Common Wisdom: Passages

My  parish is recovering from a collective swoon that afflicted us when our pastor of 23 years retired. It isn’t simply missing the familiar. His respect for the Magisterium and tradition characterized his pastorate. With him at the helm, we were spared, as much as he could, liturgical lunacies that invaded other parishes. Once or twice, he caved into pressure. There was the teen Mass trial balloon, with drums in the sanctuary. Neither drums nor teen apartheid found favor, and were summarily abandoned.

The parish now is undergoing enormous change. When I arrived three decades ago, the parish consisted almost entirely of European descendants. Visiting priests from Africa and Latin America brought an exotic and welcomed variety. Their appearance and often heavily accented English gave visible witness to the Church’s universality. It was edifying and unifying to realize that their faith was our own. We celebrated the presence in the sanctuary of black, brown, and olive faces. A strange thing happened, however, when they showed up in the pews.

When new arrivals trickled in, they were accorded the same enthusiastic reception. Language was a barrier, but belief was a bond. As the years rolled on and the number of immigrants increased almost to parity with Caucasian congregants, a certain uneasiness crept in. Would we become the minority?

We are coming to terms with significantly altered demographics. We understand that core belief is the same, even if devotional expression of it often is not. Parishes with a preponderance of one ethnic group require little liturgical accommodation; mixed parishes like ours do. Most Latin American parishioners evidence natural effusiveness in church, even before Mass begins; most Asians, on the contrary, are noticeably reticent. And each sits side by side. Liturgies must respect those differences and not step on toes. This was not always the case. I remember the rush to demonstrate some kind of ecumenical solidarity with our black Christian brethren in the 70s, resulting in whitebread congregations badgered by cantors to sing and sway to spirituals. Who can forget jazzy guitar Masses designed (unsuccessfully) to entice the young, meanwhile alienating the faithful over 17?

Those were the bad old days, and I like to think we have moved on. Some parishes offer both organ and guitar Masses, about which information is mercifully published in the Sunday bulletins.

It can be rewarding to be unaware. I stumbled into a noisy and spirited mariachi Mass in San Antonio, something I would never have chosen, since mariachis incline me more to dance than pray. But the religious fervor and warmth were palpable. The community was Mexican and the liturgy reflected that heritage. There, I was the outsider. To insist that the congregation launch into “Faith of Our Fathers” would have been as absurd as foisting the mariachi Mass on a buttoned-down parish.

So now we have a myriad of liturgies. But the eucharistic focus, the reason we are at Mass, must not be lost in the details of its presentation. The concern about how best to celebrate Mass to serve all Catholics would not be an issue had the Latin Mass not been replaced. But its restoration is unlikely, given that a generation deprived of that holy hour would find the liturgy strange and formal. Those of us who grew up with and cherished it must be consoled by the fact that in many parishes (my own included) responses are increasingly sung by the entire assembly not only in the vernacular but in the sonorous language of the Church. Moreover, the woeful lyrics and music written and urged on us 20 years ago are losing favor. I’m hearing more traditional Catholic hymns, as well as bold, triumphal ones regarded in my youth as strictly Protestant property.

After all the changes and the many transitions, a philosophical “win a few, lose a few” comes to mind. But we must be ever vigilant that the center holds.

By

B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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