the coronavirus or unwittingly spreading it.
I dearly hope this trend continues. I imagine there are many in the faith who have worried this yearlong removal from regular Mass attendance could become permanent, as people fell out of the habit of the weekly commitment. I hope the opposite is true, that being deprived of the Eucharist for so long has reminded Catholics of the joy that comes from attending weekly Mass.
Sunday’s service, even with masks and other social-distancing protocols still in effect, gives me hope it’s the latter.

Deer Me

This post is quite far removed from my ordinary efforts here, but I’m kind of starved for content given the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Couple the pandemic with the protests, some of which have turned violent, over the tragic, unnecessary death of George Floyd, and finding cause for optimism at the moment has been difficult.

Under those circumstances, I thought it fitting to link to this little bit experience I shared with my my wife this past Saturday, a reminder that if nothing else, we can still marvel at the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.

This past Saturday was a spectacular weather day, mostly clear and warm with an intermittent breeze that provided well-timed relief when the sun’s heat got too feisty. Kem and I used the conditions to venture outside, heading south to Charlestown, Indiana, and our first visit to the state park located there. Heck, our first visit anywhere in quite some time.

Charlestown State Park is a nifty place with a rather interesting history. The main site is the location of the former Indiana Army Ammunition Plant. Our ultimate destination in the park was Rose Island, once an amusement park and a popular getaway for Louisvillians a century ago.

A path steeper than Mandarin’s learning curve takes you to the Portersville Bridge, a camelback truss that once connected Daviess and Dubois counties in southwestern Indiana that has since been relocated to the other side of the state. The bridge crosses the Motown-flavored Fourteen Mile Creek to Rose Island, which is actually a peninsula named Devil’s Backbone. (All of these glorious monikers are just more reminders at how much we’ve devolved when it comes to naming stuff. Today, I’m sure, it would be branded Papa John’s Island on Fifth Third Peninsula).

There isn’t much left of the old park, which was hammered by the Great Depression then wiped out by the Great Flood of 1937, the latter an event that took the Ohio River a staggering 57 feet above flood stage. A few concrete piers, some cool arches and the filled-in former swimming pool are about all that remains of the park. The hotel and dance hall are but a memory, with most of the site reclaimed by nature, as nature is so relentless in doing.

Speaking of nature…

While walking on the trail that takes visitors near the adjacent Ohio River, we happened upon a fawn, a young deer that couldn’t have been more than a few days old. We froze, then watched in awe as it got back up on its spindly legs, Pinocchio-style, and walked straight toward us, not the least bit afraid of the strange, slack-jawed creatures towering above.

Eventually, the fawn stopped right at our feet. We then realized a group of hikers behind us had a large dog in tow, and we worried how the dog might respond to this terribly frail creature, particularly if the canine noticed the young deer before its human companions. We stood between the hikers and the fawn – which Kem retroactively named Fran – to caution them and another dog-walking pack behind them. Regrettably, we might have even breached our social distancing protocols in the process. Fortunately, both of the dogs were quite well behaved, and their Homo sapien friends were almost as disciplined.

As the lot of us kicked around thoughts on what should be done, Kem and I decided to continue along the trail, hoping the young deer would venture back into the woods. That wasn’t Fran’s plan. Much to our surprise, the fawn followed us, and not for just a few feet. For almost 200 yards, Fran bopped along behind us, never letting us get too far ahead despite the obvious fact it was still breaking in the new hooves. This was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and doubt I ever will again. It was not an example of nature in the reclamation process; rather it was wildlife getting its hooks in us from the get-go, with me and Kem powerless against it. We stopped again, flummoxed how to handle the situation. Ultimately, one of the groups behind us decided to move the fawn off the trail, where we hope it was able to reunite with the doe that was undoubtedly nearby, watching us with a mother’s scornful eye.

She wouldn’t have been the only one baring her motherly instincts. I’m sure Kem will someday forgive me for not letting her take Fran home with us, but it will be awhile.

Alas, as my web site host doesn’t allow me to post video, you can see proof of the event on my Facebook page below. It’s most definitely worth the effort.

https://www.facebook.com/dan.markham.37/posts/10207724500988196?notif_id=1591368749025277&notif_t=feedback_reaction_generic

Honk if you love Christ

Sunday, we returned to our cars at Nativity of Our Savior.

When my home parish was founded in 1965, we had no church building. Instead, the Catholics in our rapidly growing city held weekly drive-in services at the Portage Mall (think the National Mall, rather than the Mall of America).

I was not around then, but many of our parishioners hold fond memories of those DIY days. So when the novel coronavirus wiped out in-person church services throughout Indiana this week, those long-time parishioners called for a return to our roots.

Which is what led to a hundred or so parishioners sitting in their cars at the church today, our radios tuned into an FM station to listen to Father Kevin lead Mass inside. Heritage Mass, we labeled it. Others stayed home, watching the Mass on the parish’s Facebook page.

These are most unusual times, certainly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. With apologies to 9/11, my suspicion is the COVID-19 outbreak will become the defining communal experience of our lives.

As a Catholic, I’m hopeful our inability to worship publicly reminds of us its enduring value, and leads to a jolt of renewed attendance when we get on the backside of this pandemic. Likewise, I hope the fear and concern we’re all experiencing now serve as a catalyst to sincere prayer. The world desperately needs as much as it can get right now.

St. Anthony of Padua’s Town

It’s funny what you don’t know because you never gave it any thought before. That described a lot of San Antonio, to me, before the past three days.

A work conference took me to San Antonio, the Texas city most known as the site of the Alamo. But the city’s connection to Catholicism dates not only dates back before its setting for the most famous losing battles on American soil, but includes that site as well.

Before serving as a fortress during the Texas Revolution, The Alamo was built as a Catholic mission, one of five in the downtown area. San Antonio was founded as a Spanish mission city, and was named after Saint Anthony of Padua. It seems pretty obvious in retrospect.

My non-work itinerary took me not just to the downtown area (where I stopped in at St. Joseph Church, built by a wave of German immigrants to the city), but also to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, a church west of the downtown area. By good fortune, the conference schedule allowed me to attend one of the nightly masses at the beautiful church.

Top three photos from the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica Catholic Church.
A statue of St. Anthony of Padua sitting alongside the famed River Walk.
The Alamo, which began life as Mision San Antonio de Valero.
Bottom three photos are from St. Joseph Church in downtown San Antonio.