PASTOR Herbert W. Jones
ADDRESS 701 E. Pyron Ave.
PHONE 210-922-0543
ON THE INTERNET sanjosemission
MARIACHI MASS Sundays at noon

FOR SOME, THE STRENGTH of liturgical worship is its dependable sameness. For others, the weakness of liturgical worship is its dependable sameness. As a member of the latter category, I was pleased to learn that the noon service at San Antonio’s venerable Mission San José is a mariachi mass, one of the most appealing results of the Second Vatican Council’s decision in the mid-sixties to allow masses to reflect local tastes and styles.

Though less famous than Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), Mission San José, founded in 1720 by the Franciscans, was once regarded as the “Queen of the Missions” because of its imposing architecture, its presidio walls and fortifications, and its extensive fields and herds. It still functions as an active parish, but since part of the grounds is maintained by the National Park Service, it expects and welcomes visitors, particularly to the mariachi service. The church bulletin even notes that the “intention” of this mass is the “safety of all travelers.”

The sanctuary itself is surprisingly plain, with white stucco walls that are unadorned except for a bit of geometric stenciling that follows the rounded arches. The Stations of the Cross are wood-and-copper plaques of recent vintage, and the statuary comprises modest-sized figures of Joseph, Mary, and the archangel Michael and a rather ordinary crucifix behind a simple altar. It came as no shock to hear a woman say that the parish is having financial problems, and the back page of the bulletin—half-filled with small ads from three auto dealers, two restaurants, a pharmacy, a cemetery, the Alamo Community College District, and a company that makes “Prays Well With Others” T-shirts—called attention to a number of unsold spaces with the reminder “Your ad could be here.”

While ladies of the parish attached brightly colored paper flowers to several rows of pews on the right-hand side of the sanctuary to reserve them for the choir, the pastor, Father Herbert W. Jones, who introduced himself as Father Herb, walked up and down the aisle, greeting unfamiliar sheep and asking where they lived. Later, during the service, he asked them to stand and be recognized by their state or country, and whether from Illinois or England, Maryland or Mexico, Pennsylvania or Puerto Rico, all received warm applause, reminding us that God is no respecter of places.

In contrast to some Catholic churches I have attended, where worshippers enter in silence, genuflect, then kneel in prayer and preparation until the service starts, most people here seemed to be engaged in secular conversation; two women next to me discussed the relative merits of calling plans from AT&T and Verizon. Meanwhile, one of the mariachis, who would later strum a guitar, played “Silent Night” on the piano. As the time for worship arrived, however, the mood changed, and it soon became clear that most of the visitors were practicing Catholics, more familiar than I with the many parts of the mass.

As with other churches, laypersons of both genders played numerous roles: welcoming the congregation, making announcements, and assisting the priest with Communion. Particularly notable were the Scripture readers, two middle-aged women wearing prominent medals that might well have been awarded for excellence in diction and projection. Much attention, of course, focused on the mariachi band and choir. The musicians, six men and one young woman, all clad in traditional dress, played guitars of various sizes, from one barely larger than a baritone ukulele to a bass guitar. I missed the violins and trumpets I had heard at another mariachi mass, but the verve and musicianship of this group were no disappointment. And the choir of a dozen or so, mostly mature women, appeared to be performing a labor of love and devotion, not just performing.

Although most of the resident parishioners at this service were Hispanic, all speaking parts were in English. The mass, of course, followed the centuries-old pattern, but the mariachis added a refreshing flavor. One tends to feel more optimistic about the divine response when “Kyrie Eleison, Señor,” which usually begins the Penitential Rite, is sung in waltz time.

Father Herb started his homily by saying, “The end,” then noting that all the readings for the day had been about “the end” and that Christians needed to get comfortable with the idea of endings and with not knowing when our personal end will come. Christians, he said, should not fear death because, “Thank goodness, there will be a merciful king who will judge us.” Instead of devoting our energies to building our own nests and kingdoms, which inevitably fall apart, we should surrender control to God and concentrate on leading people to justice, on building God’s kingdom on earth instead of our own. If we do that, he assured us, the end will not be such a bad thing. “Our God who gives life will not stop giving,” he said. Sermons often play a secondary role in liturgical services, but Father Herb had clearly given thought to his homily and made skillful use of tone, pacing, and pauses to deliver it effectively. I’d have been happy to listen awhile longer.

In due course, we recited the Nicene Creed and joined hands and swayed from side to side during the Lord’s Prayer. Then, those with Catholic eyes and faith saw the bread and wine miraculously transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ, also in three-quarter time. At the end of the service, Father Herb invited anyone who had a birthday or anniversary to walk to the front of the sanctuary and be serenaded by the mariachis. Eight or ten people came forward to receive the ecumenical version of “Happy Birthday,” including the coda “and many mooorrre.” The only person whose anniversary had fallen during that period was a woman whose husband had not come with her. Sensing the awkwardness of celebrating an anniversary as a singleton, Father Herb stood in for the absent husband, and the two of them danced a few measures of “The Anniversary Waltz,” she towering over him by at least eight inches.

After the dismissal, instead of exiting through the main doors at the rear of the sanctuary, we passed through a room filled with hundreds of intricately decorated shoe box—size memorials to departed loved ones whose lives had been celebrated in recent Day of the Dead ceremonies. At the exit of that room, Father Herb ushered us into a courtyard where the mariachis performed a few extra numbers, including the familiar “Allá en El Rancho Grande.” One of the musicians hawked a CD of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the mariachi mass, in 2004, asserting, “This is a much better deal than you can get down on the river.” During the last song, another waltz, one of the mariachis walked over to a young woman with Down syndrome and persuaded her to dance with him, an experience that seemed to both embarrass and delight her, a lovely memory from a warmth-filled afternoon.