Kathy and I attended mass with the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, MN, yesterday. (It's the sister monastery to St. John's Abbey, about which I will speak at great length if you but ask.) We were there for the Jubilee (50th anniversary of solemn profession of vows) of the sister of the husband of one of Kathy's second cousins. (It's a long story -- short version: Kathy's relatives are delighted about our interest in "things Catholic," which sparked an introduction to Sr. Cecelia, who was delighted to have at her celebration a couple of Protestants who shared her passion for ordered ministry.)
It was, by most standards, a pretty unremarkable event. It was a straightforward mass, although it was pretty much "run" (as Kathy said) by women, and not by men: The prioress preached the homily, only one man aside from the presiding priest served communion (and I guess he was a former president of the College of St. Benedict, which was established by this community), the prioress presided over the nuns' reaffirmation of their vows, and so on. The Sacred Heart Chapel has been brightened and modernized along Vatican II lines, with a centered chancel, very white walls, an utter impressive dome that now (what with the remodeling) sits over the altar as a kind of glorified baldachin. The music was familiar, with pipe organ supplemented with brass, violin, and for some numbers guitar (which was wonderful with the psalm and a canticle).
But despite the every-day appearance, it was a moving and inspiring event. Sister Prioress gave a precis of each "Jubilant"'s service over 50 years. And one -- well, I -- couldn't help wondering how the Roman Catholic Church could possible function without its nuns/sister and monks/brothers. Of course, I'm partial to Benedictines: When they remember their heritage/mission of hospitality, I can only shout "Amen," because I have been the recipient of that hospitality time and again. When they speak of praying the Psalms, I am humbled. When the schola sang the verses to the Psalm at mass, there was a sense of the familiarity of the texts that I never hear elsewhere. And I realize how important it is that they meet "three times daily" to speak, sing, recite, pray, praise the Psalms. When the sisters speak together or arrange for a luncheon for guests or (as Sr. Dorothy had to do) come fetch guests from the community cemetery in order to be included in a picture, there is something rooted and sound that is often missed by even the most evangelically driven pastor or lay person in my world.
There was an aura of sanctity that attached to the place -- to and through the individual sisters that I met, but also to and through the mere existence of the community (now over 150 years old). Even the chapel looked more modern than my church (and I love the English Gothic building we have!), I felt wrapped up in something big and old and durable. It was Church, with a capital "C".