Online Edition – November 2005
Vol. XI, No. 8
Where Have We Put Him?
And what if we acted as if we believed what we believe?
by Father W. Roy Floch
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned … liturgically … I think. Don’t worry though, it isn’t mortal. For the moment, three items.
Item 1: Recently while conducting a server training session with three boys, as I was helping two practice the washing of hands, the other, behind my back, picked up the glass chalices, put them to his ears and stuck out his tongue at the other two.
Item 2: Recently, in the middle of Mass I found myself thinking, “I could switch back to the Latin liturgy of my childhood parish with no trouble.”
Item 3: Some years ago my fellow classmate and priest voiced this nagging thought: “It would be nice if we acted in the liturgy as if we believed what we believe.”
You might like to know two things. First, yes, the server is still alive and without scars. Second, am I a reactionary crank? I entered the seminary after the eighth grade in 1964, thus I am a creature of the liturgical changes. As they happened, I never thought twice. I was ordained more than 27 years ago, and have served various parishes for 13 years, six years as an Army chaplain, and now more than eight years in two small rural parishes. I have never said Mass in Latin.
I confess that in my first parish assignment in 1977 (I was not ordained but was in charge for a month until the new pastor would arrive), I stopped the second collection, told the people they could receive Communion standing (rather than at the communion rail kneeling as they done had until then), began the Kiss of Peace, and hid the bells. For these sins, and more, I am now sincerely sorry.
The server of Item 1 above has gone to college. His family lived in a large and lovely new home, where I imagine they drink ice water out of crystal glasses at the oak dinner table. For him the glass chalices were just like the dinner water glasses. The padded oak chairs in our sanctuary were just like his dining room furniture.
I did not want a chalice upon ordination, thinking it would be a waste since Communion would be forever under both species and we would need sets. Thinking there is value in the visible, I used glass — until that server and his ears. We no longer have the crystal or the ceramic set in liturgical colors, but two matching gold-colored metal chalices, and any new sanctuary chairs will be of a nobler wood and design.
That server taught me a liturgical principle. Liturgy is not ordinary. The use of ordinary things in liturgy — the things people have in their houses, the things moderately well off people can afford — does not communicate the substance of what is happening. Polyester vestments, banners of felt and burlap, stained glass like that in the expensive doors at hardware megastores — these things cannot mediate the weight of the sacred. And salad cruets for water and wine? What was I thinking!
Yes, I know God wishes to make the ordinary holy. I know the Church can squander the good in other cultures by imposing, for example, African cultural practices on Indonesians. But that unwitting server was telling me that ordinary things are not good enough when the Church gathers to worship. We want our praise to take the highest form we can muster to show our love for God in Christ. A dandelion will not do for Valentine’s Day, unless you want shock value. (And who can live in permanent shock?) Chalices should be so beautiful that the servers are afraid to touch them. We are not in church to do ordinary things, sit on ordinary furniture, sing ordinary music.
I have one server now, the others graduated. Our communion rail is long gone. This server has no natural sense of a need to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament. He does not experience a building that defines the universe into sacred and less sacred space. Even the elderly, who complain that people talk too much in church, themselves chat loudly across the pews after daily Mass.
I aggravated the problem a year after I arrived by removing the tabernacle from a niche dating from the ‘60s. But now it is on a small altar located directly behind the main altar and elevated one step — where the padded oak presidential chair used to be. (I demoted myself. I am not God.) And I have a growing sense of unease at celebrating Mass with my back toward Him, despite “alter Christus” implications in facing the congregation.
Where Did We Go Wrong?
Of all the changes in the celebration of Mass that took place after Vatican II, I believe placing the celebrant and the congregation face to face was the most wide-ranging in its effect. No longer focussed in one direction — toward God — clergy and laity have turned inward toward themselves, and experience a crisis in both lay and religious identity and vocation, not to mention the poverty of self-centered music. Seeing each other has not always been a pretty sight, and this has contributed to the lobbing of tomatoes in both directions as power struggles now seem to take up much of our ecclesial energy. We are looking at one another, at the many ministers and musicians, but we are not seeing Him. (I no longer look communicants in the eye but keep my eyes on Him, hoping they will too.) Regarding the priest as “entertainer” may account for the “vocation crisis”.
Changes meant to foster “active participation” are not working. The participation that counts must be internal and spiritual. External action cannot achieve it. “You can lead a horse to water…” I remember the Latin liturgy as highly involving. In order to follow it, you had to pay attention.
The usual explanation given for the increase in Eucharistic devotional practices from the 9th century on is that the Mass became remote from people, causing them to generate these extra-liturgical means for more satisfying religious experience. But what if the “remote” liturgy actually created internal spiritual growth that obtained expression in those devotions, and their sharp decline after the liturgical renewal following Vatican II is the consequence of a desiccated internal spiritual life?
I sense that congregations are now completely attentive to external actions and are personally passive, as if they are in a theater or watching TV hoping the program will be entertaining. When it isn’t entertaining, they walk. In the words of a Lutheran bishop called in to mediate where a pastor’s liturgical practices aggravated some of her congregation, we have forgotten that, “The Liturgy is not for us, it’s for God.”
The Absence of the Presence
The problem, it seems to me, is consistency in choreographing the Presence. My sudden distracting thought that, with great emotional and rational fittingness, I could celebrate the Tridentine rite derives from the disturbing practice of our pretending that He is not in the room while celebrating the “Novus Ordo”. Much of Catholic ritual development of the past seems clear to me if you ask: “How should one act when God is in the room?” If the Blessed Sacrament can be ignored, what is the message we are conveying about the importance of the Presence, a message the children (now adults and parents) have been learning (and teaching) these past decades? We have rendered the Real Presence ritually incredible. We know how hard credibility is to regain.
I am not urging a rapid return to Trent or Latin, but I imagine that in another 500 years we may be celebrating the Eucharist in a form very much like the liturgy I remember from 1957. The latest changes in the GIRM are not for the purpose of sacerdotilization (as some say) but for sacralization.
The liturgy often seems to be at war with itself. After Vatican II came a liturgy that belongs in a hall, not in a sanctuary before the Presence of Christ; though the liturgy of the sanctuary is still there. It sometimes seems that a parish should have two separate places for worship. One for a liturgy without the Blessed Sacrament/tabernacle present. No niches, no side altar tabernacles, no “spaces” off to the left. The other would be a sanctuary with the Presence, and a liturgy completely “oriented” to it. I honestly wonder which “worship space” most people choose?
I wish to register a growing sense of the inconsistency and unsuitability of our ritual celebration, and I confess my own complicity. Ritual poverty is tolerable; ritual inconsistency is not. “It would be nice if in the liturgy we acted as if we believe what we believe”. I often wonder if I am alone in this perception.
After altogether too long, I realize that the Church (which is not priests or laity but the entire Mystical Body of Christ) is smarter than I am. My “liturgical sins” are not mortal but venial because I hope and believe “course corrections” will be made. I take this hope from the priority Pope Pius XII assigned to doctrine over liturgy when he defined the dogma of the Assumption:
… since the liturgy of the Church does not engender the Catholic faith, but rather springs from it, in such a way that the practices of the sacred worship proceed from the Faith as the fruit comes from the tree, it follows that the holy Fathers and the great Doctors, in the homilies and sermons they gave the people on this feast day, did not draw their teaching from the feast itself as from a primary source, but rather they spoke of this doctrine as something already known and accepted by Christ’s faithful. (Munificentissimus Deus 20)
Eventually we will act “as if we believe what we believe” because the faith is true — and it will triumph.
The Rev. W. Roy Floch is pastor of Sacred Heart, Wilbur, and St. Joseph, Odessa, Washington. He holds a degree in Philosophy from Gonzaga University, an MA in Systematic Theology from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, and a Masters in Applied Spirituality from the University of San Francisco. He attended Mater Cleri Seminary, Colbert, WA and St. Thomas Seminary, Kenmore, WA (both now closed).