Monday, February 6, 2012

Father Ad-Lib and Lay Ad-Libbey

You've probably already seen this, but I think that Catholics of my generation will see in it a sad commentary on the times in which we grew up in the Church:

MOUNT CARMEL -- After 47 years as a priest, and at least two decades of straying from the Roman Catholic Missal by ad libbing parts of the Mass, the Rev. Bill Rowe of St. Mary Church has resigned under pressure from the bishop.

Why? Because he doesn't agree that a priest should be restricted to the exact words of the Missal, including new changes in the Mass that were intended to more closely interpret earlier Latin versions.

The changes were ordered by the Vatican and took effect in late November.

Rowe, 72, said he was called to a meeting in October at the Belleville home of Bishop Edward Braxton. Rowe said that Braxton told him he could not change even small parts of what a Catholic priest is supposed to say during the portions of the Mass that are controlled by the Missal.

Rowe said Braxton told him to "think about it" for three days and then write him a letter. Rowe said he sent the letter on Oct. 12 stating he could not accept what Braxton wanted but did not want to resign or retire. He said he did not receive a response from Braxton until a few days ago, accepting his resignation.

Rowe will leave his parish in June after a successor is installed.

Now, it's very sad indeed that a priest would give up his ministry for such a silly reason. Essentially Father Rowe is saying that if he can't just make up the Mass, if he has to bother learning the actual prayers and praying according to the missal, he will just quit. No doubt that he is of the generation which believed that ritual was part of what was wrong with the Church instead of understanding that ritual is a necessary component of worship--but to me, what I find most ironic of all about priests like Father Rowe is that they don't understand one fundamental thing which I think would horrify them if they truly did grasp it, and it is this: their ad-libbing of the Mass is the single largest obstacle to the Second Vatican Council's vision of a laity engaged in full, conscious, and active participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

That's important, so let me repeat it: Father Rowe's ad-libbing, and the ad-libbing of other priests who think as he does, at Mass, is the single largest obstacle to the Second Vatican Council's vision of a laity engaged in full, conscious, and active participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

What do I mean by this?

It's simple. At every Mass (and this is true of the E.F., too, except that the people's responses are made on behalf of the people by the servers) there are times during the Mass when the priest directly addresses the people, and they respond, before he resumes the prayers addressing God directly. Now, I don't mean any disrespect by this comparison, but it's a little bit like dialog at a play where a large chorus replies either in speech or in song to the main character's dialog--and the way they do that is via cues. For instance, when the priest says, "The Lord be with you," the people respond (now, in the new translation) "And with your spirit." If Father decides instead to say, "May the good Lord smile upon everybody who's here on this glorious Sunday morning!" there will be--and I've witnessed this myself--a lot of hesitation, a lot of mumbling, and perhaps some garbled version of "And with your spirit," in response.

The fact is, it's extremely rude and unfair for the priest to do such a thing (letting alone whether it's anything more serious, which I, a laywoman, do not wish to take upon myself to say). The "chorus" can't change its lines on a whim. If the priest, instead of saying "Lift up your hearts," to the people at one point, says instead, "Let's lift up our hearts to the Lord and root out all our selfishness and sin!" the people still have to say, "We lift them up to the Lord," making it ambiguous as to whether we're lifting up our hearts, our selfishness, or our sin to the Lord--and the last two, of course, make highly inappropriate offerings to the Lord or to anybody else. I mean, sure, some clever person or other could say, "We lift up our hearts to the Lord whilst rooting out selfishness and sin and anger at random ad-libbing!" but I doubt he or she will be heard amongst the crowd.

I myself heard an example of the kind of thing that can happen, just this past Sunday. An elderly priest who occasionally says Mass for us when our pastor can't be with us slipped up--and I do, in all charity, really think this was unintentional--and used an odd form of the words that precede the people's "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof..." Now, those words are a pretty big change for us in the pews, and we're still getting used to them, and Father's use of the odd words beforehand had people confused. There was a noticeable hesitation, a lot of mumbling, and finally a few brave souls chimed in with the right response while others followed. That sort of thing tends to break up one's focus on what is really happening on the altar, on the presence of our Eucharistic Lord, and on the reality that we are about to approach and receive Him--in other words, it tends to disrupt that full, conscious, active participation and replace it with a "What the blazes was that?" moment instead.

And a Mass prayed by a serial ad-libber is a Mass in which "what the blazes?" moments abound. Pretty soon, the people, especially the very young, the elderly, the new Catholics, the not-yet-Catholic-but-interested, the people who don't speak English as their first language, etc., get lost in the "script," so to speak, put their prayer books or missals away, and simply give up on making any of the appropriate responses--because why, indeed, should they, when Father has made it clear that he doesn't respect their efforts at all, but, instead, wishes to tyrannize over them by creating all of his parts out of thin air, rendering their responses silly, inappropriate, or dull compared to his narcissistic "Look at me!" ad-libbing? They don't just give up--one doesn't have to make all the responses aloud to be participating, after all--but they disengage completely; there is, quite literally, no rhyme or reason to the Mass anymore when this happens.

I've sometimes wondered what would happen if a lay person acted like such a priest at one of that priest's Masses. Suppose that a lay person wandered out from the pews, stood in the center aisle, and to each of Father's ad-libbed prayers simply ad-libbed something in return? I think we'd see something like this:
Father Ad-Lib: May the good Lord smile upon everybody who's here on this glorious Sunday morning!

Congregation (mumbling) And with your spirit.

Lay Ad-Libbey: And may the good Lord smile upon you too, Father! And I'd like to ask Him to smile on my garden, because this glorious weather hasn't included nearly enough rain.

Father Ad-Lib: Now, my sisters and brothers, let us remember the times when we've not quite been nice to each other.

Choir: (begins singing) Lord, have mercy...

Lay Ad-Libbey: You know, I wasn't all that nice to this young girl at the grocery store yesterday morning. I mean, she was being sort of rude, too, but now that I'm here and feeling all churchy I'd like to apologize...

Father Ad-Lib: Libbey, I know you mean well, but don't you think that you're disrupting the Mass? I mean, you're just saying whatever you feel like saying, instead of making the proper responses. I can't help but feel as though there's just a bit of disobedience and disrespect with you...

Congregation: And with your spirit...
I don't think it would take long for an ad-libbing priest to become annoyed, irritated, or even downright angry with a lay parishioner who acted this way. He would think, and rightly, that the person who did this sort of thing was rude, arrogant, an attention-seeker, totally unconcerned with the Church's prayer of the Mass and how it ought to be prayed...

...and then, perhaps, he might think to look in a mirror.


Lindsay said...

Great thoughts, Erin. I've also felt that the great irony in Father Ad-Libbey (a.k.a. Father Personality) is that all the loosey-goosey Catholics I know complain about how so much attention was given to the priest in the past and we needed VII to show us that we're all "equals" and the priest isn't more special, etc... Well, to me, all the ad-libbing puts the attention SQUARELY on the priest, basking in his creativity, humor, whatever. It makes it more of a performance.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the appeal of ad libbing for a priest, it makes them sound nutty.

I have heard a priest say "for all" instead of "for many" a few times now since the new translation was put into effect. I'm thinking it's deliberate. Sigh.

Ann Marie

Scott W. said...

The traditionally-minded among us occasionally hear the hollow cry, "But the Mass is about the Eucharist! Why are you getting hung up on liturgical details?" Well, this story is a good example about how that objection is usually ahh...situational. That is, we can easily ask, "But the Mass is about the Eucharist! Why are you quitting because you don't get to improvise?"

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I think I agree. Almost ANY service of worship in almost ANY denomination has a certain order to it... and when it is changed, it can get very confusing.

Now if the restrictions were on the content of the homily I might speak up for individual initiative and freedom of conscience... but then, there is a word for people who seek that in church.