In Praise of the Cake-Lady

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June 2, 2014 by lucieromarin

The brutal reality that all preachers, servers and choristers must keep before them is this: good preaching, reverent serving, and beautiful music may well bring people back to your parish; but it doesn’t matter how good the preaching is, how reverent the serving, or how spectacular the music…if there is nothing good to eat or drink afterwards, people will not hang around to talk, and if they do not hang around to talk, your congregation will never become a community.

Obviously, the absence of tea and cake won’t actively repel people as bad music will, but the fact remains that two hours of liturgy leaves people hungry and tired, and if there are no refreshments in immediate view upon their exiting the church, they will go elsewhere in search of them. Also, even if you do like to chitchat after Mass, there’s a limit to how much standing around you can do without anything to do with your hands. Tea and cake don’t just refresh body and soul, they keep the hands active and make socialising easier, like glasses of wine or cups of soft drink at parties.

Tea and cake keeps boys and girls there long enough to be able to ask each other out. It gives the parish priest time to circulate amongst his congregation, to find out how people are. It keeps you there long enough to buy a raffle ticket. It gives the children time to play. It gives people who have travelled long distances a chance to connect with like-minded persons of whom they get to see little during the week. It means that spouses can go to Rosary or Confession comfortably, because the rest of the family has something pleasant to do in the meantime. And all of these things are the difference between a parish being a place of duty and routine and a parish being a home.

It’s important to realise this, because it’s easy to assume that the most valuable people in your parish community are the ones in the sanctuary or whose names are listed on committees, when, in fact, the most valuable people are those who make you feel welcome and give you the sense that the parish is nice.The persons who exercise the virtue of hospitality, whether by keeping the bathrooms clean, providing the tea and cake, sweeping up the crumbs afterwards, making sure the spoons are clean and the urn is boiling by the time Mass is over…they’re never going to be noticed, much less thanked for their work. Still less will they be envied for their perceived power; they may even be pitied for their perceived lack of it. Nonetheless, they are, in fact, the reason we have a community at all, as opposed to merely a church with a beautiful liturgy in it to duck in and out of on a Sunday.

I remember one year when the agonisingly long wait between the end of Mass and the commencement of Divine Mercy devotions was made blissful by a giant mound of fried chicken, coleslaw and home-made Slovenian doughnuts. There was enough for an army. If it hadn’t been provided, one of three things would have happened: a) people would have gone in search of lunch, and just not come back, b) they would have gone in search of lunch and returned, but in separate little groups or alone c) they would have stayed, becoming hungry and grumpy and increasingly resentful of the Divine Mercy. Instead, the community ate and talked together, and embarked on the afternoon round of prayer and liturgy with an energy and enthusiasm that had nothing to do with grace and everything to do with the hospitality of the woman who decided that There Ought to be Lunch, and then did something about it.

(The same holds true for the gentleman who provides lunch for every First Saturday cleaning day. There’s nothing glamorous about being the man who brings the sandwiches. No one will ever talk in hushed tones of his political influence or his decision-making processes. But you know what? The only reason the church can get cleaned is that people are ready to volunteer to clean it. And that volunteering is due in part to his hospitality. He doesn’t just guarantee that cleaners turn up; enabling them to sit down together over lunch, he turns them into friends.)

Of course, to avail yourself of the Sunday slabs of jammy, creamy sponge, the treacly slices and the floured crescents, you do have to be able to climb over the swarms of children who hone in on the cake table immediately after Mass, trying to touch everything on it before deciding which half of the goods they’ll eat first. Sometimes I wonder if it’s beneath adult dignity to compete with children for chocolate biscuits. Other times, I think I should just brush them aside like the row of half-pints that they are. Most times, I just wish the choir didn’t sing Sext, because by the time we get out of the church, the food has gone!

I digress. The children, too, are another reason it’s important to have cake after Mass. Seriously, these infants have just spent two hours suppressing the urge to run, jump, shout, hit things, dance, and roll along the ground, all out of respect for God or their parents or both. The closest they get to playing is waving their hands through the clouds of incense, bobbing up and down to the sound of the organ, or secretly waving at the woman grinning down at them from the choirloft. After this kind of discipline, they deserve cake!


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