While visiting a friend in Sacramento this past weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of being able to attend Sunday Mass at St. Stephen the First Martyr, a parish served by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. The FSSP, for those of you who are unaware, is an order of priests who celebrate Mass according to the 1962 missal; it was founded in 1988 by several priests and seminarians who had left the Society of St. Pius X after its founder, Archbp. Marcel Lefebvre, illicitly ordained four bishops and was excommunicated. Thus, the Fraternity is in good standing with Rome, unlike the SSPX (though the latter’s schismatic status may be resolved in the near future; but that’s another story). In any event, I managed to make the 10:30 AM High Mass, and was I ever impressed.
First, the church itself. The edifice, which looks to have been a Protestant church before being put to its current use, is completely uninteresting. Inside, though, is a different story. Crocketted reredos flanked by statues of Our Lady and St. Joseph rise to meet an impressive crucifix, the summit of a beautifully furnished high altar; painted on the ceiling above this is the image of a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit. (The reredos also contain three other saints; but I could only identify one, St. Stephen, offhand.) The church’s stained glass windows, though small, are both colorful and reverent, and there are additional statues of Our Lord and Our Lady in the back.
Now, I’m no authority on such matters, but I’ve been Catholic long enough to recognize a liturgy done right when I see one. The vestments and liturgical items (candles, thurible, etc.) were splendid; more importantly, though, they were used with great solemnity. The celebrant took his time singing the Mass, and nothing felt rushed. In fact, the service clocked over an hour and forty minutes, longer than I’m used to even with the Tridentine rite. And the music—the music was incredible! From the parish’s website: “Liturgical music is a priority. Gregorian chant, polyphony, and hymnody are led by our parishoner-comprised Schola Cantorum, adult choir, and choristers. We are particularly proud to maintain the ancient Catholic chorister tradition.” As well they should be. The Mass was preceded and followed by stunning organ work, but the singing was largely unaccompanied throughout. Truly stellar.
(An interesting side note: two of the polyphonic pieces were in English. I didn’t know that this was possible for Masses celebrated in the Extraordinary Form; does anyone know anything about this?)
All that being said, what impressed me most about the church were its parishioners and clergy. Three priests, all of whom appear to be under 50, serve a parish of over 700 and do so with reverence. I wasn’t immediately impressed with the homily that day, but my criticism would mostly center around the priest’s speaking style; what he said was not only orthodox but practical as well. The population is racially diverse and encompasses all age groups; both little old ladies and young couples with children (several children, in more than a few instances) were in attendance when I went. Particularly telling was the number of men present, both young and old, and the veritable army of altar boys—I counted an astonishing 27, and I may have missed one or two. There was a line at the confessionals and a constant refrain of crying babies competing with the music; this is what a Catholic parish is supposed to look and sound like.
Finally, in what is an important element for any church, Catholic or otherwise, there was a sense of community there. Communal meals are apparently held after each service, breakfast in the morning, lunch in the afternoon; and, while this was thankfully not apparent in the sanctuary, I noted the parishioners chatting with each other and the priests in the courtyard outside after Mass.
On the whole I was extremely impressed by St. Stephen the First Martyr. If you ever happen to be in the area (or if you’re Catholic and live in or are planning to move to Sacramento), check this place out.