This column is in response to the article written by Fr. Robert McTeigue, titled “What Many Priests No Longer Believe”, published March 29, 2023 on Homiletic & Pastoral Review (hprweb.com) and reposted here on ChantWorks.com.
I offer a heartfelt bravissimo for Father’s article. It was a real eye opener to learn that so many priests find that their “anguish and discouragement spikes on weekends when they offer Masses with their congregations.” I feel profound sorrow and even some guilt for that. What follows is no criticism of Father or his article, because it was all too true. We have pain in common, because my own anguish and discouragement also spikes on weekends when I have to attend Mass. In fact, it’s the one hour of the week that I most dread. It’s not because I hate the Mass. Rather, it’s because I love the Mass, but all too often it is stripped of reverence for God and dignity for his people.
Father McTeigue presented a composite view of what can go wrong at a typical parish, from the priest’s perspective. I offer another composite view, this time from the pew. As in his article, these are collected observations from many parishes, gathered under the fictional parish of St. Typical’s.
The Saturday vigil at St. Typical’s, or as he calls it the “let’s-just-get-this-over” Mass is where the volunteer 80-something cantor and the organist who plays everything too slowly together serve up the most sappy and insipid hymns that Protestants have ever written. On alternate Saturdays we have the 60-something rock band playing music that sounds like something we’d hear at a 50th high school class reunion, only not as good. Here we have electric guitars, drums, and the sequined-clad singers holding their mics in their hands, as if they were on America’s Got Talent, and doing pop vocal scoops, while their faces wince in showy emotion and phony pain that have nothing to do with the sacred.
At the Saturday vigil “let’s-get-this-over” Mass, I sit in the rear, preferably at the end of a pew, so I can step outside to escape the offensive-in-every-way offertory song, and recover both my wits and the reason I go at all. Later I make a hasty retreat as soon as the deacon says, “The Mass is ended”. I’m in so much pain by then, that I can’t take another minute.
When I come to the big Mass with the choir on Sunday, I’m often late. Yep, I hit that snooze button one too many times, because I just don’t want to get up and go to Mass. The teens in their jeans or shorts were never easy to rouse either. If their “smoldering exasperation and resentment” is visible to the priest, and mine isn’t, it’s just because I’ve gotten better at hiding it.
After the syrupy gathering hymn or song in waltz meter and tempo, where not one in 15 will pick up the book, yes, I pull out my phone in order to see what the introit was, since I’ll never hear it sung. We have a lector who reads to us as if we were all pre-schoolers. The cantor doesn’t know the responsorial psalm or can’t count. In other words, the leaders can’t lead.
The priest begins his homily with a joke, and when he does, I take out my phone again and check Facebook, because the memes there are funnier than his lame attempt at comedy. Should I take Mass more seriously than he does? Then he reads a boring homily that he probably found in some book of homilies, because he’s in too much pain to prepare his own. Rare is the homily that touches on the correct manner and proper spiritual disposition for the reception of Holy Communion, or the reason chastity is important, or the reason that abortion is evil. Rare is the homily that gives any real instruction or insight at all. The homily seems just another void that is filled with talking.
The Communion song bids us come to the table, because talking about an altar would be so old fashioned! But I’m not even allowed to get the “table”, because Betty Frompewthree meets me halfway down the nave with her ciborium. Instead of feasting at “The Table of Plenty”, we queue up as if we were in line at a hot dog stand. And we got rid of the altar rails because they separated the people from the sanctuary? If people don’t see the Holy Eucharist as something incredibly special and sacred, and never receive proper formation, it’s no wonder they receive in the casual way they do.
Woe if we played all weekend, and now have to attend the last-chance Mass, where the musicians who weren’t good enough for the prime-time Mass pollute what could have been some perfectly good silence.
It’s true that lack of silence is problematic, but if we rarely experience silence in our daily lives, and then we bring so much of the secular world into Mass, why would we know how to handle it there? When I served as a parish musician, I can’t tell you how many times it was the priest who instructed me to “fill” the silence with some music.
Over the years at St. Typical’s, I have been instructed during Mass to clap my hands, make hand gestures, sing insipid songs that the priest made up in a homily, and once, to play a kazoo that had been provided. I have heard songs that would have been R-rated if the lover named therein hadn’t been Jesus. I have endured songs that are theologically incorrect, told to sing a new church into being and to build the city of God. I have been told to shout my Amen and told that abortion should not be a one-issue decision when I vote. Along with the congregation, I have been called a racist. During COVID, I was denied Mass altogether, and received drive-through Holy Communion once with all the ceremony of a Taco Bell.
We have a church that requires us to go to Sunday Mass upon pain of mortal sin and Hell, and then does not take liturgy seriously. Mass is supposed to be something other than what we get in our daily lives. It’s supposed to be our refuge, our strength and our inspiration. Instead, so many churches are ugly and filled with badly dressed people and those who don’t want to be there at all, including the priest. Everything I experience at Mass is the antithesis of the foretaste of heaven that it should be. Yes, Jesus shows up in the Blessed Sacrament, but who can feel it? Bad liturgy builds a wall, brick by brick, between me and Jesus during that one hour a week, and every brick that goes up is like punch in the face.
People who don’t understand what the Mass is, who think anything goes, are okay with the Mass at St. Typical’s, provided it doesn’t take too long, and they get their participation trophy. When the winds change, they’ll find some Protestant church that provides better entertainment, doesn’t take too long, and doesn’t make as many demands on their personal lives. People who do understand what the Mass is are the ones who are suffering, because they know what kind of spiritual and material beauty is possible in a reverent Mass, one that tears down walls so they can feel and experience the Lord, present body, blood, soul and divinity. As Pope Benedict XVI said, we have no defense against beauty.
For the priests and laity who are in pain, where do we begin to fix it? How can we work together? Don’t look to the parish liturgy committee. They got us into this mess. They would complain, “This is how we’ve always done it, and we have the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ to back us up!” I once asked a diocesan liturgical commission on which I served to define the Spirit of Vatican II, and after an awkward silence it was decided to leave that phrase out of the mission statement.
If parishes were run like businesses, there would be more assessment going on. Why are we bleeding parishioners? Why do people receive Holy Communion as if they were receiving a participation trophy instead of the body of our precious Lord? Why do people arrive late and leave early? Why don’t they bother to dress up? Why do they harbor resentment and roll their eyes? Why don’t they sing the songs? Why do they look at their phones? But no one asks, I suspect, because they are afraid of the answers.
Let’s ask the teen why she hates Mass. Let’s ask the guy in shorts why he doesn’t think Mass is worthy of long pants. Let’s ask the men why they won’t sing what sounds like an “effeminate high school musical” (hint, the answer is in the question). Let’s ask the people on their phones what’s so much more interesting than the coming together of heaven and earth. Let’s ask the people who no longer come to Mass why they left.
Then let’s find a place where there are people who dress and act appropriately, with reverence, with young people who are not resentful or rolling their eyes, and let’s ask them why they do what they do. We’ll probably find them at a Latin Mass celebrated in the church basement, because despite a certain hymn, not all are really welcome. But we’ll also find them at any St. Unique’s Ordinary Form Mass where the liturgy is taken seriously and not dumbed down.
I am not saying that the Mass of Vatican II is wrong– only that it’s rare to find it celebrated in the way that the documents have directed. There are too few Extraordinary Form Masses available for us all to seek refuge there. We will have to live with the Ordinary Form, but perhaps we could learn a thing or two from the Traditional Latin Mass. Again, where do we begin?
A monk once said that the habit doesn’t make the monk, but it helps. Latin isn’t required for a Mass of Vatican II, but a little certainly helps. It elevates the Mass to something above what we do in our daily lives. It unites us in that it’s no one’s native tongue, and in that our ancestors worshipped in Latin. The Church’s best kept secret is that nowhere is there higher praise for Gregorian chant than in the documents of Vatican II. It’s other worldly and doesn’t sound like any popular music. It is set apart for God, the very definition of the word sacred. And it is rarely heard or sung at St. Typical’s. A little chant won’t fix everything, but it will help, and it’s a start. If a priest will just sing “The Lord be with you” the people will sing their response, and you have chant and active participation. At an Ordinary Form Easter Vigil at St. Unique’s, where I now seek refuge, the entire congregation sang the Gloria in (Latin) Gregorian chant. It was…glorious!
If we don’t reclaim our youth, we have no future. One young adult told me that he prefers the Latin Mass because he has to work harder to pay attention. That’s active participation! On the flip side, another told me that she has a more spiritual experience watching the sunset on the way to St. Typical’s than at the Mass itself. I have found more young people in the choir loft of an Extraordinary Form parish than in the entire congregation of a “Life Teen Mass”. Look at the music programs of St. Typical’s and St. Unique’s. Who has more young choristers, and who has more baby boomers?
Young people are willing to give their all for something that is important to them, and they will respond “Yes!” if something is required of them. I once asked my university students which priest was the hardest on them at confession. They unanimously agreed on one priest. Then I asked who their favorite priest for confession was, and they answered the same priest. Young people are not looking for something easy. They’re not looking for the quickest Mass or for the religion that makes the fewest demands on their personal lives. They’re looking for meaning, and they’re looking to find Christ and to give themselves wholly to Him. They are not being nourished at St. Typical’s. Stop giving them cotton candy.
Where are the priests and the lay people, young and old who would die for Christ and His church? Are they part of the Church Militant, or are they part of the Church Milquetoast? Are they at St. Unique’s or at St. Typical’s? Actually, you might find more of them at St. Typical’s than you expect. You’ll know them by their anguish and discouragement, by their resentful looks and rolling eyes. The fact that they keep showing up at all reveals their willingness to suffer for the Kingdom.