Bill and I went to Mass out of town on a recent Sunday. Even though the church was located in a large city with many Catholics, there were only about 20 people at the 9 a.m. Mass, and Bill and I were the youngest by a generation.

The emptiness was disconcerting, and the very elderly priest, who seemed to be struggling for breath and had trouble walking from his chair to the ambo, served as a poignant metaphor for this particular congregation. It appeared to be a dying parish.

There’s a stark contrast between the church we visited and our home parish, St. Francis of Assisi, on Fourth and Brown streets, Milwaukee. At St. Francis, Masses are packed, and while we rarely start on time, if you don’t get there a few minutes early, you’ll likely get one of the seats with the obstructed pillar view.

Our pastor, Capuchin Fr. Mike Bertram, mingles with the congregation before Mass, getting caught up on who has a new grandchild, who has a new job, and who has an aunt in the hospital. Fr. Mike also uses the time to greet visitors, and has an uncanny ability to remember and use their names when he distributes Communion.

At the end of Mass, he introduces any visitors to the congregation, giving us little tidbits he learned about them in his chatting before Mass.  

The liturgy itself is a joyful, spirit-filled celebration. The Gospel choir, led by Sam McClain, rocks the church as the congregation sings and claps.

Fr. Mike’s homilies are direct, easy to relate to and include examples of people he knows or current events to illustrate the messages of the day’s readings and Gospel. He challenges us to live the Gospel fully and speaks with a heartfelt generosity of spirit.

The Mass concludes with all those celebrating birthdays and anniversaries invited up front for a blessing and some gentle ribbing by Fr. Mike: “Really, you’re 33? Just like Jesus. You better be careful this year.”

The two churches represent opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what a Catholic liturgy can look and sound like. This spectrum of Catholic liturgy includes parishes with great music, strong preachers and tight, prayerful communities, and also parishes where the priest is on autopilot, the church musician is trapped in a decade long past, and the congregation is uninterested and unengaged.    

My heart goes out to the young families, and especially the children, who are part of a parish lacking in spirit.

I recently went out to dinner with some of Jacob’s friends from Notre Dame, one of them a lovely young woman, committed to social justice and the poor, who was a self-professed agnostic. Through the conversation, somehow the topic of St. Francis of Assisi Parish came up, and Jacob and I went on about what a great place it is. “Wait,” she interrupted. “Are you saying you actually enjoy going to Mass?”

She looked incredulous as we said we did. I couldn’t help but wonder what the Masses in her hometown looked and sounded like, that she could not imagine that Jacob and I could speak positively about the experience of liturgy.

The energy present at St. Francis of Assisi – or any lively parish – doesn’t happen by accident; it takes hard work (and often a drum set) to pull off a great liturgy. But even more important than hard work is that those in positions of leadership are steeped in prayer themselves.

A Mass is not a show, and the point of good liturgy is not to entertain parishioners, but rather to allow the grace present in the Word of God and the Eucharist to transform lives. When those in positions of leadership are in tune with the Holy Spirit, the community can feel this authentic faith when they come to Mass. The grace whips around the church in a tangible way – from the greeting to the music to the homily to the Sign of Peace.

Conversely, when those in positions of leadership are not prayerful, are not open to the Holy Spirit, the Mass will reflect this lack of faithfulness. It will feel cold and lifeless to the community. The congregation will respond to the lack of authentic faith on the part of the leaders with dull, rote responses and a sense of non-presence to the liturgy.

Strong liturgy has to be a priority for all of us, especially if we hope to attract and retain our youth. Mass is at the heart of all it means to be Catholic – it’s our hour each week to be nourished and inspired to follow the example of Jesus. It’s where we go to get the grace we require to be Christ in a world that so desperately needs love, justice and compassion.

(Annemarie and her husband Bill have four children. They belong to Holy Family Parish, Whitefish Bay and St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Milwaukee. Annemarie’s writing on faith and family life has won local and national awards. To see past columns, go to