By Will Ryan
The church is dark. The faint yellow glow from a street lamp lights up the stained-glass windows to the right of the pews. The white moonlight illuminates the windows on the left.
The priest’s long shadow dances across the congregation, choreographed by the flickering of 16 candles: ten white, six red.
Since 2007, Father David Sánchez has been hosting weekly 10 p.m. candlelight Masses at Holy Name Church on South Third Street. This service, giving Catholic students a unique way to worship, has grown increasingly popular in the last year.
“It’s all a question of marketing,” says Father Sánchez, relaxing at Caffe Classico after a Sunday morning Mass. “It’s how you attract the people and how you serve the needs of the students.” He pulls on his collar-length black beard as he contemplates. “A late Mass will be better for them.”
Father Sánchez, 46, grew up in Caguas, Puerto Rico. He was studying Bio-Statistics at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan when he spent a semester abroad serving as a volunteer missionary for a Guatemalan church during their Civil War. Upon returning to Caguas, he continued his service by working with local drug addicts aged 13-18.
After receiving his master’s degree, Sánchez left Puerto Rico to join the United States Army. “I was a paratrooper,” he says, taking a sip of coffee. ”I was stationed at JFK Memorial Chapel, which is a Green Beret chapel, at Fort Bragg. And that is how my vocation began. I went off to the chaplaincy program in the Army, and then I moved to Louisville.”
Father Sánchez is the pastor at Holy Name and at St. Joseph Church downtown, between which he juggles 12 Masses each week, but this candle-lit Mass is special.
“It is a very minimalistic Mass,” he says after greeting a group of restaurant patrons by name. “The focus is all on the Eucharist, which is what I like. The atmosphere is very mystic, very monastic. We chant. I chant and the students repeat. That’s what they call in France a ‘taize’ prayer. The whole Mass is very French-style, very medieval without electricity.”
“The father is an absolute genius,” says U of L junior Brett Riedinger. “He gets students new to the faith involved instantly. Two weeks ago, a student showed up who had never been to a mass before. The father talked to him, and he performed the second reading in tonight’s Mass.” Riedinger, president of U of L’s Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and Bonso (formerly Cardshirt), a non-profit t-shirt company, has also performed the Mass’ readings and has recruited many students to attend. “I said a reading after the game on Super Bowl Sunday. There were only about 25 students there that night, but normally there’s around 75 people in the congregation.”
When Riedinger leaves the church after Mass, it seems as though each student stops to talk with him. “I personally got a few of these guys to start coming to this ceremony, the rest I know from being involved on campus,” he says.
Riedinger first heard about the service from a friend who was helping him lead a Christian Awakening retreat for his alma mater, Covington Catholic High School.
“All of the retreat leaders went down as a group to attend the candlelight Mass and I was blown away.”
“The Mass is perfect for students because of two things,” says Riedinger. “It’s awesome and it’s convenient. The church is so close to campus and at ten o’clock on Sunday nights, students are done with homework and meetings and they just want some way to relax.”
The church, located directly across Third Street from U of L’s Jim Patterson Baseball Stadium, also offers extremely popular Masses given in Spanish by Father Sánchez every Sunday at 6 p.m.
Father Sánchez speculates about his life once his appointment at Holy Name and St. Joseph ends. “I was assigned for six more years. After that, and I’ve been thinking about this, I should go to France and live in a village and buy ten chickens and sell eggs. I’d be the priest in the neighborhood.”
Will Ryan is an English major at the University of Louisville.