I offered the Sunday Vigil Mass in a suburban parish last Saturday in order to help out a friend and brother priest. Father is very dedicated and I have immense esteem for him. The observations that follow are no reflection on him. He inherited a difficult situation and hasn’t yet completed his first year in the parish. But, like the prophet Jeremias, I am “weary with holding in.”
The first thing that disconcerted me was the idle chatter in church before Mass. It was like being in a theatre waiting for the lights to dim and the curtain to go up. People seated in little groups around the church held exchanged news and joked with absolutely no regard for the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, the sacredness of the place, or the few faithful who were actually trying to pray. I knelt in the back of the church surrounded by prattle on all sides and felt an immense sadness in my heart. The words of the Mass of the Sacred Heart came to mind: “I looked for one that would grieve together with me, but there was none; and for one that would comfort me, and I found none” (Ps 68:21). Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament was alone among his own: ignored and treated with ingratitude and indifference in His own house. The chatter resumed immediately after Mass.
The unfortunate architecture of this particular church does not easily lend itself to recollection or to a spontaneous focus on the presence of our Lord. In spite of the large crucifix above the tabernacle, there is something about the building that is inimical to prayer. But there is more: the faithful seem to have lost any awareness of the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. There is no “eucharistic amazement.” One does not find there the hush ordinarily commanded by an experience of the sacred.
Not that long ago there was still a lively sense of reverence among Catholics. People would sign themselves with Holy Water upon entering the church. They would genuflect before entering the pew, then kneel in adoration for a few moments. It was not uncommon to see people lighting candles before Mass or visiting the side altars and the shrines of their favourite saints. Some folks would pray the rosary quietly. Others would read over the Mass of the day in their missals. All of this has been swept away. When Pope John Paul II proclaimed the “Year of the Eucharist” his stated aim was the recovery of “Eucharistic amazement” — call it reverence, awe, or the spirit of adoration — in the whole Church. Instead of things improving in the average parish, they seem to be getting worse. A number of factors have contributed to this desolate situation. I will enumerate a few of them:
1) The loss of any notion of sacred space. I think this is directly related to the removal of the Communion Rail or other effective delineation of the sanctuary of the church. Time to rally ’round the rood screen again! The Tractarians were right.
2) Mass “facing the people.” This, more than anything else, undermined and continues to undermine the faithful’s experience of the Mass as a Sacrifice offered to God in adoration, propitiation, thanksgiving, and supplication. The altar has become the big desk of the clerical CEO behind it: The Presider. It has become a stage prop for the “performing priest,” complete with The Microphone.
3) Holy Communion in the hand. I see it every time I offer Mass in a parish church: the casual approach prevails. If one receives the Holy Mysteries like ordinary bread and a sip of ordinary wine, one begins rather sooner than later, will-nilly, to think of them as mere bread and wine.
4) No bells. Instead of ringing a sacristy bell to announce the beginning of Mass, the organist leaned into His Microphone and said, “Let us stand to greet Father.” Sorry. That is not what the Entrance Procession is about. It is a humble, joyful, and orderly movement into the Holy Place, a crossing-over from chronos (worldly, stressful, clocked time) to kairos (the heavenly, tranquil, timeless moment of God), an entering into the adorable presence of the God who is like a consuming fire, a making-ready for the inbreaking of the Kingdom of Heaven. A bell says it better. Same thing during the Eucharistic Prayer. People need to be warned of the imminence of the most sacred moment of the Mass, even when the Eucharistic Prayer (Canon) is prayed aloud and in the vernacular. A bell does the job quite nicely. And another thing: saying the whole Eucharistic Prayer aloud and in the vernacular does not automatically guarantee “full, conscious, and actual participation” in the Holy Sacrifice. Silence, on the other hand, at least for certain parts of the Eucharistic Prayer, effectively opens a door onto the Holy Mysteries.
5) Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. Alas, they are not extraordinary. They are ubiquitous and, I think, superfluous. Does expediting the distribution of Holy Communion really constitute grave necessity? In the church where I offered Mass last Saturday there were four Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, all of whom were women. Three were wearing casual slacks and one was showing cleavage. They could have been serving lemonade at the parish garden party. It was frightfully inappropriate.
Could there not be properly instituted acolytes for the service of the Holy Mysteries where such are needed? These would be adult men — few in number — suitably vested in amice, alb, and cincture and, most of all, schooled in reverence, attention, and devotion, and carefully trained for the service of the sacred liturgy.
This brings up yet another issue? Where have all the men gone? At last Saturday’s Mass, the four Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, the Server, and one Lector were all women. I am not a misogynist. But honestly, this situation does nothing to foster priestly vocations.
6) The Music. Dare I call it that? Oh, the music! Show-tuney, trite, tired, and sickeningly sentimental with the organist/crooner singing into His Microphone. Might we not try singing the Mass itself: the Ordinary and the Propers? More than anything else celebrants must begin taking their sacerdotal obligations seriously by learning to cantillate the dialogical parts of the Mass, the orations, the Preface Dialogue and Preface, and the other elements that belong uniquely to them as priests. I am not a gloomy person by nature, but last Saturday’s Mass left me very sad indeed. “For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?” (Lk 23:31).