Common Wisdom: A Modest Proposal

January brings with it a sense of stepping out of confession. A clean slate, a chance to improve. Those disposed to make lists have done so, charting corrective measures to start New Year’s Day. By the end of the month, however, most resolves dissolve. The remedy suggested is to tackle a single issue.

An inventory of problems afflicting the Church today overwhelms, although we have in the Vatican arguably the man of the century. External assaults are compounded by turmoil within. Scandal in seminaries, faulty catechesis, defiance of authority. Yet survival is guaranteed, because Christ promised even the gates of hell would not prevail against it. If the Church is not terminally ill, nevertheless, it is definitely ailing.

What can be done? Challenges are daunting. It is difficult to assign priority. But if we don’t want to wind up at the end of January, spent and frustrated like a failed dieter, maybe we should target one item on the agenda. I would give preference to what is at once our heartbeat and our connective tissue: the Mass.

Churchgoers of various stripes pray, give to charity, and read the Bible. It is the profile of many Christians. What is distinctive and distinguishing about Catholicism is the sacrifice of the Mass. Its celebration is central to our faith. To improve the health and vitality of any aspect of the Church demands first a fine-tuning of this unique ritual.

The Mass is holy by institution. Is it holy in practice?

Necessarily, attention is drawn to the priest. Minus the priest, there is no Mass. Regardless of funky liturgies, the intrusion of jarring or simpering music, it is the priest who sets the tone. His very demeanor indicates whether he considers this a sacred event held in highest esteem, one which by ordination he alone is privileged to celebrate.

Absent the congregation, as litmus test, does the priest celebrate on his own? Or is he like the young priest who told me if he showed up at 6:30 a.m., and no one was in the church, he left. There was no point, he said, Mass is a communal act. Another priest, hearing this, said the first lacked a true vocation. He proved to be correct. The young priest was laicized and soon married.

Empowered by Holy Orders to celebrate Mass, the priest who ignores this right turns his back on his greatest source of nourishment. Is the Mass of value only because people are present? If so, how many are required? Two? Thirteen? A priest’s private attitude toward Mass is publicly revealed. Congregations pick up clues.

When it comes to homilies, Catholic clergy are spared the pressure endured by Protestant ministers, whose clear mission is to deliver galvanizing sermons. I grew up in a WASPy town and remember numerous ministers “recalled” elsewhere. Translation: they failed to inspire. Not so with us. Our focus is the altar, not the pulpit. Once in a while a Fulton Sheen crosses our path, but we know the homily is dispensable. There are more Masses offered without than with.

Since priests are not required to be accomplished writers or orators, the single obligation is to articulate clearly and with reverence the prayers of Mass. His is not the option to change or delete what is in the Sacramentary, although this prohibition seems more or less unheeded. It is startling, not to say distracting, to hear an excision, or a departure from what is printed in the missalette having to do with the proper of Mass. Sometimes substitutions are merely awkward or self-indulgent. Sometimes they actually contradict dogma. During the Eucharistic Prayers, priests who refer to “Mary, the Virgin Mother of Christ” utter a statement acceptable to atheists. Historically, there was a Mary and there was a Jesus

Christ. The scripted phrase, “Mary, the Virgin Mother of God,” is an emphatic proclamation and must not suffer alteration. Any urge to compose should be restricted to the homily.

The priest sets the tempo and climate for the rest of us. If he repeats words in a hasty or indifferent manner it is contagious. The opposite is also true. One priest friend said he promised at ordination to celebrate every Mass as if it were his first. He does. He can be tired, ill, or under stress. Nonetheless, once he begins Mass there is a freshness, a deliberate, unhurried pace which rivets a congregation. To quote my mother, “you can hear a pin drop.”

That we mirror the priest is predictable. Like it or not, the priest is our guide to conduct. If he discards signing the cross on forehead, lips, and heart before the Gospel, it is only a matter of time before people will follow suit. I saw evidence of this again in the reaction of an altar boy last week who, embarking on a genuflection at the end of Mass, abruptly aborted it when he noticed the priest had pared it down to a nod. The boy nodded. What next, a wave? We and the altar boy watch and wait.

Ours is a Church known for symbols and gestures, which recognizes in worship that we are body as well as spirit. Liturgies wisely incorporate our bodies in devotional expression. During Mass we respond to the moment: we sit, we stand, we kneel. When and where else in our lives do we kneel? This is a singular act of humility. It underscores our comprehension that we are in the Real Presence. It is nothing less than twentieth-century hubris which seeks to remove that bold witness. Mass in this country increasingly demonstrates we are becoming a collection of minimalists: the Catholic as Quaker.

A further shift in neglect of our heritage is what occurs — or specifically does not occur — at weekday Mass. The missalette dazzles with an array of the canonized and blessed, citing the name of queens and nuns, martyrs and mystics who dot the Catholic calendar. What is going on in the minds of celebrants who routinely ignore so much as a mention of these inspiring men and women, whose often courageous path to sanctity merited them special recognition? I was startled to see a celebrant emerge in a red chasuble not long ago. On a weekday? What was that all about? It was about St. Luke the evangelist and evidently the priest had no choice. The chancery tells me there are certain individuals who cannot be ignored. The ordo is ranked: solemnities (Luke, the apostle, made the list), memorials, optional memorials. The latter two are de facto gone. Why does the missalette bother to name them?

I did encounter one priest who, on a daily basis, talked about the feast of the day and read an available brief summary. It heartened older Catholics to hear again narratives we heard in our youth, and it is, obviously, enlightening to young Catholics, all but unacquainted with their illustrious predecessors. Why, then, this missed opportunity, this epidemic of silence from our priests? How insulting it is, and how perverse. Worse, how it cheats a Catholic congregation hungry for inspiration.

Contemporary reluctance to tap into our rich treasury reminds me, ironically, of admiration expressed by a Protestant friend. Our feastdays, our processions, our symbolic gestures, our color-changing vestments at Mass made pallid by comparison his own brand of Christianity and its service. Of course, the compliment was given in 1960.

Much mischief has occurred since then. The Mass itself has not escaped tinkering. The essence remains. But there is a colloquialism which should have been for us a caution: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Mass was never broke but, liturgically speaking, our banquet has become Lean Cuisine.

We are nutritionally deprived. We need a massive infusion of reverence and remembrance returned to the celebration of that holy sacrifice. It is the man at the altar empowered to do this, he alone who was given the mandate, “feed my sheep.” Regardless of his stellar achievement in other areas of priestly life, this is the one that counts. He has no greater charge.

  • B. F. Smith

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

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