At the southern end of Las Vegas Boulevard a series of enormous buildings poke into the sky, one more exotic than the next: the Venetian, Bellagio, Excalibur, MGM Grand, and Mandalay Bay. One block east of the boulevard sits the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer, a modern 2,200 capacity church. Built in 1993 the structure, gifted by the large hotels with impressive pieces of religious sculpture, serves the city’s tourists.
The site of Most Holy Redeemer is an improbable one. Adjacent to the church is the tarmac of McCarran International Airport. A parking lot away, a massive stucco sphinx in gold and powder blue guards the entrance to the Luxor motel while a nearby billboard cries out: “Indulge in Midnight Fantasy – Topless Show at 8:30 and 10:30 PM.” Despite its surroundings, the 8 AM Sunday Mass was nearly full. Worshippers came from a hundred different cities and towns. Yet Mass seemed no different than that of any parish church, as those present comfortably joined in the prayers, the singing, and the sign of peace.
Thirty-two million visitors arrive in Las Vegas each year, and its airport is the seventh busiest in the nation. The shops, restaurants, and casinos of America’s play land can provide for almost any kind of material need. Nothing here is particularly profound. But even the most skeptical tourist is dazzled by the neon lights, the crowded sidewalks, and array of nightclub acts that tug in every direction.
Most Holy Redeemer that morning was an oasis of calm in the downtown kaleidoscope. Because there are no homes near the large hotels, there were few members of the city’s workforce in evidence at Mass. As always, the liturgy affirmed the oneness of all human beings in Christ. “From age to age you gather a people to yourself,” the priest proclaimed, “so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory or your name.” But the congregation was largely composed of white, middle-class seniors.
The liturgy portrayed a level human unity that was in stark contrast with the world of the large casinos that surrounded us. With its huge number of restaurants, and 72,000 hotel rooms, Las Vegas requires a large workforce to function. For all of those who sleep in $200 a night rooms, there are nearly as many who serve them in one capacity or another: cleaning women, bell hops, waitresses, and croupiers, carefully ranked by function and pay scale.
The Las Vegas strip is, for all practical purposes, the be-all and end-all of the city. But the cluster of hotels and casinos is not the city’s totality. That same Sunday morning in the sun-blanched suburbs of North Las Vegas, First Communion Mass was taking place at St. Christopher’s parish. The fifty year-old church with a largely Hispanic and Filipino congregation is the poorest Catholic Church in the city. Nearly 1000 children were scheduled to celebrate their first Holy Communion. The parish is composed of 5000 families most of whom are supported by the tourist trade. It is served by one priest.
At St. Christopher’s the priest broke the bread of Christ’s body, praying: “Father, hear the prayers of the family you have gathered here before you. In mercy and love unit all your children wherever they may be.” Children living on the edge of society joined in celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Table for the first time. In their life and in that of the city this was a supremely important event.
There are forces around us that constantly draw us to the margins of life: do we drink Coke or Pepsi, cappuccino or espresso? What fashions do we prefer? In what games of chance do we find fortune? How do we measure fame? Las Vegas is a carnival of such options. It has something for everyone. But it is not serious. Las Vegas is a few days of pleasant distraction, nothing more. It thrives on the periphery of what is real.
Some things are meant to be enjoyed and then left behind. Others persist. Our faith teaches us that when the final card game has ended and last neon light has been extinguished there will still abide in humankind the unity God’s love. It is stronger than death and more enduring than any human relationship. Though we do not understand, and seldom fully live out this belief, it is at the core of the mystery of faith.
That morning, there were two churches in very different worlds. Whether knowingly or not, both communities were intimately joined in the sacramental Christ. At St. Christopher’s children’s eyes glistened and families rejoiced. At the Shrine of the Holy Redeemer, as the lines of communicants formed to receive the sacred bread and wine, it no longer mattered what hotel we had come from, what show we had seen last night, or what our plans were for the day. In America’s favorite playground deeper truth was subsumed in the one bread broken for all. Rich and poor, we were one body in the one Lord.