Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Improvisation: Good for Comedy, Bad for Catholic Liturgy

I wasn't around for the change-over to the Mass of 1969 because I left the Church in the mid-1960s and didn't return until the mid-1970s. From what I've heard and read, many devout Catholics who might have otherwise accepted the new Mass when it was first introduced at the start of the 1969-1970 liturgical year were turned off because many priests seemed to think the new Missal gave them permission−or even required them−to improvise.

After much experimentation with the Mass in local parishes while the Second Vatican Council[1] was in session, the Mass of Blessed Pope Paul VI was universally mandated for the Roman rite in 1969 after the council ended. To the dismay of many Catholics (and non-Catholics[2]), the artistically advanced and reverent form of the Mass that developed over centuries had been forbidden. Even though I started out obediently accepting the change, eventually I began to think that most Masses I attended were being celebrated in many cases as a Catholic-lite version of Ted Mack Amateur hour[3].  

I also often think of  Mother Angelica's quip to her biographer Raymond Arroyo that in many parishes, the  Catholic Church had become the Electric Church, because, "Every time you go you get a shock." I was happy to read that she said that; at last someone actually agreed with me there were abuses to be shocked about.

When I had left the Church in 1963, I had been a college freshman with a big head full of intellectual pridefulness. When I came back a humbled believer in the mid-1970s, after trying out just about every other competing set of beliefs along a spectrum from existentialist rejection of bourgeois mores to hippy LSD experimentation to Protestant fundamentalism, to my surprise I found that the Church I had thought I was coming back to was practically unrecognizable.

At first I obediently accepted the changed Mass in English with the priest facing the people along with more participation by lay people, because I had learned to love and trust the Church and Her decisions. However, I grew over the ensuing years to be uncomfortable with what Pope Benedict XVI later called deformations of the liturgy and other related changes that I witnessed week after week in dozens of churches all over the country. I was not shocked at what the Church actually mandated but by the innovations made according to the supposed "spirit of Vatican II."

Shock and Dismay

Over the years, I noticed a lot of disturbing things. During Mass, Christ and His sacrifice were often no longer the focus. Everyone was looking at each other. The priests were often playing to the crowd, sometimes even cracking off color jokes or reviewing R rated movies in their homilies. People unabashedly living "inappropriate" moral lives were handing out Communion. The communion bread was sometimes made with illicit ingredients, and sometimes Eucharistic Ministers were disposing of the leftover Body and Blood of Christ sacrilegiously. Musicians were self-serving and seeking applause, the instruments used and the rhythms were not appropriate for worship, the words in the songs were no longer the words of the Mass and were often doctrinally incorrect. For centuries when singing had been done at a Mass, the words of the Mass were sung. The change to hymn singing actually began years before the council, but the idea of singing the Mass had been forgotten in most places and music directors were leading the singing of any old thing at Mass.

Here is just a random sampling of specific shocks that come to my recollection:  I remember a children's Mass with a five foot tall Snoopy stuffed toy seated in one of the presiders' chairs behind the altar, creating what I was convinced would be a natural conflation in the young Catholics' minds between the unreality of a cartoon character and the realities of the Mass. That church in a prosperous community looked like an auditorium, and it had mostly folding chairs for seating and no kneelers. A jazz ensemble with a big piano, drums, and electric guitars prominently located to the left of the altar table provided the music. Soon after that Snoopy Mass, the woman who staged it left her job as youth coordinator at the parish and the Catholic Church after a divorce, for a denomination that allows remarriage, which to me is an indication of how shallow her relationship with the Church must have been.

In the first church I attended after my return to faith in Minneapolis, I remember a woman who told me she was serially promiscuous every night of the week; every Sunday at Mass, she acted as a Eucharistic Minister. She gazed into communicants' eyes, said "Receive the Body and Blood of Christ" followed by the person's name. Then she handed out chunks of communion bread made with baking powder, milk, sugar, and whole wheat, while a group of long-haired men and women with guitars sang and strummed songs in front of the altar.  At another church on the west coast, I heard unformed Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist discuss whether they should bother drinking the large amount of remaining consecrated wine left over after Mass or pour it down the drain.

The Sunday before Pentecost one year, I was appalled at the sight of dusty, tangled, white banners left over from Easter hanging from the ceiling looking like laundry left outside after a windstorm. Another year during the midnight Mass for Christmas, I heard a man dressed in black with silver studded cowboy boots and a cowboy hat sing and play the atheist anthem "Imagine" on a black and silver electric guitar.

And this is another grievous thing I cannot unremember. I saw a priest, the chaplain at a Franciscan retreat house, who acted out the Gospel of the Sunday in the middle of the aisle; after reciting a passage in which Jesus spoke against divorce, the priest in his homily assured the congregation that Jesus wasn't actually against divorce, that the passage he had just read was an interpolation by the "Matthew" community, who had created that particular Gospel according to their own agenda. When he was done, a group of Franciscan religious sisters in sweat shirts and jeans danced "the gifts" up to the altar. When I asked the priest later in his book-lined study how he could contradict the words of Christ, he told me that a prominent theologian had said so. That was the first time I heard anyone imply that theologians were allowed to redefine doctrine.

But then I had glimpsed something along that line at the University of Minnesota Newman Center soon after I'd returned to the Church; I saw an issue of the Jesuit America magazine on the chaplain's desk with the title of one the articles inside: "Should Divorce Be a Sacrament?" written by a religious sister with a degree in theology. These are just a few of many instances I have witnessed where theological speculation was being taught as if it was defined doctrine, even when the speculations had been identified as false by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Because many of the proponents were out of sympathy with Rome (for example, one "moral theologian" taught his classes that it would be morally infantile to follow the Pope and the Magisterium), the CDF condemnations didn't have any effect on what was being taught[4].

Some rogue theological positions I have been exposed to in homilies and in classes taught by professors at Catholic universities and by diocesan clerics, including a bishop, are the following: the Vatican II teachings on the role of the laity in the Church means that lay people, male or female in any state of life can and should be able to lead parishes[5], the Eucharist forgives mortal sins[6], lay people will be able to consecrate the Eucharist, and authority and doctrine comes from below in the local churches. Besides all this, many of them claimed, morality has to change, and we all have to make up our own moral rules.

Along with the deformations of liturgy, I realize I've also described deformations in the worship environment, in the roles of the laity during Mass, and in doctrine, but its obvious at least to me that they often go hand in hand.

Pope Benedict frankly wrote against what he called "deformations of the liturgy" in his instruction to the bishops that accompanied Summorum Pontificum in 2007.  The now-Pope-Emeritus observed that many fervent Catholics wanted to hold onto the old form of the liturgy, not because they are sentimentally attached to the older form, as their critics believe, but because many uncalled-for innovations were introduced into celebrations of the new form of the liturgy, innovations that deformed the new Mass and hid its merits.
The desire of at least some of those who wanted to recover the old form of liturgy 'occurred above all because in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorising or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear ... caus(ing) deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.'”
Pope Benedict recommended more faithful observance of the Missal of Paul VI as the only way to prove that the new Mass could be as spiritually rich and theologically deep as the form of the Mass it had replaced: "The most sure guarantee that the Missal of Paul VI can unite parish communities and be loved by them consists in its being celebrated with great reverence in harmony with the liturgical directives. This will bring out the spiritual richness and the theological depth of this Missal."

Baffled at the Ostracism

It is not only shocking but also baffling for me to find out that during the past almost-fifty years, those who loved the beauty and reverence of the pre-Councilar Mass were suddenly totally denied access to it and and were belittled for their preference. I also found out that Priests were punished who wanted to keep on celebrating it. Dissent among the laity was labeled immature, dissent among the clergy was labeled divisiveness, and dissent was not allowed.

For example, Father William Young of San Francisco, who was in his late 70s when I interviewed him about four years ago, began to love the traditional Latin Mass as an altar boy. By the time he was in seminary, the new Mass was the only Mass allowed.  After a while in a parish assignment, he decided he would not say the new Mass any longer. He said it wasn't that he and other priests like him believed the new Mass was invalid. They objected because they believed it was doctrinally and aesthetically inferior.

Father Young was relieved when the archdiocesan human resources director assigned him to an out of the way hospital ministry in which he was allowed to continue to say the pre-1969 Mass, because the archdiocese thought that would contain his "divisiveness." Other diocesan priests he knew who continued to say the traditional Mass were removed by their bishops from their ministries. People started hiring priests under the radar to celebrate traditional Latin Masses in private homes and meeting rooms.

After thirty years of all this, I joined the St. Ann Choir under Prof. William Mahrt[7] in Palo Alto because they were singing chant, which I had learned in grammar school, and thought I knew. The beauty of the chanted liturgy was opened to me, along with the enormous amount and variety of chants for the Latin rite. The choir sang at Ordinary Form Masses, but the choir was singing the ancient Gregorian chant, along with polyphonic motets, and the music was beautiful. After a while I found I did not want to go back to other Masses where the traditional sacred music was lacking. Then in 2007, after Summorum Pontificum came out, I started singing with a new choir that was forming at an Oratory where only the traditional Latin Mass was being celebrated. The Second Vatican Council document on the liturgy mandated that Latin be retained, never outlawed ad orientem, and encouraged the singing of Gregorian chant as a treasured part of our Church's sacred patrimony. So there is no rebellion or disobedience when these practices are followed. The improvisers are the ones that are rebellious and disobedient.  And if the traditional Latin Mass is often the only place to find a reverent Mass with appropriate sacred music, that's where my preference lays.

Another Kind of Martyrdom

It must have been heartbreaking for those who lived through the changes that were made at one blow on the first Sunday of Advent in 1969 with no exceptions allowed. It makes me sad to hear about what happened to lovers of the traditional Latin Mass, especially about the disdain that came their way. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger said the following about how people who loved the traditional form of the Mass were treated as lepers and how intolerant his otherwise tolerant "episcopal brethren" were being.
For fostering a true consciousness in liturgical matters, it is also important that the proscription against the form of liturgy in valid use up to 1970 should be lifted. Anyone who nowadays advocates the continuing existence of this liturgy or takes part in it is treated like a leper; all tolerance ends here. There has never been anything like this in history; in doing this we are despising and proscribing the Church’s whole past. How can one trust her present if things are that way? I must say, quite openly, that I don’t understand why so any of my episcopal brethren have to a great extent submitted to this rule of intolerance, which for no apparent reason is opposed to making the necessary inner reconciliations within the Church. … I must say, quite openly, that I don't understand why so many of my episcopal brethren have to a great extent submitted to this rule of intolerance… ." - J. Ratzinger, God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002, 416.
I pray for an end to the intolerance and an end to the deformations, in the church environment, in the roles of the laity, in doctrine, and in the liturgy itself.

Even though I don't have space to go into more detail here, I want to mention that San Francisco Archbishop Cordileone started several initiatives to not only make the Extraordinary Form Mass more available but also to  help to remove the deformations in how the Ordinary Form of the Mass is sometimes celebrated. To that end, for example, he created the aptly named Benedict XVI Institute of Sacred Music and Divine Liturgy at the St. Patrick's Archdiocesan Seminary to educate interested seminarians in the Extraordinary Form. Importantly, a primary goal of the Institute is to form both future priests and any laity who perform ministries during Ordinary Form Masses so they can celebrate and worship at the Mass reverently in a manner consistent with actual Church liturgical directives and authentic doctrine[. 

[1]"[T]he form of the Mass seemed to be changing by the month, and no sooner had one novelty been introduced then it was replaced very quickly by something else. A number of priests took the opportunity to introduce their own whims and fancies, which only exacerbated the problem[1]." − "The 1971 'English' Indult - a Recollection"

[2] "The Fascinating Story of the Agatha Christi Indult" describes how a petition was circulated among musicians, artists, writers, and intellectuals to request that the traditional Latin Mass be allowed to be frequently and regularly be celebrated alongside the new Mass in the local languages. The appeal compared the planned obliteration of the centuries-old Mass to a senseless decree that would destroy equally venerable basilicas or cathedrals. Agatha Christi was one of several non-Catholic writers, artists, and other intellectuals who signed it. As the story goes, Pope Paul VI responded favorably to the appeal because he recognized Agatha Christi's name, and he granted permission for the traditional form of the Latin Mass to be celebrated, but only on special occasions with the consent of the local Roman Catholic bishop, but only in England and Wales.

[3] The Ted Mack Amateur Hour when I saw it as a child was a TV show on which amateurs competed for prizes. Their order of appearance was determined by spinning a wheel. As the wheel went around, the announcer would say, “Round and round she goes and where she stops nobody knows.” Nobody knows indeed.

[4] "No Recipe for Morality Says Bay-Area Jesuit"

[5] "Ordination's No Object: San Jose Diocese's Continuing Revolution"

[6] "Is Penance Relevant? What San Jose Diocese Teaches Lay Leaders about the Sacraments"

[7] "Miracle in Palo Alto: How the St. Ann Choir Kept Chant and Polyphony Alive for 50 Years"

[8] "Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone: Leading By Example"
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