Saint Gregory the Great Catholic Church

Saint Gregory the Great might be an Arts & Crafts arboretum, with its huge slatted dome of a ceiling, its preponderance of windows framed by great beams of wood, its gray-green tile floor, its trickling baptismal font, its potted orchids and planted palms. The great cross that marks it as a church is a similarly stylized blend of wood and glass. The rounded space is slightly disconcerting; there are a number of pews from which, if you look straight ahead, you will not see the altar or the lectern, but rather, other pews. The music, woven throughout the fabric of the Mass, added piano, guitar, trumpet, and organ to the choir, resulting in a sound that combined folk, show tunes, and the "Hallelujah Chorus." "We gather that justice may roll like a stream/ From all of our prisons, God's mercy redeems/ A home for the homeless/ A strength for the weak/ Good news for the poor and for all those who seek."

During the plea for God's mercy, Father Clavin prayed, "Christ Jesus, you call us to serve." And the congregants responded, "Christ, have mercy."

The Liturgy of the Word was full of foreboding and strife. From the first reading taken from Wisdom: "The wicked say, 'Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings.... With revilement and torture, let us put the just one to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness." From the Responsorial Psalm (54): "O God, save me by your name...for the proud have risen against me, ruthless foes seek my life; they have no regard for God." From the second reading, taken from James: "Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice...." And the Gospel opened with Jesus telling his disciples, "The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise."

But Clavin's sermon focused instead on the latter part of the Gospel, in which Jesus warned them, "If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all," and said of the child in their midst, "Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me." He opened with a reference to James's letter: "Are you ambitious?...To the disciples, Jesus says, 'You want to be ambitious?...Whoever wants to be first' -- that takes ambition -- 'must be the servant of all.' How's that for a job description for a Christian? Everybody's servant... If we aren't of service to others, we are not followers of Christ." He read from Pope Benedict's encyclical God Is Love : "The exercise of charity became established as one of [the Church's] essential activities.... Love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to her as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel."

"Jesus chose a little child -- one without means.... These are the people, especially, the Lord calls us to serve."

He closed with a quote from Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, a community devoted to care of the handicapped: "Our society often sees the world in the form of a ladder. Everyone encourages us to climb, to seek success, but where we live, with the handicapped, our model is not the ladder, but the living body. Each is important, even the smallest and weakest."

The congregation professed the Creed, and then offered prayers of petition. The first: "That we learn and accept even the hard lessons of our faith, through love and compassion." The congregants replied, "Lord, hear our prayer."

As Clavin prepared for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the congregation sang and the ushers took up the collection. When they brought the basket of donations to the altar, they also brought a basket of packaged food -- crackers, formula, etc. "Lord," said Clavin, extending his hands over the bread and wine on the altar, "may these gifts which we now offer to show our belief and our love be pleasing to you. May they become for us the Eucharist of Jesus Christ your Son."

Communion provided an interesting juxtaposition. Around ten Eucharistic ministers assisted in the distribution -- some bearing bowls of Hosts taken from Clavin's bigger bowl, some carrying pewter cups. Many congregants bowed their heads in reverence before receiving. "The body of Christ." "Amen." "The blood of Christ." "Amen." Afterward, three or four ministers huddled at the back of the church, rinsing and drying the cups like hosts after a dinner party.

What happens when we die?

"We go before the judgment seat of God," says Clavin, "and by the grace of God, we go to the right place. That's my hope and my faith."

St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church

11451 Blue Cypress Drive, Scripps Ranch

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Founded locally: 1985

Senior pastor: Nicholas Clavin

Congregation size: 2700 families

Staff size: 8

Sunday school enrollment: children's faith formation, 900--1000

Annual budget: around $1 million

Weekly giving: n/a

Singles program: no, but the diocese has one

Dress: dressy-casual -- skirts, button-down shirts

Diversity: majority Caucasian, but a sizable mix of Asian Americans, Filipinos, Hispanics, and African Americans

Sunday worship: 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 5 p.m. (youth-led Mass)

Length of reviewed service: 1 hour

Website: saintgregorythegreat.org

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