A young woman receives Holy Communion from Fr. Frank Portelli at the Rogers Centre Sunday Mass. Photo by Jean Ko Din

Bringing the Mass to the masses: Eucharistic celebration in unexpected places

  • July 30, 2018

Canon law prescribes that Mass be celebrated in a “sacred place” such as a church or a chapel consecrated by a bishop. That is why, for example, there are strict rules forbidding the celebration of wedding Masses at locations such as a beach or garden patio. 

However, canon law also allows for exceptions, which means Mass can be found in some interesting places. 

As a general rule, the Church wants Mass celebrated in the most reverent environment possible, but it also believes it may be better sometimes to celebrate it in a less-than-ideal place than to not celebrate it at all. 

For example, a bishop can grant permission for a unique Mass setting in special situations, such at the Eucharistic celebration by Pope John Paul II in Downsview Park for World Youth Day 2002 or an auditorium Mass during a conference. Permission can also be granted to chaplaincies of “particular necessity,” such as Catholic priests who serve as military chaplains overseas or as missionaries in Canada’s north. 

The Catholic Register will look at six unusual places across Canada in which Mass is being brought to the people. After all, it was Christ Himself who said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)

blue jays massFr. Frank Portelli presides over Mass at the Rogers Centre in the same room where the Blue Jays hold their media conferences. Portelli holds Sunday services for players and employees whenever the team is in towon. (Photo by Jean Ko Din)

At the ball park 

TV baseball fans likely have seen the conference table in front of a blue backdrop where Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons sits for his post-game press conference. 

What viewers wouldn’t know is that on many Sunday mornings Fr. Frank Portelli pushes aside the manager’s microphone and replaces it with a small crucifix as he creates an altar on which he celebrates Mass in the bowels of the Rogers Centre. 

On Sundays when the Blue Jays play a home game, Portelli, the director of the Office of Catholic Youth in the Archdiocese of Toronto, makes his way to the stadium with his vestments and a small Mass kit to celebrate Mass for a handful of staff (and, sometimes, players). 

“In the beginning, it seemed like some were a bit skeptical about it,” said Portelli. The impetus for the Mass was more than “the flash of saying Mass for the Blue Jays,” Portelli said. It was intended to support an organization called Catholic Athletes for Christ, an American-based ministry which  facilitates Sunday Mass in 28 of the 30 Major League Baseball stadiums. It also runs a sacramental ministry for the National Football League. 

“These athletes don’t really get time, like an off day, where they can go to a Saturday vigil Mass. It’s just the machinery of every day,” said Portelli, who has been Toronto CAC chaplain since 2014. 

Ryan Madson, a pitcher for the Washington Nationals, was in Toronto in mid-June for a three-game series against the Jays. Without Mass at the stadium, he said it would be almost impossible for players to attend Mass during the season.

“I’ll put it this way. I don’t make every Mass at the stadium, so I probably wouldn’t make one Mass outside of the stadium during a season,” said Madson. “I have gone to 80 per cent more Masses during a season because of it, or 90 per cent more.”

Portelli hasn’t seen any Blue Jays players come to Mass yet, but he has met players from visiting teams. Mostly, he said the Mass is celebrated for the staff who work behind the scenes. 

“Hopefully, as a result of coming to Mass, these people feel more of an impetus to be more giving and are more in tune with God.”

Mass at homeBishop Hector Vila with Dease Lake parishoners in a living room that doubles as a chapel. (Photo courtesy of Diocese of Whitehorse)

At home

Bishop Hector Vila said he has celebrated Mass in some of the most beautiful places in the Diocese of Whitehorse, but the beauty does not come from bricks and mortar of a church but from the people he meets. 

In the Yukon, Mass can’t always be celebrated on a marble altar inside a church. Sometimes, it takes place in the living room of a family home, with people huddled around a coffee table that has become an altar with a small crucifix that fits in the bishop’s pocket. 

“A place of worship has its own beauty, its own attraction and its own spirituality. On the other hand, we’re going back to what the early Church used to be,” said Vila. “It was in the homes of people where the Christian community used to gather and celebrate the Mass.” 

The Diocese of Whitehorse covers the entire Yukon Territory and the top northern quarter of British Columbia. It has a Catholic population of about 7,500 which is served by 23 mission parishes. 

During winter, local community centres that sometimes serve as churches can be difficult and costly to heat, and so a Catholic community of five to 15 people might gather in a family home to celebrate Mass together. 

“In Good Hope (Lake,) we have one family that is faithful. They have seven or eight children, plus the father and mother,” said Vila. 

“The father and mother, they sing and do everything and the children do the readings. They even prepared their own children for First Communion, for confessions and that’s practically it. That is the community there. It’s a very small Church.”

Vila said working in the mission communities in Whitehorse truly reminds him of what he’s read about early Christians that celebrated Mass in hiding. It is small and very humble, but he said it also brings a great emphasis to the presence of God in His people. 

“Here in the Yukon, we live the faith in a different way,” he said. “Here we are very isolated so to be together, to pray together, to break bread together, that warms people’s hearts.”

Toronto detention centreEvery week, Fr. Anthony Akpanessien visits Toronto South Detention Centre with volunteers Robert Vernon, left, and John Menary from Nativity of Our Lord Parish. In order to attend Mass, inmates must submit a formal request to the chaplaincy office. Applicants are then screened and approved by the prison authorities. For privacy reasons, Akpanessien and his volunteers are not allowed to bring electronic devices into the facility during their visit. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Strom)

At prison

Sometimes, Fr. Anthony Akpanessien pauses in the middle of Mass to allow inmates a moment to weep in the presence of the Lord. Mass is celebrated twice a month in the Toronto South Detention Centre and there are times when men are overcome with emotion. 

“There are a number of times when there would be crying from beginning to end,” said Akpanessien, who has been doing prison ministry in Toronto for about two years. “One man, one day, actually told me that to be able to have the opportunity to come to Mass in jail means a whole lot for him, and he just came thanking me and all that in tears. And I understand and I am able to hold all those emotions for them.”

Akpanessien said Mass is a rare opportunity for many inmates to pray and to come together in the presence of the Lord. Many carry deep spiritual wounds, said Akpanessien, and to make the sacraments available for these men is a gift they don’t take for granted. They also likely don’t have many opportunities to connect with their fellow inmates in a deeper way outside of the chapel. 

Toronto South Detention Centre is a maximum-security provincial facility that  holds about 3,000 inmates. 

In order to attend Mass, inmates must submit a formal request to the chaplaincy office. Applicants are then screened and approved by the prison  authorities. 

“Most of them (who attend Mass) are Catholic and some Christian and they are very devout,” said Akpanessien. “They are very scriptural and they read about the works of Jesus, the miracles and some of His sayings. One of them, the other day, was talking to me about a book he wants to read and I try to get more copies for them.”

Akpanessien said, in the beginning, his ministry brought him a lot of heaviness. Many men shared their spiritual wounds with him and he often needed quiet time in prayer before returning to his pastoral duties at Nativity of Our Lord Parish. Now, he’s found a balance and finds himself looking forward to his prison ministry. 

Every week, he visits the prison for one-on-one sessions with inmates where he provides spiritual direction and, sometimes, confession. Every other week, he celebrates two Masses for two groups of inmates in a small chapel. 

“When we finish the Mass, the officers are waiting for them outside to come out and take them back to their unit, but you see them not wanting to leave the chapel,” he said. “They want to stay together there, even for a small time.”

Edmonton mall chapelFr. Leo Hoffman stands in front of the mall chapel in Edmonton City Centre. (Photo courtesy of Alex Schietzsch)

At the mall

Edmonton City Centre is truly a one-stop shop. 

After finishing shopping to their heart’s content, the faithful can also pop by St. Benedict’s Chapel for an afternoon Mass. The chapel is at a prime location on the mall’s second floor, around the corner from The Source and next door to an eye care centre. 

“It’s on a passageway so people can walk by and some are quite shocked to find a chapel,” said Fr. Leo Hofmann, St. Benedict’s chaplain. “There are a few street people who come. Not a lot but a few would come in to come to Mass or to pray…. We would have business people, people who work in the service industry, people who work in the government because there are a few government offices nearby.”

Hofmann said he is happy that all kinds of people can feel comfortable enough to come in to the chapel at any time of day. After all, this was always the intention of the chapel. 

The chapel was opened in 2006 by Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins when he was archbishop of Edmonton. The chapel would be a special ministry to bring Christ to the heart of city. 

A similar mall ministry exists in Quebec City where Fr. André Béland celebrates Mass for 15-20 people at Centre Dieu. 

Hofmann said many people are surprised when they see him walking around the mall with his collar on.

“When I first got here, I was coming up the escalator with some coffee and these two younger guys, probably in their 20s, and the one guy did a double take,” said Hofmann. “He says to his friend, ‘That was a priest!’ And then he says, ‘You don’t see many of those these days,’ and I just broke up laughing.”

Hofmann sees his ministry as a visible reminder for passers-by that Christ is present in their day, even if they don’t step inside the chapel. 

When people are curious enough, they usually stop by to spend some time in quiet prayer. Sometimes, people come in to talk with him and they share stories about their jobs, their relationships, their mental health issues and their addictions. 

“This is the first time in my ministry, and I’ve been at this for a long time (29 years), that someone can come in and say, ‘Can I talk to you?’ Or ‘Can I go to confession?’ And I say sure,” he said. “Because a lot of times, in a parish, other things are going on and you have to book people in advance but here, it’s meant to be always available.”

Bay St chapel 02A typical office ceiling with flourescent lighting houses St. Stephen's Chapel on Bay Street. (Photo by Jean Ko Din)

On Bay Street

If you don’t spot the darkened stained glass windows on the second floor, it looks just like any other office building in Toronto’s financial district.

The storefront of a fast-food burger joint distracts from the entrance to the building lobby, but once inside, regular Mass-goers know to press ‘2’ on the elevator door and walk towards the main office window of St. Stephen’s Chapel

Every day, St. Stephen’s serves about 500 of the Monday to Friday, 9-to-5 office workers who are looking to find spiritual solace in the midst of the downtown hustle and bustle. The location was chosen specifically because it is central enough that nearby workers are able to attend one of four Masses during their work shift. 

“I’m still surprised by (my ministry) day by day because what you see in the people that come here is the faith made real,” said Fr. Guenter Petricek, director since 2007. “Those people don’t have to go to church, they want to.”

Petricek said the congregation that attends weekday Mass at the chapel is different from those who attend Sunday obligation because their faith is a part of their daily work. There are even some who have been coming to St. Stephen’s every day for 40 years. 

“I am overwhelmed by the faith I can sense from the people here,” he said. “I am so overwhelmed that it strengthens mine.”

On the weekend, St. Stephen’s shifts to serve a different community. At 11:30 a.m. on Sundays, St. Francis de Sales’ Ministry for the Deaf congregates for a Mass interpreted in American Sign Language. 

“They’re surprised (when they find us) because they’ve gone to their home parishes and there’s not any effort to find something for them,” said Carol Stokes, deaf ministry co-ordinator. “When they come here, it’s like they fit right in…. They feel so much more a member of the Church.”

St. Francis de Sales currently serves between 20 to 50 people every week from across the Greater Toronto Area. 

Before they discovered this special ministry, which was established in 1918, many deaf Catholics found it difficult to participate in Mass. Now, Stokes said they are connecting with the celebration more intimately.

“It just adds to the celebration,” said Stokes. “Even those who don’t understand sign language, they can visibly see the Word of God being expressed…. For example, when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It’s the whole action of being dunked in the water that you get to see in real time, at Mass.”

Stokes is the sign interpreter at St. Stephen’s. On Sundays, she stands in the middle, just behind a pillar, to sign the Liturgy in real time.

When requested, she also sits in the confessional with the priest as an interpreter for the deaf. Stokes emphasized that in a sacrament as important as confession, she is reverently bound by both the confessional seal and the interpreter’s seal of confidentiality as it is written in Canon law.

Airport massAn impromptu Mass was held at a boarding gate in Pearson airport. (Photo courtesy of Fr. John Mullins)

At the airport

Fr. John Mullins’ favourite part about being an airport chaplain is the stark contrast between the ordered chaos of the terminal and the quiet oasis of the chapel. 

“It’s funny because I watch people coming in and out (of the terminal) and they know where they’re going but they still have this lost look on their face,” he laughed, imitating people staring blankly at the scroll of flight status updates on an LCD screen. 

Tucked away in a corner of Terminal 1 at Toronto Pearson International Airport, next door to a Tim Hortons, Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament. Terminal 3 has a smaller chapel that is meant for more versatile use for all worshippers. 

 “I always like to say to people nobody lives here at the airport, except Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament at each terminal,” said Mullins, who has been a priest for 25 years and airport chaplain for the past two. “He is the only person that makes His home here.” 

The Toronto Airport Catholic Chaplaincy (TACC) was initiated by the Archdiocese of Toronto in 1979. Mullins celebrates Mass twice a day (once at Terminal 1 and then at Terminal 3) serving travellers, but also pilots, flight attendants, ground attendants and other workers at the airport. 

He also shares these spaces with the Fellowship Chaplaincy Services, an Evangelical Baptist ministry that provides interdenominational Christian services at the airport. There are also prayer spaces for Jewish and Muslim people.

Having a Catholic Mass at the airport is a privilege that many Canadian airports don’t have, said Mullins. It is common to have multi-faith prayer rooms in all major international airports to accommodate everyone’s religious observations. 

However, full-time chaplains are rare and far between. Fr. Nicolas Tumbeluka is an airport chaplain who celebrates Mass at Vancouver International Airport. Other airports in major Canadian cities have Christian chaplains, but some have no chaplains at all. 

Mullins said it’s important that he and his fellow chaplains ensure that the sacred space in the airport is ready to welcome all who are looking to escape the hustle and bustle to pray. 

In between Masses, Mullins likes to walk around the terminal with a rosary in his hand.

“I find that my mission here in many ways is witness, but it’s contemplative witness,” he said. “I try to bring peace to them when they’re stressed out on their journey or in their work here at the airport.”


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