Thursday, August 14, 2014

No magic list of liturgical fixes

On Monday Patrick Archbold posted a piece at the National Catholic Register with the title “7 Things To Restore Sense of Sacred Your Pastor Could Do Tomorrow.”  I read the piece, and found that I agreed with some of it and disagreed with other points, and that when I disagreed some of my disagreements were about the suggestion itself and others were merely about the practicality of the suggestion.  What started shaping in my brain as a possible comment on the piece thus turned into a whole blog post, and since I had a really busy Tuesday ahead of me I decided to save it for today. (And now it’s technically Thursday...sigh.)

I’d like to begin by going through each of the “7 Things” individually, and then sum up with my thoughts more generally on the piece as a whole.  So let’s get started, shall we?  The numbered items are Pat’s suggestions:

1. Ad Orientem.  Pat, like many other traditionalist-leaning Catholics, thinks that having priests celebrate Mass at the head of the people (thus facing away from them) will automatically improve reverence.  This is one change I wouldn’t mind seeing; in fact, I have known priests who say Mass this way.  But the ones who do have learned the proper way to do it according to the present rubrics (something Pat does allude to, to give him credit).  That is, the rubrics of the Ordinary Form of the Mass do not require the priest to face away from the people the whole time (and, to be fair, neither do the rubrics of the Extraordinary Form; the E.F. still seems to require the priest to face the people during the Gospel and the Homily, for instance).  Priests wishing to celebrate ad orientem would, I think, be best off if they did check with the local ordinary first if only to make sure they understand the proper way to do this.  Then, too, the liturgical architecture would have to be suitable for an ad orientem; I am not sure if the rubrics permit this in churches where the tabernacle isn’t behind the altar, for instance, and I don’t know if all altars are suitably placed for this posture.  So while this is a change I think Catholics would generally support, especially if the reasons for it and the liturgical history were properly and carefully explained, I don’t think it’s something the average pastor could just do “tomorrow.”

2. Restore chant and polyphony.  Here Pat is quite literally, in my case, preaching to the choir.  I’m all in favor of chant and polyphony.  I’d even like to see Entrance Antiphons at the very least (we have little time for an actual Entrance Hymn given our mission church’s unique situation).  There are two really big obstacles: a) the congregation and b) the ability of all-volunteer lay choirs to learn chant and polyphony properly and then teach it to the congregation as the Council envisioned (because what the Council didn’t seem to want was the semi-professional/professional choir doing all the singing all the time while the congregation sat mute, possibly praying or at least soaking in the reverence, but also possibly planning their pancake orders for breakfast after Mass).  Since the all-volunteer choir naturally comes from the congregation these two areas sometimes overlap.  But even when they don’t--even when you have volunteers who would be quite eager to learn chant and polyphony--you have to be willing to hire people who can teach them, and then work around the volunteers’ schedules so they can come and learn.  And all of it will be for naught if the congregation gets angry and demands the return of “On Eagle’s Wings,” which is, alas, only too likely to happen.  Again, this isn’t something that will happen “tomorrow,” or even next week, for that matter.  The best strategy might be to teach the choir some “stealth chant” and have them deploy it at intervals until the congregation starts to like it.

3. Latin, yes, Latin!!  I like Latin.  I like singing in Latin and praying in Latin.  But we had to stop singing the Mass parts in Latin because a parishioner threw a screaming fit in the vestibule one Sunday about it.  It is a sad reality that some people associate Latin, for whatever reason, with Father Grumpy Hellfire who used to tell them that failing to kneel perfectly upright and perfectly still with their hands pointed at Heaven at Mass was a mortal sin for which they would burn for all eternity, or Sister Stern Wimple who terrorized the priests in the rectory and ran everything in the parish behind the scenes but told her female students they just had to accept that God didn’t like women as much as men so women can’t be priests and really shouldn’t try to be doctors, either.  Yes, we traded in those two characters for Father Kumbaya and Sister Stretchpants, but the point is that just as some of us will someday go into a conniption fit if the children of the parish are invited to help create a felt banner even if it’s only for the parish hall and only for one special day, so today do some of our elders go into conniptions when they hear Latin.  Is it a bit silly?  Sure.  Should we try to be charitable about it?  Of course.  Should we still slip a bit of Latin here and there into the Mass?  Well, naturally.  But do we have to make it a battle point?  I think Caesar would have told us, “Sumo vestri pugnas.”  (Or something like that.  High school Latin was a long time ago.)

4. Proper reception of Communion, Kneeling and On The Tongue. Well, now, this one is where Pat starts to lose me.  I actually do receive on the tongue most of the time (my exception is if I’m recovering from a viral illness and want to try to cut down on the spread of it; I also don’t shake hands at the Sign of Peace on those Sundays).  I prefer receiving on the tongue.  And I like communion rails in churches that have them; it makes Holy Communion move along more quickly than the individual lines.  The problem is that so many churches built since Vatican II not only don’t have communion rails, but they also don’t have a way to add them without major architectural renovations (hardly a “tomorrow” sort of fix).  I’ve seen some priests direct servers to place prie-dieux at the head of the Communion lines, but this not only lengthens the time it takes for Communion, it also makes it rather difficult for the people who cannot kneel and must somehow sidestep the prie-dieu without tripping anybody (or themselves) in order to receive--and that’s before we even get to the wheelchair-bound.  The only other alternative is to require people to kneel on the floor (or perhaps on a small cushion) one at a time--still slow, and much more dangerous for lots of people (I’m thinking of pregnant women and women carrying toddlers up to Communion for one group).  And Pat may not realize this, but the people who will have the hardest time with the “all the way to the floor and then back up again” kneeling posture are the women dressed in the longest and fullest-skirted dresses (probably one reason why there were communion rails in the first place).  All of this is before you get to the main problem: the bishops in the US have said that standing is the preferred posture for the reception of Holy Communion and that receiving on the hand is an approved option.  You may not like it, you may think it’s a horrible idea, you may wish that it would be changed, but that is what our ordinaries, to whom we are supposed to be obedient, have determined for the present time.  It is one thing to say that no one is forbidden to kneel and anybody who wants to can--which is true.  It is another to suggest that pastors ought to implement (tomorrow!) as a change in the Mass a requirement for everybody (except the physically impaired) to receive on their knees and on the tongue.  We don’t foster greater respect for the Church by promoting a spirit of disobedience among our pastors.

5. No More Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.  Whenever I read things like this, I have to remind myself that people like Patrick Archbold may never have lived in places where one pastor serves two or even three area churches.  I have, several times.  In fact, my current pastor takes care of our mission and a main parish, and we are about to lose him!  Our new pastor will have the same responsibilities.  There is a rumor about an auxiliary or associate pastor or assistant priest, but so far as I know those are still rumors.  There was a deacon when we first got here, but he had to resign from the parish because he could no longer handle the one-hour drive (each way) to get to our parish.  And the parish where our pastor is being sent has 1300 families and a school--and, so far as I know, just the one priest!  If one person has to administer Communion on Sundays at a parish of that size, we’re not talking about a “slight” delay in the Mass.  We’re talking about an impossibility.  And that’s before we get to the problem about the distribution of Holy Communion under both species, which seems to be something the Church wants to have happen at least frequently enough to require helpers (I’ve pondered before whether some clarity on this matter might lead to greater clarity on the question of EMHCs).

6. Appropriate Attire.  Pat leaves this one a bit vague, other than talking about improving vestments (which would be nice, if it can be done, but given the sheer cost of better-made vestments it’s not going to be possible for every parish) and advising the priests to “...teach about the sacredness of women and encourage use of the veil.”  Since I’ve talked this one to death, I’ll just say that women are no more sacred than men, that we are all called to holiness, and that female holiness does not require women to dress like Laura Ingalls or to festoon themselves in lace.  I do agree with Pat about the level of casual that is present (tank top and shorts, etc.) but would argue that it is our society which has become casual; sadly, some people don’t ever dress up for anything and wouldn’t really know how to begin, and given the “business casual” environment in many work places some men no longer own suits as a matter of course, but have to purchase one for special occasions.  As for flip-flops: never say never.  I don’t even like them (can’t stand the strap between the toes) but had no choice but to don them when I broke a toe a few years ago.  I was able to find a “dressy” pair for church, but it was either that or go barefoot.

7. General Reverence and Sacredness.  Pat has several suggestions here.  In quick succession, I’d say: not a huge fan of the Sign of Peace myself either; incense is fine if it’s not the cheap stuff and they don’t put it right next to the choir (cough, cough); it’s not my place to tell the priests or servers what to do and I usually try to be forgiving if somebody messes up; priestly ad libs are annoying but the new translation has helped with that where I am; I care more about what the priest says than whether he’s peripatetic during the homily, but I prefer him to stay in the sanctuary even if he wants to pace a bit.

Now: I want to sum up by first sharing a shocking fact: I used to be just like Patrick.

No, really.  And here’s more.

How and when did I change?  Well, now, that would take some time to figure out.  At some point I stopped being convinced that a few magic changes to the Mass would suddenly produce an atmosphere of peace and reverence, a renewed sense of the sacred, and an unbelievable transformation of the Ordinary Form from the Mass of Community Specialness into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  At some point I started realizing that what I thought of as hard-hitting Catholic commentary was the boring old sin of Pride dressed up in its Sunday best.  At some point I realized that the Ordinary Form is a beautiful Mass regardless of some relatively minor--yes, minor!--mistakes and misdirections that will, I have no doubt, be appropriately addressed in time.

Maybe it was being involved in my parish choir and seeing for myself how much hard work it takes to prepare music for Mass each week when you have people like me, an enthusiastic soprano who is totally untrained and who still can’t really sight-read, filling the choir seats.  Maybe it was hearing from some people about how some song I’m not all that fond of means so much to them because their late husband loved it, or their child who died young used to sing along to it.  Maybe it was watching my dear pastor whom I’m going to miss so much pour himself out in daily service to the people of two churches--and as much as we appreciate him, we can’t possibly appreciate him a tenth as much as he deserves to be appreciated, such a gift from God he has been to us.  Maybe it was realizing that while I’m sneering and liturgically nit-picking Catholics in other parts of the world risk death to get to Mass.  Maybe it was bracing myself for liturgical fights over the new translation only to see it adopted peacefully and quietly by people who seem to have adjusted to it just fine.

Or maybe it was grace, pure and simple.

In any case, I know longer carry around in my mind a magic list of “fixes” that will restore proper sacredness to the Mass once and for all.  But I believe that God is in charge of His Church, that He calls deacons, priests, and bishops to their vocations, and that it is the job of those to whom it has been given to take care of the Mass.  Breaking free of my sinful--I really believe that--attitude toward the liturgy was the gift of a merciful God, and that same God will direct the Church to do with the Mass what He wills she should do.  And that’s really all there is to it, for me, anymore.


Philadelphia Catholic Outsider said...

I very much like Mr. Archbold and agree with him almost entirely regarding the problems in the Church. My main area of disagreement is his apparent belief that fixing these problems is easy. The reason the problems still exist is that fixing them is hard. Church reform is never easy. It wasn't easy at the time of Trent and it's not easy now. It will be hard work and it will take a long time. Failing to face that just makes it longer and harder.

scotch meg said...

I was thinking about this post (some) during Mass tonight. The church I was visiting had ONE Mass for the Holy Day, at 6 PM. It's in a rural community, and apparently the bishop will be in the vicinity (not in this town, but relatively close by), so parishioners were being encouraged to go to the bishop's Mass tomorrow at 10 AM. Don't blow a gasket! 6 PM is probably a reasonable time for this parish. But I doubt they got a whole lot of extra bodies for the bishop's Mass.

But back to the point, which concerns the Mass itself. I was thinking about a change which apparently Mr. Archbold did not mention. Getting rid of female altar servers. Because we need more priests, and I honestly think we will have even fewer as altar serving becomes more and more of a "girl" thing. My oldest son was part of a group of about 50 boys (all boys) who trained to serve. One of those boys is in the seminary now, in Rome. My second son fell in love with the Latin Mass, trained to serve that, and when we go to that parish - because my second and/or third sons ask to go there - an abundance of altar servers crowd the altar (all used appropriately, no boy turned away). That parish has sent two young men to the seminary since the Latin Mass began there six years ago. My homeschool group (80 families) has also sent a young man, a good friend of son no. 2, a former server for our First Friday Masses, to the seminary. But in my home parish... they have trouble coming up with altar servers (boys or girls) enough for all Masses at a large, busy parish. I can't help but wonder where our priests will come from if the altar is a "girl" place.

I could make some other remarks about the Latin Mass, but I do recognize that it's not for everyone (some days, it's not for me). I just wish it were more accessible for those who would fall in love rather than falling out of the pews.