Over this past holiday weekend, I attended Mass on Thanksgiving morning at the parish of my youth, where I first received absolution, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. In just a few short moments, the immortal words of Ron Burgundy rang in my heart: “I immediately regret this decision!”
Perhaps, for too long, I have been too blessed with good, solid priests. My unit’s military chaplain was, thank God, an upstanding Catholic priest who, even in degraded conditions at our humble chapel in Afghanistan, never failed to convey the transcendent splendor of the Mass. Before and after the deployment, I had at my disposal two FSSP parishes in the local area, meaning that the Traditional Latin Mass was always within reach. As I lived in Europe for these past years (save for my time in Afghanistan), our beloved Urbs Aeterna remained a short flight away; perhaps the experience of twenty-seven pilgrimages to Italy, seven Papal Masses, and countless other liturgies in the great basilicas of Rome has, quite simply, spoiled me.
Why did I immediately regret returning to my home parish? The myriad reasons are too numerous to explain. Other than the usual problems which plague many Novus Ordo celebrations in American parishes (e.g., too many extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion jockeying to “participate” when there is clearly no need for them), one certain liberty taken by the presiding priest topped all the other liturgical abuses.
When the time for the homily arrived, the priest stood up, and with patronizing condescension, jovially told us, “Instead of me giving you all a homily, I’m going to have you all say what you’re thankful for!” –as if a homily is a dreadful burden and not an opportunity for spiritual enrichment.
Two deacons carried microphones up and down the church, prompting various people of all ages to give their two cents. Imprudently, young children were put on the spot and effectively forced to speak publicly without preparation. The responses from the congregation ranged from the predictable (“I’m thankful for God and family”), to the controversial and partisan (one woman said, “Gracias al Presidente Obama por lo que hizo para los inmigrantes”), to the banal and petty (“I’m thankful for the [San Francisco] Giants”; this comment came, no less, from the director of sacred music). Only one person expressed thankfulness for the clergy. Deo gratias, I was spared the microphone. Short of making a scene, I could do nothing but pray quietly and echo the Lord’s phrase: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It seems that everybody forgot that, in the face of any personal list of things to be thankful for, one form of thanksgiving– εὐχαριστία, the Holy Eucharist itself– stands above them all.
One can easily see how a single idiosyncratic imposition by a priest can obliterate the sense of the sacred. There was nothing to stop anybody from giving thanks for something contrary to the faith! Furthermore, there were four clerics with faculties to preach (two priests and two deacons), yet they all relinquished their sacred duty at this Mass. And for what? For some misguided expression of “creativity”?
At the foundation of these problems is the implicit assumption that the Sacred Liturgy is insufficient in itself, and thus we should tinker and tailor it to our subjective tastes. As priests chase cheap creativity, Mass devolves into litur-tainment, while the true character of Sacred Liturgy is more and more obscured by external additions which have little to do with the worship of God.
We might rather call such abuses not liturgy but litter-gy (in that they should be thrown out of the house of God just as the Lord drove out the moneychangers from the Temple), because they blur the line between sacred and profane. What makes liturgy “sacred” and “holy” is precisely the fact it is distinct and separate from the profane. Catholics must hold that the Sacred Liturgy is in fact sufficient, for as St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have strained to remind us, the true Actor in the liturgy is Christ himself. We do not form the liturgy, the liturgy forms us. It is, therefore, not the place for unbridled creativity. The liturgy is order; it tempers our idiosyncrasies and personal tastes, and by entering into the common ritual and mystery of the Church, we are further conformed to the Church at large and to Christ himself.
Some might defend liturgical abuses by saying that “this is how things are done in this community.” In our past article “On the stability of liturgical form” we remarked:
If the difference in liturgy from one place to another (or from week to week) is so different that the common elements are hardly discernible, how can one fittingly say that in each Mass, man enters the same mystery? When somebody imposes a personal idea on the liturgy, especially when such an idea has little or no basis in the received tradition of the Church, that person effectively breaks the communion of solidarity which unites each individual Mass with every other Mass in the world. Liturgy devolves into a personal production, when in fact the true and decisive actor in the liturgy is the Triune God himself…
Not only does liturgical stability foster the spiritual connection between a Mass in a mission land and the Pope’s Mass in Rome, it also fosters the spiritual connection with the saints who celebrated and participated in Mass in very much the same manner… not only does our shared liturgical heritage bind us with our brothers and sisters across the world, it also binds us with past and future generations across time.
Setting the practice of this community in opposition to the practice of that community is a wrongheaded approach that fails to appreciate the true universality of the liturgy and of the Church. Each parish community rightfully expresses its individuality in extra-liturgical celebrations, devotional activities, hospitality gatherings, and like events. But from the moment the priest intones the Sign of the Cross at the beginning of Mass, one is no longer at this parish community or that church— one transcends all these particular divisions and comes into contact with the universal. One has crossed from the profane to the sacred.
Of course, lest some poor souls invoke the Second Vatican Council to justify illicit additions to the Mass, let us recall that council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, which states that “no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.” (Paragraph 22 section 3)
I don’t think that, because I have been blessed with good priests and good liturgy over the last four years, I have been “spoiled”. Rather, I believe that the Catholic faithful at places like my home parish have been unjustly deprived of the Sacred Liturgy’s full splendor and the graces which come with it. Reversing this trend is certainly not an easy task. Two whole generations of Catholics have come of age in an era of bad liturgy, and its effects still ripple in most parishes. This poses a massive catachetical hurdle. However, thanks to St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the new generation of young priests and faithful are slowly rediscovering the authentic majesty of Catholic liturgy. Meanwhile, what Fr. Zuhlsdorf jokingly calls “the Biological Solution” will gradually take effect on those older priests and deacons who have done a disservice to the faithful by obscuring the greatness of the liturgy.
Concerning those older clerics who still insist on playing around with the Mass, we refer them to St. Francis of Assisi’s firm admonition against clerics who desacralize the liturgy, reminding them that they will account for those actions before Christ on Judgment Day.
Some say that every tragic drama is inherently optimistic, and that even bad leaders are helpful in some sense, for both show an example of what to avoid. In the same vein, I can say that due to the poor example of certain priests that, now more than ever, I give thanks to God for the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, for through them, the Church has begun to recover the sense of the sacred.