On our most recent coastal retreat (which also included a visit to the first Russian Orthodox Chapel in North America south of Alaska and to Russian River Brewing Company) we all piled into the car on Sunday morning and traveled for over an hour (for a 13-mile trip) along a one-lane, only partially paved, curvy mountain road (which resulted in some white knuckles for the Quartermaster) to arrive at a tiny village called Cazadero, where there is an outdoor church called (and I am not joking about this) — St. Coleman’s!
It’s news to me that there is a St. Coleman, but an Internet search reveals that there are several churches dedicated to this saint here in the United States. According to this, St. Colman of Cloyne was the first bishop of Cloyne (Ireland) who was baptized by St. Brendan at the age of 50. Someone with an affinity for the pun must have suggested him for this outdoor church. I wonder if he can help perform any miracles with broken (lantern) mantles!
The church is sheltered from the road by a stand of tall redwoods on one side and a sloping hill that climbs up into the forest on the other side. The church just received an installation of fresh redwood pews (with kneelers), and features a “natural” altar composed of a huge redwood slab fronted by moss-covered boulders. A crucifix carved from wood is framed before a majestic redwood slightly behind and to the left of the altar.
The liturgy was beautiful. There were 4 cantors accompanied by synthesized piano, but despite the piano, only one or two hymns were of the not excellent Haugen/Haas ilk. The other hymns and accompaniments were rather orthodox. There was no liturgical weirdness; it was refreshing and gladdening that this wasn’t a place where someone had come up with an “anything goes” mentality for the celebration of mass outdoors. It is one of the most beautiful outdoor churches, and a true church in terms of its layout and its permanence. The roof is the heavens and the walls are the nature surrounding it.
Father “did the red, and said the black”, and delivered an excellent homily on the Ascension which, for its theme, discussed the fact that the Ascension (and Pentecost) points to the “reconciliation” of Heaven and Earth — that we should not be seeking after the idea of “being delivered” from this world in favor of Heaven, but rather looking for this reconciliation here and now (especially at mass!).
As I stated, mass is usually said in a church, and outdoor churches are rare. What other circumstances permit the celebration of mass outdoors? Canon 932.1 says that mass should be said in a “sacred place”, but this is the ideal. In essence, if a “sacred place” is available for use in the celebration of mass, it should be used. It would not be proper to (for example) have a mass under tents in the parking lot of a church. If the church is available (and everyone who wishes to attend the mass can fit inside), it should be used.
But a “sacred place” is not required in order for mass to celebrated. If it were, there would be problems for military chaplains, missionaries in remote places, priests who are traveling and not near a church, etc. There are balancing factors, but the point (as I understand it) is not to make it all about the novelty of outdoor liturgy (or do things which would not otherwise be unsuitable) but rather about the necessity and importance of the Divine Liturgy. We the faithful need the mass, and the Church does not limit its celebration to instances where a “sacred space” is available; the importance of the mass itself eclipses even ordinary requirements. If celebrated properly, a mass outdoors can (and should) be just as reverent and spiritually fruitful.
Since we were camping on this trip with our pastor who joined us on a Sunday evening, we were privileged to celebrate mass at our campsite on Monday and Tuesday. I’ve been camping at this exact campsite for over 25 years, and it’s a really special place for our family, but I never imagined experiencing mass there.
Father reverently celebrated mass ad orientem overlooking the rugged terrain, just a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean. My wife pointed out that on one of the two days, Father’s chasuble — which is a “cream” color — appears blazingly white in several pictures, reminding us of this (but inasmuch as we love Father, and believe him to be a holy and saintly priest, we’re not suggesting something miraculous here, just a special type of light captured by the camera).
Outdoor masses are somewhat rare for most of us who live near a Catholic Church, but if you have not experienced one, I suggest you find an outdoor church or invite your favorite priest camping!