NEWS FEATURE: Catholics Of All Ages Flock to Contemporary Worship Service

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c. 2003 Religion News Service

MADISON, Ala. _ Rain trickled down the window panes as people made their way into the sanctuary for a recent Sunday evening contemporary worship service. The clothes some wore _ shorts, blue jeans, T-shirts, sandals _ may not have been their “Sunday best,” but the people didn’t let it stop them from singing their best.

“Shine, Jesus, shine.” The crowd belted out the praise song as the band of guitars, drums and a keyboard played along. Greg Thompson, who leads the service, invited everyone to join in.

“The music is loud enough to hide behind and low enough to sing over,” said Thompson. “Glory to God. Let me hear it again.”

A Baptist church? Possibly. Pentecostal? Probably.

Nope. Try Catholic, as in St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.

The service definitely has “Mass” appeal: Several hundred people, including small children, youths, middle-aged and senior citizens, crowd into the church sanctuary on the first Sunday of the month for Vision Song.

Three generations of Eileen Heaton’s family _ her mother, Mabel Glazewski, 85, and her daughters, Brittany, 18, and Larissa, 12 _ all enjoy the contemporary service, which started in March 2001.

“This Mass uplifts me,” said Glazewski, who moved here six years ago from Chicago.

Her granddaughter, Brittany, said the service “has definitely changed my outlook on worship. At the other services, most of the people are old and I didn’t always want to go. I always invite my friends when we have contemporary Mass.”

Her sister also likes the service. “The best way to pray is to sing,” said Larissa.

For Eileen, it is a time the entire family can worship together.

“It draws people of all ages,” said Heaton. “The music selection is always good. I think if other churches did one (a contemporary service), they would see a real change in attendance. People in all churches are hungry to be touched by God in their spiritual walk. What better way to do it than through the ministry of music by singing and praising God at the same time?”

Her husband, Doug Litavec, 44, said the first time he attended the contemporary service it “just knocked my socks off. I had never experienced a Catholic service like this. I was inspired and it made me hungry for more. I like the energy Greg brings to the Mass. He imparts the love of God to the group.”

Thompson, 39, is the coordinator of Youth Ministry and Family Life at St. John Church. He is a graduate of the University of Alabama, where he majored in communication, anticipating a career in broadcasting. But his life took a dramatic turn after leaving Alabama and enrolling at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

“About halfway through Catholic University, I became actively involved in religious life,” said Thompson. “At a social gathering, a friend invited me to a retreat which proved to be a significant experience in my life. It rekindled my faith.”

From there, Thompson began searching for ways he could minister in his church without being a priest since he hoped to one day eventually marry and have a family. He met his wife, Karen, in 1990 at a Catholic singles Bible study.

Following graduation from Catholic University, Thompson became an associate youth director in the Mobile diocese. When his father died in 1998, Greg decided he wanted to move closer to his mother, Terry Thompson, who is director of religious education at St. John.

While he seems to have lived a story-book life, it’s been far from that for Thompson who suffers from a rare genetic disorder which stunted his growth. He was often teased about his small size by other children while growing up. It hurt, but Thompson learned it was better to laugh at himself rather than throw a daily pity party. He believes it has helped his ministry to young people.

“I have a certain sense of rapport with the kids because I literally see them eye-to-eye,” said Thompson, who struggles to walk up or down the church steps. “I’m not as threatening to them as some adults are. I tell them that which may challenge you early on in life can be turned around and used later. I just tell them I’m a man in need of a stepping stone.”

Thompson stands on a box to lead the contemporary Mass, which lasts about an hour.

Eileen Heaton says while Thompson may be physically short, he is spiritually tall. “Everyone in the church looks up to him,” said Heaton.

Vision Song wasn’t an overnight success, but now it actually outdraws the other weekly traditional Masses.

“It took about six months to work out all the kinks,” he said. “It takes time and patience to put together something of this magnitude. The volume was too loud at first, so now we have digital drums and can control the sound.

“The reason it has stayed strong is because it is done with youths and for young people.”


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