As a priest for almost thirty years, I’ve been assigned to a number of parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit, and have seen and served in a variety of church buildings. As a deacon, I was first assigned to St. Thomas a’Becket Parish in Canton, which was then in the process of raising money to build a church. That meant the parish had to rent a local public elementary school to hold Mass each weekend. Every Saturday at 5pm we’d go there and set up a portable altar and pulpit on the stage of the gymnasium for 6pm Mass, and every Sunday after the noon Mass we’d disassemble everything and put it away over in a corner. I was no longer at the parish when the church was built, but I came back for the dedication Mass, which was most impressive. I was next assigned, as a deacon, to St. Raymond Parish in northeast Detroit, which had a beautiful, large older church; the long center aisle was especially loved by brides, most of whom enjoy taking their time coming down the aisle on their wedding day. After I was ordained a priest, I went to Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Grosse Pointe: a very affluent parish with a rather simple church dating from the 1950s; it was always intended it would eventually be replaced by a newer and nicer building. My next assignment as an associate pastor was to St. Clement in Center Line, which had a huge, modern church dating from the 1960s. It was so large that just before Pope John Paul II came to Detroit in 1987, the 1200 member special choir for the papal Mass at the Pontiac Silverdome rehearsed at St. Clement because of its central location and large size. St. Clement’s tall, distinctive soft green roof even today serves as a convenient landmark for airplane pilots flying overhead.
I also served as an associate at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Redford—another church with a simple design dating from the 1950s, and which reminded me a lot of Our Lady Star of the Sea. In 1992 I became pastor of Our Lady of Loretto Parish in Redford, which had a fairly small, simple church. To be honest, my first impression of the interior of the church was that it was rather ugly: light green cinder block walls, gray carpeting, and dark brown pews salvaged from a closed church in Detroit. I got used to it, but when—in 1999—I saw that Our Lady Star of the Sea in Grosse Pointe was finally going to build its new church, I immediately called and asked for the pews from their old church, which they graciously offered us. I was personally happy at this material link between my first parish as an associate and my first parish as a pastor—both of which were named in honor of Our Lady. A donor at Our Lady of Loretto gave us money for new carpeting, so after the last Mass one Sunday, we let parishioners remove and take home the old pews; we set up the altar and temporary chairs down in the basement for daily Mass, and on Monday we painted the walls a more attractive cream color. On Tuesday and Wednesday the carpeters installed the new, green carpeting, and on Wednesday and Thursday evenings our volunteers brought in and bolted down all the high-quality pews we had obtained from Star of the Sea Parish. We had to move things along because there was a wedding scheduled for that Saturday, but the renovation came off without a hitch: it was like a completely new church interior in less than a week, for under $25,000. (I’m sure I’ll never see anything like that again.) Then I was assigned here to St. Edward’s, which surely has the most beautiful grounds, and one of the most beautiful churches, in the Archdiocese. However, whether a church building is beautiful or ugly, new or old, modern or traditional, large or small, elaborately decorated or fairly plain, every Catholic Church is holy and unique because of the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus—and so we should feel privileged, prayerful, and peaceful every time we come here.
Of the Ten Commandments, the First and Third speak of the worship we owe God—worship which can occur anywhere, but usually inside a building. Because these Commandments were so important to the Jewish people, they built a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem for this purpose—and because Jesus obeyed these and every other Commandment perfectly, He was infuriated when He saw profane activities occurring in the Temple. Ultimately, however, His own Body is the true Temple of God. His enemies didn’t understand this, but we know what He meant: it’s the Presence of the Eucharistic Jesus in the tabernacle, and in a little while on the altar, that makes this building a sacred place—and if we truly understand and believe this, we’ll show it by our behavior and by our attitude here in church.
The people at all the parishes I’ve served in have been, by and large, reverent in church, including here at St. Edward’s—but there’s always room for improvement. As we enter church, we should bless ourselves with holy water, as a way of reminding ourselves of and renewing our baptismal commitments. We genuflect or bow while looking at the tabernacle as a sign of reverence to Our Lord’s Eucharistic Presence. While it’s all right to acknowledge one another, we should try to maintain a quiet and prayerful spirit before and after Mass, particularly if we see someone else praying. Obviously, we should never—unless we have a medical condition requiring it—chew gum or eat or drink while in church, and, of course, we should never litter, make a mess, or leave the pew in an untidy manner. During Mass we should participate as fully as we can, for the very reason we’re here isn’t to kill time or merely fulfill an obligation, but to observe the First and Third Commandments by worshipping God—and this requires our active involvement.
We have every reason to be proud of the beauty of our church, and we should be profoundly grateful that Jesus is here in His Eucharistic Presence. However, Our Lord also wants to be here in our hearts, and each one of us is called to a Temple of the Holy Spirit. This amazing and, indeed, miraculous transformation occurs when we’re living in a state of grace and honestly trying to do God’s will, and is deepened every time we worthily receive Holy Communion. The idea that the very God Who created us and the entire universe also desires to live within us is incredible, but true—and it demands our grateful, humble, and wholehearted response. If this is our choice, then the great beauty of this church building will be but a pale reflection of the beauty of our souls, and of the everlasting and perfect beauty awaiting us in our true home of Heaven.