Yesterday I was characterized by a stranger as indifferent and aloof. The allegation was hotly denied by our mutual acquaintance who replied that, whatever my faults, I am the soul of amiability. Wherefore the distortion?
My defamer monitors me at Mass and my reserved response of the Sign of Peace inflames her. She broadcasts my failure to pass what she considers to be the litmus test of Christianity. She is undeterred by the fact that her criterion was belatedly contrived, introduced into Mass by a liturgical committee having no particular mandate to do so.
Begun in the sixties, when I was busy diapering toddlers and coaxing reluctant eructations from infant tummies, the Sign of Peace lingers today as just one of many additions and excisions thrust without warning upon a laity traditionally docile to what they interpret as hierarchical directives. With breathtaking speed and corresponding submission, we watched the disappearance of sonorous Latin and the appearance of a prosaic vernacular. We ceased going forward with the priest to the altar of God and faced him instead across a marble slab. We stopped singing “Faith of Our Fathers” and crooned “Blowin’ in the Wind.” We exchanged striking our breast in humility in favor of pumping the hand of a pew mate. The list is long.
Until recently, resignation prevailed that rituals and rubrics concocted in those fevered times were destined for perpetuity. Today, however, there are healthy signs of movement to revive the best of what was scuttled, to redress laxity, and to put a screeching halt to any residue of liturgical anarchy. The impetus comes from Rome itself. Not the least good news is Papal permission granted to reinstate the Tridentine Mass where there is pastoral need, one of the positive actions cited by Giles Dimock, O.P., currently at the Angelicum, as “leaven to restore dignity and beauty of holiness to the contemporary rites of the Catholic Church” (National Catholic Register, March 17, 1985).
That is, of course, the objective. It is now meet, just, right, and hopefully availing in all places to look with clinical gaze at today’s Mass, that central act of worship, and determine where necessary that what the sixties crowd took out or put in can be, by the eighties crowd, brought back or removed.
Take the Sign of Peace. It distracts precisely at a moment when we are struggling, in our limited capacity, to comprehend the supernatural event which has just occurred at the altar. Contemplation is suddenly shattered as we are propelled into a kind of Rotarian camaraderie. We revolve in our pews, we throw V hand signals fore and aft, we fill the air with the sibilant “peace.” My detractor notwithstanding, I have never refused a proffered hand, even one clutching an exhausted kleenex. I swallow resentment at this coercion, loathe to offend. But I do not vibrate with enthusiasm. On the other hand, I frequently witness celebrants vacating the altar, bringing Mass to an unconscionable halt, as they traipse up and down, criss-crossing the aisles, pressing flesh. Meanwhile, what about the Word made flesh? What about bread and wine made body and blood? Playing catch up ball, we resume with the Agnus Dei, but the solemn sequence has suffered irreparable digression.
Every day of our lives we have ample opportunity to express Christian charity. We have but one hour to share in what is, ultimately, the greatest intimacy known to man and the strongest bond between men: our belief as Catholics that we are about to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
I am not unaware of the good intentions which impelled liturgists to design the gesture. It was to prod us into an external symbolic act reflecting or stimulating interior disposition. What is offensive, in addition to its ill advised placement, is the seeming disregard of its architects for diversity in human nature. They forgot that many find loving on cue strikes a false note. They forgot about the shy. They forgot about people who find communal touching distasteful. The “Sign of Peace” is a great misnomer. It produces embarrassment, discomfort, irritation, rejections and, as I learned yesterday, hostility. The most powerful sign of peace, that of Christ’s presence within us, is best witnessed by stillness and contemplation.
Few will argue that dignity and reverence are absent from contemporary Mass. Celebrating the ineffable, unlike any human activity in which we engage, our proper response in words, actions, and music should conduce to spirituality. Yet most innovations conspire to undermine uniqueness and awe. We no longer speak of “sacrifice,” we speak of “meal.” We do not kneel to receive communion, we stand, much as we do to buy broccoli or cash a check. We return to our pews chewing the host as if it were a McNugget. Mass, which used to be different from everything else, now resembles secular fraternal ceremonies. It is reduced to a social gathering of believers.
Not long ago, my twenty-two year old daughter, musically malnourished on manufactured relevancies strummed on guitars, attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. There she heard Gregorian chant and traditional hymns with organ accompaniment. She was overwhelmed. Exactly. Music should facilitate awe, contemplation, and prayer. If it stimulates anything else it has a place, but the place is not Mass.
Whoever we are, whatever our differences, we come together in unity each Sunday. It must be an extraordinary hour, structured with as much beauty and holiness as we can muster, to enhance our appreciation of the sacred mystery in which we are privileged to participate. One can only hope that spiritual and sensible liturgists will eventually give us such a Mass.