There is no small urgency to mounting a significant challenge to a wrongly and broadly held presumption that contemporary liturgy’s essential content is cerebral. It is when we are caught up in the faulty logic of presuming that contemporary worship is a catechetical content waiting to be embellished that we come up with all of the abuse and distortion of the last 40 years “in these or similar words” (substitutions for Psalms, use of all manner of puppets, pop music taped or otherwise, dance or aerobic gesturing, etc.). In a lot of ways we’ve painted ourselves into the proverbial corner and there is nowhere to go from here. The Mass as we find it on paper is not a basic premise for a catechetical event just waiting to be planned by a well-meaning committee. Lots of people are speaking will all kinds of enthusiasm about the rich treasure trove of the new Roman Missal for the English speaking world. Please, God, let it be so!
The tragedy in all we experience to date, because of planning committees and the creativity imposed upon us, consists not only in the loss of any sense of good taste or reserve. Indeed it provokes a faith crisis at least among the young, who find the whole setup all too human and on the basis of the evidence presented begin to wonder what God really has to do with an operation which seems all too creative, a fabrication in a sense. One wonders at times whether Father isn’t suffering from the same crisis of faith as he too finds himself caught up in the charade. Maybe Father needs a “lifeline” to save him from the “logic” of the last forty years. Maybe he sees no way out; maybe he has despaired of anything better. I do not think what I am saying is farfetched. Take just the one example of a priest’s availability to those who seek the sacraments today!
Before all of the advances in technology, recourse to the telephone was rare and certainly prioritized such that if you needed Father for a sick call you phoned the rectory and he answered… and he came. If you didn’t have a phone, you sent the neighbor with a car to go and fetch Father for the person in need... and he came. Today Father hides from non-prioritized, spontaneous and unthinking use of the phone; he does so with answering machines and all sorts of other technology which perhaps restore priorities and the privacy which in the old days resulted from ordinary folks not daring to reach for the phone without a life and death reason. Today in lots of parishes we have a situation where the maze is so perfect that a loved one is no longer confessed, anointed and accompanied by the Lord of Life for that last journey. Does this trouble Father at all or is he having doubts about the operation as well? I had a bishop complain to me that he has never been able to reach one of his priests directly by telephone: the secretary or housekeeper takes the call and at Father’s convenience Father may or may not return the bishop’s call… Just think how much harder it must be for a lay person seeking him without the willingness to be subjected to the scrutiny of Mrs. So and So!
Without the habit of regular confession, all that remains for most Catholics is that weekly hour of power, which can be reshaped at will, it would seem, and used for all sorts of things, with “experts” taking to the pulpit in conformity with a logic inspired by truly entertaining shows on your friendly, not-so-local, devotional, cable channel. Mass becomes Sunday school, if I can simplify the expression a bit, and there is no doubt that the rupture with our liturgical past does indeed exist and is in fact complete.
A film of a Low Mass celebrated at the high altar of St. Peter’s by Pope Pius XII in 1942 is making the rounds of the blogosphere these days. One is struck by the presence of what looks like an omni-directional radio microphone on the altar. The Basilica is packed and the Square is filled to overflowing with people as well. A sea of humanity, baptized humanity, stands or kneels before the Throne of God, not entertained by orchestra or choir, not even seeing anything on jumbo video screens, in touch (perhaps?) acoustically thanks to that microphone and minimal contact with the same Latin text they know so well from Sunday Mass in their parishes. What indeed is Mass really about? It would be most hard to attribute its intellectual or cerebral content to the words alone.
A younger priest friend of mine, who has never celebrated Mass in Latin, shared with me his despair over the possibility of correcting or eliminating the liberties which priests take with the vernacular, rendering it discursive, casual and really a fabricated thing. Personally, I am not without hope because of my experience with the changes to my own mindset and ars celebrandi which oriented worship has brought me. Turning together to the Lord (ad Orientem) with those who gather in my chapel for Mass, from the Preparation of the Gifts until it is time for the Prayer after Communion, makes a positive difference in the way I preside and, I would dare say, it frees people to pray to the Lord together and directly, without the scrutiny of Father’s unwanted eye contact. I would urge priests to “turn to the Lord”; it might rekindle the faith or fan that spark into a blaze.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass needs to be returned to its “pedestal” if you will. The “have-mass-kit-will-travel” mentality does not help matters. There are folks who have the stipend to command the baptism of a grandchild on their patio and make it easier to move right into the catered reception. Is this not a diminution of the sacrament? I know of folk who have managed by hook or by crook to get Father to come to their home to celebrate mass on their wedding anniversary each year. The mass becomes too little as Father bends to including all the special rights of holding hands or whatever which are dear to them as a couple from their college days. Do birthdays over a certain age need to get marked with a mass in the home before a supper with family and friends or as a prelude to some great holiday event? Can this be done just so without diminishing the Sacrifice itself?
The Holy Father has infinite patience in these matters and I guess I should too. There are times, however, when I wonder if it isn’t time to call out the fire brigade…
PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI