When I was a young Catholic, I spent some years fervently believing in the existence of two Catholic Churches. One was the Church of my imagination, the Catholic Church of the Purely Pure, the Church that really, truly did everything Jesus wanted exactly the way He wanted them to; the other was the Church I actually knew, consisting of the many parishes in which I spent my formative years as my family moved around the country.
In the Church of the Purely Pure, there were no felt banners. That I knew with a surety that was rooted in the depth of my soul. There was no banal music; there were no jarring bits of architectural lunacy; there was a lot of magnificent stained glass. No one ever attended the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Church of the Purely Pure without being dressed in at least their second finest clothes (since ball gowns and tuxedos would have been ostentatiously out of place even for those who owned such things). The priests in the Purely Pure Church didn't just "say the black and do the red," they did so with machine-like perfection, exemplifying sacerdotal authority, reverence, humility, grace, and total self-effacement at all times. The congregation never coughed or sniffled (and children were always perfect); nobody ever shattered the heavenly banquet with any reminder of earthly humanity; and in every prayer, posture, song, word and gesture the congregation also modeled reverence and awe in the presence of the Lord. From twenty minutes before Mass began until twenty minutes after the entire place was liquid with silence and pierced with crystalline jewels of saintly light, permeating through those beautiful windows; it was, in a word, Divine.
This Church had existed, I was sure. The voices of those Catholics I listened to, the words of those I read, the opinions of those I sought informed me that this Church had been every church and parish in America, until the dreadful Second Vatican Council had put an axe to the foundations of this ancient institution, and had substituted a raw and ugly sapling for the venerable tree that had once grown on this not-so-ancient land.
Instead of that Church, though, I knew a different Church--the Church of the Happy-Clappy, the Church of Haugen and Haas, the Church of the modern American suburban parish, where the only sin was talking about sin or otherwise making people feel uncomfortable. In that Church's parishes, felt banners ironically proclaimed the mediocrity of their creators and their surroundings; the music was auditory torture; the architecture was jarring on purpose. Stained glass windows, candles (except for the ones mandated on the altars) and incense had disappeared; statues were removed and replaced with abstract art, much of it pagan in tone or influence. The priests in this Church ad-libbed the Mass with congregational approval and had a tendency to act like stage performers; the lay people flitted around the altar like moths drawn to a cracked porch light; the people in the pews sang and prayed and gestured "Look at Us! Aren't we Special?" the whole time, spending no time at all thinking about God or what He'd like in the way of worship. There was a ceaseless din in the place, and before and after Mass people acted like the whole point of being there was to chat and gossip and tattle and talk; if there was a quiet place in the whole building, it was the dark ugly closet into which the Eucharistic Lord had been shoved (because we can't possibly have Him at center stage, upstaging Father Performer, can we?).
For many of my young years I held this dual view of the Church in my mind: the beautiful Church I'd never seen, and the Happy-Clappy one I was all too familiar with. The former was probably in Rome, at least somewhere there, because the pope would insist on it--but was it anywhere else? Anywhere I could find? The latter was as cheaply ubiquitous as a fast-food restaurant, and about as satisfying; nobody there, I was sure, followed the Church's teachings on anything, and going there Sunday after Sunday was depressing and dull.
Not being able to go live in Rome, I simply festered in resentment and would-be righteous anger: I knew what my various parishes ought to be, and felt as though I was personally suffering for what they were not. That I was also sitting in judgment on my fellow Catholics, including most of my pastors, bothered me not at all: I could see the fruits of their indifference, mediocrity, and light heresy; why call my attitude judgment when it was merely observation?
I wish I had a "Road to Damascus" incident to recall, here, but when I looked back on this time in my life not long ago, I realized that my slow conversion from this mindset wasn't punctuated by anything quite so dramatic. Instead, over the course of quite a few years, I came to see that this belief of mine was wrong, entirely and dangerously so. There has never been a Church of the Purely-Pure; there is not now a Church of the Happy-Clappy. There is the Church, and there are Catholics, and they--and I--are for the most part fallible human beings inclined with the best will in the world to make mistakes and shatter the vision of perfection I once thought was my stolen birthright.
Though I don't remember one particular incident or moment that brought me to this understanding, I do remember a few. Among them are these:
--the pastor/confessor I had who kept assigning me to read 1 Corinthians 13 as my penance;
--my feeling of absolute surprise at hearing a former parish's choir pray aloud for the unborn and for an end to abortion (and my near-immediate shame at having assumed they'd all be pro-choice hippie liberals);
--my gearing up to do battle on a liturgical matter only to find out that my pastor had already insisted to the offending party that the rubrics be followed;
--my gearing up to do battle on another matter involving a Catholic friend--only to have that friend instantly, unquestioningly, and wholeheartedly accept the Church's teaching in an area in which he had been honestly unaware of that teaching;
--my surprise (and joy) when some guitar-playing Hispanic parishioners at a parish were absolutely delighted by some hymns in Latin and were eager to learn more;
--my humility in seeing so many people, more than I can list, embrace crosses I can't even fathom while continuing to serve the Lord cheerfully in any way they can...
There are so many more, far too many for me to list here. But one thing I've learned is this: when I go bristling into any situation as a secret member of the Church of the Purely Pure, I nearly always end up ashamed of my suspicion that my fellow parishioners are not-so-secret liberal Catholics who will resist anything truly Catholic to the core of their beings. Are there some like that? Sure, perhaps a handful. But are they the majority? No. And am I, in my Purely Pure impulses, always right about what the Church teaches or what she wants? No--I'm human too, and make just as many mistakes as anybody.
Do we have work to do, here in America, to help with the reform of the reform? Of course we do, and that work has already begun. Better liturgies, better catechesis, better discipleship: those are the three things we will begin to see, and need to help bring about. But the absolutely wrong, spiritually poisonous thing to do at this juncture, is to pit the Church of the Purely Pure against the Church of the Happy-Clappy as if they were not one Body.
I still hate felt banners, and would love to experience, at Mass, a reverent silence that is golden in its liquidity. But I no longer hate the people who make felt banners, or scowl at two elderly ladies who are delighted to see each other before Mass (and totally unaware how far their voices are carrying). I no longer sit in judgment on the people who lector, who serve at the altar or serve as EMHCs, or sing those Haugen songs; being in the choir means I'd have to judge myself for the banality of the music, but how will the music ever improve if nobody who wants to sing sacred music ever joins the choir?
We have work to do. Let's do it as one, instead of pitting ourselves in haughty judgment against each other.