Inside a Mass Mob

How does it feel to play tourist at a grand old church in your own city?

mob-mass2With four minutes to Mass time, St. Casimir’s was jammed. The grand Byzantine church was so large, it would pass for a cathedral in most cities. A barrel-vaulted ceiling led to a huge dome over the altar. Earthy brick offset paintings of angels rejoicing in blue-lit skies.

We looked up in wonder, but back on the ground, we needed to jostle for a pew. A gray-haired couple smiled, giving us the okay to squeeze into theirs. And then the choir sang out in Polish. “Bóg sie rodzi,” the pink song sheet said: “God is born.”

This was our first Mass mob. We’d heard about this trend, named for the quick dance-and-disperse flash mobs that started in 2003. In the Catholic version, organizers put out the word through social media, and hundreds descend on a beautiful but struggling urban church for a service. We’d recently moved to Buffalo — where the now-national movement began in 2013 — and wanted to see what a Mass mob was really like.

As the service began, the smartphones that people had lifted to snap photos were tucked back into pockets. Pungent incense smoke filled the sanctuary. Dozens of bells clanged. The choir harmonized what sounded like nine or 10 verses. They were the Chopin Singing Society, clad in red blazers. This would evidently be a High Mass.

Then the priest, Father Czeslaw Krysa, launched into his homily and quickly brought the lofty ceremony down to earth. St. Casimir’s was built by Polish immigrants in Buffalo’s old Kaisertown neighborhood, somewhere we’d never been. Bar signs there offered not beer but “brewskis.” Krysa would sprinkle his talk with Polish phrases, but first he made everyone else feel at home.

“Welcome to all of you who have come to see,” he boomed. “Every single Mass is like this one — except for the Chopins, and maybe a few extra people. We’re not putting on a show for you.”

The energy of the people and the beauty of the building added to the experience. “Everything came out — the beauty of the architecture, the sculptures, the paintings, the community,” said Ben Spitler. “It all came together in the liturgy.”

Krysa joked about Facebook, arguing that the first Mass mob was held long before social media by Pope Gregory in Rome hundreds of years ago. “It was Buffalo that refound that tradition, and heads the country in people who want to be inspired,” he said.

The service continued — the presentation of the gifts; the prayer over the offerings; and warm handshaking at the sign of peace. By the time we got Communion, the wafers were being broken into eighths so there would be enough for everyone. There were around 800 people on hand — more than 10 times the usual 75 for a Mass at St. Casimir’s.

Eventually, I peeked at my watch and saw that it was 11:30, an hour and a half after we’d started. The church’s beauty, the choir’s sounds and the crowd’s energy had made it easy to lose ourselves in the Mass.

As the last hymn finished, the crowd broke into applause and many turned to look up at the choir loft. We saw one of the red-blazered men holding a sign that said, “Music is our joy.” My eyes teared up. The Mass had been an uplifting one.

Afterward, though, I wondered: Was this as poof!-gone as a flash mob? The roar of socializing was starting around the church’s edges. It would go on for a half hour, so the entire two-hour experience would be much longer than a flash mob. But what kind of effect would it have long term?

In line for nalesniki, or Polish crepes stuffed with sauerkraut, we quickly ran into two friends. Ben and Katherine Spitler were twentysomethings who we knew were Catholic but didn’t go to our parish. It was special, I realized, to feel united in faith even though we didn’t attend the same church. Maybe Mass mobs could build inter-parish fellowship.

The Spitlers were feeling uplifted too. Ben said the Mass was one of the most beautiful he’d been to in years. The energy of the people and the beauty of the building added to the experience. “Everything came out — the beauty of the architecture, the sculptures, the paintings, the community,” he said. “It all came together in the liturgy.”

Visitors were inspired, but what about St. Casimir’s parishioners? The influx of people built on work the church was already doing, choir member David McElroy said. Pointing to several mini-posters showing needed building repairs and costs, he said the parish was already fundraising for them, and he hoped the visitors might contribute now too. “It just did my heart all kinds of good to see it this full,” he said. “This place has been gaining energy.”

That Sunday marked the eighth Mass mob held in Buffalo. Altogether, they’ve raised more than $40,000 for the churches involved, Mass mob founder Christopher Byrd told me later. He’s a preservationist who began with the goal of deepening awareness of beautiful, historic churches.

Now the movement has taken on a life of its own, both in size and spirituality. “You could feel the Holy Spirit, the energy, in the church,” he said. “It’s something new and different. Kind of like Pope Francis becoming pope; he’s brought a lot of new energy and fired people up again.”

Lynn Freehill-Maye

A freelance travel and lifestyle writer, Lynn likes to explore her faith through journeys — both far away and close to home. She's lived and worked in the Midwest, Southwest, Northeast, Europe, Africa, Central and South America, and now upstate New York.