I begin with the positive. The church operates a Catholic school. Together they form a large, sprawling physical plant. The Masses are well attended. When you walk into the church, you are greeted by holy water fonts at the entrance, a prominently displayed crucifix above the altar, candles, an identifiable Tabernacle, baptismal font, and pews with kneelers. The pews quickly fill as the opening hymn begins. There are families and individuals of all ages, and many children, from toddlers to teens. The choir is large and reasonably well-trained, and lodged in a loft at the rear of the church. The priest processes in behind a crucifer, two servers, and a lector, kisses the altar and begins Mass straightaway with the Sign of the Cross. There are no clowns. There are no bongos, no electric guitars. There is no dancing in the aisles. The homily is recognizably Christian and notably earnest and sincere in tone; and the people visibly like their priest.
I proceed, next, not to the negative, but to the ambiguous. One question that keeps recurring to me is this: What about this religious rite and ritual would be recognizably Catholic to someone who didn't know what it was beforehand? There is no question about its being Christian. Yet many of these things -- the crucifix, the procession, the altar, the candles, the Nicene Creed, the kneeling, the filing up to receive communion -- I have seen in Episcopal, Lutheran, and even Presbyterian churches.
First of all, the acts of genuflecting and overt references to "sacrifice" ("Pray, my brothers and sisters, that our sacrifice ...") would narrow it down to either a Catholic or Episcopal (Anglican) liturgy, since the Episcopalians also genuflect and the Episcopal liturgy also refers obliquely to "sacrifice" ("... a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world"), and there is no way this spartan rite could possibly be taken for Eastern Orthodox.
Second, the only external signs by which this event could be decisively identified as Catholic, apart from the overt references to things Catholic in the homily, it seems to me, are the references to the Pope and local bishop in the Eucharistic Prayers, and the visible presence of the Tabernacle with the reserved Sacrament. These one would not generally find anywhere but in a Catholic church.
I proceed, finally, to the negative. If nothing else identified this place and this event as recognizably Catholic to someone already familiar with contemporary American Catholicism, all doubt would be banished by the withering ugliness of the architecture, the sloppiness of dress, the sheer shabbiness of the half-improvised liturgical form, the hideous banality of hymns, the utter lack of decorum and unmistakable note of tawdry casual chumminess struck throughout the event. For better or worse, this is what the vast majority of contemporary Catholics call home.
During the entrance procession, the priest stops to shake hands and talk with people along the aisle several times en route to the altar, patting a couple of backs. Crucifer and servers slouch down the aisle in sneakers and jeans, vested in what look like Halloween costume sheets wrapped around them. Some people show up in what looks like beach attire. Several little kids run around the aisles throughout the liturgy. During the hymns, the choir sings the usual hidebound Haugen and Haas offerings, but virtually no one in the congregation sings. Participation seems to mean showing up and sitting back, like a casual spectator.
During the Presentation of the Gifts, those who bring up the gifts join with the priest in saying his prayers over the gifts: "... It will become for us the bread of life. ... It will become our spiritual drink," before returning to their pews. The priest seems to have an allergy against using masculine pronouns, even for God. One hears the politicized response: "Let us give God [not 'Him'] thanks and praise." As he says, "Take this, all of you, and drink from it," the priest lifts the cup (Could this be called a "chalice"?) and gestures with it, holding it out to each side of the congregation expressively, punctuating his words with dramatic pauses and modulating his voice for emphasis. We see him looking out over the congregation. He looks at us. We look at him. The focus is clearly on we who are gathered here and what he is doing for us. If there is any doubt about this, it vanishes in the forest of joined sweaty palms during the Our Father, and cacophony that erupts, recess-like, during the Rite of Peace, the presider himself walking down the aisle, presiding over the shaking of hands all around.
Momentarily, the priest is surrounded by no less than eleven Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, looking for all the world like an out-of-place gentleman in a kitchen full of women. People soon begin shuffling forward (or to the back of the church, depending on where they are seated), to receive Communion. How does one receive here? Of course we have been reminded by Rome that we have the liturgical right to kneel; but where does one kneel here, amidst this confusion of milling people and Eucharistic Ministers? Nobody kneels, and neither do I. What's the point? Do I want to call attention to myself or make a political statement? I just want to receive Jesus. I already feel compromised by being here. I feel disappointed in myself and by the whole experience.
About one fourth of the congregation leaves for the parking lot right after Communion. Maybe half remain until the last verse of the recessional hymn. The words of Martin Mosebach come to mind: "I go to church to see God and come away like a theater critic." Throughout the Mass I find that my focus is constantly diverted. Like Mosebach, I just want to "see God." I want to witness the Sacrifice of Christ, and to receive Him. Yet in countless ways, the elements of the Mass conspire to divert my attention away from Him, and towards incidentals -- towards those who walk into their pews without genuflecting, towards those wearing what looks like beach attire, toward the chummy bonhomie of the pastor, toward his unusual gestures and voice modulations, towards the politicized gender-bending of words, toward the Eucharistic Minister who doesn't seem to know what to do with my mouth open and tongue stuck out at her, toward the unseemly distasteful clutteredness of it all.
Yes, I know, Jesus is here too, just as he was in the stable surrounded by the braying of asses and smelly droppings of cows and goats. Yet I wonder: would it have been harder to find Him and worship Him there than here? Is this the best we can do? For the Lord of Heaven, our Maker and Redeemer?
Of related interest
- Martin Mosebach, Heresy of Formlessness (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006)
- Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste (Crossroads Classic, 1992).
- Pertinacious Papist, "And they don't even charge admission!" (Musings, January 18, 2009).
- Fr. John Zuhlsdorf's comments on this post (WDTPRS, May 11, 2009)