Last week I wrote a piece here on Crisis about good liturgy and its effect on the minds of children. It provoked a number of strong reactions, with some positive and others very critical. This is unsurprising. All liturgy-lovers have heard these critiques before, because they arise as a matter of course whenever liturgical practice is discussed. But because the essay drew out almost all of the familiar critiques in colorful form, I thought I might take advantage of the opportunity to answer them.
“You like high liturgy. That’s fine. But why do you need to make it sound like other liturgy is inferior?”
Liturgy is an important element of Catholic life, and we need to think about what sorts of liturgical practice will make us better Catholics and people. It’s really not just a matter of taste. Good liturgy elevates our minds, and indeed all of our senses, drawing us closer to God. It’s often uncomfortable, because it forces us to grapple with the immensity of the mysteries that are found in the Mass. But that’s a healthy sort of discomfort. We ought to be challenged in that way, and it can actually be a good thing to feel a bit “alienated” at Mass, insofar as that alienation comes from the recognition that (as we read in Hebrews 11) we are “foreigners and strangers on earth,” and that our true home is with God.
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Bad liturgy is often oriented towards making worship a more comfortable and communal sort of experience. It’s easy to understand why this would appeal. Modern people often like to shed formality in favor of something more “original” or “human” or “communal.” That’s really just to say that they prefer to downgrade ceremony into something that doesn’t require them to face up to the real, serious significance of what is taking place. Consider the absurdities that take place in many contemporary weddings and funerals and you should understand what I mean.
I think it’s interesting how very bad liturgy can sometimes resemble the sort of entertainment we normally expect to find in kindergartens or children’s summer camps, with tinkling music and silly hand gestures. Sometimes we even get campy costumes or dances; it really does call to mind an episode of Barney or Pee-Wee Herman. One can hardly imagine adults agreeing to participate in anything so juvenile, except at Mass. Can it be an accident that some are moved to dress up for the most majestic hour of their week in the least becoming clothing?
“You seem to be casting a lot of judgment against many people you’ve never even met. How can you know what’s in people’s hearts?”
I can’t read people’s hearts, of course. Only God can do that. Man looks on the outward appearance, because that’s all he can see. So we should be measured in our judgments, but these same cautions arise with any evaluation of human behavior. How do you know that laughter is good for people, while pornography isn’t? Can you read people’s hearts?
Judging liturgy isn’t very different from judging anything else human beings do or create. We can’t read people’s hearts directly, but we can consider their behavior in light of all our other experience of human beings. Sometimes negative judgment is then warranted. It’s certainly possible to have bad liturgical taste without being an overall bad person, but bad liturgical taste is still bad. It prevents us from availing ourselves of one very precious pathway by which we can draw closer to God, and Heaven.
“Does God really care about incidentals like church architecture and liturgical forms? Should we? Isn’t the important thing the Sacrifice itself, and the fact that Christians are gathering together to worship God?”
The Sacrifice, and Christ’s literal presence among us, are clearly the most important things about the Mass. Those elements can certainly be present in the sorts of Masses that I have described as “schlocky.” But liturgy is for us a way of giving honor and adoration to God. It also serves as a teacher, which helps mere mortals like ourselves grasp the significance of these magnificent metaphysical realities. So it matters. Liturgy is relevant to the salvation of souls.
God never asks more of us than we’re capable of giving, and I would of course never criticize an unlovely church that nevertheless represented an impoverished community’s energetic effort to worship God as fittingly as possible. Those kinds of efforts will always, I have no doubt, be rewarded with an outpouring of divine grace. But the churches I described as “monstrosities” were not unlovely owing to a lack of resources. People chose to worship in such buildings. It was a preference, not a necessity. So it’s perfectly appropriate to consider whether those preferences are good, fitting, and conducive to the development of healthy Catholic sensibilities.
“It must be nice to be part of that tiny fragment of Super-Catholics who have all the answers. It’s probably pretty easy to get through the day when you can revel in self-congratulation over your superior liturgical taste.”
Okay, so that’s not exactly a question. But it is a common response to good-liturgy apologetics. Those of us who assert the superiority of reverent, beautiful liturgy are frequently accused of being holier-than-thou worship-snobs.
It was partly to diffuse that common complaint that I recounted my children’s reactions to bad liturgy instead of just my own. Naturally, as a liturgy snob myself, I would be expected to transmit my own liturgical prejudices to my offspring. Nevertheless, mine are at present too young even to be aware that there are other sorts of Masses than the ones they have experienced at our home parish of St Agnes. They certainly are too young to congratulate themselves on their inclusion in the Chosen Few. That being the case, I thought their reactions were revealing, with my toddler confusing a modern Mass for a “party,” while my five-year-old mistook the sharing of peace for the end of the Mass (because it wasn’t clear to him why else people would be hugging, chatting and moving about the room).
There was another point, however, that I attempted to draw out in the piece. Contrary to the expectations of the critics, I virtually never think about bad liturgy except when I am forced by circumstance to experience it. When my family has access to beautiful, decorous liturgy, I can hardly spend too little time thinking about schlocky banners or huggy sharings-of-peace. Regarding my own liturgical life, my overwhelming emotion is one of gratitude. It’s such a blessing to be able to take my family to a genuinely beautiful, awe-inspiring Mass, not just once in awhile, but every single Sunday and Holy Day. It would be petty indeed to experience so much goodness, and react by lording it over others. I can say very sincerely that I would be more than delighted if every parish in America (and beyond!) were to undertake to make their liturgies as beautiful and solemn as those we enjoy at St. Agnes.
“Isn’t it offensive to “parish-shop” for the community that most pleases you? Shouldn’t you just go to your territorial parish? The Church won’t get any better if serious Catholics all congregate in a few “elite” parishes.”
Parish-shopping might be offensive if we were looking for something trivial or superficial. As should be evident at this point, I don’t think that’s the case. We want our children to worship God solemnly and reverently, with a firm understanding of their faith. We want them to develop a true sensus catholicus. Some parishes facilitate these important goals more effectively than others, and as parents, we consider it our obligation to do what seems best for our family. Fortunately, we have an excellent parish just a few miles away, so there’s no reason to settle for something less optimal.
Would it be better to join a more challenging parish where we could “do more good”? This seems to me like the sort of question that needs to be answered on an individual basis, and sometimes it might call for careful discernment. Certainly, I don’t think it would always be correct to abandon one’s native parish for a Mass with altar rails or superior hymnody. In some cases that might cause offense, damage personal relationships, and squander opportunities to bring about positive changes. Again, people need to consider their own circumstances and obligations.
In my family’s case, however, I don’t think the prudential calculations are at all difficult. As converts, my husband and I don’t have lifelong connections to a particular parish, or even a particular sort of liturgical practice. Nobody has reason to feel abandoned or betrayed by our choice of parish. Meanwhile, in terms of “doing good” for the Church, I’m just a married woman and a member of the laity; I have no authority at the parish level, nor is there any reason I should. Further, as an adult convert, I don’t have an especially strong appreciation of the ins and outs of parish life. I don’t really understand who organizes what, or how the wheels keep turning. In short, I would be supremely ineffective as an “agent for change” at the parish level.
My immediate obligations are clearly to my own family and children. I have a responsibility to care about the state of their souls, and to help them on their way to becoming mature Catholics (and eventually, I hope and pray, saints). Tending to those obligations is surely (for me) a more effective means to serving the Church than any sort of parish activism. I’d like my children to grow into the kind of men who could be good husbands and fathers. Or, perhaps they might serve the Church in a different way. Having been blessed with an abundance of sons (four, counting the unborn one) my husband and I would be thrilled to give one (or more!) back to the Church. But once again (as my fellow Crisis contributor, Anthony Esolen, has recently observed), some parishes facilitate that development much more effectively than others. Ensuring that our boys get a solid formation in the faith is the best thing we can do, both for the children themselves, and for the Church.