Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"Where Have We Put Him?"
A nice opinion piece in Adoremus by a Washington state priest, Father W. Roy Floch. Nice, of course, in the sense it is well-written, thoughtful, and honest. Nice also in the sense that it confirms much of my recent thinking about clergy, liturgy, and narcissism. I mean no disrespect to the author: honestly. I think like most all of us, he is a man of his times. I do encourage you to read his whole piece, not just the few excerpts that follow. I confess that in my first parish assignment in 1977 (I was not ordained but was in charge for a month until the new pastor would arrive), I stopped the second collection, told the people they could receive Communion standing (rather than at the communion rail kneeling as they done had until then), began the Kiss of Peace, and hid the bells. "Vatican II in a Vatican I way," one of my dear wife's favorite refrains, comes to mind. Pre-conciliar clergy-driven Church, but just with more changes when the new priests hit town. Changes such as these, though seemingly keeping up with the nearby parishes, were not--trust me!--liturgical reform in any way, shape, or form. Committees are often the bane of churchfolk, but it's unreasonable to expect to form lay people liturgically by altering liturgy, then explaining it next. Polyester vestments, banners of felt and burlap, stained glass like that in the expensive doors at hardware megastores -- these things cannot mediate the weight of the sacred. And salad cruets for water and wine? What was I thinking! Probably what most priests think: economize. I have one server now, the others graduated. Our communion rail is long gone. This server has no natural sense of a need to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament. He does not experience a building that defines the universe into sacred and less sacred space. Even the elderly, who complain that people talk too much in church, themselves chat loudly across the pews after daily Mass. In part, this arises because priests and lay leaders do not treat the entire liturgy with great weight and concern. Clergy have it rough. They must pick up the pieces of former pastors. The patience required to form a parish in liturgical spirituality might exceed the term of some pastors. The single server's problem is easily corrected. As for Father Floch's elderly friends, it might take some time to diagnose what's really going on. But at least they talk to each other. I aggravated the problem a year after I arrived by removing the tabernacle from a niche dating from the ‘60s. But now it is on a small altar located directly behind the main altar and elevated one step -- where the padded oak presidential chair used to be. (I demoted myself. I am not God.) The same problem I see. New priest equals changes. No wonder perhaps that the elderly folks complain about talkers but go on talking themselves. What they do or say is irrelevant, so why not talk? And I have a growing sense of unease at celebrating Mass with my back toward Him, despite “alter Christus” implications in facing the congregation.

There's always the notion of a separate chapel. But I'm not sure what this says about the priest's own sense of what he confects before him on the altar. As I said earlier today, the Mass is not about the priest's prayer; it's about the worship of God by the parish and the cultivation of holiness. The intimate sense of the encounter with God in the tabernacle or in Eucharistic adoration is not well placed during the Mass. I'd feel nervous praying in a chapel with my back to the tabernacle, too. But at Mass, I consider the presence of Christ in what the Mass is meant to celebrate, not what I did yesterday or last week. Personal "unease" like this might not be narcissistic, but anytime a person feels the need to institute changes to suit one's own ease in liturgy ... let's just say I find it suspicious.

Of all the changes in the celebration of Mass that took place after Vatican II, I believe placing the celebrant and the congregation face to face was the most wide-ranging in its effect.
I'd say the vernacular was a bigger change, but ...
No longer focussed in one direction -- toward God -- clergy and laity have turned inward toward themselves, and experience a crisis in both lay and religious identity and vocation, not to mention the poverty of self-centered music.
Again, I think self-centered music is more a function of American individualist tastes. It was with us before the Council. But getting back to that first point: what about clergy and laity both facing the altar on which the Eucharistic sacrifice is made present? Changes meant to foster “active participation” are not working. The participation that counts must be internal and spiritual. External action cannot achieve it. I think this boils down the essence of my point with priests like Fr Floch. Like many Catholics of his generation, he is focused on the externals, despite the talk about interior spirituality. While his sense of loyalty to the Church and Vatican II is laudable, I wonder how many of the "changes" he made were more about his own "ease" and how much were finessed in his parishes by working with people and urging them to a deeper interior life? Vatican II did not denigrate the internal experience, but the Council repeatedly stressed the incarnational nature of faith: that externals can lead us to the goals of liturgy: worship and sanctification. Thinking of moving a tabernacle? Fine. How does it contribute to the worship of God? How does it cultivate the holiness of the parishioners? If there are no concrete answers to these questions (and a good pastor should know without having to ask) then there are probably other changes (if changes need to be made) that should be made instead. But what if the “remote” liturgy actually created internal spiritual growth that obtained expression in those devotions, and their sharp decline after the liturgical renewal following Vatican II is the consequence of a desiccated internal spiritual life?

I sense that parishes have suffered desiccated spiritual lives before and after the Council. Sometimes pre-conciliar liturgy was to blame, sometimes post-. The Church teaches of the responsibility of the pastor. And whomever he hires to assist him in ensuring good ministry, including liturgy.

All priests and church musicians could take the time to self-examine their own motives at Mass. Who are we doing this for? Where do we find God in all of this? The more telling question I ask: where have I put myself? Am I getting in the way? Am I listening instead of always doing or playing? Do I cultivate the sense of sacrifice in my own ministry that reflects Christ's kenosis, his emptying? Well, this has been longer than I had expected. I didn't really want to fisk Fr Floch too severely; he seems an earnest and holy man. Those are good base qualities anybody can work with to get somewhere, even with the compulsion to make too many lone ranger-type changes.

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