Monday, August 4, 2008

Buckles and Bows

Once upon a time, in a diocese far, far away, there lived a species of creature known as the Liturgical Nitpicker Catholic (LNC). The LNC was a sour faced, disgruntled person; he (though sometimes he was a she) lived for the joy of catching mistakes at Mass, and had a keen eye and powerful observation skills which aided his quest of perpetual fussiness about all things liturgical. Were the buckles on Father's shoes a shade too big? Did one of the requisite number of candles on the altar go out before the end of Mass, suffering from an untrimmed wick or a careless altar boy's lighting efforts? Did Father fail to bow deeply enough at each of the proper moments, or was there a shade of unseemly irreverent haste in Father's proclamation of the Last Gospel? Did Father fail to rein in a runaway choir, or was his Latin pronunciation painful to the ear?

The LNC would purse his lips at each transgression and make a mental note of it. Though he would die rather than admit it, he lived for the joy of collecting these errors of omission or commission and taking them to the pastor, or writing long and heavily detailed letters to the bishop on occasion if the pastor was the one at fault.

Does this seem like a fairy tale, like a mythical made-up creature with no basis in reality? I'm told that it isn't, that this person did indeed, and still does, exist. In fact, if he didn't exist we'd have a lot easier time of it when serious reasons for legitimate liturgical concerns arose; it's because of the LNC that another species of Catholic, the Legitimate Concern Raiser (LCR) can't get anywhere much of the time.

Because unlike the LNC, the LCR doesn't like to complain about things that go on at Mass. He (and again, he can be a she) doesn't go out of his way to notice minor mistakes, and is charitable about Father's use of "Eucharistic celebration" instead of "Mass" on occasion, or other similar things. He's always quite willing to believe that an error occurs either by mistake, or possibly by some small ignorance on the part of the celebrant or those assisting; he never likes to presume guilt, and will only approach the pastor or some other authority when no other option exists. He wrestles with his conscience on even big liturgical transgressions, wondering if others have already let the pastor know and wondering whether any good will be done by talking about the matter. Perhaps it won't be repeated, he thinks hopefully.

But then it is repeated, and the LCR is in a bind. Should he go to the pastor, or not? Worse, if it is the pastor who is responsible for what is rapidly becoming outright liturgical abuse, ought he write to the bishop, or not?

Catholic mothers understand the dilemma, because nearly all of us have been in the place of the pastor or the bishop. The situation unfolds like this:

Mother is seated at a desk, paying household bills or planning lessons. The children are playing in another room, when Mary Margaret Therese Grace (called "Dolly" for short) comes skipping in.

"Mother," she announces with a toss of her six-year-old head, "Origen isn't sharing his blocks. He won't let Innocent have any of them."

"Does Innocent want them, dear?"

"No, not yet, but he might, and Origen says he's making a really big tower. He's being selfish."

"Does anyone else want the blocks right now?"

"No, but..."

"Dolly, go play."

A few minutes later Dolly returns again. "Mother, Anne Elizabeth said 'brat.' I heard her, and..."

"Was she calling someone a brat, dear?"

"Well, no, but..."

"Then why did she say it?"

"She said she didn't like 'Bratz' dolls, but we're not supposed to say 'brat,' so I thought..."

"I don't like 'Bratz' dolls either. It's okay to say that. Now go play."

Dolly stomps off, frowning.

Moments later, Alexandra Sarah Anastasia, called "Sisi," enters the room. "Mom," she begins, "Innocent and Ambrose are fighting, and..."

Mother lays down her pen and takes a deep breath. "Sisi," she says, "I'm trying to get some work done. You children can get along with each other for five minutes while I finish! Now go play--or you're all going to get Quiet Time!"

Five minutes later, Mother will be giving her children one of their least favorite lectures: Why You Should Always Tell Mother When Someone's Nose Is Bleeding, and Why Daddy's Electric Toothbrush Won't Remove Blood From Grandmother's Heirloom Rug. Sisi will be grumpy--she tried to tell, but Mother wouldn't listen.

When we have a serious reason to contact a pastor or bishop about a truly egregious sort of liturgical abuse, we have to remember that they're much more used to encountering the LNC or "Dolly" sort of complainer. We have to be prepared to explain why this particular abuse is much more serious than the average failure to "Say the Black, Do the Red." We have to be calm, non-accusatory, and show how much in our words and demeanor we regret even having to mention it. Nevertheless, we should persevere, when the occasion really warrants it; the good pastors and good bishops do want to know about nosebleed-level abuses, and if the less good ones won't take action, we will have done all we can, and can turn to prayer for liturgical reverence with clear consciences.


Anonymous said...

How true!
I have commented and linked to yours, on my blog.

matthew archbold said...

I'm with you on this one. Last Sunday my family was talking to our pastor and he was having a fine old time. And then THEY came upon us like a swarm. Surrounding us. They were there to complain. Waiting.
When we were leaving I really felt like I was abandoning our priest to unhappy times.
I think priests probably spend 90 percent of their time with the same 20 people in the parish. And they're not all just saints. Some are the picayune complaining types. And just some plain old wackos.
So I try to give him a break. He's a good pastor and he's done wonderful things here. (Not saying I don't notice some things sometimes but I write it off as a mistake)

Anonymous said...

I'm not religious at all (due to the fact that my entire family and most of my friends are stubborn, scientific atheists), but pastors do have a tough job! They've got to lead and inspire dozens of people every single week while remaining calm, polite, and cheerful, even if they feel like destroying several large buildings with a laser gun in anger(or perhaps something less drastic).

I think teachers are in the same boat. When I was in high school, my dad really disapproved of my playing the tuba in the marching band due to the heat and dark uniforms. (It also didn't help that when I took up the tuba, solely to be in the band, I was about five feet tall and one hundred pounds. Those sousaphones are definitely not light!) He ended up calling the band director after the first game of my freshman year to complain. I tried to tell him, "Now what would that do? What do you expect him to do, change the uniforms (by the way, they were brand new that year...we had had the old ones for forever)? Tell the sun to stop shining? It's the middle of August! Of course it's hot and humid!" I'm pretty sure he's the only one who complained, which was embarassing. Can you just imagine if the parents of the entire band complained? (There were about 200 or so kids that year.) The teachers would spend so much time trying to console the parents that their teaching would suffer, bringing more calls from the same ignorant parents!

Another example: I will always remember the day after the winter concert in fifth grade. We had sung "The Twelve Dogs of Christmas" and had kids run across the stage as dogs each verse. That day, I remember hearing that some parent had called and complained that we were being unfair to the cats. The choir teacher was all right (she was good about stuff like this), but the band teacher was rather upset. She ranted, "What do these people do all day? Your kid works hard for three months outside of school to learn something, proudly performs it, and all you have to say is 'Why didn't you sing about cats?!'" I didn't understand that back then, but I think I understand why now. Poor teachers...(and pastors!)

- Stephen James Weaver

P.S. Matthew: I hope things get better for your pastor!