Echo’s Pool

Mass Sunday morning was something of a perfect storm. Over the past week, I finished reading two books on the liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI’s The Spirit of the Liturgy and Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing. Influenced by both books, I walked into the church with a greater appreciation for what goes on in the liturgy, and more importantly, how it can be perverted by common liturgical practices today. I’ve never been much of a liturgical Nazi; over the past several months, I had developed quite a thick skin, being determined to focus on the Sacrifice that is re-presented, not the sideshows around it. But, until I read those books, I hadn’t been quite as aware of just how radically things are different from how they were, say, 50 years ago.

Thomas Day writes* that the most radical innovation in the liturgy in the past several hundred years was not the introduction of the vernacular, but rather, the switch from ad orientem, that is, the priest facing the East, to ad populum, facing the people. It is that one simple change and a couple of corollaries on which I want to focus. Why is Dr. Day so adamant about this, and why do I agree wholeheartedly? Having the priest face the people throughout the liturgy completely alters the focus of the people’s attention. We turn inward on ourselves and on the celebrant, rather that outward on God. It is unavoidable: when my pastor is gesturing outward at me and those around me during the Eucharistic Prayer, or when our eyes momentarily lock, we palpably lose something. The crucifix hanging above his head and the old stained glass behind him fade away, and instead I start noticing that Fr. didn’t comb his hair this morning or that he’s looking a bit the worse for wear with double the workload since our associate pastor has been reassigned.

Or, as was the case this Sunday, it dawns on me exactly how much of a performance Mass is to him. I’m well versed in worship as performance; Baptists excel at it, and I used to be one. Sermons for Baptists are carefully crafted works of art, complete with planned gestures and a slick wardrobe. (And the sermon is the apt comparison because it, like the Liturgy of the Eucharist, is (or should be) the absolute focus of Sunday mornings.) While it is good for the Mass to be celebrated with precision and care, celebrating it ad populum turns care into performance, especially if the pastor shifts his position in order to make eye contact with the entire assembly.

That our church is designed in a semi-circle, not a traditional layout, does not help matters. Indeed, it perpetuates the problem because all our sight-lines converge upon the priest looking at us from behind the altar. We have a beautiful old stained-glass window (salvaged from our old church building, recently sold to a private buyer and to be demolished) of the Resurrection and Ascension, behind a larger than life-sized, extremely detailed crucifix. The effect when sitting in one of the sections directly facing it is very conducive to devotion. However, it’s hard to see from the sides, and anyone not sitting in the middle ends up with even more of his focus on the pastor. If the church had simply been designed traditionally, a lot of the adverse effects of ad populum would be diminished.

There is one more aspect of our Sunday Masses that brings out the narcissism alluded to in my title: our choice in music. At least at the Mass I attend (the others aren’t quite as bad), most of the music is “folk” style (Haugen, Haas, Joncas, Schutte et al). Many songs are difficult to sing because of varying and inconsistent rhythms, so therefore lend themselves to being dominated by a cantor and/or choir rather than the assembly. But, more than that focus on a cantor, there is the problem of the words. Too often, we start singing as God in the first person, such as in “Here I Am, Lord,” or sing about our own goodness, as in “Gather Us In” or “Let Us Build the City of God.” The focus turns inward on us as a people, not outward in prayer toward God–that is, if you pay attention to the words (which frankly can be difficult when you’re trying to hold notes just past your lung capacity or sing). I, for one, do not go to Mass to celebrate my OKness; I go to worship God. Despite what some of our music suggests, they are not one and the same thing.

The sum of the choreography of our pastor, the roundness of our church building, and the self-centeredness of our music creates an experience that can be rather pleasant, but isn’t very reverent. While we can’t very well tear down our church building and start over, we could at least start by de-emphasizing the pastor and singing some music that anyone can sing and emphasizes our faith rather than ourselves. I’d love to challenge Fr. to turn around for one Mass, but I suspect there’s a greater chance of the world actually ending today, 6-6-06, than that happening. Perhaps the only thing we can do in this situation is try all the harder to focus our thoughts upon the Eucharist in the Mass. I only wish that what was going on around us would aid in that, rather than distract.

* I am paraphrasing because I have neither book with me at work, and have had to return The Spirit of the Liturgy to the library.

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3 Responses to “Echo’s Pool”


  1. 1 mike June 7, 2006 at 12:10 am

    From Why Catholics Can’t Sing:

    The central reality of Roman Catholic worship since the 1960s is the talking head. … [A]ll of the idealist theorizing does not match what the congregation actually experiences, what really happens, and that is the priest standing behind an altar: the talking head. … The talking head does not preside over a collective, communal form of prayer; it intercepts prayer.

  2. 2 Jimbo June 7, 2006 at 10:20 am

    Two thoughts:

    1.We all know that “performance” occupations tend to attract a certain kind of human being. “Service” occupations attract quite another. Since the new liturgy has turned the priesthood from a “service” to a “performance” type of occupation, can we begin to connect the dots concerning the many sexual problems now present in the priesthood?

    2.I saw, on television, the National right for Life March from DC. In the crowd was a banner “Can the Novus Ordo be the cause of all this?” and I and several friends who saw it lampooned the sentiment. I think it could be re-worded thusly – “Can the narcissism which has taken over Catholicism be the cause of all this?”…and then I doubt many conservatives would sneer at it.

  3. 3 Edmund C. June 7, 2006 at 10:26 am

    My thoughts on your two thoughts:

    1. While I like the idea, the question to ask is whether the priesthood is seen as a “performance” occupation by those entering it. If so, then I think, yes, we can start to connect those dots.

    2. Yes, the forces let loose by the liturgical reform of the 60’s led to narcissism, and I totally agree that such narcissism is at the root of the abortion issue, and homosexuality, contraception, etc, etc. If we love only ourselves, then all the rest follows.


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