Return to the Country Chapel

23 03 2008


or: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

March 16th, 2008
 My birthday

The trip between Berkeley and Hollister takes approximately an hour and a half, but it is a whole world away. Living in the Bay Area, one’s head sometimes needs a bit of airing out. The Bay Area is one of the prettiest places I have ever lived, but it is also cramped, crowded, and not very pleasant at times. Once you get to the open spaces of San Benito County in spring time, everything being so green that it is almost unnatural, the soul of this country boy begins to cool again. Sometimes, you just need the space to breathe.

I persuaded AG, the consummate city girl, to tag along with me, which was no easy task. But I had taken her to my old stomping ground before, and she had since changed her initial critical judgment of the land I grew up in (“slum between the hills”). True, Hollister as a town is not much to look at: modern buildings with the mandatory colonies of subdivisions and strip-malls that dominate the architectual ethos of the town. The only things that Hollister has going for it aesthetically are its vanishing orchards and rolling hills, its soft mountains and small herds of cows that dot the landscape.

One fairly idyllic place to go is the church that my mother attends way out in Tres Pinos, about five miles south of Hollister. Immaculate Conception Church is a small chapel built in the late 1800’s that was untouched by the wave of ecclesial iconclasm that swept this area of the world after the Second Vatican Council. The statues, the stained-glass windows, the small high altar, and even the intricate patterns on the white-washed walls speak of a time when people actually put a lot of consideration into the building of their “worship spaces”. And the doors of the church open up to a scene of green rolling hills and the vastness of the wilderness of California’s Central Coast: a perfect meeting place between a temple that man builds for God and the temple that God has built for Himself.

The longtime pastor of this small chapel is the now-deceased Monsignor Thomas Morgan, a veritable institution in the Church in San Benito County. His successor is a “Fr. L” (names are left ambiguous to protect the guilty). My family got accustomed to going to this church instead of the one in town because it was easier for my youngest sister to get into confirmation classes at the church in Tres Pinos. Occasionally, then, I have had to deal with the antics of “Fr. L” when I returned to Hollister to visit the fam’.

In this case, I was suprised that I was less taken aback by “Fr. L’s” ways than AG was. (AG often doesn’t like going to church with me precisely because of my recovering liturgical snobbery, and I have admitted that her frustration with me is justified.) In this case, “Fr. L” blessed the palms at the beginning of the Palm Sunday Mass, skipped the procession and the first readings and jumped right into the second set of readings and the reading of the Passion.  The reading from the Gospel was done cacaphonously with an adolescent girl reading the part of Jesus and the people reading the part of the narrator (?) .  Fr. used a Eucharistic prayer that neither of us had ever heard before. And, of course, the church had no organist or even a guitarist in sight (thank God!), and Fr. (God bless his heart!) can’t hit a note with a Howitzer. Having grown up in an atmosphere where such practices were standard fare (New Orleans, it seems, is far more conservative) I can feel very jaded about all of this stuff at this point in my life.

People can make way too big a deal out of sloppy, irreverent liturgies. In the end, I figure that God can take care of Himself, and He doesn’t need me to complain for Him. I am sure people are entirely sincere when they do these things and they don’t deserve my condemnation. That is one part of it. But all throughout the service, I was thinking of an anecdote I read from the life of Fr. Adrian Fortescue about a collegue priest of his. Fr. Fortescue wrote about this priest to illustrate that many priests had little regard for the liturgical life of the Church. In this priest’s chapel, such liturgical services as Easter and Christmas were hurried and sloppy affairs, very low-key and regarded as obligatory if poorly understood observances of the Church. But every First Friday and other more modern devotions were celebrated with much flare and enthusiasm. The same I suppose could go for any rural spot in Latin America: the feast of a patron saint easily trumps Pentecost and Epiphany, even if they are more important liturgically.

So instead of letting the “inner trad” get to me, I began to see the phenomenon unfolding before me in the context of a “hermeneutic of continuity”, and not necessarily in the good sense. Liturgy in most places has long been a dead letter in inspiring the hearts of the people, and here it was no different. The only difference between the parishioners at this Mass in 2008 and parishioners of the same parish fifty years ago is that the former are more talkative than the latter. The rest would have been pretty much the same: a priest rushing through a service he doesn’t really understand, many of the people are there more out of habit and less out of conviction, and corners are cut so that the service doesn’t take too long, etc. And the country priest is the same as well: maybe not the greatest theological light, but still a jolly, comforting figure who looks out for his parishioners and is indispensible in the life of his small community.

Some would have us crack down on poor “Fr. L”. Some would have the Vatican or the chancellory office in Monterey swoop in and tell Fr. L that he has to do X instead of Y, that he has to shape up or ship out. This is not a realistic way to run the church, however. I think we should just thank God for what we have at this point, and realize that things are not as bad as they could be. At least at this small beautiful country chapel they still have a priest. But also we should regard his tenure here as a valuable lesson as to what the Church really means.

There is a tendency in the last hundred years to view liturgy as some sort of sacred, unblemished fount of tradition that must be rediscovered and applied again to the everyday lives of the faithful. Liturgy was regarded as more “Scriptural”, more authentic, and more sanctioned than other forms of religiosity within the Catholic context. And when liturgy didn’t live up to this ideal, it was changed to reflect what it should have been like in an idealized past. Liturgy, however, has an imperfect history of imperfect people trying to make their way through an imperfect world with the help of an imperfect Church. In this sense, we should not read the history of the Church as if it were in continous free fall from some golden age. In the end, things may not be getting worse. Things might just be getting different. There is no refuge from this falleness.

In the end, the “evil Arturo” part of me was glad that the whole affair had only lasted an hour. Indeed, it was my birthday afterall, and I was waiting to celebrate it with my family with a nice bowl of pozole and cake. I greeted my other relatives who also attend the same church, and performed all of the social niceties expected from a guest visiting from out of town. Looking at the traditional sites, the chapel, the Lourdes grotto, the outdoors Stations of the Cross, I felt myself in continuity with all who had trodden those steps before. No, it was no golden chain of elders, maybe more of a pewter chain like the ones that might have went around my great-grandmother’s neck that bore the weight of some inexpensive holy medal. Religion, I suppose, has much more to do with habit and perseverance than we would like to think. Indeed, understanding is important, but just showing up bestows an understanding not given in any book. And for all of its imperfections, I’m glad I showed up to that church that Palm Sunday morning.



3 responses

24 03 2008
Happy Easter

Christ is Risen

God Bless Arturo, this Blog, AG, and all the posters, readers and friends

God Bless the SSPX, the non Chalcedon Fr. Greg, Mormons, Roscicurians, Judeo Masons, those who are hurting and everyone–even our enemies
Christ died for all of us and hopefully as many as possible will be saved

24 03 2008

Posts such as this one always remind me of the polemics of St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787). Now remember, y’all, when he was writing, the Traditional Latin Mass was the only game in town. Still, he inveighs against priests who celebrate sloppily, use dirty linens, or celebrate too quickly. Writes St. Alphonsus, it must be considered seriously sinful to celebrate Mass in less than a quarter of an hour. A quarter of an hour! 15 minutes! How is it possible to celebrate the TLM in fifteen minutes? Sloppy and hurried liturgy has been around for a very long time, something the folks in the SSPX, et. al. seem to have forgotten.

23 03 2008
M.J. Ernst-Sandoval

Happy Easter! ¡Feliz Pascua!

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