Sunday, July 17, 2016

Communication in an era devoid of beauty

We Catholics are in the odd position of being counter-cultural. Catholicism is the foundation of western culture, but now that the world in which live is rejecting the culture of its ancestors, we Catholics are, or at least should be, something different. I can never quite understand why we think we have to offer the current non-culture more of the same. There is an interesting study of contemporary music. It makes the point that current popular music has a far less complex structure than music of even a few years ago.

The non-culture of the current era communicates by means of text, Twitter, Facebook, etc. which limits the numbers of ideas that can be communicated simply for technological reasons. I have no idea whether or not this will ultimately make us smarter or dumber. It is however taking the place of face-to-face communication. The word person derives from the Latin word for face. Perhaps to forget the face is to lose the person. Faces are beautiful every face as every mother knows.

Was it Dostoevsky who said the world will be saved by beauty? There is nothing beautiful about the new technology of communication as far as I can tell. It is useful, but I can’t think of it as beautiful. So much is communicated in the human smile, in the frown, the eyes, the tilt of the head. The human face is beautiful, even when it seems at first not to be. The grimace of laughter has its own unique beauty. All these disappear in the cold light of the display screen on a smart phone or computer. “The facts, mam, just the facts.”

The world has become ugly. The violence perpetrated in the name of religion, of race of political power is ugly. The secularization of the culture has created a whole new opportunity for ugliness by making sex a kind of industry of empty pleasure and self-expression. The means by which life is given, about which poets have sung and artist have painted as long as human beings have made art of any kind, has been made a way to defy nature, to defy God, a way to shake our fist at heaven.

It has made a curse, slavery to passion of the “…one blessing not lost by the sin of Adam, nor washed away in the waters of the flood.”  It is impolite to say that divorce, and certain practices I would rather not mention are not good things. We might offend if we point out, not that the emperor is naked, but that the emperor’s clothes are ugly, even filthy. Heaven forefend lest we offend!  Beauty is everything. God saw the world and it was good. We see the world and say, “I don’t like it. I want it done my way.” And what do we offer the future? We offer an accommodation with ugliness. Young people get enough ugly in the world. It’s time to start offering them something better.

A critic said once said that the Church, in her struggle to maintain traditional morality, “is out of step with the times.”

Well, hurrah for the Church! The times stink.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Why should I bother with Mass?

Last week I mentioned that a friend of mine had talked about the faith with a younger man, mid-twenties or so. The young man had not been raised in the Church nor had he received the sacraments, apart from baptism as an infant.  When asked why he was not a churchgoer he just said, “Why do I need it?”

This simple question is aimed right at me and my fellow clergy. We have spent more than forty years telling people that they don’t need it. Why are we surprised that they agree with us? We have at least implied that the Almighty is far too nice to punish us for our sins or to demand certain behavior from us. If there is a heaven our nice God would never send anyone to hell. Mass is a wonderful thing, but certainly, no one is obliged to participate in it. We keep trying to make Mass more understandable and more entertaining, but the more entertaining we make it, the less people seem to be interested.

We have stripped Mass of its mystery. One enters a church and sees very little he wouldn’t see anywhere else. We have removed the images, the stained glass, the altar rail that implies something remote and forbidden. We’ve painted over the frescoes and chosen the banal art of the late 60’s. When one meets a Catholic, is that Catholic any different from anyone else? We do not fast; we do not live by any other sexual code than the world.  We practice artificial birth control, abortion, co-habitation at the same rates as non-believers, and now we seem to be moving toward relationships that were formerly forbidden. How would the lives of those outside the Church be any different were they to join the Church?

Oh, yes. We urge people to be socially just, but so do the Boy Scouts. The pearl of great price is currently offered at bargain basement discount prices, but no one is buying cheap pearls these days. Why are we amazed that our churches are filled with grey heads? We offer nothing of enough value to cause someone even to inconvenience themselves on a Sunday morning by getting out of bed much less give up their lives for it. Catholicism is growing explosively around the world. It continues to grow everywhere except here. People around the world are dying as martyrs every day, just not here in the so called first world. 

So what’s the answer? What do we have that a young man or woman may eventually fine useful?  We have beauty. Admittedly in much of the church we have thrown off beauty for kitsch, but the beauty is still there. It’s just been stored for a while in the basements and attics of our souls. The world has become very ugly. We need to make sure that the liturgy is beautiful and not simply flashy.

The consistent and sustained beauty of the Mass, a ceremony that has endured in quiet simplicity for two thousand years is still the Catholic ace in the hole. I would be so bold as to suggest, as did Pope Benedict, that we stick to the rubrics. There is nothing so impressive as a priest turned away from the congregation for a few minutes while leading the congregation in addressing the Father in Heaven. Perhaps it is time to return this small bit of mystery to the celebration of Mass.

The altar is not a stage where the main protagonist faces the audience. It is an altar. A child who comes to his first Mass must wonder, “Who is that man in the special clothes talking to, Mommy and Daddy?”  “Be quiet junior, He is talking to God.”  Prayerful silence before Mass is another little bit of mystery that we might add, as suggested by the General Instruction for the Roman Missal. Have you ever thought how unusual it is for a group of people to be gathered together in silence? We live in a world filled with noise. A group of people sitting and kneeling in silence is a most unusual thing.

“Why is no one talking, Mommy?”

“Because they are talking to God in their hearts. Now be quiet.” 

Another way to add mystery is to dress up. People attend church in the same clothes that they use for working in the back yard. Maybe if we dressed like we were going to a wedding, we might eventually understand that we are attending a wedding, that of Christ and his Church. As it is, Mass is no more special that any event to which I would wear an old T-shirt. 

Let’s talk about music. This is not my strong suit. The council very much wanted the congregation to participate in the Mass, especially by singing. In much of my experience, Church music is a spectator sport. People don’t sing. The music is either too hard, or too entertaining to actually sing along with. If you are a church musician and the congregation is not singing, you are failing. Don’t assume they are singing. Put a recorder in the back of church. Get some spies to go sit in the eighth row from the back to listen to what people are actually doing. If all the congregation hears is you, you are failing. The Vatican Council re-emphasized the place of chant in worship. Chant ties us back to the temple in Jerusalem and to the early Church. Most of all, chant should be simple so that it can be sung.

I will never forget crossing the Adriatic years ago on a Greek ship. Since I couldn’t sleep, I went up top and from the bridge of the ship I could hear the grizzled Greek sailors singing along with the Sunday morning liturgy as it played on the ship’s radio. Music should be simple enough to be sung. Why? Where else in the modern world do people sing? We listen to music, but a group of adults singing together happens nowhere but in church. Even at ball games the national anthem is sung by a celebrity, of sorts. What passes as music blares out of speakers and phones and gizmos, but children have forgotten how to sing. 

“Daddy what are these people doing making noise?” 

“They are singing, junior.”

Next week: More suggestions to come

Sunday, July 3, 2016

What's on the horizon?


Back in the good old hippie days we used to sing, “It’s a hard rain’s agonna fall.” I think it was written by Bob Dylan.  He was right. There is a hard rain agonna fall but, it isn’t the rain we were expecting. No one expected the Soviet Union to break up. No one expected that we would all carry around little television screens in our pockets by means of which we could instantly communicate with someone on the other side of the world.  No one seriously suspected that robotic life might one day be able to surpass human life.

When I was in college, the university had a computer. It was the size of a large room. People holding punch cards stood in line for the chance to use it. Now computers are small enough to fit in our pockets and everyone has a few of them. No one thought that the world would be torn apart over looming religious wars. And above all, no one thought that the world population might one day collapse. Who could have anticipated that places like Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Germany, China, Russia, and Japan as well as Iran and other Islamic countries would become retirement homes full of an increasing number of dependent old people? Those are some of the countries where there are simply not enough children. I will be dead and gone by the time it happens, but people under the age of twenty may well face a frightening poverty stricken old age. There is a strong probability that around 2050AD the population of spaceship earth will begin to shrink. Certainly Europe, Asia and the Americas will. Africa may continue to value children for a while yet, but who knows? 

No one expected this. You might think fewer people on earth might be a good thing.  What we are facing is not fewer people but fewer young people.  No one to do the heavy lifting. No one to buy that stuff that makes an economy happen. No one to buy the cars, the computers, the fast food, the machine made clothing or the machines for that matter.  No one to buy the houses. Things have gotten surreal in places like Italy, Spain and Japan. There are whole villages for sale, cheap! Italy is fascinating. Think about it.

After three generations of no families you have the situation in which there are four people, each of whom inherited one house. Those four people marry and each couple has one child. Now you have two people with four houses. Those two marry and produce a third generation consisting of one child. That one child inherits the four houses of his great grandparents which are now worth almost nothing.

Real estate, the most valuable possession most people have, becomes worthless; in fact, it becomes a liability. Within the next few years we clergy in the US of A will probably see what they are seeing in Europe, lots of ecclesiastical real estate for sale.  It is just beginning here. All of a sudden, there are more churches than we need. There are not enough priests to staff them and in ten years, certainly twenty years there will be no one to warm their pews because the dear little old ladies who pay the bills and come to church anytime the doors are unlocked are going to their well-deserved heavenly reward by the busload. I wonder if the people who need to experience this new situation ever really do.

When an important church dignitary comes to a parish for an important event, he sees a full church. I wonder if said dignitary ever drops in on a church on a steamy Sunday morning in July, a church that is a third full of a congregation that has no one in it under the age of forty. We count the house annually to total up the numerical strength of the church. The pastor dutifully signs the report, which is never an underestimate. If father loves his parish he is certainly not going to lowball the figures. We, the clergy, once had job security. It was assumed that father would leave his rectory feet first.  In my youth there were two kinds of pastors, irremovable pastors who could only be removed by the pope and removable pastors who could only be removed by the pope. 

In 1972, some young progressives petitioned Rome to implement term limits for pastors. Now a pastor’s term of office is six years, renewable for another six.  A pastor is allowed to love a congregation for 12 years max unless the bishop decides he can stay longer. Then the priest will have to go love another congregation. Don’t ask father what’s going on.  He doesn’t have the job security. He isn’t prone to making objective reports on the health of his parish.  Bishops see full churches. Pastors see what they need to see in order to keep going.  Ask the funeral directors. They can tell you what’s going on.  They have great job security. As they say about cemeteries, people are just dying to get in. Funeral directors see a lot of parishes and they see very representative congregations. 

My small experience indicates that a Caucasian-American funeral often has no one in attendance younger than forty. A funeral parlor full of adults may produce 2 or 3 children.  As often as not when a priest says “The Lord be with you,” at the funeral Mass, much of the congregation looks blankly at him as if to say, “Okay!” that is when the next generation bothers with the expense of a Mass. They don’t go to church and they plan to scatter Grandma in her vegetable garden. “Father, couldn’t you just do a service in the funeral parlor?”

A friend, a devout man who has spent his life serving the needy, was recently at a funeral of a longtime friend. The deceased had left the church over some scandal or other on top of which he had been “assessed” a large sum in a parish fundraising event. In his later years he had come back to the church, but had been away from the faith during the years he was raising his family. My friend got into a discussion with the dead man’s son who, though baptized in infancy, had never participated in the church nor received the other sacraments. He asked my friend a simple question about the faith, “Why do I need it?” Good question.

Next week: Why he needs it.