'Mass mobs': NYT and NPR report new trend with a bit of flash

Churches are getting hit by "mobs" in several states -- and that's good, as NPR and the New York Times report. So-called Mass mobs -- takeoffs on flash mobs and cash mobs -- are being organized to flood old, historic churches with worshipers and rekindle interest in Catholic heritage.

The Times and NPR work rich color and emotion into their reports, with an eye toward both emotion and architectural beauty. Here's a sample from the NPR piece on a Mass mob at St. Florian Church in Hamtramck, Mich.:

Kinney says there's something special about coming to Mass with so many other people. "To be in attendance when it's full, as opposed to just the sparse. There's an electricity that's amazing," he says.
People trickle in, looking for seats, and then the traditional Roman Catholic Mass begins. There are Polish hymns. The priest, the Rev. Mirek Frankowski — who also doubles as music director — says the crowd nearly brought him to tears.
"Because, I mean, such a big crowd, it's impossible to see these days in any of the churches. But thanks to the mob Mass we have this feeling of what it was so many years ago, when the churches were filled with people," he says.

The Times story goes east, so to speak -- centering on Holy Ghost Church, a Byzantine Rite Catholic church in Cleveland that survives only as a cultural center. The article sets an evocative scene showing the effort to preserve the sacred in the face of the secular. It even offers a bit of the colors and textures of Eastern liturgy:

On the afternoon of the Mass mob at Holy Ghost, much of the city was watching a Cleveland Browns football game, which was blaring on the TV sets in the bars of the church’s gentrifying Tremont neighborhood.
But the worshipers fixed their eyes instead on an older kind of screen: a 24-foot-high, hand-carved Hungarian iconostasis, made of wood and gold, displaying recently restored icons. Behind the screen, and at times in front of them, priests in Eastern European vestments, including an eye-catching red and gold robe called a phelonion and a cylindrical black hat called a kalimavkion, celebrated a special Mass partly in sung Slavonic — a liturgical language used by some Eastern Catholic churches.

The articles spell out several benefits of the "mobs." The gatherings bring suburban Catholics back to the city and show the beauty of their parents' houses of worship. The Masses also often bring thousands of much-needed dollars, the Times says.

The Times story, twice as long as the NPR piece, adds both depth and breadth. It says the mobs are thickest in "Rust Belt" states like Ohio and Michigan, "where the long-term decline in attendance at Mass -- a national phenomenon -- has been worsened by deindustrialization and suburbanization." But the newspaper acknowledges that the events have sprung up in sites as diverse as New England, the mid-Atlantic states and as far South as New Orleans.

The newspaper even pinpoints the genesis of the idea to one man: Christopher Byrd of Buffalo, N.Y., who "was inspired by an initiative called a cash mob, which sought to support local small businesses by having groups of people patronize the same mom-and-pop shop on a particular day. Similarly, Mass mobs seek to draw large crowds to a single church in a demonstration of support for Catholicism and its most beautiful — and often needy — churches."

Both articles note the power of news media themselves in spreading the idea. After an Associated story on the Buffalo effort, Catholics elsewhere formed their often Mass mobs. And after the Detroit Free Press reported the first 150-person Mass mob there, 400 showed up at the second -- then 900 at the third, and 2,000 at the fourth, at St. Florian.

One thing I don’t see in either article is any idea of whether these mobs succeed in saving the target churches. Sure, they provide badly needed exposure and donations. But what then? Is each Mass mob just a pause in an inexorable slide toward parish death?

It may be too early to tell in a trend that started less than a year ago. And I can't even think of whom NPR and the Times could ask for a projection. Both stories do ask the Mass mobsters themselves, who voice appreciation for the beauty of the old churches. They also often say they hope the buildings can be saved.

Whether that hope is realized depends, of course, on whether the faithful follow up with funding and attendance, or just return to their comfy though less-than-classic suburban church homes. NPR, the Times and other news media would do well to check back in a year.

Photo: St. Florian Church in Hamtramck, Mich., site of a recent Mass mob. By Andrew Jameson via Wikimedia.com. License: Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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