St. Patrick Proto-Cathedral is located on downtown San Jose, California. It is situated two blocks away from the City Hall and a just block away from San José State University (SJSU). St. Patrick Proto-Cathedral was named after the famous patron saint of Ireland, and was commissioned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of California to specifically cater to the Vietnamese community living nearby.
For a long time, the proto-cathedral was a conventional territorial parish, serving the religious needs of the Catholic laity. But in 2002, St. Patrick Proto-Cathedral was declared a national parish for the Vietnamese population. As such, the liturgical services are offered in Vietnamese, with Vietnamese priests holding leading the faithful. Outside St. Patrick, a few homeless people seek shelter and rest on the grass at the side of the front church. They just sleep there, and do not disturb the church goers. The amazing thing is that these homeless people seem to have become a part of the landscape and atmosphere of the church itself.
St. Patrick’s is an old church, I can tell by looking at the pews and the way the church is designed. It has rows facing the altar, unlike the modern church that has people seating around the altar in a circular fashion. Upon entrance, there is big statue of St. Patrick on the left, where some elderly Vietnamese people are praying fervently for supplication and mediation. During big celebrations, it is so easy to see how this area can become overcrowded with devotees to Saint Patrick, causing a bottleneck inside the parish because the St. Patrick’s statue is quite close to the entrance doors. To the right of the chapel is an area where the Blessed Sacrament is placed. The Blessed Sacrament is accessible for adoration to the faithful 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Inside, the faithful can find some semblance of peace from the toils of their existence, and find and renewal of their faith and hope. The silence of the church walls is shattered by some Vietnamese praying out loud; because for the Vietnamese, praying out loud is part of their culture, especially when praying the rosary.
The centerpiece of the church is a statute of a crucified Jesus Christ, hung on the wall in the middle of the church. Red, flame-like stained glass windows (symbolic of the Holy Spirit) frame the sides of the cross. The presider chair is made of wood with seat covered by bright red velvet, reminisce of the thrones that Chinese kings once used. My suspicions were confirmed when I was told that the chair was actually designed by a priest who served in Taiwan for a number of years.
On the far right of the altar, one can see two large pictures. One of St. Joseph holding baby Jesus, and the second is a picture of Our Lady of La Vang. Our Lady of La Vang is widely respected and venerated by the Vietnamese community, even those from different religions. As the great mediatrix, this manifestation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is believed by the faithful to grant miracles to those who pray to her for favor. The history of Our Lady of La Vang points to the time during the Un Canh Thinh’s dynasty in the 18th century. In August 17, 1789, a law was passed that prohibited people from converting to Christianity. Those whi became Christians were openly persecuted. Trying to escape persecution, there was a group of Christians that came to a hill named La Vang (middle of Vietnam). They hid there without bringing any supplies, and as a result, many Christians died due to lack of food, water, and medicine. One day The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to them, and she instructed them to pick the leaves around the area, boil it in water, and drink the infusion, which should cure their illnesses. The Christians followed Mother Mary’s instructions to the letter and most of them were cured. Over the course of their exile, Mary appeared to them many times to give them strength and courage to triumph over their situation. Since then, Our Lady of La Vang has been know for answering prayers, and many people of different faiths and denominations come to her as well.
On the day I was observing, there was Eucharistic celebration for the youth. Since most young Vietnamese are proficient in English, the medium of the service is in English as well. Some older Vietnamese, most probably parents of the youth stand quietly at the back. They watch the service intently, but they do not actively participate, simply because most of them are not fluent in English. Majority of the youth are students of nearby San Jose State University. While a number of the participants are Vietnamese, the group is made up of students coming from diverse cultural backgrounds. In the group, you can also find Hispanics, Vietnamese, American, Chinese, Filipino, and Indian. Indeed it is a wonderful sight, to see a diverse group of people united in one faith. At once you can easily detect the camaraderie that exists among them. Most of these people already know each other because they go to the same school, and they live in the same dormitory at San Jose State University. I came early, before the actual service, and I saw how these young people eagerly and warmly greeted each other, and talked about what happened to them the previous week.
The mass is scheduled at 8:45 pm; late for most standard services. However, the lateness of the service did not lower the youth’s energy and enthusiasm. I guess being students, most of them are used to staying up late to do their homework, so they have no problems with the time. After the Eucharistic celebration, they still have much left to socialize with each other and totally participate in the celebration. Five minutes before the mass, the lights are dimmed and the people then know that it’s time to prepare for the mass. As the lights dim, a slide show with inspirational pictures, paintings, and poems about the Gospel are variably shown. The slide show’s purpose is to get the people’s attention, focus their thoughts after moments of socializing, and immerse themselves totally in God’s presence.
Aside from one Vietnamese and one Hispanic song, the rest of the songs during the mass were in English. When interviewed, the choir members said that they are learning to sing church songs in other languages, such as Filipino and Chinese. Most of choir members are Vietnamese, some are Hispanic and some are Caucasians. Some Vietnamese choir members can speak Spanish fluently because they grew up around with Hispanics as friends and neighbors. It takes some time for the choir to sing the Vietnamese and Spanish song properly because they first need to learn how to read the song correctly, and then understand the meaning of the song. This is important in being able to imbue the song with the proper emotion. They also believe that it can be annoying and distracting to churchgoers to hear a foreign song being sung with a horrible pronunciation. More importantly, a song that is sang with meaning helps the faithful feel God’s presence better.
The presider of the mass I observed was a fairly young priest in his thirties named Fr. Truyen. Fr. Nguyen was trained to be a priest in the U.S. and attended college in the U.S. as well. As such, his sermons and homilies are not about distant lands and foreign cultures; he talks about situations that are closer to home, about things that his listeners can relate to. At that particular time I was observing, Fr. Nguyen’s homily was short because before his homily, Jennifer, a choir member testified her experiences with relating to the Gospel. One unique thing about this service is that the youth nominate each other or volunteer to share their thoughts about the Gospel, after which, the presider amplifies or expounds on the Gospel being talked about. Of course the testimony must be approved by the priest before hand.
A liturgical dance is performed during the gift offering. The dancers are taking formal dance classes at SJSU, so the performance is very professional and expressive. During the number, a variety of musical instruments were used, such as piano, mandolin, violin, cello, guitar, keyboard, drum, and a traditional Vietnamese musical instrument used for Vietnamese folk songs. The mass is very lively and engaging. Those who have particular roles in the mass do their parts with all of their hearts. The mass ends with on a high note, and the participants coming out of the service with renewed spirit to face the rest of the week.
Indeed, the spirit of the Sacrosanctum Concilium is very evident in St. Patrick. Among the many principles that St. Patrick embodies is the line in the Sacrosanctum Concilium which says that “The church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters that do not affect the faith or the good of the whole community. Rather, it respects and fosters the qualities and talents of the various races and nations.” (37) It teaches that liturgical celebrations consist of two parts—an immutable part instituted by Christ, and a second part composed of elements subject to change. St. Patrick is clear proof that the Catholic Church is willing and able to adapt to the changes of the world; that as long as the Church is anchored in the main precepts of the Catholic faith that gave it life, it can weather all the forces that threaten its very existence. The culture of the Catholic Church is that it has a culture of adaptability while staying true to the very essence of its faith.
In my observation of St. Patrick’s, I am reminded of the Latin saying, Legem Credendi Lex Statuat Supplicandi. In English it says that “The law of worship constitutes/founds/sets in place/establishes the law of belief.” Indeed the energy and dynamism that the church of St. Patrick exudes emanates from the young and vibrant leadership of its priests. Because the priests believe in the role of the youth to spread the Gospel and strengthen the church, there are programs that are exclusive for the youth. The mass integrates modern elements never before seen in a traditional Eucharistic service. How the people worship in St. Patrick defines their faith and how they live it. In St. Patrick’s case, they worship in a spirit of communion and celebration of their faith; and as they worship, so do they believe, so do they live.
Indeed any church has a special culture that is unique to itself. As Espin once said, “In my view, culture is, more fundamentally, the historically shared means and ways through which a people unveil themselves as human.” (26) In St. Patrick, the faithful find the means to discover themselves, and in so doing, validate their own individual humanity together with the rest of the congregation.
As an observer, the sight of different people with different backgrounds and cultures coming together to share and celebrate their common faith is really moving. Faith can indeed change lives, and create an entirely new culture of hope and renewal. Indeed miracles can be found, all that needs to be done it to truly seek it with an open heart. May places like St. Patrick continue to provide us with a place to find God and ourselves.
Aidan Kavanagh. On Liturgical Theology. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Orlando Espín. A Multicultural Church? Theological Reflections from Below. The
Multicultural Church: A New Landscape in U.S. Theologies. ed. William Cenkner Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press 1996. 26.
Sacrosanctum Concilium. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – Second Vatican Council Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963. Line 37. Retrieved on June 7, 2007. Retrieved from http://www.adoremus.org/SacrosanctumConcilium.html