Nov 15, 2004

When we "get creative", are we choosing Pageantry Over Piety?

Online Edition – November 2004
Vol. X, No. 8

 When we "get creative", are we choosing
Pageantry Over Piety?

by Carolyn Foster

He holds up the golden chalice, his fingers poised gracefully to support it. There are no extra flourishes in his gesture or in the movements of his body. His face is solemn and his voice even, yet sincere. He may have learned it at the seminary. Maybe he prays for it. He has it though: the proper degree of reverence and humility while celebrating the Mass.

He is a Spanish priest, and this Mass is in a Spanish church. On a recent month-long trip to Spain I attended daily Mass in many different churches, including such glorious places as Santiago de Compostela and the Santa Cueva at Covadonga. I found that in every church I visited, from towering cathedral to hillside chapel, there was little or no variation in the manner in which the priest celebrated the Mass. Their movements were fluid but exact, informed by a deep concentration focused on humbling themselves in an act of surrender. This set the tone for the whole liturgical celebration, and for the participation of the congregation.

You could say these priests lack "personality" and "dynamism", and consequently so do their parishes. Indeed, the homogeneity of the Liturgy in Spanish churches does signal a lack of something. I recall a feeling of emptiness in the dark, cavernous churches and cathedrals of Spain. It is as if they were built and are maintained in such a way as to be a dark void — an invitation — to be filled by the light and glory of God. These churches are not completely empty, of course, but there was the sense that the things that are there — from the masterpieces of Gothic art to the bare wooden kneelers – are there as instruments.

Across the Atlantic there is something different going on. In many North American parishes I have visited, the Liturgy has become a happy community production. Production value is important, and details of production the focus. "We do things a little differently here", is the motto of one such parish I know. At the Easter Vigil last year the preparation for the waving of banners and the theatrics of the readings seemed to eclipse prayerful reflection on the meaning of Easter.

This parish is housed in a church building whose interior has been designed so that the tabernacle is in a "special place", that is, in a corner out of anyone’s direct line of sight. The hard-to-find tabernacle and the abundance of pageantry and gaiety during the Liturgy are not unrelated. They reveal one of the main problems with the way Mass is celebrated today. We have shifted the focus of the Mass from Him, to us.

This shift in focus is a result of the misinterpretation of the main point of Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC): renewal of the Liturgy through participation. "In the restoration and promotion of the sacred Liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered above all else…" (SC 14) While some took "active" to mean "activity", this request for participation is not fulfilled simply by physically doing something. It asks something much more of us.

Participation, in essence, means becoming truly aware of what is going on up at the altar, and knowing that each one of us is intimately a part of the sacrifice taking place there. A deeper form of this participation is removing the layers of pride that separate us from the Eucharist, and allowing Christ to enter us more fully. There is no external action involved in this (except perhaps kneeling in front of the tabernacle); rather what is required is a thoughtful examination of conscience, and admitting our sins and our need for Christ’s mercy.

This type of participation helps individuals establish an intimate connection with the Eucharist, thoughtfully contemplating the Paschal Mystery, thereby entering into a more profound union with Christ. As the Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council states: "For the Liturgy, ‘through which the work of our redemption is accomplished’, most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church". (SC 2)

To facilitate this participation and renewal, the Council gave concrete direction, such as permitting use of the vernacular during Mass. However, the Constitution on the Liturgy was interpreted by many as an unrestricted "opening up" of the Liturgy. Some who were charged with overseeing the liturgical reform went too far. Instead of acting as obedient servants to the One who creates the Liturgy, they became activists motivated by their own agendas and values, and led people on paths of their own instead of following Christ’s.

In his recent encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (EE), the Holy Father observed:

It must be lamented that, especially in the years following the post-conciliar reform, as a result of a misguided sense of creativity and adaptation there have been a number of abuses which have been a source of suffering for many. A certain reaction against ‘formalism’ has led some, especially in certain regions, to consider the ‘forms’ chosen by the Church’s great liturgical tradition and her Magisterium as non-binding and to introduce unauthorized innovations which are often completely inappropriate. (n. 52)

When I was in Spain I never once saw a priest smile during the Mass. Yet after Mass they always smiled and were full of joy, good humor and wit. It was as if they had left their charm at the sacristy door before entering to celebrate the Mass. Through their own humility they allowed themselves to be used as an instrument for the One with the greatest magnetism of all, Christ. What was lacking in those cavernous Spanish churches I visited was personal pride. Personality did not count under these Gothic arches, and the individuality of the priest and of the people became irrelevant. There was a detachment from the material and an opening up to the transcendent.

This emptying of the self is an important factor for everyone present at Mass. As Catholics we struggle our whole lives to die to ourselves and to live for Christ. This struggle should be especially present at the moment when we meet Our Savior in Holy Communion. To die to oneself is an act of great humility and requires an epic battle against the ego’s demand for satisfaction. Because the battle is hard-won we must constantly ask ourselves whether the decisions we make and the actions we take primarily serve God, or us.

The Second Vatican Council made this battle more interesting, and ultimately more hopeful. The Holy Spirit, through the Council fathers, "opened up the Liturgy" so that we could show our love for God properly — so that He could draw us closer, if we would let Him. However, by giving us more freedom, by offering us the opportunity to be nearer to Him, we were also given more chances to fall. We can become prey to the demands of the self, or we may become more obedient to the Lord. It is the responsibility of freedom to make the right choice.

For years it has been the trend to design our churches to emphasize "community" above all else — the pews surround the altar, the baptismal font is placed prominently, while the tabernacle is hidden. The object of placing the pews around the altar is to present the Liturgy as a communal meal that all equally create. But this is false. "Nor is the Eucharistic sacrifice to be considered a ‘concelebration’ of the priest along with the people who are present". (Redemptionis Sacramentum 42) Attention is focused on the baptismal font instead of the tabernacle to convey that baptism, not the Eucharist, is the central sacrament of the Catholic Church. This is also not true. "The Church was born of the paschal mystery. For this very reason the Eucharist, which is in an outstanding way the sacrament of the paschal mystery, stands at the center of the Church’s life". (EE 3)

By effecting "creative" and "interesting" changes in our church buildings and in the content of the Liturgy, we misuse Sacrosanctum Concilium, and we shine the light on us, instead of on Christ. We contemplate our power and our capabilities, rather than His.

In one of the parishes in my neighborhood the priest brought in a folk ensemble during the summer to "liven things up". The parishioners, who are mostly middle-aged or elderly, seem stunned by the whole thing. The contrast of their heads lowered in solemn contemplation while the band played on would be almost comical if it were not so distressing. True creativity and dynamism can only be gotten by going through Christ first.

The more we focus on community, the more we focus on ourselves. If we focus on Christ in the Eucharist first and foremost, we all become unified as a community through His Body and Blood, through the Church. As the Holy Father has said, "The seeds of disunity, which daily experience shows to be so deeply rooted in humanity as a result of sin, are countered by the unifying power of the body of Christ. The Eucharist, precisely by building up the Church, creates human community". (EE 24) The more we focus on being creative, we choose ourselves over Christ. We choose pageantry over piety. The Eucharist –Christ’s sacrifice — and the resulting saving grace through His dying and rising, is a phenomenally creative act. Our own inventions serve to detract rather than glorify. As Pope John Paul II has written, "It is not therefore a matter of inventing a ‘new program’. The program already exists; it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center in Christ Himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated" (Novo Millennio Ineunte 29)

In the Spanish churches I attended, the supernatural permeates the physical reality, and overtakes it. In a 14th century church in Madrid, Iglesia de San Gines, I could not take my eyes off of the tabernacle. As is typical in Spanish churches it sits directly behind the altar. A tall, thin, simple gold cross rose up from the tabernacle. Its brightness stood out against the darkness of the church and its placement made it look like Christ rising up from the tabernacle to meet us in the Eucharist. For my contemplation, this was "production" enough — the cross.

For me the heart of Sacrosanctum Concilium is captured in the following passage from the chapter on the Eucharist — the heart of the Liturgy:

The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration. They should be instructed by God’s Word and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s Body; they should give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be in all. (SC 48)

This indeed calls for participation — it requests of us an attentiveness of the heart and mind — of the will — to what happens during the Mass. Falling at His feet, rather than rearranging pews and flying banners, will bring about the true creative force – and it will be an explosion. This is the force of grace that makes over our own lives into His.


Carolyn Foster, a Catholic convert, worked several years in the book publishing field and is now a freelance writer living in Toronto, Canada.



Carolyn Foster