Monday, December 19, 2005

The "Performance Mass" and the question of "participation"

This weekend I returned late from visiting one of my sons in Knoxville and went to the Sunday evening 5:15pm Life Teen Mass at my parish. Of all the Masses at my parish, this would seem to be my least favorite, since it sports a full "praise team" band with electric guitars, full drum set, bongos, keyboard, and contemporary "praise" songs. Yet in an odd way I find it the least objectionable of all the Masses -- except for the foreign language Masses (Spanish, Hmong, and Lahu) -- because, even if it is not my taste in music (at all!), the teens "perform it" well and sincerely. I might think they're sincerely misguided in certain respects (such as thinking of Mass as a performance), but there isn't any sense of bad faith or sublimated ressentiment that I find in some of the other Masses.

In the other Masses, things may seem a bit more "traditional" in some superficial ways (no electric guitars, no drums, no bongos), but the music is done poorly. Last Lent, our new priest asked the choir director for Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus," which the choir director did. The choir, I suppose made a valiant attempt, though it was rather like watching a donkey try to walk on his hind feet as if he were a man. What was worse, "Ave Verum Corpus" (one of the most inspired pieces of sacred music ever written) was placed alongside the aesthetically banal "On Eagle's Wings" in the same Mass. Hot headed "Spirit of Vatican II" parishioners ran to the priest with cries of outrage over ... yes, the Mozart piece ... objecting that the priest was trying to move the church back into pre-Vatican II patterns of ossification. The priest immediately dropped the Mozart. So we're back to Marty Haugen, David Haas, and "Gather Us In" ... (someone catch me, I'm collapsing from a wave of nausea)!

Not only is one faced, at these other Masses, with banal ignorance and bad taste. One is also faced with a spirit of rebellion against Catholic tradition. Until our current priest came on board in our parish, feminist lectors were in the habit of neutering pronouns (even for God -- e.g., John 3.16: "For God so loved the world that God gave God's only child that Godsoever should Godspell and Inagaddadavida baby ..."). The previous priest used to entertain the hopes of dissenters that the Church would change its mind on the ordination of women someday soon, and alter servers sometimes included middle-aged women, vested in white albs, looking like wannabe priestesses.

By contrast, the Life Teen Mass, even if a primiere "perfomance mass," is a relief in these other respects. There is no sense of politically correct anti-Roman rebellion here. The vestiges of the earlier goofy abuses associated with Life Teen Masses -- standing around the Altar in the sanctuary holding hands during the consecration, etc. -- have disappeared. The youth who lead the service -- serving as lectors, leading the singing, leading in the prayers of general intercession, etc., seem utterly sincere and, from what Father tells me, are actively involved in the Bible studies and classes that follow Mass, each Sunday evening. All of this is good, as far as I can see.

Now to the question of "participation" in the "Performance Mass," here are some admittedly subjective, personal observations. At this particular Mass, the choir is always very good at what it does (contemporary "praise music"). Admittedly, I find this genre theologically shallow and aesthetically banal, but it is no less certain to me that those involved in the band and choir are quite definitely "participating," in the sense of being involved in what they are doing -- playing and singing. As far as that goes, that seems to me to be good. What do I notice in myself and those around me? I find that no more people are involved in singing along with the choir than in the other Masses; perhaps even less. This is -- even much more than those other Masses -- a "Performance Mass" -- and it is hard not to feel like one is at a concert, a performance. At the conclusion of the Mass, there is invariably applause. I know this is condemned. I think it is out of place in Mass myself. But it is perfectly fitting to the occasion if the occasion is a "Performance Mass." The youth have performed well, and they deserve a hearty hand from the audience. Thus it is clearly thought.

It strikes me as amusing that one of the criticisms of the Traditional Latin Mass is that those in the congregation were reduced to "spectators." I have never felt like a spectator at a Traditional Latin Mass. I have looked. I have listened. I was given ample time and solitude to withdraw into myself and pray. But all of that has involved my full participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass. A "Performance Mass" brings out the most extroverting features of the Novus Ordo Mass, which, by nature, is much "chattier" than the Traditional Latin Mass. Not only are there the typical antiphonal responses that one must constantly be repeating back to the priest. Not only are there the antiphons one must be constantly repeating (or singing) back in the Psalmnody to the cantor on queue. Not only are there the responses to the General Intercessions ("Lord, hear our prayer") that one must bleat back like a flock of sheep. There are the incessant movements of Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers (six to eight in a typical Mass at our parish -- just how "extraordinary" can circumstances be?!). There are the constant hymns being sung, during and after communion, and after them the unaccompanied organ (our previour priest even allowed -- requested? -- soft organ accompaniment during his Eucharistic Prayers). Not a moment of silence to collect one's thoughts before the Lord Whom one is here to worship!

Where is the real "participation"? Amidst the din? Amidst the silence? As I knelt and awaited Holy Communion, I watched and listened as the "praise team" played. Off to my left, I could see the undulating movements of the shoulders of the bongo player, an older guy, perhaps in his thirties, softly tapping out the bongo rhythms for the occasion. The sentiments were holy: "Holy is His name," they sang. The sentiments are almost never wrong-headed in praise music. They are always about praising God, "magnifying" Him, "glorifying" Him, etc. It's a question of fittingness. Is this the venue for that? There is a certain kind of "participation" that Ronald Knox would condemn as "enthusiasm" -- an old fashioned word for emotionalism of the type that you get in most Pentecostal services. There is something that begins an approach to that in the hypnotic quality of most "praise music," when done well. Is that what the Council Fathers of Vatican II had in mind by "participation" in the Mass? Is that what Pope Pius X had in mind when he called for greater "participation"? Is that what Pope Benedict XVI has in mind? I doubt it.

The Church is going to have to think long and hard about what it means by "participation" before it comes clear on this issue, I'm afraid. As things stand, the message the faithful are hearing is a confused one. As for myself, I know where I most easily find Christ without external distractions: sad to say, these days it is usually in an empty church, early in the morning or late at night alone before the Tabernacle under the sacristy light. Sunday mornings are a battle to stay focused, there is so much pulling at my attention, obtruding itself, and clashing aesthetically, symbolically, and theologically. Where do I find my most effective participation in the Mass? Usually the weekday Masses, where there is a maximum of simplicity and minimum of fuss -- no music (blessed relief!), no flock of Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers, and some time to pray. Otherwise, it is on those rare occasions when I'm privileged to assist at a Traditional Latin Mass. Sunday mornings are a penance and endurance. I understand why many previously regular Catholics dropped off attending at Mass after Vatican II. I cannot sanction the refusal. It is wrong. But I do understand.

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