From the Pastor: Christmas 2020
So here it is, a day or two after Christmas and everyone is sharing stories about how their family managed to cope in this most strange covid year. Since I usually don’t have time to sit down and chat after Mass (giving out penances and absolution does not count as “chatting”!) I will have to leave you with this written account of how my Christmas went. Obviously, with Christmas on a Friday and the bulletin needing to be out before the staff took off for the Holy Day, I had to write it before any of the described activities took place. Of course, these time warps happen around here all the time, so you should be used to them by now.
Christmas Eve was pretty busy around here. After the second morning Mass, there was, as normal for a weekday, Adoration and confessions. The confession lines had been long all week and the day before Christmas was no exception. Everybody and their brother wanted to be spiritually clean for Christmas, thanks be to God! After the Benediction, there was a large group of people waiting by the sacristy to have items blessed, most of which were going to be given as presents. Of course, even before I got done with the exorcisms and blessing of the various items, there was the all too often heard cry of, “Father, the toilet is overflowing!” The answer to the reply, “Which one?” determined how to fix it. It was the easy one. “Jiggle the handle,” I called back and continued casting demons out of some items on the table. “Make a note to exorcize the bathrooms, too,” I thought to myself. By the time I was finished the noon church bells were ringing. I headed over to the rectory office to plagiarize a little more from the Church Fathers, I mean, to finish preparing my sermon.
Probably 15 people came to the door bringing (more) homemade cookies, spiced nuts, and/or trail mix covered in white chocolate as they wished me and the staff a Merry Christmas. I certainly am not complaining, for that is what I ate for all of my meals last week and I probably have enough left for another week as well! Look at how thin Kim and Mark are and you know who really gets the goodies marked, “To Father and the staff, Merry Christmas!” The phones rang pretty constantly, too, as people kept calling to ask about the Mass schedule. I think Mark got tired of telling people that “That’s right, Midnight Mass starts at 12:00. No, midnight is not too late to hold Midnight Mass. Just because your parish up north always has it at 9:30 pm doesn’t mean that that is the traditional time...” He got good at figuring out where the callers were visiting from. “No, Father doesn’t celebrate the ‘Children’s Mass’ dressed as Santa Claus. You’re from Detroit, aren’t you?” “Your priest always gives general absolution before Christmas Masses? Let me guess. Chicago?” “You want to know which Mass is the shortest so that you can get in and out quickly? I thought you New Yorkers were all in quarantine!” And so passed the afternoon and evening.
A few of my family members came to Midnight Mass this year. Even though Aunt Irma was just here for Thanksgiving, she came back again anyway. It is always good to see her. I was going to re-introduce her to everyone before Mass because some of the new parishioners have never met her and some have even had the audacity to question her existence! But she showed up late and, since it was a candlelight Mass, it was too dark for anyone to see her. I know a few of you spoke with her after Mass when she handed you one of her computer tablets so that you could safely Zuum without needing masks (she still hasn’t figured that one out yet). She was also pretty vocal about the Vatican’s Nativity set, so if you heard a lady ranting about how her local boys and girls club had been ripped off by not getting credit for their work, you now know who she is. She claims that some of the special needs children back home had participated in a “Go Big or Go Home!” Beginners Porcelain class where they each created larger than life-sized characters whom they either admired or feared. “Little Jeremy, whose dad is on death row, made the ‘Darth Vader as an Executioner’ statue. Camille, who was born without legs, created a dog missing those appendages and other children followed her lead when making barnyard animals. Frankie follows Space X launches and so made a spaceman. Suzie made a chunky flying monkey from Wizard of Oz. Shawna made a soldier to honor her deployed older brother. Mary and Joseph are really just giant Weebles the Casimir twins put together...” And the list went on and on until Aunt Irma ran out of breath. “They never expected these to be Nativity figures,” she was telling everyone who would take her tablet and listen. “People would stop making fun of the pieces and calling them ‘ugly’ if they realized that these were first attempts at art by physically and mentally handicapped and abused children, not professional artists.” I was proud of her for defending those poor kids. I was equally relieved that this topic kept her from explicating her views on the recent CDF and USCCB letters on vaccinations.
I have many more Christmas stories to share, but there is no more room in this column. I hope your Christmas was as good as mine!
With prayers for your holiness,
Rev. Fr. Edwin Palka
From the Pastor: Christmas Arrives This Week!
Santa Claus is coming to town! St. Nicholas is soon to arrive! He will have checked his list twice to see who has been naughty and who has been nice. Out of love of God and love of neighbor due to his love of God, he will bring presents to all of God’s good little girls and boys on the very night that God’s Love was manifest to all of creation by the birth of Jesus, born of Mary at midnight on December 25 just over 2000 years ago. I know that St. Nick already made a visit to us here at Epiphany, but he is so generous that he will also visit us at our homes! I can hardly wait but wait I must. The week will drag on endlessly as I count down the days. Monday will last a whole week. Tuesday will seem like a whole month. By the time Wednesday is done, I will think that it certainly has to be next Christmas already! But then a magical day comes with Thursday. Thursday morning will start off just like every other Thursday morning. Masses, confessions, Adoration, and everything else will be just like normal but something will be different. There will be a whiff of Christmas in the air, something hard to explain but far different from the endless, impatient waiting of the previous days. The clock races forward and then it happens! Evening comes and everything changes! Christmas arrives with the first Christmas Mass!
The Novus Ordo Christmas Vigil Mass at 5:00 pm will be the first of the Christmas Masses and, therefore, the official start of Christmas. (For those new to Tradition, Vigils are different in the new and old liturgical calendars. In the new calendar, a Vigil Mass is usually a Sunday Mass celebrated on Saturday evening or the Feast Day’s Mass celebrated the evening before a Holy Day of Obligation. Attending such a Vigil Mass fulfills one’s obligation for the Sunday or Feast Day. In the old calendar, a Vigil Mass is generally the daily Mass celebrated the morning before one of the greatest Feasts, even one which is not a Holy Day of Obligation. It is meant to prepare the people for a big Feast, not to take its place as the new-calendar Vigil does. So those Thursday morning Masses I just mentioned are the TLM Vigil of Christmas Masses. Unlike the Novus Ordo Vigil, attending one does not take the place of the Christmas Mass, nor fulfill the obligation to attend Mass on Christmas.) We never know how many people to expect at that Mass on Christmas Eve. One year, if memory serves correctly, we had three large families show up from out of town and they doubled our usual crowd. Each was simply visiting relatives in the area and found our parish either online or by word of mouth. This year I don’t know if we can expect any travelers. Our Midnight Mass (at midnight!) will once again be celebrated by candlelight. Unless we just happen to have a priest, deacon, or subdeacon stop by unexpectedly, it won’t be a Solemn High Mass this year (oh, how we miss Fr. Vincent!) but it will still be a High Mass and the choir will be heavenly. Just as I remember from childhood, Midnight Mass is expected to be the largest of all the Christmas Masses at Epiphany as you set aside all such obstacles as “tired children” and “long, very late, drives home.” In the morning our 7:30 am Low Mass will gather all of the early risers who must then wait until after Mass to open presents and eat breakfast. What a great explanation I heard one year about how the parents were teaching their children not only patience by attending that Mass but also teaching them that the greatest part of Christmas truly is attending the Mass celebrating Christ’s birth, rather than getting and giving presents, as important as that is. The 10:30 am Mass will see the return of the schola for another High Mass. This year we won’t have to worry about rushing through either of those morning Masses, as there won’t be a Vietnamese Mass in between. Parking should be a bit easier, too! Then, at 1:00 pm, we will have our last Christmas Mass of the day. Since we have never had a 1:00 pm Mass on Christmas (or any other Feast Day, since it was only begun this past June --temporarily, it seemed-- to allow covid anti-social distancing at the popular 10:30 Mass) I don’t know what size congregation to expect. Perhaps it will be full of families who were able to sleep in (hohoho) and then open presents and eat a hearty breakfast before coming to Mass. We shall see.
Fortunately, we will have two more weekends between Christmas and our big Epiphany Celebration which we will hold on Sunday, January 10. During that time we will get a huge tent set up behind the church, place dozens of tables and hundreds of chairs under it, get it all decorated beautifully, and get the hall ready for any overflow if needed. There will be a catered meal and so much more going on that day. Remember, the 1:00 pm Mass will not be celebrated that day, as there will be even more noise than normal, making it impossible to have a truly reverent Mass during the festival. The Epiphany Council of Catholic Women is the driving force behind this event, so when I wrote above that “we” would do this work, I actually meant “they”! Thank you, ladies! Merry Christmas, everyone!
With prayers for your holiness,
Rev. Fr. Edwin Palka
From the Pastor: Memories!
Last week I wrote about the growth, against all worldly odds, of our parish. But as I started looking back a year I saw not only the Mass attendance but also something else of great importance. One year ago this week we had our handicap ramp installed! That was a long-planned project that took quite a bit of time and effort to figure out how to get the plans approved, pass the permitting process, and comply with all disabilities legislation. It seems like such a simple thing but it certainly wasn’t! But what a blessing it has been for those who have a difficult time managing even the few stairs we have leading into the church and social hall. As I was thinking about that project, it dawned on me (you could say that I had an epiphany) that many of you don’t know what changes have occurred in the five years that the Traditional Latin Mass has been at the parish. On our website, you can find a whole section devoted to photos going back to the beginning. If you have the patience to scroll all the way back, you can see photos of the church as it was. There was a different altar. The old one is currently being used as a credence table in the social hall, keeping our monstrance, extra altar cards, missal stand, and other essential objects for Mass out of harm’s way. There were two matching side altars, one of which was being used as a pedestal for the Sacred Heart statue. The pedestals currently holding statues were used as flower stands. The old ambo (pulpit) matched the altar set. There was no altar rail (although there had been one at one time). We got one from a second-hand church supply company. That is also where we got our marble baptismal font. You really should see what it replaced! The tabernacle was completely different, too. It was shaped like a rectangle except that the top went down a couple of inches making it a “v” shape instead of flat. It was replaced first with a tabernacle which had been made to fit on top of the current altar (when it was against the wall in its previous home) and was later replaced with the current tabernacle. There are also photos of Mass in the rectory chapel. I didn’t see any which included the plexiglass altar (which you may have noticed was in the social hall for Masses during the covid lockouts, which is also when the current church sanctuary flooring and steps were installed). The dark wood paneling in the chapel was replaced when the roof decided that it was allergic to water and so let it pass through into the chapel, necessitating a remodel of sorts. That also led to a new roof being installed on the rectory and the school, both of which had been routinely patched for years. You will also find photos of the church being covered with black tarps as we had to have it fumigated to kill the termites. Even now you can check out the front right pew to see just how much damage they were doing!
Looking back at those old photos as I wrote this was fun for me. There were so many things that we were doing as a parish that few attending Traditional Latin Masses in this diocese had ever done before. Since 1969 there had not been a parish dedicated to the Old Rite in our diocese. The few places where the TLM was celebrated never had the ability to allow so much as coffee and donuts after Mass or a regularly scheduled potluck. At one of the parishes, they wouldn’t even allow the priest to keep anything needed for the TLM at the parish, so everything from books to vestments to chalice and bells all had to be loaded up, brought in, set up for use, and taken back down and packed away when Mass was done, each and every week. At this parish, we, for the first time, had the opportunity to allow the parishioners to stay and socialize after Mass and even during the week! While the adults got to know each other, the children had the ability to play and there were footballs and kickballs and frisbees and ping-pong available. What a huge difference all of that makes in a parish!
But more than that, for the first time we also had the opportunity to celebrate feasts which for decades had not been available except in the New Order Rites--if they were done at all--such as all three Christmas Masses (starting with Midnight Mass), Epiphany Mass celebrated on the traditional Feast of Epiphany (January 6), Tenebrae, Rorate Coeli Masses, Ember Days, Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday’s Passion and Veneration of the Cross, the Holy Saturday blessing of Easter Baskets, and, joy of all joys, the Holy Saturday nighttime Vigil and Mass, all done in the 1962 form! We had processions of various kinds for Candlemas, Corpus Christi, and Palm Sunday. We celebrated, in the Old Rite, baptisms, confirmations (Bishop Parkes even celebrated them for us one year!), weddings, and funerals. We had Low Mass and High Mass and, occasionally, Solemn High Mass. I had to learn (and am still learning) how to celebrate all of these, as I didn’t even chant Mass before coming here! Many of you, new to the parish, still haven’t experienced much of this. You are in for a treat when you finally see what I mean. The photos are great. But greater still is experiencing this in person!
With prayers for your holiness,
Rev. Fr. Edwin Palka
From the Pastor: Mass Attendance Statistics
I have been going over the results of our October Mass counts in the diocese. We get these compilations twice a year, the other time being after the February parish Mass counts. Every parish (there are officially 80 parishes and missions in the diocese) counts noses at their Sunday Masses and sends the completed report to the chancery office in St. Petersburg, where somebody tallies the numbers and produces nice spreadsheets for whatever use they have. The pastors each get a copy of these spreadsheets to be used as we see fit. The numbers are presented in two ways. The first spreadsheet in this latest compilation had each week of October broken out with the reported numbers listed by week, followed by the average weekly total. The average weekly attendance for the Month of October was then compared to the previous year’s weekly average in October and the percent of increase or decrease was noted. It is this result that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Epiphany’s October 2020 Mass attendance from week one through week four is as follows: 636, 560, 639, and 674 for an average of 627 people attending Sunday Mass per week. Epiphany’s average during the same month in 2019 was 412, so we had an increased Mass attendance this year of 215 people, or 52.2%. No other parish in the diocese had a year to year increase in October. The next closest parishes (numbers wise, not geographically) were St. Mary in Tampa, which only had an 11.9% decrease, and St. Vincent de Paul parish in Holiday, which was down 13.7%. St. Anthony the Abbot in Brooksville and the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam in Largo were the next best with decreases of only 23.4% and 28.1% respectively. All of the other parishes were down more than 30%, for a grand total average of a 52.4% decrease across the board. (FYI, St. Joseph Vietnamese Mission was down by 39.9% even as they were preparing to move out of Epiphany and into their own church.)
The second spreadsheet shows the current year’s Sunday Mass attendance plus the last six years’ count. In October of 2014, before the Traditional Latin Mass began being celebrated at Epiphany, the numbers are shown as DNR, or Did Not Report. Perhaps someone forgot to count or to send in the results to the chancery. Regardless of why there were no numbers reported that month, it was the following August (2015) that the TLM started here. I was told (perhaps through the numbers for the February count) that 87 people were currently attending the Saturday Vigil Mass and two Sunday Masses combined. So that is our starting point. Now back to October numbers. In 2015 we had 242 people at all of the Masses combined, in 2016 that increased to 305. 2017 saw a slight decrease to 298. In 2018 we increased to 322 followed by a significant jump in 2019 to 412 and, finally, to this crushing pandemic year, where, as mentioned previously, we rose to 627! With these results, there are now 49 parishes which are smaller than Epiphany!
The most amazing thing (as I see it) about these numbers has nothing to do with our increase as every other parish decreases during this extended pandemic panic, as impressive as that is. Rather, our increase is impressive because it has all come about because Epiphany celebrates as her norm the form of the Mass that everybody insists--even while seeing such numbers--that nobody wants! Oh, we still have our sole Novus Ordo Mass, the Saturday Vigil, but that Mass still averages just over 20 people. The increasing numbers are all due to the TLM. When I was first asked by parishioners, three parishes ago, to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, I, too, was of the impression that nobody would show up for one. After all, I said, I had been a priest for over a decade and not a single person had ever asked for a “Latin Mass.” So I understand why my brother priests don’t get it. We have all been told our entire lives (those raised after the second Vatican council, that is) that the “old Mass” was terrible, that the priest turned his back on the laity, and that the old ladies prayed (O, the horror!) the rosary during Mass. It was presented as a Mass of priestly dominance, and only suitable for the widows who had nothing else to do. But every young priest (I flatter myself!) who has learned to celebrate this ancient Mass and the other sacraments out of the old Ritual--especially baptism--soon gets the cobwebs cleaned out of his brain and realizes that the old ways flourished and were fine-tuned for nearly two thousand years not because they were so awful but because they were so prayerfully effective!
I do not believe that these statistics are unique to Epiphany. I suspect that something similar is happening everywhere the TLM is celebrated by a priest who really believes in his priesthood (and, thus, in the Church), something that often happens to a much greater level after learning the TLM than before. Priests and bishops, seeing such numbers everywhere, will one day do as I did and stop assuming that the people don’t ask for the “Usus Antiquior” because they know the difference and prefer the new. Instead, the clergy will realize that the people have been cheated out of their heritage and treasure. Their people don’t ask for the venerable old Rites because they don’t know the richness of what was taken from them. Yet behold! The Restoration swiftly cometh!
With prayers for your holiness,
Rev. Fr. Edwin Palka