Monday, March 2, 2015

Complaining about priests

Last week, Rachel Lu, who wrote an earlier piece complaining about “schlocky liturgies” she endured while on vacation, answered her critics here:
Liturgy is an important element of Catholic life, and we need to think about what sorts of liturgical practice will make us better Catholics and people. It’s really not just a matter of taste. Good liturgy elevates our minds, and indeed all of our senses, drawing us closer to God. It’s often uncomfortable, because it forces us to grapple with the immensity of the mysteries that are found in the Mass. But that’s a healthy sort of discomfort. We ought to be challenged in that way, and it can actually be a good thing to feel a bit “alienated” at Mass, insofar as that alienation comes from the recognition that (as we read in Hebrews 11) we are “foreigners and strangers on earth,” and that our true home is with God.
Bad liturgy is often oriented towards making worship a more comfortable and communal sort of experience. It’s easy to understand why this would appeal. Modern people often like to shed formality in favor of something more “original” or “human” or “communal.” That’s really just to say that they prefer to downgrade ceremony into something that doesn’t require them to face up to the real, serious significance of what is taking place. Consider the absurdities that take place in many contemporary weddings and funerals and you should understand what I mean.
There’s a lot of it, pretty much in the same vein; you can read it all here.

It would be easy enough to write a point-by-point piece based on what Lu wrote, but I don’t think that would get at the heart of why what Lu writes, and the way she writes it, bothers me.

I’m not opposed to reverent liturgy (I use “reverent” instead of “decorous,” “formal,” or “uncomfortable,” words which appear often in Lu’s piece).  I’m actually very much in favor of it, if by “reverent” we mean that the liturgical rubrics are followed, a prayerful spirit pervades the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and that innovations are strictly avoided.  

But that, I find, is not what many people who complain about “schlocky liturgies” or insist on their own particular vision of liturgical decorum are really talking about.  Most of them are complaining about the following things:
  • the priest’s choice or permission for music they dislike or find tacky
  • the priest’s choice to permit lay people to assist him in various roles--a choice which the Church fully permits and even in some cases seems to encourage
  • the priest’s choice--also permitted by the Church--for some of these people to be female
  • the priest’s continued use of ugly church buildings, many of which are old enough not to have been the choice of anybody within living memory let alone that particular pastor
  • the priest’s choice to permit or overlook ugly or tacky Church decorations (the Perennial Gripe about the Felt Banners)
  • the priest’s choice to permit or overlook Our Father-hand holding (or at least to mention it a time or six before realizing the people are being incorrigible about this and it’s not the battle he wants to fight, at least not right now)
  • the priest’s choice to use the option to let the congregation participate in the exchange of the Sign of Peace, which is in the rubrics and a perfectly permissible thing for him to do.
In other words, most people when they complain about “bad liturgies” or “schlocky liturgies” are really complaining about priests.  Specifically, they are complaining that the priests don’t have the same concern and care for the liturgy that they, the well-informed laity, do, because everybody knows it’s impossible to have a reverent and Holy Sacrifice of the Mass if women in purple dresses are allowed to assist as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion or if girls are allowed to be altar servers or if Father has the execrable musical taste of much of his generation and actually likes “All Are Welcome.” (Side note: I have now sung that dratted piece twice in two Sundays, after 46 years of never hearing it, because we couldn’t get to our regular church this Sunday due to an icy neighborhood and when we went to the main church of our parish later in the day that song was on the list.  At least I had practiced it and wasn’t totally lost--much of the congregation didn’t even bother.)

I find this puzzling not because I don’t share some sympathies here and there, especially as regards the music--I wish we were singing Bruckner and Palestrina and Mozart and Bach and chant at every Mass instead of most of what we do sing, and there are some musical settings of the prayers of the Mass which ought to be taken out and shot--just the music books, though; I’m not bloodthirsty.  I find this puzzling because having gone through my own season--and it was a long one--of Snobby Liturgical Pride I finally realized that one of the worst liturgical abuses of all was my own idea that somehow I ought to be doing Something About Schlocky Liturgies, when, in fact, I am not an ordained minister of the liturgy whose job it is to do such things; I’m a pretty average lay Catholic wife and mother whose job is to assist at Mass like any other lay person, and to be willing to put my talents, such as they are, at the service of my parish community as long as Father thinks it’s a good idea and my voice holds out.

My job at Mass is not to nitpick and criticize and roll my eyes (I’m not saying it never happens, just that it’s not my job).  No, my job at Mass is to pray, to plead for forgiveness and ask God to help me do a better job in all those areas where I always need help, to offer to Him those dear hearts in my family and among my friends and especially those people I’ve promised to pray for, to beg Him to draw everybody in the world close to His Sacred Heart, to remember that nobody alive is yet lost to His Mercy and to beg for that Mercy for myself and those I pray for as greedily as any child begging in front of a cookie jar, and then to receive Him Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity and carry this priceless Treasure with me in prayer for as long as He remains present. Oh, and to sing a lot.

So much of the liturgy wars boils down to complaining about priests and what they are doing.  I bet that if we just prayed for them at Mass instead, we’d see some really good things happening. Maybe even some Palestrina.


freddy said...

I find that I don't really understand either what Ms. Lu or you are getting at.
Ms. Lu is a bit ham-fisted, as seen in that she's had to write a second article explaining the first. She says she's an adult convert, and doesn't really understand all the nuances of parish life, so it's understandable that she might conflate certain things.
On the other hand, you seem to be saying that the Catholic laity has no right to criticize what the Church allows, and while it's certainly okay to have an opinion on a small thing; like disliking a certain piece of music, it's *not* okay to have an idea of "better" liturgy and think that might lead to greater holiness -- and express that publicly.
You also appear to believe that priests micro-manage their parishes. Many priests inherit situations and "people-who-run-things." Some of those might just be waiting for a parishioner to ask, "Hey Father, can we please not sing 'Michael, Row the Boat Ashore' anymore? It makes my ears bleed!"

Amanda said...

Yes, yes yes! I will admit, I am guilty of grumbling and rolling my eyes after certain masses I've attended, but I have to remember that as long as the Eucharistic Prayer remains untouched it is a perfectly valid Mass and Jesus is fully there and present whether I like the "fluffy" homily or cringe-worthy music or not.
One of my favorite quotes by... I believe St. John Marie Vianney, or St. John Bosco... goes 'There are no bad priests, only priests whose people do not pray enough for them."

Red Cardigan said...

Freddy, I have no problem with people having an idea of what better liturgy ought to involve and expressing those ideas publicly. I do have a problem with people confusing substance with accidents, or indicting whole Masses as “schlocky” because they don’t like the music or the presence of female altar servers or female EMHCs.

I don’t think priests are micromanagers, but I do think that they are the ones in charge (especially of the liturgy, which is properly their work). And for every parishioner who complains about “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” (or whatever; I’ve not heard that sung at Mass), you will find others who complain about Panis Angelicus. Yes, those who complain about Panis Angelicus are ill-informed while those who complain about “Michael” have good musical taste, but as I said earlier, Father does have to pick his battles. It takes a priest with both excellent knowledge and training in sacred music AND a strong love of sacred music to make music his hill to die on (so to speak).

Does better liturgy lead to greater holiness? I don’t think it’s some sort of automatic effect--after all, Martin Luther and Henry VIII and the Borgia popes all had (arguably) better liturgies. More recently, it’s easy for those of us born after the Council to forget that the generation that had been raised on the Mass of the Ages eagerly embraced the Felt Banner Revolution, for the most part.

I’m not saying that good, holy, reverent Masses have no effect on a person’s growth in holiness--of course they do. But I think the question is sometimes more complicated than it appears.

Red Cardigan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Red Cardigan said...

Arrgh! Half the time I post a comment myself, lately, it seems to post twice! Blogger...grrr...argh...

scotch meg said...

Yes, but.

Liturgy can make or break a conversion, which might explain Ms. Lu's attitude. It can make or break a son or daughter's attachment to the Faith as an adult. It can serve as a conduit of Grace or a temptation to sin.

I am actually very sympathetic to parish-hoppers who are looking for the liturgy that strikes their hearts and sets them on fire for God, since it seems that we are in the "Thousand Flowers" moment of liturgy.

It would be nice if we were all holy enough to overlook the incidentals of the liturgy, but we're not. Fingernails on chalkboard moments happen. Our souls need feeding, and some of us have allergies when it comes to liturgy. Criticizing liturgy is not the same as criticizing the priest - partly because we do recognize, as you state, that music may not be a particular priest's hill to die on.