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Silent night, early night

Some Catholic churches are moving midnight Mass to an earlier and more convenient time. But there are still plenty of services to accommodate traditionalists.

December 24, 2010|By Carla Hall, Los Angeles Times

When people show up for midnight Mass on Friday night at Corpus Christi Church in Pacific Palisades, they will find the same Christmas Eve magic as always. Gauzy angels will be suspended on high as if flying over the congregation. Brightly lit Christmas trees will twinkle in the sanctuary. The story of the shepherds in the field learning of the birth of Jesus will still captivate: "And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them…"

Midnight Mass: In some editions of the Dec. 24 LATExtra section, an article about the move by some Catholic churches to schedule traditional midnight Masses at earlier times contained a garbled quote. The published quote, "We have people who grew up going to 'M Mass.' " attributed to Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, should have read, "We have people who grew up going to midnight Mass." —

Midnight Mass, however, won't start at the stroke of midnight. Think 10 p.m. instead.

This year, Corpus Christi joins a growing number of Catholic churches that have modified the long-cherished tradition of going to Mass in the dead of night to accommodate bone-tired parishioners, weary choirs and overscheduled families.

It's a trend that started slowly more than a decade ago but picked up speed last year, when Pope Benedict XVI decided to begin his globally televised midnight Mass at St. Peter's Basilica at 10 p.m. His spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said at the time that it was done to lessen his "fatigue at a time when there are many ceremonies and commitments."The Vatican is sticking with the earlier time this year too.

It's completely kosher, as it happens, to celebrate the Christmas Eve Mass before Dec. 25 begins. You just need to give it a different name, said Jane Richardson, Corpus Christi's director of liturgy. "When we were listing it, we had to see what the proper name for it is," she said. "It's Christmas Mass at Night."

According to Catholic liturgy, in fact, the new day starts at sundown. And many churches have a train-schedule-like list of Christmas Eve — and Christmas Day — Masses that fulfill Catholics' obligations to observe the holy day.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles does not keep tabs on when its 288 churches start their Christmas Eve services, spokesman Tod Tamberg said. "It would be up to the discretion of the pastor," he said. "Some parishes have a great tradition of Mass at midnight. Others, it's not so clear.… Maybe there are people who would love to go to midnight Mass but can't stay up that late or have family obligations. The pastor and his team have to know their parishioners."

For many Catholics, midnight Mass is an exotic commingling of liturgy and secular festival — that sense of stepping from the dark night into the glowing church, the lushness of the Christmas music and the nativity creche bathed in spotlights. For the young, there is the added thrill of staying up and being out spectacularly late.

A midnight Mass will be held Friday at the 3,500-seat Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, presided over by Cardinal Roger Mahony.

"We have people who grew up" going to midnight Mass, said Tamberg. Some, he added, "may not have been to any service any other time of the year, but, by golly, they're going to midnight Mass."

Even if they have to struggle to stay awake.

"If you start at midnight, you're not done until 2 a.m. We get a better response from people at 10," said Msgr. Paul Dotson of St. Lawrence Martyr Church in Redondo Beach, which has opted for holding the Mass earlier. Dotson, 69, has been a priest for 42 years. "I can remember as a young priest celebrating midnight Mass you would look around and half the people were passed out. They'd had dinner, a couple of drinks."

Catholics admit it makes for a long night. "I enjoyed going to midnight Mass. I thought it was a hoot," said Mario Martinoli, a radio and TV food personality, who grew up going to Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles. "But you were done late. I thought if it was a little bit earlier, the young kids could go, the older folks could go." This year, it's a moot point for him and his wife, Amy. They'll be at a Christmas morning Mass at St. John Fisher in Rancho Palos Verdes, watching their children be altar servers.

St. Ambrose, a small church in West Hollywood, celebrates Christmas Eve Mass at 10 p.m. for "convenience," said Salvador Trujillo, the church's business manager. "Half the parishioners are elderly and the others are young people who need to go and work in bars or wherever."

On the Westside, St. Sebastian Catholic Church holds its last Christmas Eve Mass even earlier, at 9 p.m. "We feel that a lot of people go to eat, have a dinner at home, and 12 o'clock is too late," said the pastor, Rev. Germán Sánchez, who will join a group of families for a post-Mass dinner on Friday.

Still, even with the growing trend, Catholics will have no problem finding Mass at midnight. "We have Masses all evening," said Frank Ponnet, liturgy director at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena. People can choose 4 p.m, 6:30pm, 9:30 p.m. or midnight, he said.

At Corpus Christi in recent years, attendance at midnight Mass has fluctuated between 200 and 400, according to Richardson.

"We did think long and hard about it because you don't want to take people's midnight Mass away from them," Richardson said. "Are you infringing on people's Christmas Eve by doing it at 10? I asked around, 'Do you feel like you're waiting around for midnight Mass?' And some of them said, 'Yes, we do feel that.' "

This year, Richardson said, will be a trial run at Corpus Christi. "If people are really missing their midnight Mass, we'll go back to it."

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