By Ashley Pitlyk
Photos by Steve Dolan
It's Sunday night, and the house is packed. The energy of those assembled is palpable as everyone waits in anticipation of the big event. For the team assembled in the back, the adrenaline is mounting. No, it's not a Billiken basketball game at Chaifetz Arena. It's the 9 p.m. Mass at St. Francis Xavier College Church.
As anyone at Saint Louis University will tell you, this isn't your traditional Sunday morning Mass. Dynamic music, inspired preaching and large-scale student involvement make the 9 p.m. Mass a truly religious experience.
Annie Shaver, a theology major, is a regular at the 9 p.m. liturgy and is one of more than 200 SLU students trained as a liturgical minister. Her experience of the Mass at SLU has been unlike anything she ever encountered.
"I went to a Catholic high school, and we had Masses on holy days of obligation. But we were in school, and we had to go," Shaver recalled. "The 9 p.m. Mass at SLU is special. The first Mass I attended was standing room only. I was overwhelmed and amazed at the number of people who wanted to be there."
The first late-night Mass of the year draws roughly 1,400 students (the church only seats 1,250), and with anywhere from 600 to 900 students in attendance on an average week, the 9 p.m. Mass at Saint Louis University is the largest regularly attended student activity on campus. It's also the largest single student Mass at any of the nation's 28 Jesuit colleges and universities.
College Church wasn't always packed with students, though. The first late-night Mass at College Church was celebrated in 1990 when it was noticed that student attendance at existing Sunday liturgies was low. To appeal to student hours, campus ministers introduced a 10 p.m. Sunday liturgy. The first Mass started with 25 students, but by the next semester it had grown to 150.
Times have certainly changed since 1990 -- literally. In fall 2009, the Mass moved from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. to accommodate the needs of priests and students who had 8 a.m. classes the next day.
"We expected to get a lot of push back because the 10 p.m. Mass was such an established tradition," said Liturgy Coordinator Abby Braun, who helps plan the evening Sunday Mass. "I think for most students, though, that Mass isn't dependent on the time. The spirit of the celebration hasn't changed."
THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
So what is it that makes the Mass such a popular tradition at SLU? Vice President of Mission and Ministry Paul Stark, S.J., said it's the sense of community that manifests itself during the Mass.
"The Mass is a constitutive part of our Jesuit identity," Stark said. "It's deeper than classes, and it's more than content. It's an expression of who we are."
"There is a strong sense of community at the Mass. That's what I hear time and time again from students," Braun echoed. "I use the term 'community' not in the sense of a group of people who are similar and think alike, but community in the sense of a people of faith called together by God to participate in the paschal mystery -- the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I think students are longing to belong to and participate in that mystery, in communion with their peers."
That sense of belonging was exactly what George Theotokatos, a sophomore from Chicago majoring in communication, was seeking.
Like many first-year students, Theotokatos struggled during his first week at SLU, battling homesickness and fears about making new friends. An invitation to attend the 9 p.m. Mass with several other students, however, helped him discover a new sense of home.
"It was like a slap in the face," Theotokatos said. "Father Nick Smith, a SLU campus minister, gave the homily, and he talked about coming from a place where you felt at home and moving somewhere that you love but is a completely new experience. Everything he said resonated with me, and I could have sworn I was the only one at Mass."
Despite not being Roman Catholic (Theotokatos is Greek Orthodox), the Mass inspired him to become more involved in his faith. He made a trip to SLU's Eckelkamp Center for Campus Ministry, where he began exploring the idea of converting to Catholicism.
WORDS TO LIVE BY
Though not every homily can inspire conversion, the preaching at the 9 p.m. Mass is a continual draw for students. Unlike at parishes, a priest at the 9 p.m. Mass may only preside once or twice a semester, making each homily a special experience.
"I love that the priests we have are able to connect to students and relate the homily to us to show that the readings are still applicable in our lives as college students," Shaver said.
"The homily always seems to have a direct connection to whatever I'm going through," said Claire McKeone, a physical therapy graduate student from Ann Arbor, Mich. "Sometimes I feel like God is telling me, 'Pay attention. I'm telling you this now because I know you're listening.' Those are always great moments."
While McKeone has had numerous "great moments" at the 9 p.m. liturgy, she recalls one particular homily that reminded and inspired her to concentrate on the words of the Eucharistic prayer to feel God's presence in the Mass.
"I was really focusing on the Eucharist, and at that moment the choir went off script and played one of my favorite songs," McKeone said. "It was kind of like reassurance -- that God was thanking me for my effort."
PREACHIING TO THE CHOIR
Praise for the music at the 9 p.m. Mass is a familiar refrain among students. From Mozart to Sister Act and everything in between, the choir's deep musical repertoire gives new meaning to St. Augustine's phrase "to sing is to pray twice."
"By blending all of what's really great from our musical heritage, we capture the depth and the breadth of our religious tradition," said Choir Director Sean Dineen. "We take liturgical music and instill our life, our love and our prayer into it, and make it transcend more than just mere words on a written page, more than just notes to follow along on the score. We make it into sung prayer."
Dineen is no stranger to the late-night liturgy, having been involved in the music ministry of the Mass since 1991. Although he graduated from SLU years ago, at heart he's still a college student who can be found laughing, dancing and speaking in funny accents to lead nearly 75 singers and musicians in song.
"Students are just so full of life and love and energy," Dineen said. "It energizes me so that I then can cycle it back and bring my energy to them."
The cycle of energy can be felt and appreciated by the entire congregation. Everyone sings along at the Mass. Even after the final procession, many students linger to hear more.
"I think it's really great when the students clap for the choir at the end," Shaver said. "I know the choir puts a lot of time, effort and practice into all that they do, and it shows."
The music, the preaching, the behind-the-scenes planning -- all elements come together to foster full and active participation in the 9 p.m. liturgy, making Mass a true celebration.
"It's very difficult to exit the Mass angry about something," Theotokatos said.
"I appreciate being able to explore my faith with other people on campus," Shaver said. "There's a great sense of understanding, support and compassion that comes from Mass."
For many students, the 9 p.m. Mass is an anchor that allows them to start their week with God and prepare for the days ahead.
"Monday is always a little daunting," McKeone said. "Mass is a great way to start the week. I always leave feeling refreshed."
From the Spring 2012 issue of Universitas
And while most students only get to regularly experience the 9 p.m. Mass for four years, the spirit of the Mass continues to live on, even after graduation.
"Our hope as campus ministers is not that students have this incredible experience at the 9 p.m. Mass and then leave SLU discouraged and say, 'Well, gosh. I'm never going to have that again,'" Braun said. "Instead, we hope that the 9 p.m. Mass teaches them something about what the Mass can be and that they take that spirit with them and work with God to build it in other places."