Monday, September 28, 2015

On the Consequences for Standing Up Against Liturgical Abuse

It is an interesting experience to be obliquely  attacked from the pulpit during a homily for questioning persistent liturgical abuses. During the last Mass of our departing Pastor, he made some parting swipes at people sowing scandal creating scandal through e-mail and the internet. This seemed like an odd tact  on to Mark 9:43-47, but that is how he chose to address a conscientious Catholic who cares about quality liturgy.

 Three and a half years ago, in a missive directed to the then Director of Liturgy, I questioned why some presiders persisted in calling the Chalice a Cup after the implementation of the Third Translation to the Roman Missal.  I referred to a piece written as the Church was transitioning into the new translation. I asked for catechesis on what was the difference and to respect the rubric.  Those issues were never addressed to me, and certain prelates, particularly the Pastor, kept to their favored phrasing. But apparently this was not forgotten.

Close to two years ago, I wrote the Pastor along with several involved staff to inquire about some sui gerneris liturgical practices.  The immediate concern was re-orienting the contemporary choir to partially face the altar. This involved reducing the number of musicians and angling the ensemble at a 45 degree angle so that the acoustics projected into a side wall rather than the congregation.  The musicians were upset about it, but could say nothing because their position depended upon the favor of the Pastor.

When I asked the liturgical director about it, I was told that it was “more reverential”, which sounded like a well intentioned initiative that was drawn from liturgical conferences but was not counter-balanced by the particulars of the parish church layout.  While the musicians were upset about the changes, they  could say nothing because their position depended upon the continued favor of the Pastor.  This choir repositioning may have been a prelude to installing a more prominent baptismal font, which was a pet project of the Pastor.

Appreciating the choir members’ dilemma and being put off by the bromide of being more reverential, I used my Ignatian audacity to question the policy.  If the same “reverential” logic was applied, lectors would need to have their backs to the Congregation, so that they were facing the altar.  Left unsaid was the priestly ad orientalis practice which had long been abandoned in the Spirit of Vatican II.

My earnest questioning also extended into some persistent liturgical abuses.  Of course, the chalice controversy continued without abatement or explanation, but it seemed confined to a certain cleric.  I wondered if we should constantly be reverting to the Apostles Creed.  It’s sad when can mouth the words,  “Please turn to page 175 of your hymnal”.  But it had gotten to the point where the Creed was no longer said at Sunday Mass.  I wondered why General Instructions on the Roman Missal (GIRM 67-68) were  not followed.

What truly concerned me about the validity of the Mass was the practice that the Pastor had for the Confiteor substitute to not even mention sin but have the congregation think of something to be grateful privately then praying together. I questioned during liturgy (public worship) whether we should be saying private prayers but it was scandalous that we were not asking for mercy for our sins.

In his swan song homily, the cleric closed by instructions of the Ignatian practice of the “Presupposition”– basically that you are to always give the other person the benefit of a doubt. Hmm, challenging deviating liturgical and requesting catechesis to better discern the right way seems fair, I suppose (sic).

Presumably, including others on the memo, irked the Pastor as it did not allow the challenge to be swept under a rug. But there was no reply at all to the letter.  I followed the scriptural precepts of correcting a brother as well as the principle of subsidiarity.  The liturgical abuses were initially brought up in private conversation then to the liturgical point person. When those approaches failed, it was brought to the pastoral level with several cc’ed of those affected. The next step would have been to take it up with the Archdiocese Office of Worship. In reflection,  the specificity of the Confiteor challenge may have been particularly embarrassing to the Pastor.

After writing those missives and saying my piece, I harbored little animus towards the “bad actors” but bristled at experiencing  poor liturgical practices.  Because of living in the city which give me many choices to worship,  I scrupulously tried to avoid  liturgies which be irritating or possibly invalid.  This seemed like a divine detente.  However, my modest proposals seemed to haunt the Pastor.

He chose to close his final homily not by addressing underlying issues but by pressuring a “presuppostion” interpretation which was the equivalent of expecting the laity to “Pray, pay and obey”.  Effectively, he could act as he willed under the pretext of charity. Recently, I questioned a Deacon by email at a parish which I often attend while traveling why he wears a chasible rather than an alb and a deacon’s sash.  I may not have agreed with his answer but at least he had the courtesy to respond and explain himself.

Perhaps the “Presupposition” polemic was intended to inculcate Ignatian values. If that were the case, however,  then why “encounter” the inquisitive fellow directly or in a timely manner? Wouldn’t want a Pastor to smell like sheep now, would we?   I suspect the Pastor's veiled snipes were intended to shame, but to little avail.  It reminds me of the origins of the term jesuitical. Standing up for what I believe while being open to be better educated is a badge of pride.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in his Nobel Lecture “One word of truth outweighs the world.”   I believe my experience shows how one person who cares can effect change.  Soon after I formally raised the issue, the choir was repositioned back to singing to the congregation and their numbers were not forcibly scaled back.  In addition, the baptismal font change was temporarily tabled awaiting more input from the parish.  And aside from the departing Pastor, nearly all of the priests offering Mass now use the current rubric, though some still prefer to use the Apostles Creed all year long.

Some Catholics only darken the doors of a Church for Christmas, Easter, Funerals and the occasional Baptism and seem not to pay attention to what goes on.  Others attend Mass but it is a rote ritual.  For me, Mass nourishes the soul with the Word of God along with His Body, Blood, soul and divinity. While there can be many styles to celebrate the Liturgy of the Word but the Liturgy of the Eucharist is a sacred form of our Roman patrimony and the era of improvisation is over. The challenge is rectifying loosey goosey Spirit of Vatican II adherents with those more mindful of the Magisterium

In the sacristy prior to the Pastors’ final Mass, I could not help but overhear someone kvetching about a visiting Priest celebrating a funeral who warned those assembled that Communion was reserved for Catholics in Good Moral Standing.  She complained to the current Director of Liturgy: “Why would he say this when the Pope was right down the street preaching about inclusiveness?”.   I interjected : “To save their souls from damnation for unworthily receiving the sacrament”. Let’s just say that ended the colloquy.  Remember– one word of truth outweighs the world.

As a practical Catholic, I am glad that I can not suffer from disfellowship like the 103 year old Georgian woman was banned by her Baptist church that she founded. I am hopeful that by taking a stand against liturgical abuse can change things for the future at my church.  It ought to create a dialogue on why things are done in an extraordinary manner or doing things right proper in the future.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Via Dolorosa of Ars Celebrendi

Confessions of a Liturgy Snob are reflections on good liturgy.  It is not intended as a having an  axe to grind for any particular prelate.  Laus Deo for men answering the divine calling  to the priesthood, otherwise the faithful would not have access to the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist in which we receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.

The ordained priesthood can have varied charisms.  Some can preach as eloquantly as St. John Chrysostom (Greek for "golden mouthed").  Others exude intellectual understandings of the faith from their scholarly natures, like San Ysidro de Sevilla.  There are priests blessed with the sacramental sensibilities of St. John Vianney.  Some priests are beloved for their folksy, down to earth, accessible natures.  Priests can have pastoral sensibilities in living their vocation.  Some are great stewards and administrators.  Then there are natural fundraisers.   Thus, personalities and predilections impact the ars celebrendi, and admittedly not all clerics are called excell at ars celebrendi.

That being said, there is a rubric which all must follow for public worship.  It is a pity that some priests, who generally were  formed in the early days of Vatican II, want to cling to the loosey-goosey liturgical norms.   Comme le prévoit  (1969) which allowed for a dynamic translation of the Mass to inculturate.  This gave the Presider many opportunities to offer equivalent expressions of prayer.

 Alas, the dynamic translation exception  opened the door to what might be derisively called the Fr. Hollywood show, where the priestly improv is at the center of the liturgical experience.   The third edition of the Roman Missal by ICEL in 2011 was intended to put an end to the idiomatic expressions, but it seems that some cleric do not cotton to being told how to say "their" Mass.




Confessions of a Liturgy Snob seeks to be charitable when considering liturgical abuses. So whenever possible, the site  will not directly name the recalcitrant cleric in question, unless the priest's name is in the general news. However,  it is necessary to find ways to describe a priestly protagonist to delineate the experience.  This will likely be accomplished by resorting to descriptive monickers (e.g. Fr. Hollywood).  However, such anonymity shall not be applied to the Church in question so readers know what to expect at a given parish. 

The Via Dolorosa ("the painful way") is not just an allusion to the pathway in Jerusalem which makes up the Stations of the Cross.  In this case, it is a recognition that a liturgy snob will be inclined to chronicle things which are irksome rather than praiseworthy practices.  For someone who truly cares about good liturgy, it is painful to perseverate on bad liturgy.  Yet  if a Liturgy Snob opts to just  do some version of "Let It Go", then he has stopped caring.  The Via Dolorosa conceit also is an acknowledgement of a certain powerlessness in rectifying liturgical abuse.  A cleric who is confirmed is doing things his own way, right or wrong is unlikely to change, even with dialogue and proper citations from the G.I.R.M. (General Instructions on the Roman Missal).



Dominican Friar Fr. Phillip Neri Powell OP alluded in  Domine, Da mihi hacnc aquam, "Liturgical Poundians" (modernists) are on the decline.  But Powell cautioned against more traditionally minded younger priests arbitrarily changing course from the "Spirit of Vatican II" liturgical revolution simply when they gain the reigns of power.  Catechesis, contemplation and consensus would make for good liturgy which does not alienate the faithful. 

Confessions of a Liturgical Snob can be both a cathartic for enduring less praiseworthy liturgy but in fostering discussion and discernment of what is good liturgy. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

What Is Good Liturgy?

Most Catholics refer to their "Sunday Obligation" as Mass, which is derived from the dismissory exhortation "Ite, missa ist"  (Latin for "Go forth, the mass has ended").  Eastern rite Christians (as well as the Orthodox Christians) refer to their worship as "the Divine Liturgy".  The etymology of liturgy is from the Greek meaning "public service". It may surprise some Roman Catholics that they celebrate two liturgies in a Mass-- the Liturgy of the Word (when scripture is read) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (when the sacrament of the Eucharist is sanctified).

As someone who cares about good liturgy (or is deemed a liturgy snob), it begs the question-- What is good liturgy?  For me, good liturgy can be achieved in many ways.

Some revel in the majesty of the Tridentine Mass (the traditional "Latin Mass" instituted by Pope Pius V in  1570).  Yes, that can be beautiful, as I experienced for the funeral of March for Life founder Nellie  Gray.  

Nellie Gray Funeral at St. Mary's Church, Washington DC 24 August 2012 [photo: BD Matt]

But a low Mass rapidly mumbled by a curate who barely knows Latin is not.   While I endorse the Extraordinary Form as an option, I do not consider it the Alpha and the Omega of  good liturgy.  I have no issues with a Novus Ordo liturgy (sometimes known as the Mass of Pope Paul VI from 1970), but I do not feel drawn to worship that way every week. 

As a Vatican II baby, I do not automatically recoil when I hear the sound of guitars coming from the choir.  I readily attest that I have often enjoyed worshipping with the  People of God in the pews as we  enthusiastically sang hymns by the St. Louis Jesuits.  But I have cringed when understaffed contemporary choirs bite off more than they can chew playing grandoise arrangements.  I shudder when a multi-culturally minded folk choir  imposes "Pan de vida" on an unrecipricating Anglo assembly to no avail.  I lament when the triumphant Easter Vigil song "The Lord Has Done Great Things for Us" sounds like a chuckwagon ditty scored with two acoustic guitars.

The church can inspire good liturgy (or be redeeming visuals for mucked up Masses).  The beauty of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception has some wonderful liturgical art which inspires a sense of divine wonder.  In my mind, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia incorporates the best elements of Vatican II with a beautiful historic landmark.  The National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan  has a striking sanctuary in the round with Art Deco fresco angels. But a building need not be a basilica or a historical landmark to evoke a sacred space that compliments good liturgy.  The Pope St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington, DC has a temporary 3rd floor chapel which is a wonderful worship space, that includes a reproduction of a mural by  Fr. Marco Ivan Rupnik behind the altar.

St. John Paul II Shrine Chapel altarpiece by Fr. Marco Ivan Rupnik
Altar at St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington DC featuring reproduction of Marco Ivan Rupnik mural and first class relic of St. John Paul II's blood from assassination attempt [ Photo credit: BD Matt] 
Rupnik is a Slovenian artist and theologian who also created  the Redemptoris Mater in the Vatican, which served as the private chapel for the Polish pope. Rupnik is designing several floor to wall murals in his distinct neo-byzantine style for the permanent JPII Shrine main sanctuary.

Good liturgy, like church, is not bound to a building.  In college, I chose to walk across campus at Marquette University to avoid an unappealing "smells and bells" service held in a cafeteria for the simplicity and quiet dignity of the "Tower Express" where seventy souls were in, out and back on the streets in 25 minutes with a thought provoking homily.  It look me longer to get to and fro the Mass than the worship itself.  But for me, it had spirit.

While beautiful churches can augment the worship experience, I have appreciated pool-side masses, elaborate Archdiocesan liturgies held in gyms and worshipping in quiet but sparsely adorned chapels.  In those instances, location was less  crucial than a sense of commuity reverently worshipping.

Music, architecture, art, vestments all can augment praying the Mass.  But as Christians who have a liturgical, ritualistic and sacramental religiosity,  Catholics  ought to experience  authentic liturgy through following the rubric for the Eucharist.  Since the advent of the Third Translation of the Roman Missal, improvising is impermissible during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Much to my chagrin, some cantakerous clerics still  persist in going their own way on the Anaphara or offer other subtitution language (e.g. "The Lord IS with you").

Discerning what is good liturgy is the mission of Confessions of a Liturgy Snob.  But a good working definition of good liturgy  is public worship which is authentic, worshipful , and spirit filled which expresses itself in conformance with the rubric.

A Liturgy Snob?

Well, I would like to actually think of myself as a Church connoisseur--a believer who revels in good liturgy and worship in its many forms.  But that does not mean that anything goes in public worship.

As a Catholic, I believe in the true presence in the Eucharist.  Thus even if the homily is horrific, the sanctuary is wreckified and the liturgy is unappealing, I have the great privilege on receiving Christ's body and blood, soul and divinity.  However, such a sacramental experience is made so much more vivid with good liturgy.  Otherwise, the act of worship can devolve to a "Contractual Obligation" Mass for the New Covenant.

Some of my co-religionists suggest: "Don't sweat the small stuff" , such as liturgical abuse (e.g. ad libbing against the rubric).  Others who are not steeped in the faith wonder about snarky sotto voce comments on ars celebrendi and then think that I am "picking on a priest".    I am drawn to good liturgy, to the point of becoming a pilgrim during Holy Week to seek out fulfilling worship.  So to their eyes, I would probably be seen as a liturgy snob.  That is why I have embraced the title: "Confessions of a Liturgy Snob".  So to puckishly echo Pontius Pilate : "Quod scripsi, scripsi".

Hearing my phillipics on liturgical abuses and memories of lackluster liturgies, the Confirmand whom I sponsored suggested: "You should make an app for that".  While I am not sure that the  musings of one religious yet irreverent Roman Catholic layman will have Mass appeal (sic) like Masstimes.org, it can serve as an outlet for occassional observations on the ars celebrendi.  

Although I may flippantly embrace the monicker "a liturgy snob", the reality is that I seek appealing Masses rather than lamenting about lame liturgies.  Confessions of a Liturgy Snob  might has the potential of being a crowdsourcing YELP for liturgy snobs.    But the same church can have different feels depending upon which liturgy one attends.  Then it should be considered that  priests like to spice it up with their own spiritual sauce, so  their sui generis celebrations would be quite "special".

From the outset, I recognise that thoughts on good liturgy are colored by personal preference  and my own faith history.  What may seem down to earth and catachetical to some may strike me as folksy and basic.  Or what seems esoteric and abstract to others may be appealing to me as thought provoking  and informative.  So caveat emptor.  The faithful should be able to find a place where their souls are fed, ocassionally challenged and inspired to go forth and bring the fruit of the Eucharist  to the world.  May the Confessions of a Liturgy Snob help winnow the liturgical wheat from the chaff.