Common Wisdom: Back to the Future

Not long ago, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati looked out over his diocese and discovered something missing. Catholics. At Mass. Alarmed by diminished congregations, a plight shared with most of his colleagues, he asked American bishops to study reasons for the decline, and what could be done about it.

Perhaps I missed it, but I’ve read nothing in the findings from the National Pastoral Planning Conference or the bishops’ Committee on Pastoral Research and Practice. Meanwhile, attendance is hardly SRO at Sunday Mass, confirmation that the Archbishop’s concern is legitimate. As if we needed verification, the New York Times (Dec. 24, 1986) reported that a Gallup Poll and The Official Catholic Directory revealed that 74 percent of us went to Sunday Mass in 1958 whereas by 1978 we were down to 52 percent. In 1985, the most recently reported year, we inched up to 53 percent, still a whopping deficit of 21 percent in less than two decades. What happened?

A lot of things. But for this Catholic, there is no room to doubt a causal connection between liturgical and attitudinal alterations at Mass, profound and trivial, and the subsequent slump in attendance. (The evisceration of centuries-old liturgy is graphically laid bare by “Lord Acton” in “Empty Liturgies,” Crisis, November 1986.) Richly nourished liturgically during their formative years, middle-aged Catholics have watched with dismay transformations which ultimately delivered a generation — their own children — with casual attitudes about Mass and a record of spotty attendance.

There is another disturbing — and typically unacknowledged — result of the new liturgy: it makes it hard to pray. Prayer, contact with God, is central to Mass. It is why we are there. We are answering his invitation, His command, to do this in memory of Him. To that end we convene in a church, removed from phones, doorbells, TVs, billboards, and all paraphernalia of secular distraction. Every aspect of that ritual, every spoken word, every gesture, every hymn, should assist us in achieving that communion. Yesterday, that hour was like no other, and led us almost inexorably to a spiritual dimension. Today’s Mass is a monument to distraction.

We start with language, which in fact is where the trouble began. In the recent past, wherever a Catholic attended Mass he felt at home. The universality of the Church was made dramatically clear. I do not speak Portuguese, but I was as much a part of a congregation in Lisbon as in Buffalo. In Paris, in 1964, I first experienced the alienation which wholesale utilization of the vernacular would everywhere eventually bring about. Catholics had begun to utter altar-boy responses in Latin, but certain prayers were then shifted into the vernacular. I remember standing suddenly mute as my French brethren launched into the Pater Noster, now become the Notre Pere. That the unifying force of a common language of worship should be wiped out precisely at the time when increased air travel maximizes mobility, sending Catholics all over the world, is one of the great contemporary ironies.

Against the mandate of Vatican II to retain Latin, with permission granted to use the vernacular, Latin is, de facto, scrapped. The dignity and nobility which it conveyed and its distinguishing effect on legions of Catholics are swapped for vernacular translations which all too often appear the work of Moon Zappa. What is one to say about the missalette cover which proclaims, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men.” The lyrical imagery of “I will make you fishers of men” collapses into a deformity which sounds, here in San Francisco, like nothing so much as Jesus heading up the Gay Alliance. What is the justification for this awkward construction? The implications of “to be, or not to be” cannot survive the contemporizing of “to split, or not to split.” We are inspired not only by what we say but by how we say it.

Gestures? For the humility of striking one’s breast at the Confiteor (a.k.a. the “Penitential Rite”) we adopted the coercive bonhomie of the Sign of Peace. An additional blow to the awareness of one’s relation to one’s Creator, and the need for adoration, was the Cromwellian destruction of altar rails. Commonly, man does not kneel. The one exception was at Sunday Mass, as we received the Host. Initially, we were given the option of standing, but the real agenda soon followed: a nun/assistant to our pastor, with apparent diocesan authority, gave us our marching orders: we were not to kneel. The humbling gesture of dropping to one’s knees — the notion of “Lord, I am not worthy” — is out of sync in today’s Mass.

What about music? When churches were full, the instrument used was the organ. The rich, compelling sound augmented a sense of the spiritual. Abruptly came the ubiquitous guitar. An instrument on which one may easily achieve mediocre competence, the guitar enabled kids who had completed two or three lessons to blight Masses across the nation. Solemn or triumphal hymns do not generally find felicitous expression on the guitar; we abandoned Bach for Pete Seeger. Far from encouraging prayer, guitars irresistibly urge one to tap his toes and groove along. The music made no demands; it was entertainment.

Songsters are no longer in choir lofts, but next to the altar. The priest may be proceeding with sublime ritual, but most eyes are on Suzy or Meghan twanging away, warbling songs undifferentiated from those picked up on country- western or light rock radio. Trying to assemble serious thoughts over this intrusive din, one is defeated. Not long ago an elderly and exasperated visiting priest spoke words which truly were music to our ears. After communion, our songster/nun proclaimed, “Now we will sing …” — to which the irritated cleric barked “NO we will NOT. We will meditate.” He came close to getting a standing ovation.

Parish priests? They seem to have adopted Dale Carnegie as mentor. Not that one yearns for the glowering pastors of my youth, where one trembled lest one be caught giggling with a classmate. But what about a via media? Where is the esteem instantly felt at the sight of the man with the vocation, who led us each Sunday to the altar of God? Today’s priest is Pat Sejak with a Roman collar. A genial master of ceremonies. Routinely, we are thanked for having come, as if he had thrown a party. And we are wished a nice day, that mindless phrase mouthed at us by clerks and bank tellers. He may well be making friends, but is he influencing people?

When the weather is hot, some priests skip the sermon, suggesting it is of little value. Last summer evening at a 5:15 evening Mass the celebrant said he would drop the homily due to the heat. I pointed out that the same folks he judged too feeble to endure ten minutes of sermon were the same folks who had just spent hours broiling in a baseball stadium, or playing doubles at the club. He looked surprised, but conceded the point. It was a hollow victory: a layman instructing a priest? Our forefathers in faith faced dungeon, fire, and sword; we can’t handle perspiration? If the sermon is expendable, why not Mass itself? Apropos of this, I have not heard a single sermon in decades emphasizing the importance, the privilege, and the obligation of Sun day Mass. Not one.

What about the congregation? A comedy of errors. Laxity in arriving on time is epidemic. Attendees of 5:15 Mass filter in at 5:30ish. These are the same people who manage regularly to catch the 7:43 to the city each morning, and “The Cosby Show” at 8:00 each Thursday evening. The trickle-in effect is, of course, distracting to those already in the pews. As for apparel, women who would not be caught dead in improper gear to meet the Governor are seen wobbling up to receive communion in jeans vanity has persuaded them to purchase one size too small. The teen, chewing the host as if it were an Oreo. Each act contributes to an atmosphere of alarming insouciance, secularity in the presence of the sacred. Prayer, anyone?

I cannot forget the impact on one of my CCD classes when taken to the nearby monastery, which has perpetual adoration. Confronted by a Gothic chapel of indescribable beauty and profound silence, and by a traditionally garbed nun moving with measured pace preparing for Benediction, my unruly brood of ten-year-olds knelt, transfixed. As we left, one little girl said, “Oh, Mrs. Smith, it was so easy to pray in here.” Out of the mouths of babes. We then crossed the street to a retreat house which had been ecumenically up dated. A droning raga greeted our ears in the foyer. We trekked to the unadorned chapel, filled with comfy chairs and vacant windows. The children ran amok.

Those of us who, with young Anne, remember how “easy it was to pray,” mourn the removal or alternation of those things — language, gesture, music, attitude — which now make it so hard. As Paul Johnson has argued in these pages [“The Strategy of John Paul II”, September 1984], restoration is the task before us. It will not be accomplished overnight or easily. We will need plenty of patience, and charity. That John Paul is himself committed to this task, however, is abundant reason for hope.

  • B. F. Smith

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

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...