The family meal, so say the experts, is a key ingredient to household unity. For this reason, I’m grateful that my own upbringing featured, on most occasions, my mother and father, sister and brother gathering around the evening table to break bread (or more to the point, dig into mom’s meatloaf). But these same doyens of domestic harmony, I suspect, would object to the small black-and-white television that sat at the end of the table entertaining us as we ate.
Back then, in my childhood, it was M*A*S*H that captured our family’s attention (and no doubt also arrested its development). We were rapt by the small-screen portrayal of the Korean War, the characters of Hawkeye and Radar and the unit’s Catholic chaplain Father Mulcahy, and its strangely light-hearted instrumental theme music, taken from the song “Suicide is Painless,” featured in the original 1970 Robert Altman movie on which the sitcom is based. This TV show is as much a part of my childhood memories as family vacations to Grandma’s and warming the bench in Little League baseball.
This blast from my childhood’s past comes to mind today, as a scandalized Church fights another battle in the war between good and evil, both in the world and amidst her fallen members: the battle for sexual purity.
Indeed, Pope Francis likens today’s Church to a M*A*S*H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit. “I like to use the image of a field hospital to describe this ‘Church that goes forth’; it exists,” he says, “where there is combat, it is not a solid structure with all the equipment where people go to receive treatment for both small and large infirmities. It is a mobile structure that offers first aid and immediate care, so that its soldiers do not die. It’s a place for urgent care, not a place to see a specialist” (Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli, 52–53). The world in which the Church serves is indeed fallen, wounded, and in need of urgent care. The situation is all the more tragic when the doctors of that “field hospital” hobble its mission when their own woundedness disables their ability to perform life-saving work.
What place does the liturgy have in such a toxic climate? How helpful is the liturgical apostolate amidst so many casualties? Does the forthcoming release of the Rite for the Dedication of a Church and Altar really matter? Does singing a hymn versus a biblical antiphon at the Offertory matter? Does it matter that although the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, falls on a Saturday this year, it remains obligatory, despite its proximity to Sunday?
Even though the newly-approved translations of the Breviary’s antiphons for Ordinary Time (to name another example) are not the solution to these troubled times, neither is the liturgy, its celebration, and our faithful participation in it irrelevant to the painful, destructive scandals that have come to light within the Church.
GK Chesterton once remarked that Original Sin is the only Christian doctrine that even non-Christians can readily acknowledge as true. Its effects, he observes, are demonstrated beyond a doubt every day in the news. But such daily bad news can never get a scoop on the Good News. For the salve (that is, the salv-ation) of this wounded world is the Anointed One—Christ Jesus who is the substance and reality of the liturgy. As liturgist Aidan Kavanagh was fond of saying, “Liturgy is doing the world the way the world was meant to be done.” As an antidote to the world’s battlefields, the Divine Physician’s liturgy has great healing power.
Right worship—expressed in accurate antiphons, beautiful ritual texts, sublime music—can right the wayward journey of Peter’s bark, since these liturgical elements put Christ the High Priest firmly in the captain’s seat.
As we recommit ourselves to sanctity, let the authentic celebration of the liturgy and our heartfelt participation in it make us, our embattled Church, and our fallen world whole.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.