In an age in which the natural environment is not geography, flora, and fauna but human vulgarity in its limitless forms, it is easy to overlook even its most extreme manifestations. A notable exception is when these occur in the celebration of Holy Mass, where they are as obtrusive as clowns at a funeral. My wife and I experienced this two weeks ago while fulfilling our Sunday obligation at a church in northwest Tucson. Though the experience was an unpleasant one, our shared reaction was neither indignation nor disgust, but rather the sadness that sympathy so often entails. We were, in a word, touched.
The church—big, new, and in the faux-adobe style that is ubiquitous in the American Southwest—was nonetheless far from ugly, surrounded by tall palm trees, and with a splendid view of the rugged Catalina Mountains overlooking the neighborhood on its eastern boundary. From the priest’s remarks, we understood that the parish is among the wealthiest in the city. The building’s interior was spacious and sumptuous—over-sumptuous, in fact. It was fitted with every appointment a parish church could want and others that struck me as superfluous and extravagant. There were nurseries crammed with toys, meeting rooms, and (as I recall) a lavish kitchen and “social room.” All of this seemed more suitable for a resort, club, or Protestant mega-Church than a Catholic parish. It reflected, in short, more money than taste and an unformed sensibility in respect to ecclesiastical piety.
The place reminded me of an observation by Neil McCaffrey, the late conservative publisher and my father-in-law, in a letter included in a recently published volume of his recently published letters and articles. “The new Mass, [and] the attitude it fosters, makes Catholics [who like it] feel uncomfortable. They receive Communion in roughly the same proportions as they reject Catholic morality”—though in this instance the formulation proved not only inaccurate but unfair, as we discovered during the service.
It was, indeed, about as novus as it gets, with contemporary hymns (save one), sound booms over the choir, and a pianist who played as if he were performing in a cocktail lounge—with trills, runs, embellishments, etc. Yet the packed congregation was in many ways impressive. The large majority were plainly upper-middle-class and appropriately dressed for Sunday worship. The families were encouragingly large and the children well-behaved: no running in the aisles, climbing on the pews, etc. Participation even in the singing was widespread and enthusiastic. Clearly these people were serious about their faith. Equally clearly, the people in charge of the liturgy—including the priest—were letting them down. These worshippers deserved better.
The processional hymn could not have been improved upon: “Holy God, We Praise They Name,” a noble classic. After that, it was downhill all the way. The celebrant called the children forward for a “children’s liturgy” before saying the Penitential Act. Following the Gospel reading, an articulate young couple (both of them lawyers) gave, each in turn, a fundraising pitch. The Offertory hymn was dreadful—“Gift of Finest Wheat” or something of that substandard sort. The congregation did kneel at the consecration. The Communion lines were lengthy, and the Sacrament was accompanied (as I recall) by more of the cocktail lounge music. Afterward (was it before the final blessing and dismissal, or after?) some Boy Scouts were called forward, accompanied by their scoutmasters, then some Girl Scouts with theirs, and all of them were prayed over and blessed. The service was brought to an end by a swelling recessional hymn that concluded with a pounding piano, a thumping bass viol, and drums that reached a deafening crescendo as the priest and his retinue departed toward the vestibule.
My wife and I left in a subdued mood. For my part, I spent the rest of the day under the impression that I had not fulfilled my Sunday obligation. Those people were, I am certain, mostly educated and at least relatively sophisticated (this is 21st-century America, after all) and deserved to hear a theologically and intellectually serious celebration of the Holy Eucharist, enhanced by examples of the high aesthetic achievements of a Church two millennia old. Instead, they got the Sacraments of the Mass enfolded and nearly suffocated by a modern theatrical performance intended to give the whole business the upbeat quality its perpetrators no doubt imagine is necessary to satisfy “the hungry heart” of the faithful with a fullness to which Holy Writ and “finest wheat” alone are insufficient. For the leaders of a Catholic diocese and parish to assume that their parishioners are incapable of appreciating anything more traditional, dignified, and reverent seems to me to be not far short of mortal sin.
A day or two afterward, I reread an account I had written three decades before of my first visit to the San Xavier Reservation ten miles south of Tucson and the Mission San Xavier del Bac that was founded by the Jesuit, Father Eusebio Kino, and built in the late 1700s by laborers belonging to the Tohono O’odham tribe (called by the Spanish the Papabotas—”Bean Eaters” or “Papagos”). It has been in continuous use for the past 200 years. I had written, “San Francisco Xavier, in effigy, lay extended beneath a covering of satin drawn up almost as far as his brown carved features. Two plastic hospital bracelets were pinned to the robe, as well as a plastic holder containing a note written with a bleary ballpoint pen. The note said, ‘Honey, may this Saint take care of you like it did me, Love Frank.’ ”
Farther on: “Though the church is a Papago parish, the Indian women across the road tending their cooking fires and selling fried bread to the tourists in a sweet haze of mesquite smoke are Navajos; so are those displaying jewelry laid out in glass cases stickered with Visa, Mastercard, and American Express labels. Beside the church… the simple homes of the Pagagos themselves stand on bare dirt lots by the San Xavier School. At the top of the lava hill beside the mission, lies the Grotto of the Blessed Virgin, made a shrine by the Bishop of Tucson in 1908, 50 years after Our Lady’s appearance. The hill, covered by pancake pear, barrel cactus, and trash, is surmounted by a simple white-painted cross. Beyond the flat brown fields divided by irrigation ditches, the commercial jets lift off from the runways of Tucson International Airport while the Indians, oblivious to the thunder of the engines, pray on their knees before the holy shrine.
“I stayed until evening, when an elderly Mexican couple rehearsed their wedding ceremony, and while outside the Navajo women packed up their wares and extinguished the cooking fires. In the small chapel beside the church, the votive candles fluttering in green, red, and yellow glass sleeves repeated the colors of the western sky and gave them movement. On the shadowed summit of the lava hill, the ghostly cross glowed palely.”
I think that the next time we visit Tucson we will attend Mass at San Xavier.
Photo: The historic Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, Arizona (Shutterstock.com)