No tables were broken at this tailgate party, but much bread was.
A unique event unlike any I’ve seen at a church, Sunday’s gathering at Blessed Sacrament Church was part tailgate party and part parish picnic, but even more it was a reconvening of the larger parish family, friends, and neighbors. After a half year of vaccinations, many of the faithful have resumed attending Mass in person. So Blessed Sacrament Church took good advantage of a lovely late-summer day, and a long-time football rivalry, to renew ties and pick up unfinished business.
Principal among that unfinished business is the vital church reform series of presentations, discussions, and even concerts that began last year just as the pandemic hurricane came ashore. Buffalo Rising covered the first presentation and is picking up its coverage again. Like many of us, the series has expanded since the pandemic. And the capstone event with Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s strongest voices against the death penalty, has been rescheduled.
When I approached the welcome table on Sunday, I was greeted by Parish Council President Michael Pitek, who told me that the preceding Mass was so packed it was like a second Mass Mob (their first was two years ago). The event itself was a sea of Bills jerseys and included lots of Bills-themed games for the large contingent of children and youth. The screening of the game and the grilling of the hots (Sahlen’s, of course) was held behind Catholic Academy of West Buffalo, and there were guests and volunteers from the other Catholic schools in the Elmwood Village, Nardin, and Canisius.
There were also several “celebrity” guests and neighbors who stopped by, including Theater Critic Anthony Chase and family, Javier Bustillos, Jamie Moses, and David Granville. Democratic nominee for Mayor of Buffalo, India Walton, also stopped by.
Throughout the event I was reminded of what a long-serving priest told me just the Sunday before, as I sat with him at the Harvest Festival after last week’s Buffalo Mass Mob at Corpus Christi Church. We talked about the myriad crises facing the Diocese and whether the new Bishop was a sign of hope. “Nothing is fixed by a new Bishop,” the priest told me, “The problem is that the new Bishop is still getting bad advice from the same people who have been giving our Bishops bad advice for decades.”
That was an eye-opening comment, but what he said next was what really stuck with me. “What the Diocese hasn’t been able to kill,” he told me, “are the parishes.”
That rang true to me, as I’ve recently written (here, for example) about how parishes have “kept on keeping on” in the face of scandals that have shaken the faithful and undermined the sense of stability and permanence of the Diocese. That included a mention two years ago of how Blessed Sacrament was busy planning for a relevant future at the very same time the Diocese seemed to be losing its footing, including coffee discussions with Parish Council President Michael Pitek.
As I wrote at the time,
The active, thoughtful participation in those discussions was a welcome sign to me that, although many have stopped attending and perhaps even more have stopped contributing, most Catholics are still keeping the faith and trying, best they can, to continue the work of the Church.
As the Diocese faces its apocalyptic four-horsemen – the abuse scandal, bankruptcy, COVID, and declining enrollments – more parishes will have to assume more responsibility for their futures. In a rigidly hierarchical church, many Catholics have traditionally looked to their leaders for guidance, but the kind of lay leadership I see at parishes like Blessed Sacrament, and Corpus Christi – where parishioners have been organized to keep the church viable for two decades – will have to become the norm.
And parishes will have to utilize all their assets to remain viable and continue to serve their communities. In that regard, Blessed Sacrament Church seems well-positioned to not only survive but even thrive. It is the Elmwood Village’s only parish, and has strong ties not only to Catholic Academy of West Buffalo next door, but to other nearby Catholic schools like Nardin and Canisius. It is well-positioned to serve the young families who already live in the neighborhood and will be moving there to live at places like Elmwood Crossing.
The parish is fortunate that it’s history adjacent to the site of the former St. Joseph’s Cathedral has left it some substantial facilities it can put to use to serve those families. On Sunday I got a look inside the former carriage house that the church plans to convert to a parish center. It is by far the most extensive and unique such structure I’ve ever seen.
Not to be overlooked nor underestimated is the parish’s growing willingness to take smart risks. Sunday’s tailgate party was one example, the Church on Fire series is another. At the party I met the parishioner who originally suggested inviting the Mass Mob. While some in the parish didn’t see the point, she told me, they went ahead, and it turned out to be a great event. If not for the Mass Mob, I’d still know little about this church “hiding in plain sight,” let alone what is has to offer the community. And certainly not what it has the potential to teach the rest of us.
That teaching continues this month with the next presentation in the Church on Fire – Stay With Us series.
The Catherine M. and Paul W. Beltz Lecture Series
The Laity and Vatican II: “Go Forth and Announce the Gospel of the Lord”
Eileen T. Warner, Director of Parish Engagement and Member Renewal Team
Member: Diocese of Buffalo. Deacon William J. Hynes, Deacon for Blessed Sacrament Church
Sunday, September 26: 11:30 am – 1:00 pm
Blessed Sacrament Church