Bringing the ‘Catholic’ Back to a California Parish

Pundits are fond of pointing out that ‘California leads the nation’ when it comes to trends. Here’s one such an example, in a priest who has been quietly laboring in the Lord’s vineyard in Newark, California.

Father Keyes, what is your background and training?

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I entered the seminary in 1971.  In four years I learned how to play guitar and got a degree in Thomistic Philosophy. I left the seminary in 1976 and worked in a hot dog stand and an insurance company before re-entering another seminary in 1977.

The ’70s did horrific damage to the church and I was criticized for associating priesthood too closely to the sacraments and worship and not enough to social justice. They did not want a “musical priest.”  I was also told to throw away that old Thomistic stuff.

Disgusted and hurt, I went back to selling hotdogs and making music in a liberal Catholic church on Sunday evenings.  I also spent summers in the mid-West working on Graduate Degree in Liturgy and music. When I first got to that Midwest College, all my professors in music were priests, Precious Blood Priests. I am especially grateful to Fr. Bob Onofrey and Fr. Larry Heiman for encouraging me to be both musician and priest. After all, if they could do it, why could I not do it?

Fr. Heiman would become my mentor in Gregorian Chant for more than 30 years until his death at the age of 92. I joined the Precious Blood community in 1988.  I was professed in 1990 and ordained to the priesthood, October 26, 1991.

In my early days as a new priest I served as Vocation Director and as Lay Associate Director and then was made pastor of St. Barnabas, Alameda in 1994.  In 2001 I went to Chicago as Director of Formation and then became Pastor of St. Edward in August 2004.

The  ’70s did horrific damage to the church and I was criticized for associating priesthood too closely to the sacraments and worship and not enough to social justice.

Can you tell us the story of your parish, as you found it?

St. Edward Catholic Church is located in Newark, CA, in the southern end of the Diocese of Oakland.  On my arrival here in 2004, the liturgy was exclusively contemporary music, generally from contemporary Christian music sources. The Gloria and the Memorial acclamations used were unapproved texts and there was an active liturgical dance troupe that performed at the main liturgies.

Here I heard one of our “best” catechists tell the students they could decide for themselves who Jesus was for them. After a year of struggle I was able to fire the music director and hire a new one in September, 2005.  I am still struggling with the Catechetical program although there have been some improvements in the First Communion program.

The Gloria and the Memorial acclamations used were unapproved texts and there was an active liturgical dance troupe that performed at the main liturgies.

Was this because of the ‘spirit’ of Vatican II?

stedwards4Vatican II never told us to stop using Latin.  Vatican II never told us to turn our altars around and Vatican II never told us to take out the altar rails.

It was the introduction of the Latin that got most of the reaction.  I was pegged as a traditionalist and accused of taking us backward.  It really did not help to cite chapter and verse, but it was clear that no one had read the documents of Vatican II.

With ‘Alleluia’ and ‘Amen,’ the people respond with Hebrew and Aramaic without thinking, and even an ’80s Rock groups sings “Kyrie Eleison” because the words sound “powerful.”  But some people avoid Latin like it is the plague because they do not understand it.   Any adult Catholic who does not know what “Agnus Dei” means is simply not trying.

The following was posted to the parish Facebook page in February 2013:

“I will only attend the mass here as long as it’s not Fr. Keys. I don’t know how he turned this church into like a singing contest. He sings from the beginning to the end. He also sometimes do it in Latin. Who understand latin in USA? Not me. Most of the parishioners that used to attend the mass here are now attending in Holy Spirit or St. Anne. Fr. Keys, please bring the old St. Edwards tradition back 20-30 years ago. Fr. Jim is the only one doing an excellent job.”

But some people avoid Latin like it is the plague because they do not understand it.   Any adult Catholic who does not know what “Agnus Dei” means is simply not trying.

This was my response:

  •  The center here is Jesus, Not Fr. Keyes or Fr. Jim. It is not about the priest. The priest is supposed to disappear. 
  • Singing contest? Who are the contestants?
  • Latin is the official language of the Catholic Church and a unifying element in a congregation that speaks 30 languages. Beware that your anti-Latin tirade may be implicitly racist.
  • Vatican II placed Gregorian chant in first place. It does not have first place at St. Edward, but now it has a place. 
  • Liberal traditions of the past are gone. Now we try to do what the Church asks. The 70′s are over. 
  • St. Edward ‘traditions’ of 20-30 years ago were not Catholic traditions. This is a Roman Catholic Parish. 
  • Father’s name is spelled “Keyes”
  • St. Anne and Holy Spirit are fine parishes and people are free to go where they want. But treating parishes like a commercial operation where you go where you like the music or the preacher is a Protestant tradition.

stedwards2What liturgical changes did you make when you arrived?

Now in our liturgy the music is from a variety of eras and cultures and there is a Missa Cantata each Sunday.  There has been a progressive introduction of the Roman propers and ordinary at the Missa Cantata. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal is observed in varying degrees over the nine Masses, but progress is being made.  In September, 2012, the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite returned to St. Edward after an absence of 50 years.

Additionally, a cry room which also served as a meeting room has been transformed into an adoration chapel.  Morning and Evening prayer from the Liturgy of Hours is now sung every day.

What is your liturgy like today?

At our parish, there are adult Catholics who speak French, Spanish, Portuguese and Farsi who now sing “Pater Noster” by heart; they know what they are saying and they don’t hold hands because they are praying to their Father, and they don’t lift their hands to the heavens because the real presence of our God is on the Altar in front of us.

The following was posted on Yelp: Have you ever wanted to visit the Vatican and experience a liturgy there but couldn’t afford it? Well.. If you have ever been to Rome or desire to go to Rome but for some reason haven’t been able to make it to Italy, come to St. Edwards!!  It’s been one of the fewest (or only?) places in the tri-city that has liturgy celebrated like they do at the Vatican.  The 10am mass is very beautiful with some of the prayers sung in latin, but not to worry, the readings and the homily are in English.  The choir is truly amazing that it truly feels like you’re surrounded by angels singing a heavenly hymn to God. 

Although I know most people prefer the upbeat music where you clap your hands and hear drumbeats.  This is truly a treat and a find, and even if you could come and participate in this mass once a month (and attend mass somewhere else the rest of the weeks), you will leave truly spiritually uplifted.  Hey you never know, you may start coming here every week.

“The 10am mass is very beautiful with some of the prayers sung in latin, but not to worry, the readings and the homily are in English.  The choir is truly amazing that it truly feels like you’re surrounded by angels singing a heavenly hymn to God.” 

You either love it or you hate it.  Yes, we lost several parishioners who now go to other nearby liberal parishes.  Many former choir members now sing in a Presbyterian Church. But we also have many people who travel all the way from Hayward or Livermore for what they call their “Roman fix.”

TRANSFORMING SAINT EDWARD’S

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PARISHIONERS RECONSTRUCT THE BEAUTY OF THE ORIGINAL from a 1970s photo of St Edward’s original altar rail.

New additions to the sanctuary

We began with the introduction of real lectionaries, replacing the fake loose-leaf binder that had been the focus of the Word of God prior.  The fake plastic green trees were removed and statues were put in their place. The fake oil candles on the altar were replaced with new floor length candle stands with tall, real 51% beeswax candles.

The Advent wreath was a tall wooden stand with four blue and pink plastic candles with oil inserts.  They had used them for years and the candles never burned down completely erasing some of the imagery and symbolism associated with that practice.   A new wooden stand was fashioned in 2009, placing the wreath no longer in the center of the sanctuary but to the side in front of the Ambo.

A Crucifix was added to the Sanctuary in 2006.  That year we also refashioned the baptismal font. The old one was corroded and could have been restored, but the delight of this new font is that it looks like it belongs here, and was actually designed by someone who celebrates the sacrament.  Other additions were an ambry, kneelers, and credence tables, floor altar candles and a New Easter Candle and stand.

In 2013 the carpet in the Sanctuary was replaced with wood laminate and the old asbestos tile in the main body of the Church was covered with new VCT tile.  In January The Church received a new coat of paint with some new colors, inside and out. In February the fiberglass Risen Jesus statue was removed from the Sanctuary, a new cross was fashioned out of Blood Wood from South Africa, and a new hand carved, hand painted Lindenwood Corpus was installed.

The previous Easter Candle was an old plastic one with a small candle insert.  We had a new Paschal candle stand fashioned and ordered a 40lb candle for the first Easter Vigil in 2005.  (That was also the first time we did not do two Easter Vigils, one Vigil in Spanish and one in English.  Now we do one Easter Vigil utilizing Latin as well as Spanish and English.  We also combine the choirs. )

A Filthy, Ugly Altar

Something had to be done about that altar. It was filthy and the altar clothes were ugly and in bad repair.  It took two days to clean all the paste and glue from the altar.  There had been many years of pasting paper banners to the front for school liturgies and first communions.  There was this ugly cloth banner that was fashioned each year out of the handprints of the second graders that was pasted to the front of the altar for first communion.

All of these programs were halted and the altar became a sacred place again.  We purchased new altar cloths and a Jacobean frontal, and new linen corporals.  We also placed relics into the altar.

It took two days to clean all the paste and glue from the altar.  There had been many years of pasting paper banners to the front for school liturgies and first communions.

 Relics Are Placed

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The altar had a stone but nothing was in it.  I had a few relics collected over the years, and a few relics were given to me for this event in 2008.  Our altar now has first class relics of St. Maria Goretti, St. Gaspar del Bufalo, St. Maria de Mattias, St. James the Apostle, St. Martin de Porres, St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Pius X.  It was in May of 2008 with the whole school present and seven school children assisting that we placed the relics in the altar and placed the stone in the altar.

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