Mass Indifference

8 01 2009


Being a semi-passionate essay on a subject I now care little about

(above: my old seminary church in La Reja, Argentina. Pretty, ain’t it?)

Sometimes it will take me a while to get to a book I intend to read. In this case, AG gave me the book, The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward by Fr. Jonathan Robinson last Christmas, and it has taken me almost a year to get to it. In that year, my will to read something on this subject has declined substantially. In the last year, my real passions have been for reading Renaissance and late classical Neoplatonic thought and books on folk Catholicism and white magic. So having to enter the “Catholic mainstream” in my head was not something I was eager to do. There is a lot of a “been there, done that” attitude in reading such books.

There was a time in this life when liturgy was a passion of mine. In seminary, it appeared that I was on track to be the official Master of Ceremonies, though I was only there two years and it was still hard to tell. When I was a monk, I was always made to serve at all liturgical functions, and even when I was chanting at the kliros, I was pretty much one of the only ones who knew what was going on (not to mention I was often the only one who remembered most of the Ruthenian tones). I nicknamed myself and a senior monk, “the walking typika” for these reasons. Even during my flirtations with classical Anglicanism, I cared little about the “theology” behind it (or lack of it), but more for the ceremonial, the piety, and the external sober appearance of the “traditions” of the Church of England and its daughter churches. It has only been recently that I have concluded that such obsessions are things that I have to leave behind if I want to lead a sane life. It’s all well and good if you’re twenty years old and about to enter seminary to leaf over casually Adrian Fortescue’s Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described. But if you are twice that age and already have a family, don’t you think it’s time to give up the overgrown altar boy routine and stop being a “chupacirios” (a “candle-sucker”: a Spanish anticlerical term for a priest’s lackey)?

At one time, however, I did want to read Fr. Robinson’s book, so I took another crack at it, just one more time for the team. To be quite blunt, I never bought the major premise of the book: that the problems of the reformed Catholic liturgy have their foundation in the ideas of the modern philosophical revolution. For me, that is like saying that modern toiletry habits have their basis in Descartes’ cogito, or fast food has its basis in Nietzsche’s will to power. In other words, it is an excuse for a philopher to write a very erudite book on a common facet of life that most people would have taken for granted; it is the classical romanticist error of placing agendas in the past that simply aren’t there. I never really bought the author’s line that “liturgy matters”; that somehow the changes in philosophical thought effected the liturgy directly in the Christian West. Such a position begs a whole lot of questions.

I think, specifically, the most important question is, “which Catholicism are we talking about”? Fr. Robinson’s assumptions about the cultural significance of liturgy assumes that all people have the same experience of liturgy: that the liturgical action creates some sort of noetic radiation that effects how people believe and act. I am just as much a believer in ghosts, spirits, and grace as anyone else, but I don’t believe that this is how the Church works. If you even read the famous Mystagogy of St. Maximus Confessor, it is clear that he is describing the old Greek liturgy from the point of view of the layperson, not the priest (I have read somewhere that he may have not been a priest at all). The common assumption behind Church history among most theologians is that the best way to experience Catholicism is from the point of view of the clergy; the clergy are the “real Church”, their prayers (“the liturgy”) are the real prayers, how they think is the “correct” way to think, etc. I suppose I am a true child of Berkeley, an ex-leftist who some days is not so “ex”, and still haunted by the analyses of power of Michel Foucault, Max Weber and Karl Marx. All the same, the tragedy of modern religion is that there is no spontaneous religiosity of the people, and without that, it is as good as dead.

Nevertheless, I am far from unsympathetic to Fr. Robinson’s concerns or suggestions on the Latin rite liturgy. I do think that the altar needs to be turned back around, that the loss of Latin in the Western liturgy has had substantial cultural repercussions, and that modern ceremonies often celebrate the community while ignoring God, etc. etc. Basically, he says the same things that the Lefebvrists have been saying for forty years, except he is an “official priest”, and such positions, once verboten in the official Church, can now come out in the open on the general level of discourse. However, for me to take a solid position on these things is a little like asking a recovering alcoholic what’s his poison. At the end of the day, I still think those who take liturgy too seriously (in terms of text, ritual, accoutrements, etc.) are guilty of arguing that it is the tail that wags the dog. If they were able to change the liturgy so easily, if it had become so much the plaything of the clergy that those in high places felt they could “reform” it (i.e. re-write it whole cloth), there is really no way to make people care about it again, whether you drag Immanuel Kant into it or not.

For good measure, however, I will give my own solutions to the whole ordeal, which the Church is more than free (or perhaps wisely counseled) to disregard. First of all, I think we should just get rid of all and any mandatory rubrics. If people want to commit sacrilege and are hell-bent on making a mockery of sacred things, don’t stand in their way. You just make yourself out to be the bad guy, and there is really very little the hierarchy can do to stop it anyway (What are they going to do? Put a city under interdict?). Secondly, priests should be allowed to say the old Mass if they want to, as a corollary to the above. Thirdly, (this assumes that I am Pope, and just thank God that I am not), the Papal liturgy would be the old one: no funky chausables, no lowly laypeople doing the readings, the sedia gestetoria, and the whole works. If you can’t command people to do it right, show them how. And lastly, and I almost feel most importantly, there should be encouragement for monasteries and religious houses to return to the old rites. As the spiritual powerhouses of our Faith, if they are not going to do it right, what chance does anyone else have?

At the end of the day, however, I am far from optimistic about this question. People are too attached to their point of view that the past is worthless and the Church hierarchy is too attached to the pipe dreams of Vatican II for any of this to happen. My one consolation is that, for all intents and purposes, my ancestors really didn’t have a liturgy. At best, they had para-liturgical functions that shaped their Faith in a way the liturgy never could (the rosary, processions, familial patron saints, etc.). Their attitude towards the Mass was “O great, what is the priest going to subject us to now?” Insofar as we modern Western citizens always expect the powers-that-be to “do something”, the solution to the problems of the Church cannot be top-down. The real battle ground is the human heart, and that cannot be changed by tweaking what a priest does in the sanctuary for fifty minutes on a Sunday morning.



8 responses

12 01 2009

I did some graduate student teaching at Notre Dame when I was there and came away with the impression that for most of my students, the religion of their grandparents was as alien and as bizarre as Zoroasterianism. One semester I asked them to read Story of a Soul, and they reacted with the apalled incomprehension I wouild have expected if I had asked them to read about the lives of Canaanite temple prostitutes. Quite simply, they thought that St. Therese was a freak, and felt no shame in telling me so. My conclusion was that most Catholics now are not unlike evangelical Protestants in that they practice a religion of recent provenance (in the Catholic case, less than fifty years), and pretend that it is two thousand years old.

10 01 2009

To Ron:
Based on what I’ve read about immediate pre and post-Vatican II period, many American Catholics were genuinely excited about the changes that might occur. I don’t know if anyone thought that the mass would be changed to the extent that it was, but these feelings seem to indicate that there was a restless feeling among American Catholics during the time. Many of the bishops who attended Vatican II went theologically conservative, and came back radicalized. The then-bishop of Detroit, whose name I don’t recall was one such example. This can probably be traced to the fact that being around the more liberal European bishops caused many of their American peers to look at things in ways that they had never imagined, which must have seemed exciting. I think when the new mass was introduced, many Catholics just shrugged their shoulders and said, “If this is how we’re supposed to worship now, that’s fine with me.” Plus, the assimulation process of the “white ethnics” was complete, so many third generation immigrant Catholics didn’t want to be culturally different from their peers anyway.

In terms of what should be done now, I’m not entirely sure what will happen. Even if we add in the SSPX, the number of people who are actively interested in the Tridentine mass probably numbers less than a million globally. The future of the Church is Africa, where charismatic Christianity (Protestant and Catholic) reigns supreme. Although the Latin mass missions of the FSSP and the ICKSP do quite well in Africa, I have a feeling that African Catholics have more pressing concerns than obsessing over liturgical preferences.

One thing that discussions on liturgical reform don’t mention is what to do about the inculturated masses. For example, in black parishes the use of gospel music and even liturgical dancing in some instances is the norm. While even their supporters will admit the relative artificiality of guitar masses, gospel music has a very long tradition and is theologically orthodox. But from a traditional Catholic perspective, it’s not traditional. If you tell a black parish that they have to replace gospel music with Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony, you’d be accused of racism at worst and cultural insensitivity at best. Given the American Catholic Church’s historically poor treatment of black Catholics, I don’t think that this is an issue that anyone wants to touch.

10 01 2009

I think you hit the nail on the head and the conclusion is so depressing that I think I need a drink. When the traditional Mass, which was the basis of traditional Catholic culture, was outlawed (regardless of whatever the pope wants to claim now), most Catholics shrugged their shoulders and said, “Whatever.” They simply didn’t care, or they didn’t care enough to protest. What realistic hope is their for Catholicism when Catholics don’t care when their culture is stolen from them?

9 01 2009
Fearsome Comrade

First of all, I think we should just get rid of all and any mandatory rubrics.

Do that, and everyone will just flip out and start being justified by faith alone.

9 01 2009
John in Dallas

“…Fr Sissypants dancing down the aisle in spandex…”

“…liturgical dancers and women of a certain age carrying flaming bowls of incense…”

What parish do you attend?


9 01 2009
Brian M

To a certain extent, I can empathize with your sense that you have to give up certain obsessions over liturgy and ceremonial if you want to lead a sane life. I am 36 with two kids, and well on my way to being a “candle-sucker,” and I wonder for how much longer I can fret over minor propers and Breviary rubrics as they get older. That said, is there anything to say for the other side of that coin, namely, that to lead a sane life in the Church, one has to be afforded some opportunity to engage in the proper practice of religion? If there are no rubrics, and no standards, and no one cares what happens around the altar on Sunday morning, or if anything happens in the church at any other time than Sunday morning, then what sort of religious practice does that leave for us?

I think we have to mark a difference between resisting the tendency to become obsessed with the minutiae of ceremonial and simply not caring about the niceties of liturgy or music, and simply wanting worship to be as minimalistic (and brief) as possible.

9 01 2009

Much like international law, the problem with the rubrics is that there is no way of enforcing them. Unless the Vatican decides to create a liturgical police that goes undercover slapping handcuffs on liturgical dancers and women of a certain age carrying flaming bowls of incense, there’s really not much that can be done, unless the bishop intervenes.

9 01 2009

“First of all, I think we should just get rid of all and any mandatory rubrics.”

I don’t think I understand. Maybe I don’t know if there’s some specialized meaning of “rubrics” here, but would that not mean “Do what ya feel like!”? I think that for most parishes the rubrics are the only thing that stand between them and Fr Sissypants dancing down the aisle in spandex.

“Their attitude towards the Mass was “O great, what is the priest going to subject us to now?” ”

Really? Was this pre or post-VatII?

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