June 24, 2016
Throughout scripture, God often speaks to his people on mountains. Jesus preached his most well-know sermon on a mountain (Matthew 5-7).
This past February, a group of students and parishioners of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Salt Lake City, UT and Newman Center at the University of Utah snow-shoed up Wolverine Cirque of the Wasatch mountain range and celebrated Mass on a ready-made snow altar. One Saturday a month, the Dominican Fathers lead a hiking expedition (not always snow covered) up a nearby mountain. At the top, they pray together, celebrate Mass, and then have a picnic. These events attract students and other parishioners together and create a unique sense of local community.
Prior to joining the staff of St. Catherine of Siena parish’s Newman Center, Campus Minister and organizer Julie Bellefeuille studied Art History at the University of Washington in Seattle, and believes the aesthetic and transcendent qualities of nature speaks to college students. Students in Utah naturally gravitate toward the outdoors and the state’s many magnificent mountains and parks, which become a natural and attractive way to experience prayer, community, and even the Mass.
The primary experience for most participants, Julie describes, is one of God’s transcendence and beauty. The experience of Mass is not just fun, she says- it is laden with beauty. Theologians traditionally speak about the three “transcendental attributes” of God–Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. The great 20th century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (b. 1905-1988) famously argued that when evangelizing and sharing Christ in our contemporary society, Christians should begin by cultivating and sharing experiences of beauty. While many non-Christians and postmoderns put up walls at the first mention of absolute truth or morality, an experience of beauty found in a profound film, book, song, photograph, or mountaintop view, still resonates in most hearts. As Von Balthasar wrote, “The first thing that must strike a non-Christian about a Christian’s faith is that it is all too daring. It is too beautiful to be true” (The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1).
When the students and parishioners of St. Catherine of Siena gather to hike and celebrate Mass at the summit of a mountain, Julie describes the sense of daring and adventure that accompanies their ascent up the mountainside. It is a spiritual metaphor that connects with today’s students, yet remains a perennial theme of the Catholic spiritual tradition in writers like St. John of the Cross and Dante. The Snowshoe Mass channels the same spirit that animated the young priest Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II) to celebrate Mass on an upturned canoe or on a ski trip with his close friends, or the “fun-loving outdoorsy Italian young adult,” Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, who is a special model for St. Catherine of Siena parish’s young adult ministry.
Driving the adventure of a team hike, Julie mentions, is the sense of working toward a common goal- climbing the mountain, culminating in Mass at the top. The Dominicans connect the Eucharist, the “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC, 1324), with the celebration at the summit of the mountain. It is not a replacement of the church building, they say, but it does have a unique symbolism from time to time.
Many parish locations have unique geographical features that can work to its advantage, Julie notes. Look around, and where there is an experience of beauty, God may be found there in an attractive and authentic way.
By: Evan Ponton, Assistant to the Pastor, Church of the Nativity, Timonium, MD