For a dozen years now, I've spent the days leading up to Christmas in search of a special gift. Not the kind you can buy at the mall or charge on your credit card, but the gift of a traditional Midnight Mass. It goes back to my childhood when I couldn't wait until I was old enough to attend Midnight Mass with my grandmother at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver.
I was 13 the first time I got to stay up and attend Midnight Mass with my grandmother. She lived only a few blocks away from the cathedral, so we walked alone in a gritty urban neighborhood. But because it was 1960, neither of us worried for our safety. The pews were already filled by the time we arrived near midnight as Catholics, and even some non-Catholics, crammed the gothic structure to overflowing.
I remember the smell of evergreen wreaths, incense and fresh hay from the empty creche on the altar. As the service commenced, the organ reverberated off the stone walls as the choir, made up entirely of boys and men dressed in red cassocks and white surplices in honor of the Christmas season, marched in procession down the nave. There was a sense of majesty and mystery, deepened by the incantation of Latin syllables whose sound was familiar if sometimes unintelligible.
Those days are long gone, but that hasn't stopped me from searching for a Midnight Mass that will evoke at least some of those memories. But it has been especially difficult since I moved to rural Virginia. My local parish tends to folk songs and guitars that seem more appropriate to a hootenanny than a Catholic church. So, I've taken to visiting other parishes on Christmas Eve.
My search has taken me to Masses celebrated in Spanish in West Virginia, to an unheated 19th-century country church in Maryland -- even, by accident, to a break-away Catholic sect in suburban Washington that felt like I'd traveled back in time 50 years, though without the music I'd come in search of.
But so far, I've yet to find a Midnight Mass celebration that comes close to the beauty of those of my youth. This year, I'll try St. John the Evangelist in Frederick, Md., at the suggestion of a friend who says it's probably as close to what I remember as I'm likely to find in this area.
What I am sure to find, whatever else is missing, is the fellowship of other Catholics. As a child in Denver, those Catholics were mostly Irish Americans, with a few Italian and German Americans and Hispanics thrown in the mix. But today, in almost any Catholic Church, you'll find the widest gathering of ethnic and racial groups, from African, Asian, and Latino immigrants to fourth- and fifth-generation Irish Americans, long the bedrock of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Catholic Churches are also one of the few places you'll find poor people sitting -- and kneeling -- alongside the rich. It's a place you'll see two, three, even four generations together; from toddlers to teenagers to nonagenarians, age distinctions don't seem to apply.
No matter how humble the setting, the pews will be filled to overflowing on Christmas, with even casual Catholics feeling the need to connect once a year. Unlike the grand cathedrals of Europe, which have become hollow museums to a Catholic heritage that has ceased to exist, Catholic churches in the United States manage to attract enough worshippers in most places to require multiple services, not just on major holidays but every Sunday. Everyone, regardless of color or class, age or status is welcome. The Catholic Church is now, more than ever, truly catholic in its membership and appeal.
And that perhaps is the real gift of Christmas Mass -- the recognition of belonging to a community of faith. I may never find the smells and bells of the Catholic Church of my childhood -- but I will find myself at home.