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TV Mass brings the church to the people who built it

Pelham, N.Y.

Passionist Fr. Leo Gorman knows that many of those tuning in to “The Sunday Mass” live alone. That’s why in exchanging a kiss of peace with his far-flung audience, he hopes this electronic embrace -- extending God’s love and favor -- will comfort them. Viewers write him that they pet their cat or shake their dog’s paw at this part of the Mass.

In December the telecast marked its 32nd year of bringing the liturgy into the apartments, nursing homes and hospital rooms of the aged and sick.

Although intended to serve seniors and the disabled among the 6 million Cath-olics in the greater New York area, “The Sunday Mass” is seen across the country via 18 commercial channels and 16 cable outlets. New York-area residents can pick it up on one of three metropolitan channels between 6 and 10 a.m. each Sunday morning.

Viewers in Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and Staten Island can get it on broadcast channels and cable outlets. It can also be seen in Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Peoria, Phoenix, San Bernardino and Savannah, across North Dakota, southern Minnesota, and much of Washington state. It’s on radio in Nome, Alaska, and is heard in Eastern Russia.

Gorman has no idea how many thousands “attend” the TV Mass. But he knows his audience. “They’re the ones who built our schools, churches and hospitals. Now they can’t get to church so the church reaches out to them through its broadcast ministry.”

When Gorman entered the Passionist seminary in 1944, television was unknown. It was not yet a fixture in American homes when he made his vows four years later. But by the time of his ordination in 1957, television had flashed across the nation, changing just about everything with its arrival.

Never did Gorman dream that he’d spend more than half of his priesthood in this medium. Now 73 and in his 27th year of directing “The Sunday Mass,” the priest could “do it another 20 years if I didn’t have the burden of expenses. It’s that rewarding.”

With his two assistants, Gorman works out of an office in the former St. Catharine’s School in Pelham, N.Y., where he raises $600,000 annually to keep the show going. Each year he produces six mailings -- four of them newsletters, and two containing the 128-page TV Prayer Guide, now in its 61st volume.

The Guide contains an introduction to the Sunday liturgy, the responsorial psalm and gospel. Published twice yearly, the winter edition offers readings from Advent through Trinity Sunday and the summer issue carries the texts for Ordinary Time -- following the English Lectionary cycle. The Guide also contains Marian prayers, the Stations of the Cross and devotional photos and illustrations.

Lots of viewers die in a year

Gorman’s office mails 83,900 Guides at each printing and does a “list cleansing” in the winter mailing. “Lots of our viewers die in a year; but new ones join,” the priest said. Printing and postage costs run $200,000 a year. Though he solicits no subscription fee, an envelope is affixed in each issue and a $4 donation to cover costs is suggested. “If people can’t send $4, we tell them to keep the Guide as our gift and to pray for our ministry. We request a donation from parishes that get the Guide in bulk.”

Most of the funding of the ministry still comes in $5 and $10 checks. Not that long ago, many of the elderly sent gifts in cash. “Fortunately, there’s less of that today,” said Gorman, who related how postal investigators traced a theft of about $1,100 to a postal worker in Westchester County some years back. “She took the cash and threw away the checks,” the priest said, recalling that the loss was uncovered after one of his relatives phoned and asked why her checks had not been cashed for several weeks.

Occasionally someone leaves money in a will to the ministry. “A couple of foundations have been good to us from time to time,” said Gorman, who noted a decline in giving since Sept. 11, 2001. While finances are an integral part of the organization, they are not “the determining factor. If the Lord wants us on the air, we will remain on the air.”

On Dec. 10, Gorman directed the filming of six Masses -- four Sunday liturgies and two Christmas Masses, one for a half-hour broadcast, the other for a full-hour slot. All of the Masses were recorded in the basement of St. Frances of Rome church in the northeast section of the Bronx.

The church is the show’s third film location. Originally the broadcasts came from Channel 9’s studios in New York. When the station moved to New Jersey, the ministry found a home with the Salesians in suburban New Rochelle, N.Y. But the order sold the building and Gorman had to find a new venue.

St. Frances was “perfect,” he said. The basement had a 20-foot high ceiling and the television crew was allowed to leave its lights permanently in the ceiling, cutting hours from the start up time for each broadcast. But Gorman is still incredulous that it cost $19,500 to move the lights from New Rochelle -- only four miles away.

What has made “The Sunday Mass” popular for 30 years is the combination of good liturgy and good television, which is not always the case with the Masses broadcast in 75 other U.S. dioceses in English, he noted. Gorman takes little credit for the program’s success, adding that he has come to know many wonderful liturgists in the metropolitan area and can call upon them when he plans his roster. He also uses local television announcers, meteorologists and well-known Cath-olic figures as lectors for the Masses.

Last month’s celebrants were Fr. Kevin Dance of Australia, the new nongovernmental organization observer for the Passionists at the United Nations; Atonement Friar James Gardiner of Garrison, N.Y.; Fr. Tom Murphy, pastor of St. Mark’s, Shoreham, Long Island; Jesuit Fr. Leo O’Donovan, president emeritus at Georgetown University; Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who celebrated the hour-long Christmas liturgy; and Passionist Frs. Stephen Haslach and Paschal Smith, who along with Gorman concelebrated the half-hour Christmas liturgy.

Stellar production team

Gorman said his television ministry owes everything to its production team, which works 10 hours on the day of the filming. The priest talks about the seven- to nine-member crew as if they were family, noting that the sound man and the lighting director have been with the show for years and that the floor manager is a Jewish woman who has been to more Masses and knows more about the Mass than many Catholics.

The crew has a stationary camera in the middle aisle of the church, another on rollers and a shoulder-held one to get close ups of the liturgy, singers and worshipers.

If the camera pool has a name for Gorman, it’s probably “Fr. Stopwatch.” The priest’s image is on each show. “When the viewers see my face, they know they’re at the right channel. I’m an identifying symbol,” said Gorman, who closes every show with a stopwatch. A half-hour Mass runs 28 minutes, 30 seconds on TV; an hour’s liturgy is 58 minutes, 30 seconds long.

Ask Gorman what’s the worst thing that’s happened in his history with the show and he quickly remembers the first Easter Mass said by the now-deceased Cardinal John O’Connor. “His homily was three minutes and 13 seconds over our time limit. It took several hours to edit it down. But he never made the mistake again.”

Gorman’s reminds each celebrant that the gospel and the homily must not exceed six minutes. “Give the viewers one thought, that’s all they need,” the priest said, citing data that indicates the average span of concentration lasts seven to eight minutes.

Besides concerns over finances, Gorman said that most of his worries these days are about whether the cardinal will arrive on time. Will the choruses and musicians be in their places promptly? When he first started in the ministry only two Masses were filmed at a time. The shift to five in one day -- or six in the case of Christmas, the only holy day liturgy to be filmed -- has occasionally heightened his anxiety. A few years ago a winter storm prevented the scheduled choirs from arriving for each of the Masses, but luckily the Office of Black Ministry Choir stayed and sang at all five masses.

As a Passionist, Gorman and his con-freres take a fourth vow -- besides those of poverty, chastity and obedience. It is a pledge to promote devotion to the Passion of Christ.

“The best part of this ministry is that I get to bring the representation of the Passion in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to those in the faith, those new to the faith and those learning about the faith,” the priest said.

From the countless letters he receives and the numerous phone calls, Gorman knows that many people who watch “The Sunday Mass” are not Catholics. He has a special place in his heart for these viewers too, he said, and for their petitions as well as those of the Catholic faithful. Many viewers ask him to pray for their children and grandchildren. One Filipino woman wrote recently to request prayers for her Jewish boss who was ill. A young woman sought prayers that her boyfriend would ask her to marry him.

Gorman has no illusions that he’s indispensable, but he has yet to see a replacement. “That’s the provincial’s worry,” he said. For now he works five and a half days a week fundraising, planning upcoming Masses and networking wherever he can to get the program more widely known. “The church is so poor on public relations. You’ve got to go to the cocktail parties and do the job yourself.”

For 25 years Gorman has done weekend duty at St. Agnes parish in Greenwich, Conn. “I call it my sanity break.” He credits another Greenwich pastor, Fr. Mark Connolly of St. Michael the Archangel parish, with launching the TV ministry in 1970.

Though he’s earned his retirement, Gorman isn’t going off the air any time soon. “God has blessed me beyond compare by giving me this ministry and by my association with the Passionists for 58 years.” The priest said he is humbled by the faith of his audience, especially the many who write to him about how much the Mass means to them.

“We have become a television parish for those who can no longer get to their parishes. It’s an awesome responsibility.”

Patricia Lefevere is NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003