Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Transformation of a Building, Transformation of the Soul.

Transformation of a Building, Transformation of the Soul.
The dedication of Christ the King Chapel, Sarasota, Florida.
By Matthew James Bellisario 2009
Pictures by Matthew James Bellisario

On April 19th, 2009, I experienced first hand the transformation of an ordinary building into a Sacred House of God. Over the past several months, I watched as a building was transformed. On the morning of the 19th I woke up at 5:00 a.m. unable to sleep in anticipation of the dedication of the new chapel. I had had the opportunity to help Father James Fryar, FSSP, with the chapel's sound system, and assist with other small tasks along the way, prior to dedication day. Although I experienced something beyond words at Sunday's Dedication and Mass, I realize that this event neither started on that day, nor did it come to summation. This little chapel in Sarasota, Florida, has a much grander story to tell. The Chapel of Christ the King tells the story of the human soul, and its relationship with God.

As the sun rose over the chapel just a small distance away from the Sarasota coastline, over 400 people were making their way to witness the historical event. Bishop Frank J. Dewane, who has not only been supportive of the Latin Mass community in the Diocese of Venice, but was also instrumental in the purchase of the building, arrived early to see the final touches that were made in the sanctuary just hours before the ceremony. Father Fausto Stampiglia, pastor of Saint Martha's where the Latin Mass community began in January 1995 in conjunction with the Ecclesia Dei Society, another main catalyst and longtime supporter of the Latin Mass, also arrived early and walked alongside Bishop Dewane. He gazed at the bishop with Father Fryar following close behind, and spoke in a low sincere tone that his dream had finally come true. Father Fausto made it clear that he wanted to be sure the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Mass would be carried on in Sarasota after he retired. His dream, along with that of many others, was fulfilled just hours later. The bishop in good humor posed for some photos and then along with Father Fausto and Father Fryar graciously made his way to the sacristy to prepare for the Dedication and Mass.

As I reflect on my spiritual journey in my Catholic faith, I cannot help but relate this chapel to my own life. I am sure that many others who have been in this community for much longer than I will relate to my experience. Coming to the Catholic Church from Protestantism and through the Orthodox faith, I have experienced quite a transformational journey. It is one that is still in process, of course. But when I remember the chapel and the rather ugly interior of it, I think of myself before my conversion. The damage of sin takes its toll on the soul and makes a mess of it that cannot be repaired with nice clothes or a new haircut. So it was with the little chapel; although it was renovated and given new paint, new adornments and so forth, it only really came alive with the Dedication and the Mass that followed it. So it is with the soul; it only comes alive with the presence of God in the sacraments and in the Holy Eucharist. Although the chapel was well decorated and renovated from the dingy and mangy looking corpse that it was before, it came to life when Bishop Dewane dedicated and blessed the altar and walls of it.

Just after 9:00 a.m., the bishop followed behind the procession of priests and servers, making his way to the main doors of the structure. He chanted the Latin prayers and then proceeded to bless the building generously, soaking the outer walls with the aspersorium. He rounded the building, then stopped again before the double doors of the church where more prayers were said. The cross-bearer knocked on the doors three times and and the doors were opened. It was as if the building had received a baptism, just as we, the faithful, do. Bishop Dewane stepped through the doors and proceeded to the altar where the litany of the Saints was chanted. Next Bishop Dewane blessed the entire interior of the chapel, after which the procession exited to the back hall where preparation began for the chapel's first Mass.

So the chapel's life begins anew as ours does in baptism and confirmation. We are nourished with the Holy Eucharist in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This is instrumental in our transformation or deification. The next glorious happening in the new Latin Mass chapel would be the first Mass ever to be celebrated within its walls. Now that the building had been blessed and dedicated it was ready to be used to feed the faithful. Just as Christ told Saint Peter in the Gospel of John, “Feed my sheep,” Bishop Frank J Dewane had the coming of the FSSP planned well before Pope Benedict's Motu Proprio was released, and has indeed fed the faithful of his diocese with this wonderful Latin Mass chapel.

Minutes later everyone gazed upon the server carrying the thurible, which billowed sweet-smelling incense into the air. He was followed by the cross-bearer, two candle-bearers, several more servers who were seminarians from the FSSP, Father Justin Nolan, FSSP, Father Gregory Pendergraft, FSSP, Father James Fryar, FSSP, and Bishop Frank J. Dewane, flanked by Father Robert Tatman and Father Fausto Stampiglia. The bishop and priests came before the altar so that Jesus could be given to us in the real and substantial form that He Himself chose. The liturgy was carried on with great reverence by everyone involved and everyone in the chapel was awestruck into silence.

It was now beginning to set in what was actually happening. This chapel is the first chapel in the state of Florida dedicated to the Extraordinary Form. No longer could the Latin Mass be referred to as being washed up, or done away with. No longer could it be considered an outcast in the life of the Church in Florida. I have been to many great churches in my life, witnessing the ancient tile mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, and Saint John Lateran in Rome, and the great Saint Peter's in Rome which rises many stories above the ground, and yet this little chapel in Sarasota, Florida, had just carved out its own small piece of history. She would be the sign which overcame the iconoclastic mindset of so many over the past 40 years. She would be the sign which gave the liturgy back her more pure and reverent language. She would be the sign to bring us liturgical music which raises the heart and soul to God. And this little chapel would bring us to contemplate and receive God in a an increasingly godless society. She alone in the state of Florida gives us a forecast of the future climate of Catholicism in America. Although she is not the first of her kind, she has indeed spoken with a loud voice in the wilderness.

After the Epistle was chanted by Father Justin Nolan, and the Holy Gospel by Father Gregory Pendergraft, Father James Fryar climbed up the ambo to introduce the bishop. The bishop in his usual joyful form ascended the steps of the ambo and gave a thoughtful homily on what this chapel was dedicated for. He spoke of the importance of each person coming closer to God within its walls and growing in community. He also made it clear that he was not only supportive of this grand spectacle, but overjoyed at it. He then looked down upon Father Fausto Stampigilia and congratulated him on his efforts and his work with the community. Father Fausto looked upwards with a wide smile.

One of my tasks for the day was to take for Father Fryar a grand photograph of the first consecration in the chapel. As I knelt in the center aisle and watched him raise the host above his head with the greatest pause and reverence, I knew that God was present. Likewise, as he raised his handmade chalice to the heavens, I had to hold back tears. I knew that not only was this a glorious event for me, but also for the many present in that chapel who grew up with the Latin Mass and had waited for this day for over 40 years. Folks like Stan Valerga who headed the Ecclesia Dei society, Leo and Carol LaBrecque who led the choir, and many others had waited so long for this. Many of them had been going to Saint Martha's for about 14 years with this day as their sole aim, and their dedication had finally been rewarded.

I walked to the front of the chapel afterword and knelt before the communion rail. The bishop prayerfully and without the slightest disposition of haste placed Our Lord on my tongue. As I received Our Lord from Bishop Dewane, kneeling at the new altar rail, I knew that something beyond words had taken place. I knew that this was not the end of the story, but only the beginning of the next chapter. When I look at this chapel, it reminds me of how I started out. A virtual wreck, damaged by sin, yet continually restored and renewed by the grace of God. Just as the chapel had been transformed so are we as the faithful transformed. Just as the chapel had new life so do we have new life. Just as this chapel now proclaims the living Gospel, so do we as well proclaim the living Gospel.

After the Mass had concluded, Bishop Dewane walked about outside to meet the people. He gave blessings, posed for photographs, and graciously blessed a child's rosary for her. The affection of the faithful was expressed by all to His Excellency. Soon after, the Bishop along with all of the clergy and faithful met in the new hall. Father James Fryar presented a plaque to Father Fausto Stampiglia which named the new hall after him. Father Fryar expressed that he had only harvested the field which had long ago been planted by Father Fausto. The bishop congratulated Father Fausto and the two embraced after Father Fausto thanked the bishop for his support. The day ended with children dressed in yellow aprons imprinted with the Christ the King logo serving snacks, and people enjoying conversation with one another.

This chapel gives us all a lesson in our lives. She gives us an example of a transformation that we are all called to experience. We see that God takes a damaged, distorted image of our souls and transforms it by His grace, just as this dead building was transformed into a chapel of God. It is in this Latin Liturgy that this will happen for those who attend Christ the King chapel in Sarasota, Florida. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his landmark Motu Proprio, “It is known, in fact, that the Latin liturgy of the Church in its various forms, in each century of the Christian era, has been a spur to the spiritual life of many saints, has reinforced many peoples in the virtue of religion and fecundated their piety.” So too will this be the case here at this little chapel. May we all be transformed in Christ Our Lord.

Matthew James Bellisario 2009.


Andrew W said...

Moving description, Matthew. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

I'm all glad for this ceremony...but news flash!!! There are other churches in Florida where the TLM is only said. E.g. SSPX chapels. This, to my knowedledge is the only diocese based church in Florida.

Maureen said...

Thank you, Matthew! You have truly captured the essence of the day. Deo gratias.

Andrew W said...

Anonymous - You are right, there are SSPX and independent chapels in the state that have been here for years.

The context for the statement is those that are canonically recognized - diocesan or otherwise - of which as best I can tell Christ the King is the first in Florida to be set aside for exclusive use of the EF and administering of sacraments according to the liturgical books of 1962.

Hopefully the future will see the canonical status of the SSPX chapels change, as the recent rumors of the SSPX/Holy See doctrinal discussion formats being decided upon renews hope that progress is being made toward SSPX's canonical regularization.

Roman Catholic said...

We're in Colorado, and have plans to visit Sarasota area soon. We hope to move to FL in the next few years, and we're seriously considering Sarasota primarily because it offers a beautiful Latin Rite Mass with the FSSP. We attend FSSP Latin Mass for three years now, and we are so grateful to have such a blessing in our area, and across the country. Hope to visit your beautiful church sometime soon. God bless you!