“It’s not going to be long now,” says the doctor, as you stand beside the bed of your loved one. “Shall I send for the head of the Liturgy Committee?”
Some years ago, on the island where we live during the summer, the bishop assigned a new priest and told him that his job was going to involve the closing of one or two of the four churches. I hate the closing of a church as much as I hate death. Or, rather, I hate it more, because for the place where people once worshiped there is no promise of resurrection to new life. It is a blank, like a parking lot where a green field used to be.
But we were soon visited by a fellow layman in the know, who invited me also to be in the know as well as assist Wayne—as I will call our new priest—in the novus ordo saeclorum. I didn’t want to be in the know. I didn’t share the layman’s odd jubilation at the consolidation of parishes. I also did not want to call the new priest Wayne or even Father Wayne. I don’t need spiritual buddies. I do need an abbot—a real father. I don’t need democracy. I do need a hierarchy of humble authority and cheerful obedience. My soul needs it, as my body needs sunshine and fresh air.
It occurs to me, when I think about the incident, that democracy and equality are mostly fictional, while hierarchy and authority are real; this truth is reflected in liturgy—both bad and good. Wayne was a democrat. His lay assistant was a democrat. Wayne was shy of the priestly, or perhaps he coveted the hail-fellow ordinariness of the layman. Wayne’s assistant was ambitious. If you wanted to get some real music into the parish, you would need to go through democratic channels. Wayne would lateral the matter to his lay assistant, and there it would die a death by committee and procedure.
I am told that some chanceries work this way, too. A bishop may sport a cap at the football game, visit schools with a big smile, write an anodyne homily every week, and, who knows, he may really desire the reform of his diocese; however, this spirit of equality is but a veil over a diocesan machine—a democratic Tammany of the Church.
Let us consider its liturgical analogue and, perhaps, its most revealing liturgical expression. Suppose I go to Mass at a church whose organization is, shall we say, democratic. It looks less like a church than like a meeting hall. There is not much art. What there is seems merely occasional and ornamental, ad hoc, and not central to the architectural thrust of the place. The ambience is this-worldly. You are not raised out of yourself. In Fra Angelico’s Final Judgment, the saints in bliss turn their adoring eyes toward the risen Christ. He is the source and end of their unity. They are not looking at each other. But in the church-by-committee it is hard to look toward Christ, because you are busy noticing and being noticed. Your eyes are directed toward a variety of democratic masters of ceremony. They welcome you, they bully you into telling your name to your neighbor, they announce their own names, they play music on stage, they drown out with a microphone what poor show of congregational singing there may be, they make welcoming gestures when it is time for you to mutter out the refrain of the psalm, and they otherwise make themselves visible and important—primi inter pares. Some parishioners are more equal than others.
I am not judging their souls. Good people can get into bad habits. Saintly people may sing awful music. But bad habits are bad habits, and awful music is awful music, and, as I have said, the show of democracy is mostly a show. Perhaps the setup is imparting nothing important at all, in which case it is merely irresponsible and ineffectual; or perhaps democracy—intellectual and spiritual egalitarianism—is both the medium and the message, in which case we have what Pope Benedict called the dictatorship of relativism. In turning toward the people and seeming to welcome them into a charmed circle of the really important, the priest makes Mass more about himself and his favorites than would otherwise be conceivable.
The alternative is different not in degree but in kind. It is the real and liberating converse to the fictively liberal. It cannot be described except by hierarchies and inequalities. The priest has the care of souls. The priest, not the Liturgy Committee. All spiritual authority in the parish is vested in him. This does not mean that we laymen never talk about the faith to other people. It does mean that we look to the priest for direction, and he looks to Christ for direction. We all look to Christ. We orient ourselves to the orient—to the risen Lord. It is onward, upward. We need none of the social paraphernalia of democracy. We have more important things to care for. Here, instead of draping a statue of Caesar with a veil of equality, we accept the inequality with grateful hearts, and that very acceptance makes us more equal than any show or ideology of democracy.
I’m far from the first to notice and discuss this. Imagine a church that is oriented—in its art, architecture, music, and liturgy—towards Christ to whom we all turn bodily as well as in intent, or bodily because we intend it and want to strengthen the intention. The priest then is our leader, clearly; he is the head of the parish. But he is leading us in a humility that is visible. He makes of himself as it were an empty vessel. He kneels, and we kneel. As Chesterton says, man is taller when he bows, and I’ll add that he’s a right giant when he kneels.
There is no chatty personality here. The priest is not to be honored and obeyed because he is a nice man. He is to be honored and obeyed because he is a priest; the office empties the man. Then we, too, might be emptied. We are out of the realm of the quotidian and the sociable. The saints surround us and call us on. The sacrament bursts into the Egypt of sin and feeds us with a food we otherwise do not know. Sure, this happens wherever there is a Mass. But where is the reality made so fully manifest to our always fitful and fleeting attention, as when we do humbly and obediently what otherwise we never do? Someone may say that kneeling is not necessary. Some other bodily sign of humility and obedience may suffice. I should like to hear suggestions. For when we kneel at the rail, we kneel all together, not one by one. The child sees the grown man made small. The grown man sees the child beside him and may remember the words of Jesus; he may have an intimation that the child is his spiritual superior.
And then there are the hymns. They are not demotic as would befit a weekend in Atlantic City. They are not sung by performance artists in jeans. They come from the loft behind us and above us, invisibly, so their singers are exalted and humbled at once. It is hard to play the peacock in the pitch dark. The hymns are not merely decorative, nor do they steal the show. There is no show. No one will applaud. That would be like whistling at the Virgin Mary. The content and the manner of the hymns are subordinated to the demands of worship.
In the novus ordo saeclorum, I do not know my place. I have no place; my place is whatever I may swagger into. In a larger sense, there is no place to know. Who has fond memories of a committee room? You can get lost in equality, because one flat plain is like another, but not when you stand on a mountain among mountains. It is time for the Church, and our experience of the liturgy, to return to depths and heights.
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