What happens when you concede, without a fight, to the spirit of the age? As riven with strife as the Catholic Church in America has been, I think it is instructive to take a look at a place where there is no strife, because there was no battle. I’m speaking of our good neighbor to the north, that uneasy compromise between America and Europe: Canada.
My family and I enter a smallish church, built during the decades that taste and a sense of the sacramental forgot. If there had once been a marble altar in the sanctuary, it was removed long ago, when officials visited every church in the diocese (for the churches are all diocesan property) with trucks. Now a large screen stands behind the table for Mass. In front of the screen stands a painting of Saint Lawrence, holding what must be a gridiron. It is executed in a bright cartoon-like style. From behind the screen you can see the tray of something that looks like a set of shelves on wheels. A rag hangs over the end of the tray. Otherwise the church is clean, and very spare. Devotional materials, other than a hymnal, are not to be found. A poster on the back wall, however, does outline Catholic social teaching, in bullet points. Not once on the poster do the words “family” or “subsidiarity” or “marriage” appear.
Where is the tabernacle?, you may ask. It is not clear. To the left of the altar area, and left of the pulpit, stands a table with what might be the tabernacle. But on the façade of the table are carved what look like the letters S and M, perhaps for Sancta Maria, and a picture of Mary is hung on the wall above the table. Meanwhile, the chalice and the ciborium are sitting on the small table to the right of the altar, in the sanctuary. There they are being prepared for the Mass by an older gentleman, who will serve as acolyte — for this church, like many others, has long passed from altar boys to altar servers to altar girls to nobody. A well-sculpted crucifix hangs from the ceiling above the altar. Stained glass windows portray the Stations of the Cross in blockish modern style, hard to interpret. Otherwise there is no art in the church.
We take our seats at about the middle. No one is in front of us. Perhaps that is because the people here are used to a miked-up choir, taking their places up front, perpendicular to the people and the priest. The choir consists of a few middle-aged ladies, only one of whom can be heard — a well-intended soprano with a powerful and errant voice, standing next to the microphone. Music is provided by a gentleman on a guitar, strumming chords in syncopated cowboy fashion. Next to the choir is a projector, to flash the song lyrics onto the wall. The songs themselves fall into two categories: precious moments with Jesus, and “How Great Thou Art.” There are hymnals in the pews, seldom used. The Canadian book of worship is not approved for use in the United States. I wish I could say that the American bishops had judged that the book was unsuitable for use, given its autoimmune disorder whenever the threat of a masculine pronoun arises. God only knows what grammatical and theological gyrations God’s bishops must make when they pray to God to give them God’s wisdom in guiding God’s Church.
No bell rings at the start of Mass, as no bell will ring at the consecration. Praise the Lord, the choir is absent today, so the priest asks the people to sing a genuine hymn from the hymnal, though the words are neutered for feminism and altered for contemporary idiom and banality. The priest himself is an excellent man, and that is why we drive 30 miles to Saint Lawrence. We know he will not do what one of his colleagues did on Trinity Sunday, which was to announce to the congregation that we have no idea what the Trinity is all about, but it’s part of our faith anyway. He gives a long yet straightforward homily on Christ’s curing of Jairus’s daughter, and of the woman with the hemorrhage, speaking of the Hebrew respect for blood, and instructing the congregation on the incomparable worth of human life.
Otherwise the Mass is as stripped down as is the church. Canadians, for some reason I cannot fathom, avoid the majestic and theologically complex Nicene Creed, saying the Apostles’ Creed instead. They kneel only until the elevation of the chalice. I am told that it has been decades since Latin prayers were heard in most of the churches, or since incense was burned (indeed, one church council has outlawed it, on account of its making some people sneeze), or since the Blessed Sacrament was adored in the rite of benediction.
In a playground near the Church, four young men are playing basketball, shirts-skins. They would be four more than are at Mass; indeed, four more than all the males at Mass between the ages of 15 and 50. Like most “community events” these days, the churches are for old ladies and little children. What programs, you may well ask, has the diocese instituted to attract young men not only to the priesthood but to the faith itself? Easy to answer: none at all. There is a summer leadership program for teenage girls, held at the cathedral, but as far as the diocese is concerned, the boys can go hang. The result is what the diocese hails as a shortage of priests (ours covers Mass at three churches, and they are not particularly close to each other). I use the word “hails” advisedly, for the diocese is cheerfully bringing on the day when lay administrators, after a quick course in theological nostrums of the leftist variety, will take over the churches, the priest reduced to a sacerdotal stud-horse to consecrate wafers and move on. The people in line for lay administration are, by a large margin, middle-aged women. This is called curing the foot you have been shooting by cutting it clean off.
The Church in Canada enjoys some accidental and wholly undeserved advantages. The people, for better or for worse, are friendly and compliant. They actually will believe what bishops will tell them. In our neck of the woods, Catholics who haven’t been to Mass in years still consider themselves Catholic, and feel a bit guilty about their straying. Priests still command some genuine respect. People remain in their pews until the last verse of the recessional is finished. But unless God works a miracle here, the Church will die.
More about this, and about what Americans can learn from it, in my next installment.