DISCLAIMER: As you know I am an exceptionally whiny person. For me the glass is always half empty, and I suspect it has a small leak. These are the reflections of one remarkably incompetent diocesan priest who doesn’t know anything about what it is like to be a priest in a religious order, or even what goes on in the parish down the road. They do not reflect any other members of the clergy, all of whom are happy, healthy and productive. The stories that I will be telling are entirely fictional and the characters, and I do mean characters, are entirely made up. None of these accounts have anything to do with you or anyone you know. All the imaginary names in these made up stories have been changed to protect the innocent... or least me. And if I hold my breath for a really long time, quarters come out of my ears.
Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I am on the parish liturgy committee here at St. Thespia’s and was recently asked on a survey, “Which do you find most indispensable for worship: a microphone, a guitar or a piano?” What would you have answered.
What do I think essential for worship? Bread, wine and a humble heart. I wish you hadn’t asked this question. I fear that it may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. For some time now, I have been resisting the urge just to tell liturgical horror stories, and what it is really like to be a diocesan priest. Cooler heads and wiser minds have counseled me that this would be a bad idea. Has this ever stopped me?
One of the reasons that I am advised not to bring up the topic is that it might discourage vocations. This is preposterous. It might discourage those who want to get a job as a diocesan priest. The calling to the priesthood, as any calling, is a fire in your bones. It is like falling in love. If a person has a vocation to the priesthood, you can no more discourage him than you could have discouraged Jeremiah from prophesying,
You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me. ...The word of the LORD has brought me derision and reproach all the day. I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in.... (Jeremiah 20: 7 and following)
Perhaps this will serve to discourage those who are looking for a career in religion, and that would be all for the good. So here goes...
WHAT HAPPENED?!? How did we end up in this mess. (Do a web search for “Liturgical Abuse: Puppets (WCCTA 2008) - YouTube” or “Novena Solene Entrada da Bíblia”). If you are asking, “What mess?” I am not simply clucking my tongue at liturgical abuse. I am dismayed by something quite different. I am tired of the constant innovation that passes for Catholicism and its ancient liturgy.
If one more liturgist asks me “What is the theme of today’s Mass”, I will probably have to be carted away in a straight jacket.
I remember an encounter a few years ago. As people were scurrying about getting everything ready for a grand two-choir, four-star liturgy, one of God’s helpers asked me if he should put the microphone up on the stage. I was about to explain that it was an altar, not a stage, but I looked at him and realized that he had never been to a Mass that did not require electricity and so I said, “Yes, put it up on the stage.”
That’s what I am complaining about. We have swapped the altar for a stage. And we priests are critiqued by the audience, which is most certainly not God and His Angels and Saints assembled! I was just commiserating with another priest here about a funeral mass he had offered not long ago. There are three types of people you meet at funerals these days. The first and most common group, when you say, “The Lord be with you.” responds “Okay.” The second group responds, “and also with you.” This mean they haven’t actually been in a church for at least three years. The third and smallest group responds, “and with your spirit.”
I am actually a bit startled when I hear more than one or two people who know the correct response at a wedding or funeral. At this particular funeral the crowd was among the “Okay” first group. They had, however, a detailed list of things that the priest was to say in the sermon at the funeral of their dear Aunt Kunigunda. One of the most important details was that Aunt Kunigunda had always baked fruit cakes for all the children in the family. The priest offering the funeral Mass did his best to fondly reminisce about someone he had never actually seen breathing, and he dutifully said that dear Aunt Kunigunda had baked cakes for the children.
The grieving crowd was livid. They sent letters of protest to the diocese here in frostbite Falls and sent copies to the pope for good measure. They pointed out that the careless celebrant had said “cakes”, not “fruit cakes”! The Horror!!! a ruined funeral. He should just have read the script that they wrote. They had paid good money for the performance and the lead actor had not even bothered to read his lines! The ridiculous post script is that the liturgy office took the whole thing seriously, looked into the complaint and asked the offending clergyman to write a letter of apology.
I recently had a funeral that involved show people. Due to a “eulogy gone wrong” I found myself sitting in the local police station the following week. I was not accused of anything, but the uncle of the deceased was about to be arrested. I was there to explain that no matter what the arresting officer had heard, the event in question was not a stage performance, but a Mass. An estranged family member of a very devout family had died under tragic circumstance. The family of the deceased, the uncle in particular, had arranged Christian burial for the renegade who had done his best to make their lives miserable.
A simple funeral was planned for close friends and family, no eulogies, very simple music. Here the plot thickens. It seems that the deceased had run off with the circus at some point in his youth, and a lot of circus people showed up at the funeral, large people with odd colored hair. They promptly took over the funeral.
Some acquaintance of the beloved dead wheeled the piano out of the sacristy and started to play what can only be described as Protestant hymns in the style of a lounge singer. The family of the deceased didn’t want to make a scene and so they went along with it. We all tried to get along. Just before the distribution of communion, a rather strange fellow, one of the clowns I think, approached me at the altar and whispered, “I got something to say.”
I responded, “Not now.”
At which point he went straight to the pulpit and launched into a denunciation of the family of the deceased. The uncle who, in his goodness had arranged the funeral, came up to escort the clown off the altar, assisted by a few other family members. The would be orator started to pelt everyone within reach with hymnals. As was he was finally dragged off the altar the enraged thespian shouted, "You killed him, It’s your fault you bleepin’... bleeped...bleepers..."
The clown left, contacted the authorities and demanded to press charges for assault. He said that he had been dragged off the stage in the middle of his speech. That’s how I ended up in the police station. When I explained to the authorities that it was an altar not a stage and that he had been told to sit down, the impending arrest was scrapped.
Quite a story, but my point is not that the liturgy was interrupted by a clown. It is that the clown couldn’t tell the difference between a stage and an altar. I suspect that there are many liturgists who are in the same boat. And many rank and file Catholics. And many of the clergy.
A few years back, one of my predecessors at another parish removed the altar on Holy Saturday and replaced it with long folding tables on which a turkey dinner had been spread out. He said a sort of Mass wearing street clothes in the midst of the mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and then invited the congregation up to have communion and dinner. He is no longer in the business of religion.
Why shouldn’t the faithful treat the altar like a stage? We, the clergy have done very little to give a different impression. We let some liturgists go to extremes of performance art. In my seminary days, we were introduced to the “Mass as Extravaganza”. We called such Masses “elephant Masses,” because one fully expected the celebrant to be brought in at the end of the procession on an elephant like the groom in a Hindu wedding.
(More to come. I have not yet begun to whine.)