Archive for the 'Liturgy' Category

Heaven on Earth

Argent and I were both in attendance at our diocese’s only Tridentine Indult parish yesterday afternoon, me in the choir loft, her down below in the assembly. It was an incredibly moving experience for me to sing Mozart in its proper setting rather than as “special music” during Communion or the Presentation of the Gifts in our run-of-the-mill Pauline Mass. I’m not an emotional person, but I almost wept during the Sanctus/Benedictus when our choir’s beautiful soprano sang a solo that, in musical perfection, left no doubt as to the holiness of the Lamb of God, there present in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

I left completely confused as to why anyone could possibly prefer Haugen’s Mass of Creation to Mozart. I also left convinced, as I always am after going to a Tridentine Mass, that we lost something invaluable with the “reforms” of the ’60’s and ’70’s.

Check out Argent’s reflections on the Mass:

The Mass moves forward and then the drama of the altar began–the incense, the music, yes, it is indeed fitting and right, our duty and our salvation to give thanks to you, O Holy Father. Agnus Dei…Lamb of God we remember your Passion, your Sacrifice, You, Victim most Holy, most Perfect, Bread of Eternal Life. At the altar rail I knelt, knowing of my unworthiness to receive such a gift, humbled that my God should come to me as Bread upon my tongue. For this I am thankful for the veil that covers my head–I am in the presence of the holy.

I returned to my pew and knelt, such a simple action denied to us in my parish in obedience to diocesan norms, but so right after the gift of so great a magnitude. All too soon, the Mass comes to a close, Salve, Regina is chanted, the prayer that was my companion in my conversion into the Church. Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve. The tears that had been held back finally trickled down my cheeks. Sweet Virgin Mary, bid me to go into the world again, your Precious Son within me, if only for this brief moment.

We emerge out into the late afternoon sun, the brisk breeze helping to lift the veil off my head. Father imparts a blessing as we shake hands. How do I return to my ordinary existence after that?


My Lord Fishperson gets Fisked

Dr. Tony Esolen goes after Bishop Trautman’s insipid objections of the pending new translation of the Mass into English. Read it all…

A highlight:

In his address entitled “When Should Liturgists be Prophetic?”

Nothing like donning the mantle of prophecy — after one has doffed every other liturgical mantle in sight. Of course, bishops should be obedient first, and if they are, they may be granted a gift of prophecy, or even a gift of speaking in tongues. Alas, too often the bishops of every denomination speak out from their balconies, and all the assembled people below hear them — and they seem to each to be speaking in somebody else’s language.

Trautman raised concerns

Everybody these days “raises concerns.” If they raised welts, they’d be more honest.


I ran across another blog by a recent Catholic convert, Scott Lyons, from somewhere west of me in NC. When he mentioned his Confirmation and first Eucharist in April, it came as a bit of a surprise to some of his readers. In response to a question about his decision, he wrote:

My moment of decision happened as soon as I first considered Catholicism. From that point, I was merely trying to discern the way into it. I felt compelled, almost, at the outset. So once I began my exploration and discovered that I had so very many misconceptions about Catholicism, it was a done deal.

It was almost the same with me. From almost the moment I started seriously studying Catholicism, I was hooked. I couldn’t break myself away; the logic, the cohesion, the fullness of it all was utterly compelling. It took me a few years to move from my intellectual decision to an emotional decision, because I was so deeply involved in my old Baptist church and I feared my family’s reaction; but like Scott, from the get-go, I could not shake the notion that the Church was what She claimed to be. I didn’t receive any dramatic visions or anything like that, but it was like I woke up from a lifelong dream into reality, instantaneously.

Since being received into the Church this past December, I haven’t looked back, not once. The troubles in Catholicism are many, and I wish they’d all just go away, but even with all the scandal, lack of catechesis, awful liturgies, and so on, it’s still home. I’ll be going back to the Baptist church this Sunday to fill in for the pianist, which I do from time to time, and while it will bring back just how much I miss the people, I’ll enter the sanctuary devoid of ornamentation, play in a service almost devoid of symbolism and reverence, and remember exactly why I am a Catholic.

Where Catholics Can Sing

Well, three months after my road trip to the Tridentine Mass, I decided it was high time I took another Mass adventure. This time, since most of my friends at the parish were out of town and I didn’t have any RCIA responsibilities, I took a shorter trip to go revisit the small Byzantine Catholic parish in a nearby town. I’d been there once before, about two years ago in my “should I become Catholic or not” phase, and while it enchanted me, I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with liturgy in general to appreciate just how ethereal it is. I was so befuddled trying to figure out what was going on that I couldn’t take it all in. Well, I was still a little bit confused in places, but the two hour experience caused a radical change in my perspective on reform within the Western church.

First of all, as I suspect I mentioned in my analysis of my trip to the TLM in March, I was already rather convinced that the language used in liturgy has almost nothing to do with its reverence and otherworldliness. The liturgy I attended this morning was 99% in English; there was a tiny bit of Slavonic but nothing that impacted my understanding in the slightest. And, it was the closest thing to making heaven present on Earth that I’ve ever seen. Glorious, gold-encrusted vestments, beautiful icons, and incense and candles galore transformed a converted, frankly a little bit dilapidated old house into a scene from Revelation. But, it was the assembly chanting, in harmony, loudly, mostly from memory that stunned me. Such sound I have never heard in a Western parish.

We sang a hymn immediately before the Gifts were brought from the “Table of Preparation” to the Altar that went as follows:

Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim, and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now set aside every earthly cares…

At that moment, it dawned on me that this was what the Mass ought to be. We really were mystically representing the Cherubim, and this scene was made present:

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!”

And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

(Rev. 5:1-14, RSV)

Every Mass, everywhere, brings this event into being. But, it is much easier to experience it when the surroundings evoke splendor, majesty and glory, and when the entire assembly is united in song and prayer. It was, to quote the old Protestant hymn, “Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!”

Yet, it was in English. The mere existence of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in English, translated faithfully and reverently, utterly disproves the notion that a return to Latin would restore the liturgy of the Western Church. That is simply not the case. What needs to return is not the “universal language” but the treasure-trove of symbols and hymnody that we already have. Barren, stagnant auditoriums should be replaced with buildings that burst with symbolism; abstract art should be trashed in favor of the traditional art of the Church; trite folk tunes should be jettisoned in favor of simple old hymns and chant. And, most of all, the focus of the Mass has to be displaced from the priest, cantor, lector, and choir, to God. None of this requires the Tridentine Rite; all of it takes place in the Divine Liturgy, and all of it can take place in the Novus Ordo.

The only problem is, good liturgy takes work. It’s demanding on the celebrant, demanding on those assisting him, and not easy for the assembly, either. In the Divine Liturgy, almost everything is sung, and the assembly has quite a bit to learn. It’s daunting to follow at first. The careful choreography of movements, gestures, and words is far more intricate than that in the average Novus Ordo parish. In this, it resembles far more the old Tridentine Mass than what we have today. And, I wonder if that is why there are so few people in attendance; I want to shout it from the rooftops how wonderful it is, but it isn’t something you simply attend. It’s something you do. Why go stand through an hour and forty-five minute-long liturgy, fumbling through the pages and getting lost, when you can go down the street to the megaparish and have few demands placed? Yes, Catholics can and do sing, in the Divine Liturgy, and in pockets elsewhere. But, we must work to restore the culture around us before we’ll have such beauty and reverence restored to our liturgy as a whole.

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.

Musical bipolar disorder

Lent, the Triduum, and the Easter season are the best times of year for someone who enjoys classical liturgical music. Last night, we sang the Pange Lingua and Tantum Ergo; this afternoon, we were treated to O Sacred Head, Adoramus Te, Christe and Haydn’s Tenebrae. Tomorrow at the Easter Vigil I see that we will end with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Listening to our parish’s excellent choir sing these makes the Mass truly feel like it should: as a little glimpse of Heaven on Earth. Ethereal polyphonic harmonies and the sublimity of Gregorian chant produce a sense of reverence like nothing else.

But, unfortunately, someone seems to think that we must add folk ditties as well, perhaps in order to satisfy all musical tastes. So, after enjoying Haydn this afternoon, we went straight into a tune by Dan Schutte that sounded suspiciously like the theme from Gilligan’s Island. I’m glad it was printed in the program ahead of time so I could brace myself; otherwise, the cognitive dissonance might have been more than I could bear. Singing pablum by Haugen, Haas, Schutte et al does not produce a sense of Heaven. Instead, it brings Heaven crashing down to Earth. I appreciate folk music, I really do: but, its earthiness is not appropriate for the Mass. I can almost understand the urge to liturgically dance down the aisle at the start of Mass, because it fits the music we sing most Sundays better than the solemn procession we still, for some unknown reason, maintain. Are we re-presenting the Sacrifice of Christ, mystically transporting ourselves into a time outside of time, or are we worshipping ourselves? It’s days like these that make me wonder.

Can you go home again?

I’m not usually one for telling long, involved stories, instead preferring to distill things down into coherent, hopefully well-argued essays, but I find my coherence has left me. So, instead, for my Sunday Lenten reprieve, y’all are going to get the story of Ed’s first trip to a Latin Mass.

After Mass (Novus Ordo) this morning, my old sponsor, Chris, turns to me and asks, “Ed, how many people can your car hold? Because I think it’s time for a trip down to the Latin Mass, and we’ll have to take the boys since Georgie has to work.” So, three hours and two booster seats safely secured in the backseat later, the five of us, including Chris’s three sons aged between 5 and 9 and their Ziploc bag full of plastic knights with which to do battle, were off for a road trip.

The one Latin Mass offered in our diocese is 75 miles away from home, but with the miracle of interstates and little traffic, it took us only about 75 minutes to get there. With the kids fortified with sundaes and a quick romp around the elaborate space-station-like play area at the local McDonald’s, we ventured over to the parish. We opened the door to the small, old building, and incense wafted out. I wonder how many parishes in the U.S. still have altars against the wall, tabernacles in place, and a communion rail? Well, this one does. It felt exactly like a church should feel–intimate, reverent, and imbued with symbolism, down to the words “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” engraved on the steps up to the altar.

We had arrived a half hour early, in time to catch the praying of the Rosary before Mass, and Chris was able to get in a confession as well. (Yes, they have old-style confessionals too.) Mass started with singing of a good, old-fashioned hymn, played from a pipe organ located in the loft above our heads. The young priest and two altar servers entered, and it began. Despite having read the Missal beforehand, I was immediately lost. I caught up at the Kyrie Eleison, and managed to follow, more or less, the rest of the way. Not being able to hear most of the priest’s words was disorientating to say the least. I have little trouble following Latin if I can hear it, but just following along (or rather, reading and hoping I was in the right place) in the Missal while watching his back was a different experience.

I was struck by how the ad orientem orientation refocused the Mass on God, not on us. I can see no good rationale for celebrating the Mass ad populum, because it stifles reverence and focuses our prayers inward. We also heard a wonderful, orthodox homily, comparing the Transfiguration and the Mass. And, though I did not go up to receive Communion because I had already done so that morning, the altar rail and receiving on the tongue also aided in a general atmosphere of prayer and reverence. It was also edifying to hear the prologue of the Gospel of John read and various prayers, including the Leonine prayer to St. Michael, recited. The whole experience of the Latin Mass was profoundly focused upon God, our Lord, and the awesome Sacrifice He made.

After the Mass, I met back up with Chris and the kids–they had had to leave shortly after the homily because the boys just couldn’t sit still and quietly any longer, and played ball out in the field beside the church the rest of the hour. We returned to McDonald’s for dinner (kids do so love McDonald’s) and engaged, while the boys resumed their exploration of the multi-leveled fake space station play area, in a post-mortem of sorts. Despite the reverence, despite the beauty, despite the orthodoxy, both of us had mixed feelings, remarkably similar ones.

I don’t think I’ll be making regular trips back. The distance, while inconvenient, isn’t a real factor. I wouldn’t mind making the drive once a month, or even more often, if I thought it necessary. But, I don’t. First of all, I am completely accustomed to the Novus Ordo, and my parish, for all its flaws, doesn’t have flagrant liturgical abuses. I’d imagine I could get used to it, but just reading along, with little interaction, and not even being able to hear much of what was going on, does not engage me. While I do agree that the priest should be oriented in the same direction as the people, not facing them, to project audibly more of the prayers cannot be a bad thing. While I also agree that the English translation used in the Novus Ordo is in places abysmal, I honestly fail to see how English faithful to the Latin is inferior to Latin. The liturgies of the Eastern Catholic Churches are almost all in the vernacular, yet haven’t lost an ounce of reverence or beauty. English isn’t the problem; liberal translation hell-bent on desacralizing the Mass is.

As I sit here trying to sort out my mixed thoughts, I keep coming back to one thing: that there is nothing intrinsic to the Novus Ordo that keeps it from being as reverent as the Tridentine Mass. If we fixed the pitiful translation to clear up some theological problems, turned the priest around, got rid of sappy music, and started praying to Our Lady and to St. Michael again, we’d end up with a pretty reverent Mass, and one in which everyone could be engaged. I’d even be fine with making those changes gradually in order to ease the transition and not drive away another generation of those wedded to a particular rite, this time the Novus Ordo.

No, even after such an experience, I have not become a radical traditionalist. I value tradition, I would even go so far as to say that I admire the Tridentine Mass, but in the end, it is a thing of the past. To have an Indult is necessary for pastoral reasons: to shepherd those who are so attached to the old Missal as to be scandalized by any variant of the Novus Ordo, and who would go into schism rather than conform. But, because the vast majority of Catholics know nothing other than the Novus Ordo, gradual reform to orthodoxy is the only route to take in the future. Our mission in the Church is first and foremost to save souls. The Indult is necessary to save some, the maintenance and reform of the Novus Ordo, to save many others.