SASKATOON — Harry Strauss spent his time going to church this past summer. This is not too surprising because Strauss is a pastor. What is unique is that he is an Evangelical pastor who spent this past year attending Roman Catholic masses around the city of Saskatoon.
Strauss is a pastor at Forest Grove Church in Saskatoon. He has served as co-chair of the local Evangelical-Catholic dialogue over the past five years.
“I had a couple of months off and I didn’t really plan to attend all the Catholic churches, it just kind of evolved,” said Strauss.
Strauss presented his observations to the staff of the Catholic Pastoral Centre in February.
“I wanted to get a sense of Catholic witness and reflect back to my Evangelical brothers and sisters what we share in a positive way,” shared Strauss.
Over the summer and fall of 2015, Strauss attended 20 Sunday celebrations at Catholic parishes in Saskatoon, sometimes up to three times on a given Sunday.
He was able to quickly and accurately outline the components of a Catholic liturgy. He was initially taken by the penitential rite. “Our Evangelical circles have opportunities to confess their sins but not with the same intentionality,” he noted.
Strauss was impressed by the number and the variety of Scriptures heard in a Catholic mass, and was aware of the three-year rotating canon of readings.
When he attended several liturgies on one weekend, Strauss got to know the readings well. As a pastor, he found it enlightening to experience how, after hearing the readings a second and even a third time, he would have trouble remembering what he heard at an earlier celebration — and how he was hearing new messages with each new proclamation.
“It was a lesson to me that families are dealing with a lot of distractions and sometimes it took until the second or third liturgy until I remembered the readings,” he admitted. “This was an important lesson for me as a preacher — to appreciate how difficult it is just to be present to the readings.”
He pointed to the helpful practice of one pastor who offered a brief precursor to the readings in which he asked the congregation to listen for certain phrases, themes or characters in the readings they were about to hear.
Strauss said that he appreciated the lay involvement in ministries during the liturgy, including the prayers of the faithful and the sign of peace.
“The whole idea of sharing the peace of Christ is a good practice for a group of Christians,” he said.
Strauss noted that many people think that one of the main areas of difference between Catholics and Evangelicals is in the area of preaching, but he did not agree.
“These messages that I heard in the Catholic settings could have easily been preached in an Evangelical church and been well received,” he said. “The only exception would have been the Sunday when the readings were from John and the homilies were about transubstantiation.”
Homilies ranged from five to 17 minutes. In Evangelical communities, most sermons are closer to 30 minutes.
“I was very much engaged by the messages, even the one Sunday when I attended the Chaldean church and the priest preached in Aramaic,” he said.
Strauss noted the diversity of ordained leadership ranging from African, Vietnamese, Columbian, Iraqi, Irish, Filipino, Polish and Canadian-born priests as well as the gathered faithful. “This brings a richness to you as a diocese,” he said. “I saw beaded First Nations presider garments and lots of communities of people from various nations of the world.”
Strauss was pleasantly surprised at the large number of Chaldean Catholics at Sacred Heart Church.
“I thought there would be 80 or so, but there was more like 350,” he said. “These are a biblical people, Syrian, Iraqi.”
He also picked up bulletins at each parish and what he noticed right away was how busy Catholic priests are.
“They do masses daily, reconciliation, pastoral duties, counselling, visiting, funerals, and sometimes (for) more than one parish,” he commiserated. “There is a lot of good ministry going on in your churches.”
One aspect of the Catholic faith that intrigued Strauss is the beliefs around the communion of the saints. By way of example, Strauss shared a story from his own ministry about visiting an Evangelical family who had just lost their mother.
“One of the sons who lived out of town noted that he didn’t feel as safe driving because his mom was no longer praying for him when he travelled,” he shared. “The line between heaven and earth might be a little more set than it is for Catholics. A Catholic might think that when a parent dies they will have even more time to pray,” he reflected.
Strauss also noted some architectural features of the many churches in Saskatoon, from the earth tones of St. Francis Xavier Parish to the dramatic sloped roof of St. Philip Neri Church and the stained glass windows of the Cathedral of the Holy Family.
He noticed one other thing. “No screens, no PowerPoint,” he smiled.
“We live in an age when we are so focused on the image, and for you as Catholics, art and image and statues and Stations of the Cross, images are all over but none of you are taking advantage of (new technology).”
Strauss agreed that there may be some good reasons not to project images or Scripture passages, but he shared how, when done well, these forms of technology can add to a liturgy a different level of dynamism and interaction.
One of the insights that those who attended Strauss’ presentation found comforting was his sense that mass attendance was strong in all parishes, no matter the time.
“In the Evangelical mind, the sacred time is between 9 a.m. and 12 noon, so to see a mass at noon that is basically full was surprising,” he said.
Strauss ended with a prayer: “May the Catholic witness in the city of Saskatoon flourish. May your emphasis on the new evangelization bring much fruit in your community as you bear witness to Christ . . . to him be glory in the church and the world throughout all generations.”
Lois McKay, who works at the Catholic Pastoral Centre, shared her thoughts on Strauss’ message.
“I would like every parish to hear this message,” she said. “What you said is so positive and practical. There is always room for improvement, but we are doing some things well. We need to hear that sometimes.”