LIGHTS, ACTION, LITURGY!
So why is it that we are beset by Pascal Turkeys and stage dramas? St. John the Dwarf wrote in his spiritual classic The Dyspeptikon that “Only those remain in the priesthood who have deep faith in and love for the real presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, or those who are hoping for a corner office down at diocesan headquarters.” Faith and the love of God are not indispensable requirements for employment in the field of religion. Have you ever heard of “church-craft”. There are people who are very good at the business of religion. They may be holy, or they may be less than holy. They may be clergy, or they may be laity. It matters not. They are just plain good at the business of religion.
I was alarmed a few weeks ago at a regional meeting of clergy and diocesan office wonks, when a young priest used the phrase “salvation of souls.” He said it right out loud! In my 40 plus years of attending such meetings, I had never heard anyone use this phrase. It has always fascinated me that one can meet with dozens, even hundreds of religious workers, ordained and non-ordained, and after the opening prayer, not hear the divinity so much as mentioned until the final prayer.
In my life as a priest I have attended perhaps ten thousand meetings. (Conservatively estimating, that’s 37 years in the clerical state, at a rate of 4 meetings a week). At present, I can only remember three or four of those meetings. I have now participated in about four or five programs to revive the church. I have participated in at least as many fund drives that would solve our financial problems. I cannot count the liturgy meetings, the planning meetings, the meetings to evaluate the meeting to prepare for the meeting that we have not yet had, but will have at some not too distant date. Every meeting seems to generate a new committee, or surface a new need for which a diocesan agency is absolutely necessary. That agency will of course send out important mail and devise new programs to meet the crying need, whatever it may be, and all employees, volunteers and carbon-based life forms walking within twenty yards of a church building will have to attend, lest we be accused of insensitivity to the plight of left handed Bosnians, or whatever oppressed victim is the new cause celebre.
I say this having been a diocesan office wonk myself for at least twenty years. (At least two meetings a week.) I was also a pastor at the time. I decided to collect all the diocesan mail that I received in one month and bring it to a meeting of my department. I staggered in to the main office under an Everest of mail. My colleagues were appalled at the amount of mail we bureaucrats generated. If I remember correctly, someone suggested that an office be opened to deal with the problem and that a mailing be sent out on the subject.
Now things are much better. The mail comes by computer and everyone knows how computers have reduced the junk mail problem. In all those mountains of very important mail; and all those important meetings, I cannot remember a single incidence of anyone seriously asking what God Almighty might think about the situation. That is why, when that young priest said something like “the salvation of souls” he might have as well have made an unfortunate digestive sound.
“Why,” you may ask, “have you gone on this rant when you are trying to get to the end of this interminable history?” Simply this. There is no manual of marital technique that can save a loveless marriage, and there is no number of meetings or programs that can substitute for deep and passionate faith. Church-craft is killing the church. She can only be revived by conversion.
Those thousands of meetings I mentioned, for the most part, had all the passion of a lecture on how to repair the Xerox machine. Some people who work in the business of religion love the Lord with all their hearts and souls. Some do not. Zippy, zingy technique cannot save a marriage when love has died. So too, theatrical liturgy cannot replace faith. I am getting old. People like me who remember the tradition are getting fewer. A few men, who were considered “experts” forced the Church into radical separation from the unbroken continuity of her liturgical history during the twentieth century. I suspect these experts were really good at church-craft.
The Holy Spirit said very clearly in the Vatican Council that the Church must adapt to a changing world. The Council Fathers had no idea just how much the world was about to change. The “experts” were given permission to make a few adjustments. They made more than a few. It was a little like telling your 19-year old child, “Now while we’re visiting your great uncle Reinhold down in Boca Vista Palma Bella, you can have a few friends over, but nothing wild and NO beer!” Inevitably you will come to a smoking ruin, a gaping hole where your little cottage with the white picket fence had been, and you will be living in a motel for quite a while.
The generation of juvenile delinquents who burned down the house of the Lord is approaching 70 and 80 now, and they are being replaced by their bureaucratic protégés who never saw what Mass was like before Broadway was baptized. They think tradition is big. It involves glitter and orchestras. If it’s in Latin it must be Catholic.
The infection of theatrical liturgy is everywhere. There is no more pious community than the Asian Catholics who made up half of my parish back at Sts. Dismal and Precipitous in the Harbor District of Frostbite Falls. They emigrated to this country at its liturgical low point and all the young clergy and seminarians took courses at Christian Technical Underwriters on the south side of Frostbite Falls. There they learned that stuff from the old country, like rosaries, novenas and quiet Masses had been done away with by the Vatican Council. So they developed grand liturgies with huge choirs that sang hymns set to tango melodies. (I am not making this up). I remember a young Asian man who ran up to me breathlessly as curtain time for Mass approached. He asked me if he should put the microphone up on the “stage.” I was about to go into a long disquisition pointing that it was an altar, not a “stage,” but I just looked at him and said “Yeah. Go put it up on the stage.”
It had in fact ceased to be an altar. It was a stage and there would be no sacrifice, only a kind of community meeting in the midst of a stage performance. We have liturgy offices filled with generations of young church-crafters for whom the Hollywood extravaganza is the only paradigm they have for liturgy. They have never seen the real thing. Isn’t that a little extreme? Hollywood extravaganza? Let me tell you a few stories.
I remember a little old lady who was pretty much as deaf as a stone. She had been away from the church and her daughter, an active Catholic took her to the Easter Mass one year. She was a little surprised when, in the sanctuary she found ducks and bunnies in a kind of Easter display. That wasn’t what she remembered as a Catholic. The next year she gave it another shot, and this time they had constructed a rather elaborate display for the Easter Holy Water. It was a sort of babbling brook. They made some of the older parishioners uncomfortable during longer services, but were all the rage for a while. You still see them sometimes. Our stone deaf grandma who didn’t see too well either, heard the sound and asked her daughter what it was. Her daughter tried to tell her that it was a babbling brook. To which our heroine responded at the top of her voice, “WHAT? BABOONS? LAST YEAR IT WAS POULTRY! HAVE THESE PEOPLE LOST THEIR MINDS?” Yes, Grandma. They have lost their minds.
Liturgical chic is now cranked out by experts on a regular basis. Priests, deacons and religious are required to pray the liturgy of the hours daily. I remember a liturgical show that passed for vespers at a priests' conference not too long ago. It was beautiful. Pure George Gershwin. “Summertime, and we’re gonna have vespers....” One of the most requested funeral hymns these days is that old religious favorite “I did it my way....”
Rev. Neinbaum, my former liturgy teacher encouraged us “...try to put a little pizzazz in your sermons, gentlemen.” We have had enough liturgical pizzazz to last until the Lord’s return. Liturgical improvisation seems to be the order of the day. It is not uncommon to hear a priest preach four or five miniature sermons during a Mass, all in an attempt to improve on the basic product. For example:“This is the Lamb of God, the Lamb sacrificed, the Lamb who loves us, the Lamb who is a gentle and non-violent creature, this little Lamb who is Jesus, who radical separation from the unbroken continuity of loves us, yadda, yadda, yadda.....” To which we are expected to respond, “Lord, I am not worthy...” At this point one is lost and looking to find his place in the missalette and wondering if he should have brought mint jelly with him.
You are not lost, friend. It is the celebrant who has wandered off. And always with deep emotional feeling and long dramatic pauses. Father, we are there for Christ, not for you. In particular, I remember the sad funeral of a seminarian. The priest who offered the funeral Mass was a raging thespian and gave it all he had. He held his arms straight out as far as he could, like a man crucified, and beseeched heaven with weeping and long soliloquies. I was tempted to go up, tug on his chasuble and remind him that the guest of honor was in the coffin. I believe he has since left the business of religion to pursue his thespian dreams elsewhere.
I am so tired of hearing people say that they don’t get anything out Mass. You don’t go to Mass to get something. You go to give something. You go to Mass to give your life to Christ who has given His life for you. You offer him your flesh and blood and He in turn gives you His Flesh and Blood. It’s called a covenant. St Paul says that we make up in our flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. (Col. 1:24)
What could possibly be lacking in the sufferings of Christ? There is a beautiful old prayer called the Morning Offering:
“O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, and for the salvation of souls.”
There are many variations of the prayer, and it usually includes prayer for the intentions of the pope. The important thing is that it unites our joys and sorrows to those of Christ. We join Him as co-redeemers of the world as he asked us to do. (John 14:12-14 “I tell you the truth. The person that believes in me will do the same things I have done. Yes! He will do even greater things than I have done.”) That is the meaning of Mass. It is the perfect sacrifice that allows me who am no one, to climb up on the cross with Him for love of the Father and for love of the world that He so loved. We have become so shallow that we think Mass is an entertainment designed to cure our boredom for a little while, forgetting that it is the un-bloody re-presentation of Calvary’s sacrifice.
One more story. A new bishop came to the diocese and there was a grand Mass to welcome him. There were two, count them, two choirs, one in front and one in back. Afterwards, the overheated cathedral choir director asked me if I thought the new bishop liked it. I said, “I’m sure he was very pleased. I hope God enjoyed it as much as the bishop did.” Church-craft. We are killing the Church with church-craft, but at least we do not lack for entertainment on the way down.
Next week LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL. LET US HOPE IT IS NOT A FREIGHT TRAIN.