THIS article by Professor Michael True, "A People's Parish: The Wisconsin Community of the Living Spirit," appeared in a recent issue of the American Catholic magazine Commonweal. He is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and lecturer at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
At a time when many people are dissatisfied with the state of liturgy in the Catholic Church, the survival and continuing strength of a religious group that has developed its own style of liturgical celebration deserves special attention, if not outright commendation.
Numerous attempts to discover a new language for Christian worship over the past 20 years have either died as "underground churches" or "guitar Masses" or (as in the case of traditionalists' effort to continue Tridentine Masses) have been systematically suppressed.
In local parishes, on the other hand, about the only vestiges of attempts to change the old centralised patterns are the gesture of peace after the Consecration, the stilted official English translations of the Mass, and an occasional lay person, now deaconised, but rather thoroughly confined by the usual clerical routine.
Yet after five to ten years, some of the experimental religious groups have taken on lives of their own, and in several instances suggest a form for changes incorporating the needs and hopes of a changing Catholic constituency which is only infrequently aware of or attentive to the National Council of Catholic Bishops or to the legislative language of Canon Law.
One of the most striking characteristics of these primarily experimental groups, in fact, is their positive sense of themselves.
The mood that brought them into being, a sense of alienation from or even hostility to the chancery, to "the establishment," has been replaced by a positive sense of modest but purposeful mission to bind up wounds, to bless, to carry on, with a confidence in themselves and their place in the larger community.
Among several obvious models for such experimental change, the Community of the Living Spirit, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, provides a useful example. Although it began as a liturgical group, its most original characteristic at this time is organisation — not so much what it has developed in its liturgy, but how it has developed as a congregation.
Since the summer of 1971, in a city of 50,000 people 20 miles west of Milwaukee, the community has worked to combine reverence with relevance and to maintain a non-geographic parish, with an ambitious educational programme for adults and children and numerous activities expressing fundamental social and political concerns.
In its initial proposal, presented to the archdiocesan priest senate of Milwaukee in June, 1971, a group of people, most of them from a traditional Catholic parish, asked for a year's trial period "for a Waukesha community mission parish to form and function," pledging themselves "to teach our members about their faith, become more aware of the spiritual and corporal needs of our fellow man, and bring the Church to the people who have abandoned this part of their lives," The germ for the community existed from early meetings in 1970, with the first experimen tal liturgy performed in St William's parish gymnasium, on November 29 of that year. From that point to now, the growth and development has been steady, but trying, risky, and slow.
The work of the community reflects careful planning and broad involvement by many people, with the determined effort of the usual, dedicated core.
As one member, Dolores Kosednar, a nurse and mother of nine children, said: "Each time the community seemed about to come apart, something happened to pull us through the crisis and back into shape." In the intervening six years, they have found various ways, some traditional, some innovative, to carry out the general goals listed in Article II of the community's by-law. These are:
I — To be more aware of the needs of people within and outside the community, and to minister to them.
2 — To encourage personal growth through education, "in
understanding God's will for the members, collectively and individually."
3 To celebrate life through a meaningful liturgy, with emphasis upon "the fundamental goodness of the life Jesus Christ has proclaimed to us."
4 — To remain open to change.
5 --To sustain and encourage one another in carrying out these goals.
The community has survived several local conflicts about what some people referred to as "liturgical abuses." Beginning initially as a "gym" Mass, while still a part of St William's parish, the liturgy moved first to the local YWCA and finally to the present location in the public school. At St William's, the janitor, who was somewhat suspicious of their non-traditional style, took to shellacking the gym floor on Saturdays in order to prevent the people from gathering in the gym on Sunday morning.
More recently, the Rector of the diocesan seminary drove out from Milwaukee to look into the community's practices, in relation to Church doctrine. Although he found its priest, Fr Marek, neither schismatic nor heretical, the Rector said that he did not understand how "phenomenological sacramentality fits into the mainstream of Catholic thought."
At the moment, it seems that neither the Rector nor the diocese is quite sure what to do with the community. In this happy state of affairs (if one can judge from several outward signs), it thrives.
One of the obvious and principal forces sustaining the community is the main celebrant for the Sunday liturgy, Fr Dean Marek, a priest in his midthirties who walks the thin line between creative ministry and ecclesiastical conformity and most important of all — brings a positive and concerned ministry to the congregation.
In describing his work, he returns to a theme first made popular by Pope John XXIII: "I think the professional (the priest) is the one who opens up the door . . . My philosophy is to provide the opportunity for everyone to be a part of the Church."
The care that Fr Marek gives to the liturgical celebration is evident in the dialogue homily, the often successful integration of music, reading and activities for the day. He leads one might say choreographs — the whole performance. According to him, "the purpose of the liturgy is to give expression to a person's inner feelings in such a context and such a manner as to further his/her spiritual growth. It attempts to take an event or happening and put it into focus through sensible means, so that the event, happening, or idea would he a benefit toward human growth."
As I mentioned at the beginning, the liturgy is, at this point, not startlingly original. One recognises in much of the Sunday celebration many vestiges of the past. One senses, nonetheless, that the liturgy grows naturally out of the community, its meetings and its committee on liturgy.
Nothing dramatic, nothing desperately or self-consciously "new," it may not he a liturgy for everybody (perhaps we've learned, if nothing else over the past decade, that that's impossible anyway). But in contrast to most of the "official" liturgies, it has a human base: the lives and needs and hopes of the people it includes.
During my two recent visits, for example, the central part of the liturgy focused upon one local and one general concern:
The infant baptism of Kelly Marie Hart, with a lighted candle for each member of the congregation and a welcoming procession for the new member or the community.
The discussion, surprisingly coherent in a congregation of about 400 people. of St Paul's sexist letter to the Ephesians 5: 21-32. In the community, women play a more significant part in determining policy than they do in most parishes, and several of them refused to read the section in the Epistle that declares that "wives should be submissive to their husbands."
The liturgy is, in many senses, Fr Marck's presentation (one of the only difficulties, it seems to .me, as the group endeavours to understand and fulfil its commitment to a decentralised liturgy); but he keeps the celebration alive and clearly focused in a way that is quite foreign to most Catholic liturgies, presently gone stale in the sagging, post-Vatican II dispensation.
During the first few years of the community's existence, Fr Marek's assignment was parttime; but in 1972 he resigned his position as chaplain and theology teacher at St Mary's Academy, in order to devote full time to the Community of the Living Spirit, eventually with the support of the bishop.
Recently denied permission to officiate at Catholic weddings (he got the ruling from the chancery second-hand), Fr Marek retains his civil faculties to officiate at other marriages.
A significant part of his ministry is devoted to divorced Catholics who come to him, he says, as a "last resort." Cut off from the official Church by virtue of their divorce, they are reluctant to remarry unless a priest officiates at the ceremony: casual about some practices of the Catholic Church, they still feel guilty about breaking others.
In the midst of this confusion, Fr Marek, like so many priests now ministering to divorced Catholics, tries to give some spiritual guidance in a time of trial. Without condon ing divorce, he and the community try to respond to those facing the trauma of "coming apart." One is struck by the balance that the community has achieved between social action and worship. The emphasis is still liturgical and ministerial, but social action receives more than the usual grudging acceptance characteristic of the traditional parish. From its origin, the community pledged at least half its financial resources to people in need. Some members volunteer their services to the Waukesha
Community Welfare Department, gathering and distributing clothes and money, trying to respond "in time and energy," as one member said, and not in "patronising charity."
The structure of the community has changed with the times and according to the needs of the group. Officers president, vice-president, treasurer and recording secretary — are elected annually.
It is incorporated as a nonprofit organisation, and holds membership in the local Council of Churches. Although regarded with some suspicion by the more fundamentalist Protestant Churches, as well as by some Catholic parishes, the community works in close cooperation with most member Churches.