The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the guilty. The innocent don’t need such protection, but there aren’t any innocent people in this tale.
Some years ago, I was living in a small, mid-western town populated mostly by people whose livelihood centered on agriculture. It was a typical one-parish town, with a Catholic church more than a hundred years old, quite beautiful from the outside, and sadly “renovated” on the inside. The high altar was gone, replaced by a heavy table, and facing the people a simple wooden cross sans corpus in front of a large red curtain, with the tabernacle shoved off to the side. You know the routine. At least the beautiful stain glass windows were left intact, along with a couple of real statues.
Sunday Mass was not exactly heavenly, but also nothing to get upset about if, like most folks in town, you just wanted to shake off the dust of the work week, speak with your Creator, and receive the sacraments. The communion rail was long gone, but most people knelt on the altar steps, and nobody was forced to accept Holy Communion in the hand. I tend to be a little “tightly wound” regarding things liturgical, but even I could not find anything too off-putting in a simple Mass with older Catholic hymns. Much to my haughty surprise, I found that shaking the calloused hands of a farmer sitting near me with his children and grandchildren was not at all intrusive. Oh, a little Latin and some better music would have been nice. But it was … workable. And like everybody else, I had experienced and could imagine much, much worse.
But I could not imagine what would happen when a new pastor arrived. Fr. Stan, who was in his mid-40s, was creative, an “innovator,” and he set about his “reforms” with unflagging self-confidence. His first move was to hang garish banners from high over the altar. They weren’t exactly “un-Catholic,” just unnecessary, these broad, pastel bolts of cloth with images of birds, candles, or sunflowers, and saccharine messages, like Peace, Harmony, and Sonshine. Next was the invasion of gentle Jesuit junk in the new hymnals, which no one could sing. So Fr. Stan found a woman who believed she had talent, a divorced lady with a lot of time on her hands, it seems. She became the “Music Minister,” stealing our last fifteen minutes before Mass for “rehearsal,” waving her arms in front of us like one of the “weird sisters” in Macbeth, as if trying to conjure up the ghosts of Woodstock. The parishioners just frowned at her in stony silence, which visibly irritated our new pastor.
Fr. Stan gave up on the muzak, a minor setback, but not on his protégée. On the contrary, he decided to promote her. She then began to function as an Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister, the first this parish of barely 200 souls had ever seen. But when this became a little too “ordinary,” she started standing beside the priest during the Canon of the Mass, now vested just like him, hands outstretched and mimicking his every gesture during the Consecration. Then she started uttering all the prayers in unison with the priest. Finally, the coup de grace: After the Prayers of Consecration, Fr. Stan started taking a seat behind the altar-table, and Ms. Lomsheck became the only source for receiving Holy Communion.
This was too much for the farmers, ranchers, mechanics, feed-store owners and large-animal veterinarian, who spent all week in dirt, grime and worse. They were not about to have a priestess take over their one hour of transcendence, and more or less have to become Methodists without any say in the matter. The parish council drafted a letter to the bishop with a simple message: we want something Catholic for Mass. The bishop’s response was artfully courteous. He thanked the letter writers for their love of “being church,” but assured them that Fr. Stan had his complete confidence. He was certain that by following the lead of their appointed shepherd ever more closely on their “faith journey,” they would all arrive harmoniously, somewhere, together.
The parishioners were not reassured. Attendance at Mass dropped dramatically. For many, Sunday became a group rosary day, at alternating farmhouses. Others were making the 50-mile drive to the nearest alternative Mass. With a car so badly rusted I could see some of the road through the floorboard, I had to join the rosary group. The Sunday rosaries spawned a Saturday afternoon offshoot, as another group began quietly meeting inside St. Isidore’s Church at about two o’clock, so as not to relinquish all claim to a building their great-grandfathers had lifted skyward with their own hands. When Fr. Stan learned that the parishioners, who now refused his Masses, were using his church for a “protest” rosary, he started locking the building all week and required the parish council to turn in their keys. Only he and the priestess could let themselves into the church.
Barely six months had passed between Fr. Stan’s arrival and the climax of this confrontation. But the dramatic end took place with even greater speed. One Sunday, as I was preparing to head out to a group rosary, I received a phone call: “Mass in the church in about an hour!” Fr. Stan was gone, there was a new visiting priest, and in a few weeks, a new permanent pastor was to arrive. Our prayers were answered. How exactly had this miracle come about?
Later that week, I ran into the head of the parish council at the Greyhound Diner. Mr. Pulaski (who was also the town pharmacist) was hesitant to answer my questions about Fr. Stan’s abrupt departure, but he finally relented. He himself had conceived the plan that was endorsed by the entire council. They had written Fr. Stan a letter, anonymously, of which the entire message was essentially this:
We know what you are doing. We have photographs and other evidence.
If you do not leave NOW, we will take it to the bishop and the police.
What had they discovered, I wondered? What kind of evidence? How had they uncovered it? “Nothing,” said Mr. Pulaski, “We had no evidence of anything. Just an assumption. It was a pure bluff. And it worked.” I was dumbfounded. How on earth had anyone imagined that such a dubious ploy, which seemed so desperately phony, could ever have the desired effect?
“Well, it’s like this,” Mr. Pulaski continued. “Pretty simple, really. When a priest hates the Mass as much as Fr. Stan obviously does, it is a sure bet that he is involved in some great immorality, possibly something illegal. Having to preach a Gospel he doesn’t believe in makes him bitter and angry with the Church for ‘forcing’ him to be a hypocrite. He takes it out on the parishioners. We didn’t know what was wrong in his private life, but we were sure it was a damned mess.”
I was astonished at the audacity of the letter. And I was, and still am, bothered by its anonymity and sinister implications. But I could not fault the logic behind the council’s action. In fact, I was amazed at the keen understanding of human nature exhibited by those desperate Catholic farmers and townsfolk who had concocted this distasteful strategy to rescue their beloved parish.
I don’t know if anyone ever did uncover evidence of what may have convinced this priest to depart in such haste. Perhaps the parish council members had judged him correctly. But maybe he had just decided that he didn’t want to work with such people, with their hopelessly “Neanderthal” outlook. I didn’t remain in this town too much longer, and I don’t know the sequel to this event, apart from one detail. Some years later, with a sense of morbid curiosity, I tracked down the priest who had been the source of all the trouble. Was he at some other parish, I wondered, among people more willing to be “innovated?” No, it turns out that he had become a sociology professor at a Catholic university.
What is the lesson to be learned from this story? I am certainly not proposing it as a model of action for anyone struggling under a difficult pastor. Every time I think back to this episode, I am reminded of the film Le corbeau, where an entire French town is reduced to strife and chaos by a series of anonymous “poison pen” letters. No, what I glean from this tale is really a valuable lesson about liturgy.
One occasionally hears people claim that the Traditional Latin Mass is “too clerical,” that it’s “all about the priest,” who “controls everything.” In fact, the reverse is true. It’s the new Mass that is intensely clerical, focused on the “celebrant,” so much so that the entire liturgy is subordinated to the personality of the priest. If you have a particularly holy priest, or even just one who doesn’t view himself as a “performer,” you have a chance for a truly transcendent and beautiful liturgy, or at least the opportunity to pray unmolested. But if you are subjected to a “Fr. Stan,” your Sundays can become a Purgatory even Dante could not have envisioned.
Such a state of affairs is inconceivable with the old Mass. I am sure there were many unworthy, perhaps even unbelieving priests who slouched their way through the Traditional Latin Mass. But this would not significantly alter the experience of the Mass for most laymen. Every gesture and word is highly scripted, and the language unchangeable, such that the priest’s personality is almost entirely subordinated to the saving action of Christ.
Just a few years ago, I would not have bothered to recount this unsavory story, as it appeared that the vernacular Novus Ordo Missae was reaching a point of stability, with the lamentable period of constant innovation finally drawing to a close. Now, I am no longer so optimistic. The old impulse to improvise seems to be making a brutal return. A balloon liturgy; a hover board homily; a Star Wars Mass… if you can imagine it, somebody somewhere is probably being subjected to it. Let us pray that such things are just the “last Stan” … I mean, the “last stand” of the liturgical periti. The Roman Rite could really benefit from about fifty years of saneness, and sameness.