Sunday, August 14, 2011

Church of the Blessed Sacrament

I'm in an odd position of being a non-Catholic with a substantial background in Catholicism. I attended Catholic school (despite having been raised Lutheran) for three years. My mother worked as a teacher at that same school for several years. We had family friends who were nuns. To this day, I know many Catholics. One of my friends, a fellow former Peace Corps Volunteer, is a Jesuit priest. A rather odd piece of family trivia is that we received an official blessing from the late Pope John Paul II. In fact, we got it in writing. Since we are not Catholics, we assume it to be a clerical error; nevertheless, it exists.

When searching for a church to attend today, what mattered most was the start time. I was to hang out with my family in Orange County later in the morning, which meant I needed an early morning service. I normally prefer late worship, because I dislike all mornings on principle. But the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, a Catholic-Jesuit church at the foot of the Sunset Strip in Hollywood had a 7:30am mass. Let the nostalgia commence.
Allow me to state right from the get-go that the church itself is imposing and awe-inspiring. The walls are lined with massive mural depicting the stations of the cross (as a kid, I always felt this was a bit excessive, especially when we had to memorize them... first He was wrongly convicted, then He took up the cross, then He hit a Starbucks for a venti mocha, then He took a few steps, then He made a cash withdrawal at an ATM, then He took a few more steps...). The sanctuary itself could probably host an NFL expansion team if Los Angeles ever decided to go that route. However, it was running at perhaps a tenth of its capacity today. Worth noting that the interiors of most Catholic churches are imposing and awe-inspiring to me. Clearly time, thought, and attention were paid to their design. All too often, modern churches closely resemble a hotel or convention center ballroom, with stark walls and boring flat spaces. Catholics really tend to go a bit overboard on church design, and that is as it should be. You want a place that is going to feel different than other places. The expression may be "God is everywhere," but a church is "God's house," and that ought to feel special. And you ought to feel a lot less special when you walk inside.

Catholics know this already, but for the rest of you, a traditional mass is so steeped in -- well -- tradition that it has gone unchanged for decades. Once the Holy See granted permission for the liturgy to be performed in native languages as opposed to Latin, not much has changed. The structure is as it was in the 1980s when I attended weekly mass as a student at St. Louise De Merrilac in West Covina, CA. In fact, it was so nearly identical that I found myself entirely lost in the routine and lost all track of time. Aside from a few name changes (as a kid, John Paul II was the pope and Roger Mahoney was the bishop; now it is Benedict and Jose), the structure was easy to slip back into. As I did in a previous church review, I'd direct your attention to a comedian, in this case the late Richard Jeni's thoughts on mass, because he summed it up better than my humble words ever could:
Richard Jeni - Brought Up Catholic
JokesJoke of the DayFunny Jokes

I can't really go into specific detail about the mass I sat through today because there was nothing special about it. There was no homily to speak of; there were just a few words by the priest before each of the Bible readings. There was no music, unless one counts some of the "call and repeat" verses performed as part of the mass. All there was what was I experienced as a child, and no more. I'm not entirely upset by that.

As stated, I have a history with the Church, despite not having been an official part of it. And I can be very critical of much the Church has done and continues to do. For instance, I find the very concept of the papacy to be among the silliest things mankind has ever created. However, I am morally obligated to offer as much praise as I can to the Catholics, and here is why:

When I was a child, my father took off, and he left behind my mother to raise four kids on her own. She was a private school teacher, which meant if Walmart had existed in those days, the greeter would have been paid more than she was. We were in dire straits, and I'm not talking about the kick-ass rock band featuring Mark Knopfler. But did our own church, the Lutheran church, take us in? No. The Catholics gave my mom a job. Heck, the living head of the Catholic church blessed my family! The Catholics provided the cushion of support my family needed at a time when our own church community sat and did nothing. So I kinda have to say a few nice things about the Church, and try my best not to make jokes about pedophile priests. So here goes.

Say what you will about Catholicism, but you always know where you stand. Their views on all major issues are laid out there for all to see. Are some of those views archaic? Of course, but they are at least consistent. Their views on all life being sacred stand in stark contrast to those who might argue that some life is more worthy than another, as well as those who might make excuses for shortening or ending a life. They also stand in stark contrast to the militant members of the right wing, which is strange when you consider how militant the Church once was. The Church is anti-war, anti-abortion, and anti-death penalty. You name the person or group of people and the Catholics will want them very much alive. Again, are they perfect? Nope, not by a long shot. But you have to respect a consistent message.

I will never be a Catholic, and I will -- from time to time -- poke fun at them. However, today's mass gave me the chance to revisit a piece of my youth. And I took the time to thank God for the Catholics I have met over the years, and for the love and support they have given me and my family. As for anything else that might have occurred during the mass, I freely confess I shifted into auto-pilot and mised the whole thing. Hey, it happens, and at least I didn't lie about it.

I leave you with, perhaps, the greatest piece of theological satire ever produced, Tom Lehrer's "Vatican Rag":



Sunday Scorecard

This will be a regular part of my weekly reviews, a series of short-answer questions about the day's experience.

What is the contact info for the church?

Church of the Blessed Sacrament

6657 Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028 

What was the denomination?


What Bible verses were referenced?

Isaiah 22:19-23, Romans 11:33-36, Matthew 16:13-20 

What are the demographics of the congregation?

Apx. 80-100 attendees in the congregation, mostly older. About an even split between Hispanic and Caucasian. 

Was the atmosphere formal or casual?

If you have to ask, you have never attended mass. Vestments on the priest. Very formal and ritualized service.

What was the music like?

None, except a few accapella chants

How was the use of PowerPoint?

No PowerPoint (And there was much rejoicing!)

Being Hollywood, were there celebrities in the congregation?

None that I could see, but then again I went to the 7:30am service, and most celebs wouldn't attend the early mass


  1. Maybe you should go to an orthodox service. If you like the formal, ritualized service of Catholicism, but with no Pope, it could be an interesting experience. In LA I'm sure you could have your pick of ethnic group (Russian,Greek,etc) or find a church that has it all in English (OCA, Antiocian). Did you ever go to a Russian church when in KZ?

  2. I actually have located a Russian Orthodox church (with English and Russian services) in Hollywood. It is on the list of places to visit.

    I went to a few churches when I lived overseas, but I didn't speak enough of the language for any of it to make any sense.