For more than 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, which we walked to 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 and incense and fresh hay from the empty creche on the altar. As the service commenced, the organ reverberated off of 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. 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 -- it felt like I'd travelled 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, however, I'm hoping to step back in time, because I've moved back to Colorado. For the first time in more than 40 years, I will be attending Midnight Mass at the Cathedral -- now designated a Basilica -- of the Immaculate Conception in Denver again. It won't be the mass of my youth, but the new Liturgy recently adopted for the English-speaking world actually harkens back to the solemnity that was watered down in some of the Vatican II reforms.
But whatever else is new or unfamiliar come this midnight Dec. 25, I am sure to find 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 some 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.