2011 NEA delegate Mass

I’ll take a few moments here to write a brief account of the NEA Delegate Mass that we held in Chicago on July 3. A fair number of my music colleagues have expressed some curiosity about this annual liturgy. A few years ago I blogged about the 2008 NEA Delegate Mass in Washington, DC, and an article based on that blog appeared in The Liturgical Singer, an NPM publication for cantors.

NEA’s Annual Meeting is an eight-day gathering of leaders from the largest professional association in the United States, and it incorporates a four-day meeting of NEA’s governing body, the Representative Assembly. The RA is the largest deliberative body in the world, with between 8,000 and 10,000 elected delegates.
The four RA days are grueling: state caucuses begin at 7:00 AM, and the RA meets from 10 AM to about 6 PM each day. The RA meets right through Independence Day (and holds its own celebration during the assembly) and whatever Sunday falls within the four days scheduled for its meeting.
Obviously, this schedule creates problems for those who wish to hold Sunday worship. For decades, some delegates have gathered for Mass and an interdenominational prayer service. Since 1996, I’ve been the music minister for the delegate Mass.
Thanks to the connections of a long-time delegate who is a lay Dominican, our celebrants have included a number of Dominican priests. They have included film director Dominic DeLay, composer James Marchionda, now-archbishop DeNoia, and Emiliano Zapata, a former president of an NEA local in Texas. This year’s celebrant was Father Richard LaPata, a former principal of Fenwick HS in Oak Park, Illinois.
The delegate Mass has a number of unique challenges.
  • We never know just when the Mass will start. NEA provides us a room in the convention center, but only after the RA has adjourned for the day. Delegates have to hoof it there quickly, and this year we started the entrance hymn while they were still arriving. At this Mass, the “processional” is frequently for the congregation, not the priest.
  • The time available for Mass is limited by the transportation schedule. NEA uses a system of chartered buses to transport delegates back and forth between the convention center and their hotels. Those shuttles run only for a limited time, and cabs are expensive, so the Mass needs to be “expeditious” while also being reverent.
  • The room is frequently arranged however it was left by the last session. We can usually set an altar up on a speaker’s platform, but typically delegates sit at tables for the Mass. This year we had a unique configuration: round tables–no aisles!
  • We were fortunate this year that NEA had left directions for the microphone and speakers to be left on..

Other than that, what is the Mass like? Most members of this annual congregation say that it is very moving. We do our best to make it like other Masses.

  • We have a cadre of Eucharistic ministers from all over the country. Usually the first six who arrive are the ones who distribute Communion.
  • Similarly, the first several lectors who arrive are put to work with copies of the readings for the day. This year’s Mass was the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, and that’s about where the NEA delegate Mass typically falls in the liturgical calendar.
  • We never have any problem finding a hospitality and ushering ministry: these people are educators, and they’re used to taking over their space, whether it’s a classroom, bus, library, or in this case, makeshift chapel. Collections are put into whatever convention bags we can commandeer.
  • I’ve scheduled pretty similar music for the past few years: entrance hymn “Here I Am, Lord,” “I Am the Bread of Life” and/or “Pan de Vida” for Communion, and “America, the Beautiful” for the recessional.
  • When the convention is driveable, as it was this year, I bring my electronic keyboard and associated gear; when I have to fly to the convention city, I lead with just my voice.
  • We have a worship aid.
  • We have an emailing list to provide announcements and updates.

We typically have a congregation of a few hundred for this Mass, and delegates report that they look forward to it each year. We’ll be in DC again next year, and my guess is that we’ll be celebrating again in a room at the Washington Convention Center on Sunday, July 1.

Letter to Bishop Lennon

(text of a letter sent to Bishop Richard Lennon, Diocese of Cleveland, April 20, 2009:)

Dear Bishop Lennon:

I am a parishioner at St. Mary Church in Bedford. Until 2000, when I began a new career which limited my time for parish activities, I served as a member and chairperson of Pastoral Council and as a member or chair of several parish groups including a School Task Force (1989), the parish component of the Diocesan Liturgical Review (1990), and a School Futuring Committee (1997). In addition, for over twenty years I directed a contemporary music group at St. Mary that assisted at weekly liturgies, and I continue to assist there as a cantor and substitute organist as the need arises and my schedule permits.

Although I was unable to participate in the parish cluster activities leading up to the recent preliminary decision to merge three Bedford-area parishes into one, I understand that the parish has filed a timely appeal of that decision. Meaning no disrespect to the teams that developed the cluster plan, I would respectfully suggest three reasons why merging all three into one parish housed at the present St. Pius X church is a mistake.

  • As a musician who has played at all three parishes, I can witness that the worship space at St. Mary is by far the best of the three. (As a parishioner, I believe that this is at least partly because the staff and parishioners there have made liturgy a priority.) St. Mary has newer instruments and is both above ground and accessible to worshipers with special needs.
  • If one worship space is to remain, the one located at St. Mary is better situated within the geographic area, being more central within the parish cluster. The current St. Pius X buildings are relatively close to parishes to the north and northwest, but the plan ignores a huge swath to the south and southeast. The space between St. Pius X and the nearest remaining parishes to the east (St. Rita), south (St. Barnabas), and southeast (Our Lady of Guadalupe) would be six, ten, and ten miles respectively.
  • This distance between worship spaces will accelerate the movement of Catholics residing in this cluster to suburbs further out, encouraging sprawl and decimating the Catholic presence in these inner-ring southeastern suburbs.

The task set before the parish leaders, you, and your staff, is a difficult one. I respectfully suggest that keeping open the worship space at St. Mary would be a better way to reconfigure the parishes of this cluster.

Making a Joyful Noise, NEA-style

Over the years, I’ve played and sung at a wide variety of liturgies; but one of the most unusual comes up once a year at the NEA Annual Meeting.

The National Education Association, an organization of public educators, is the largest labor union in America, with about 3.1 million members. Every year its leadership gathers over the Independence Day holiday for the seven-day NEA Annual Meeting, which culminates with the four-day Representative Assembly. (The NEA RA is the largest business meeting in the world, assembling 9,000-10,000 voting delegates in the same room. Imagine the Republican and Democratic party conventions combined, add about 10% more people, and then realize that in this body anyone can go to a microphone and speak!)

So why is there a delegate Mass at this gathering of public educators? For the answer, you have to look at the schedule.

Some trade and professional meetings have developed a reputation for hijinks. I would never suggest that there’s no fun at NEA’s Annual Meeting, but the hours are long: state caucuses start at 7:00 AM, and RA sessions typically start at 10:00 AM and continue pretty much straight through past 6:00 PM. Because of the costs involved, the schedule unfolds without breaks: the proceedings continue through the July 4 holiday and Sundays. This year Sunday, July 6, was the fourth day of the RA and a day of business as usual.

So delegates of faith have a choice: on their sabbath, they can go to a church, temple, or mosque and miss part of the business that their colleagues have sent them to conduct; they can skip religious observances altogether; or they can conduct their own, which is what many of the Christian delegates do.

When I arrived at my first Annual Meeting (Minneapolis, 1995), I was elated to see that the Minneapolis Convention Center was very close to the Basilica of Our Lady; then I learned that the basilica was under construction and closed for services at that time. But soon I noticed signs mentioning a “Mass for Catholic delegates.” When Sunday rolled around, I found myself in the company of a few hundred delegates, all worshiping enthusiastically. As a stranger away from home, I found it very moving to find a congregation to worship with.

The woman who had organized that Mass is Ellen Logue. At the time, she was a retired delegate from California. I contacted her and offered my services as a musician for that congregation. She gratefully accepted, and I have been playing and singing for the delegate Masses ever since.

To foster the continuation of this practice, Ellen was assisted by not only deep faith but also good, practical organizational skills. When she arranged conference rooms for the Masses she made sure to arrange them for the other Christians attending as well, so that the delegate religious services aren’t just a Catholic thing. She used her extensive connections in the Catholic Church, especially within the Dominican order, to recruit priests to preside at the Masses. And she encouraged all delegate worshipers to come together for the purpose of worship only, and to resist any attempts to use these faith gatherings to promote positions on the sometimes-sensitive issues that come before the Representative Assemblies.

Ellen continues to be a source of help, support, and advice. And since she stopped attending RAs a few years ago, quite a number of delegates have stepped forward to continue the leadership she started. We have ministers of the Eucharist, Word, hospitality, and music. And we have organizers who make sure that NEA reserves rooms so that all this can happen.

So once again this year, on Saturday, July 5, over 300 delegates gathered for Mass in an assembly room at the Washington Convention Center. It was an odd sort of church: the microphones had been turned off, and the worshipers stood or sat behind tables still set up from a meeting a few hours earlier. I don’t recall any candles, and worshipers passed conference bags for donations. But inside that room as in Catholic churches all over the world, it was the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, and that’s what we celebrated with our celebrant, Dominican Father Albert Paretsky.

It wasn’t just like Mass back home: some had to catch shuttle buses for their hotels, so as we sang the closing hymn the procession out included many of the faithful. It was quick, but it was reverent, joyful, and musical: the beauty and significance of the Mass is greater than our human limitations. As with Mass back home, some of the worshipers stayed around for a while. (Some new friends from Pennsylvania even helped carry my keyboard and other supplies on the DC Metro!) Many commented on the beauty and meaningfulness of this shared worship experience, and I’m guessing we’ll look forward to meeting together again for Eucharist next year in San Diego.