An Interview With a Priest on the Periphery at Holy Innocents Church

holy innocents

Fr. Peter Irving is a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He has spent his priesthood far from the affluent parishes of South Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Woodland Hills, serving instead in poor, largely Hispanic parishes that were nearly defunct when he arrived. His most recent assignment is Holy Innocents in Long Beach.

Kevin: What is the place of beauty when it comes to the worship of God and how is that present at Holy Innocents, especially in light of being in a poor, Hispanic parish?

Fr. Irving: I almost want to answer this question by saying, “Beauty is everything!” But, of course, that would be overstating things. There is also ex opere operato, valid matter and the other requisites for validity. Beauty, nonetheless, is a supremely important element in our worship of God at Holy Innocents.

My parish church is located in an economically depressed and ethnically diverse area of Long Beach, California. For the most part, the surrounding landscape consists of old commercial buildings, numerous overcrowded apartment complexes, unkempt streets, and many single-family homes from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s in various stages of disrepair. At the very least, I think it is fair to say that the area around our little parish church is drab and characterless.

When I arrived here in 2006 our then dilapidated church blended in seamlessly with its dreary surroundings. There was a towering rusty iron fence surrounding it. The landscaping consisted of overgrown weeds and trash. The exterior paint was chipped and discolored. The stained glass window on the church’s facade (a 1925 Mayer of Munich window depicting “The Agony in the Garden”) was riddled with cracks and at least one bullet hole. The church looked abandoned and, in fact, it was for the most part. The center of the parish’s life was shifted from the broken-down church to the irredeemably ugly school auditorium which is about a mile away. This shift took place decades ago. Most Masses, as well as baptisms and confirmations, took place in the school auditorium with its altar on wheels, a tabernacle in a closet, and gray plastic folding chairs without kneelers.

It did not take me long to figure out what I needed to do. I had no choice but to reclaim the church as the parish’s center and so began, very incrementally over a period of ten years, a complete restoration of the church building, inside and out.

Some of my priest friends tried to discourage me, arguing that it wasn’t worth the effort. The building, constructed in 1925, is not a particularly outstanding example of church architecture. It is small (seats about 300 people) and is somewhat hidden behind the 99 Cents Store. At the same time, it is a decent iteration of the Spanish Mission style which is ubiquitous here in Southern California. This neighborhood church had been forgotten and ignored because it was tired and dingy. It needed a major facelift and I was convinced that in time a restored Holy Innocents church would contribute to the lifting up of the surrounding community and the renewal of the faith of the people. This is, in fact, what has taken place.

We now have a beautiful little church. It will never rival the exquisite splendor of the great cathedrals, basilicas, and churches that dot our land. But, for what it is – a humble little neighborhood church in the middle of its dismal and colorless surroundings – it shines with its own radiant splendor.

I am reminded of the true story of David Jones and the World War I Battle of the Somme. This bloodiest battle of history which claimed over one million lives of British, French and German soldiers, provides for me an insight into the role of beauty in divine worship. Jones is best known for his epic poem, In Parenthesis, based, in part, on his own experiences as an infantryman in that hellish battle. His conversion to Catholicism was inspired while in the Mametz Woods not far from the desolate terrain of the battlefield. He peered through a crack of a barn door and witnessed for the first time the awesome majesty, the simple yet powerful beauty of a Low Mass being offered on a makeshift altar. This explosion of celestial beauty in the midst of the abject forsakenness of that savage war proved to be for Jones a singularly salvific moment.

Kevin: Holy Innocents has an altar rail, you celebrate your Masses ad orientem, and you are even commissioning new works of art for the church. What is that all about? What do your parishioners think about that? What about your fellow LA priests?

Fr. Irving: My first and previous pastorate was, as I like to say, just over the river (the Los Angeles River) and through the hood in the neighboring barrio of Wilmington. The parish of St. Peter and St. Paul was established in 1865. Interestingly enough, U.S. Army troops stationed at the nearby Drumm Barracks built the original Civil War era clapboard church. After fewer than 50 years, the church was falling apart and it was no longer large enough for the growing Catholic population. In the late 1920’s, the then Italian immigrant pastor launched a campaign to construct a new church modeled after his home parish church in Italy. What he built is truly magnificent. The majestic Romanesque parish church of St. Peter and St. Paul is now situated in a blue-collar neighborhood not far from the gigantic cranes of the Los Angeles harbor and the oil refineries with their notorious carcinogen-billowing smokestacks.

Miraculously, the Italian crafted marble communion rail was never removed (although, there was one pastor who had plans to do so but was transferred before he could). In the years following Vatican Council II, standing for communion was introduced. But during my years there as pastor (1993-2006), the faithful began to use the communion rail again and I was happy to oblige them. Over time, its use gradually won the day. I know that the norm for the United States is to receive Holy Communion standing. It is also true that one may receive kneeling if one chooses and no priest, deacon or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion can deny this option. In this case, people voted with their knees and receiving the Sacred Host at the rail became practically normative at St. Peter and St. Paul.

I was transferred to Holy Innocents about a year after the election of Pope Benedict XVI. At some point, the new Holy Father began to employ a prie-dieu for those faithful who received Holy Communion from him. In our not yet refurbished church, I put out two kneelers, explaining that I was following the lead of the pope and inviting those who desired it the option to receive Holy Communion on their knees. After some time, more and more people opted to kneel; not everyone, of course, but nearly everyone except those who were physically unable to do so. Once again, the faithful voted with their knees. By the time we were ready to renovate the sanctuary, it was necessary to restore the altar rail.

A natural next step to kneeling for Communion is receiving the Sacred Host on the tongue. It can be physically awkward to receive Communion in the hand while kneeling on a prie-dieu or at the rail. What is more, the use of the “communion plate” (which is actually required by Church law) with the aid of the acolyte further disposes one to receive on the tongue.

These two rather organic developments – kneeling for Communion and receiving on the tongue as opposed to in the hand – have fostered a greater reverence on the part of the faithful of Holy Innocents. Visitors often remark how edified they are to see this palpable display of Eucharistic piety.

As part of our renovation project, ad orientem worship was restored at Holy Innocents on Christmas Eve 2011. Simply put, ad orientem refers to when the priest, while at the altar, faces the Lord along with the lay faithful. I recommend that those who are interested in this question of ad orientem vs. versus populum read Cardinal Ratzinger’s book, “The Spirit of the Liturgy” (Ignatius Press, 2000). A fact which is stunningly overlooked by virtually everyone: the rubrics of the Roman Missal presuppose that the priest celebrant at the altar does not face the people except at three distinct and brief moments during the Mass.

Recent years have witnessed a growing interest in ad orientem worship and in a few dioceses, it is undergoing something of a revival. Here in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, it is all but non-existent. Not too long ago I was standing in front of the church between Masses and a man walking by said to me, “Someone told me that this is a schismatic church and that the priest says Mass with his back to the people.” I had to smile with amusement. The man was very sincere. I cordially invited him inside and there in the narthex are posted oil paintings of Pope Francis and our ordinary, Archbishop Gomez. “Do you recognize those two men,” I asked, and, of course, he did. I guided him into the nave of the church and patiently explained the rationale for the ad orientem altar and its history. He was both thankful and relieved.

Generally, the response of the laity to the ad orientem altar is eminently positive and even almost matter-of-fact, as if to say, it makes sense. The reaction of clergy has been more mixed. There was one priest (in his 70’s) who had been assigned to our parish to preach on behalf of the missions. Upon seeing the altar, he expressed great displeasure and argued that Vatican II had done away with this practice. Ironically, he was a rather cultured man with Pontifical degrees from Rome.

Kevin: Tell us about the commissioning new works of art for the church.

Fr. Irving: As far as I can tell, our parish’s patron saints, the Holy Innocents, had not been previously recognized in any of the artistic appointments of our parish church, such as they were. In order to promote greater devotion to our heavenly intercessors, I did several things.

First, I installed an Agnus Dei stained glass window above the altar in our completely redesigned presbyterium. In the Church’s liturgical feast of the Holy Innocents, these innocent ones who shed their blood for the cause of Christ, are associated with the figure of the Lamb of God.

Next, I had inscribed in gold-leafed letters on the newly added entablature above the altar the scripture verse from St. Matthew’s Gospel (2:18) VOX IN RAMA AUDITA EST PLORATUS ET ULULATIS MULTUS. (“A voice in Rama is heard, much weeping and mourning”). The martyrdom of the Holy Innocents fulfill these words taken from the prophet Jeremiah.

Finally, I initiated an ambitious stained glass window project to replace the existing stained glass windows (not of very high quality) which were sagging and broken. Here I must add that in setting out to restore the interior of the church, I took inspiration from an essay written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about the Roman basilica of St. Mary Major. It is known as Rome’s “Christmas Church.” Since the Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents is an integral part of the Christmas narrative as told by St. Matthew, I adopted this Christmas church theme as the overarching motif for our church’s interior design.

Therefore, when it came to deciding what would be the thematic thread to link each of the new stained glass windows, the idea that quickly came to mind was that of “Christmas Saints.” Hence, this project which has been years in the making and will be completed by the end of this year (2017) will feature the following uniquely crafted stained glass windows: St. Nicholas of Bari, St. Stephen Martyr, St. John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, St. Thomas a Becket and the Holy Magi. With the exception of St. Nicholas who has long been associated with Christmas, all the other saints have their feast days during the Christmas season. Each window has been exquisitely fabricated by the Judson Studios of Los Angeles.

Kevin: What kind of lay formation activities do you provide at Holy Innocents and what kind of response from your parishioners have they received?

Fr. Irving: Like many parishes today, especially those in more or less large urban centers, parish life at Holy Innocents is both enriched and made more complicated by a demographic which is multi-ethnic and multilingual. At an Easter Vigil Mass a few years back, English, Spanish, Tagalog, Japanese and Vietnamese were used, but that was an exceptional year. Generally, English, Spanish, and Tagalog are the languages spoken at major celebrations here. On a daily basis, Spanish and English are the mainstays. In our Sunday Masses, we sing the Gloria, the Sanctus, and Agnus Dei in Latin. On major feasts, our multilingual Masses will include the Roman Canon in Latin and the chanting of the Pater Noster.

When it comes to formational activities we have no choice but to do everything twice, that is to say, in English and in Spanish. For adults, we offer these basic courses: Doctrinal and Sacramental preparation, a four-week long Marriage Preparation course, a twelve-week Natural Family Planning course, Baptismal instruction for parents and sponsors

For children and teens, we provide First Communion preparation for primary and junior high school children and First Communion and/or Confirmation preparation for high schoolers. The grace of God, this same program has helped to produce priestly, religious and lay vocations.

In the cultural and ascetical arena, we offer classical music concerts featuring virtuoso youth performers.

To learn more about Holy Innocents, its website is

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