Monday, August 11, 2008

Summer travels, liturgical thoughts

The connection, of course, is inevitable. You go on vacation. You travel over the summer. You visit your parents or in-laws. You go to Mass. You come away, as Martin Mosebach says, a theatre critic.

Our last two Sundays were in familiar Novus Ordo territory -- in North Carolina and Iowa. Neither venues evidenced what anyone present would have likely called egregious liturgical abuse. Attitudes were generally in line with the generally accepted practices of AmChurch parishes across the country.
For example, in one parish, the hymns at the Vigil Mass were from the Glory and Praise book and led by the "Contemporary Choir," which did and outstanding job as such music goes. The choir was situated to the left side of the altar, partially elevated, partially on the altar, partially off, facing the congregation. Some of the female singers were particularly attractive and almost self-consciously so, with what one might almost call celebrity-style hairdos and clothing. Furthermore, in the exceptionally lively recessional number, which was accompanied with bongos, one of them actually began dancing movements with her arms, occasionally laughing with the young lady next to her.

The priest, widely respected among the conservative parishioners for solid homilies, gave a good sermon, and celebrated the Mass with exacting precision according to the rubrics, facing the congregation. After the Mass, before offering the final blessing, he thanked the choir for its exceptional work and called for a round of public applause in a gesture of appreciation for its hard work and excellent performance.

Yet as I thought about all of this, something occurred to me -- something that I still haven't through through entirely, but something I'm increasingly sure is true. The intentions behind turning the priest around to face the congregation, to audibly communicate the Eucharistic Prayers in the vernacular so they can be understood by everyone, to stand the choir up front to face the congregation and to involve the congregation by way of "active participation" as much as possible in the worship may have all been good in one way or another. Yet there have been all sorts of unintended effects which have been anything but edifying -- and probably directly contrary to their ostensibly intended effects.

This is not the place for me to go into details. I will do this in time. This is the place only for me to testify to my own experience of what I have witnessed and ask for your own responses as well.

I have just come from a Monday evening low Mass of the Extraordinary Form, followed by Benediction, the singing of St. Thomas's two Eucharistic hymns, the devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and the recessional hymn, Adoremus in Aeternum. I have come to appreciate these Monday evening Masses in a particularly personal way. There is a depth there that I cannot find elsewhere. I do not go there to hold hands with anyone, to watch any self-appointed diva bray at me from a mike, or lead me in a hip-swaying, hand-clapping attempt to relate to Paris Hilton or Hannah Montana, or to hear a priest's opinion about this or that sporting event. Forgive me if this offends any of you, but I go to Church to meet God, not to meet you.

The emphasis today, however, seems to be entirely on the other foot: Church is where one goes to be welcomed into a Community of glad-handing, rubber-necking, incessantly talking social butterflies. One is never quite sure where God is, if He is there at all. Although it's hard to fault the motives of those who wish to emphasise putting on a welcoming face on Catholic parishes, it's just as hard to see where such horizontalism will end when left unchecked.

One of my sons sent me several video clips from the 27th Annual Catholic Youth Celebration held at the Gulf Coast Convention Center (March 12-14, 2004), which are instructive in this regard:The degree of the pathology is proportional to the extent that the events represented in these video clips will strike many readers as singularly unexceptional -- almost as when Peter Kreeft's students at Boston College were assigned Christopher Derrick's Sex and Sacredness, and had little trouble understanding sex but were, according to Kreeft, uncomprehending about the meaning of sacredness.

I would only ask: where is one's attention drawn in these respective Masses? Is it drawn to Christ? An attractive woman's dancing movements? A goofy dancing priest (in the video clip)? One's need for repentance and reparation? One's desire to fit in? One's desire to impress others? Is God elevated? Is the priest? Is the bishop? Is the congregation? When I see a priest trying to give something holy like the Catholic religion a value-added "hipness" by dancing with a bunch of teenagers (like this one in the video), he just looks like a pathetic middle-aged man trying very hard to look unpriestly -- like John Belushi in Blues Brothers -- and I think the very secular sorts of images and music being engaged would very well without him, because he sticks out like a sore thumb. This, too, seems to be the pattern with many contemporary Masses.

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