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.”
“They are singing, junior.”
Next week: More suggestions to come