Three cheers for Fr. McTeigue! His description of St. Typical’s was spot on!
Parishes thrive or stumble toward closure for reasons that are obvious and straightforward, provided we’re willing to see what’s right in front of us. No more excuses! Talking around in circles about “problems in our society” is just a handy way to avoid grappling what we could do to become better Catholics. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Unless you want to lose your faith, St. Typical’s should be avoided. Mandatory mediocrity settles down on the soul like wet newspapers. Slowly, slowly the fire of faith gets smothered and goes out. St. Typical’s is trapped on the Catholic side of the Worship Chasm: the gap of contradiction between theology and liturgy.
As an Anglo-Catholic convert, I’ve been stuck on both sides, the Episcopalian and the Catholic. Starting around 1977, the Book of Common Prayer was dumbed down and the priesthood was opened to women. This created a dangerous crack between the official theology of the Church that existed on paper, versus how the liturgy was celebrated on Sunday. As theology and liturgy worked at cross-purposes more and more, the crack widened into a chasm. The liturgy remained semi-traditional, but theology was mostly abandoned in favor of social and political causes. Bishops lost interest in being shepherds and fancied themselves prophets instead, speaking to the world in pompous circumlocutions. Theological understanding of who Christ is was pushed off to the side. Without focus on the semi-Catholic version of the Real Presence (“consubstantiation”), sermons drifted in a secularized, feel-good direction, becoming Us-centered rather than Christ-centered.
As a lay person, I’d sing a traditional chant and then listen to a sermon that contradicted everything the chant had just proposed. Liturgical semi-tradition was preserved like a fly in amber, but what did it mean anymore? Eventually, the chasm became intolerable, and I made the swim across the Tiber. Denomination membership plummeted and never recovered. Some went to the Evangelicals, some joined the Catholics or Orthodox, but many more dropped out of Christianity altogether.
On the St. Typical’s side of the Worship Chasm, we see exactly the opposite disaster. There’s also a chasm between theology and worship, but the mirror image reversal of the Episcopalian situation. Official Catholic theology is still a lively issue, although St. Typical’s parishioners seldom hear much about it from their pastor. Interested lay people teach themselves by watching EWTN, reading books, and following excellent Catholic websites. Instead, we see a complete collapse of Catholic worship culture. Tradition was tossed out the window. That blunder abandoned pastors and people to their own devices. Tradition is traditional because it’s stood the test of time. It evolves in a natural, organic way, as guided by the Holy Spirit. We are not smarter than the Holy Spirit. The liturgy does not belong to us.
Good liturgy lifts the veil and invites us to see the glorious light of Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist. St. Typical’s installs blackout curtains.
Those sullen teenagers are onto something important: St. Typical’s liturgy is cringe-inducing. This is much more than a matter of taste. Lay people learn the faith by osmosis, through the liturgy. The heart opens first; the mind follows. Slovenly, incoherent liturgy violates ancient wisdom: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. Inadvertently, people are taught that the Faith is just a whole lot of nothing. Bad liturgy functions as an anti-formation program for the next generation. However eloquent, homilies alone cannot rescue parishioners from this swamp of mediocrity.
The good news is that the Catholic Church is home to many wise and holy priests, religious, and lay people. The bad news is that these inspiring individuals may not be active anywhere close to where you live. It’s necessary to visit a variety of parishes and see for yourself. If commuting is unavoidable, so be it…particularly if you want your kids and grandkids to grow up in the Faith. Since everybody worships something, anti-formation at St. Typical’s leaves kids and grandkids vulnerable to idol worship: money, power, career success, weird cults, or even getting absorbed into Woke World.
Once the decision is made to shake off the dust of St. Typical’s from your sandals, it’s time to go forth in search of St. Atypical’s or St. Unique’s. How can we know we’ve found the promised land?
We’re looking for outward and visible signs of inward and invisible faith. Externals are not ends in themselves, obviously, but can serve as useful clues. Behavior communicates reverence for the Real Presence, or the lack thereof. Reverence is a gateway virtue that aids the growth of trust in God. If the liturgy communicates holiness by means of a reverent atmosphere, people will be attracted and want to stay.
A visit to St. Atypical’s is quite revealing. St. Atypical’s is not dead in the water, although it’s a stretch to call it a thriving parish. The parish has just enough spiritual energy, volunteers, and money to keep on keeping on.
The liturgy is not on autopilot. It’s not cringe-inducing, but it’s not beautiful, either. The pastor and parishioners do a solid, workman-like job in attending to the basics. The homily is more than platitudes. Lectors and altar servers receive some instruction on how to do their jobs correctly. The pastor encourages the music director to develop a less secularized “playlist” and to discourage showboating by the cantor and choir. Although no one knows how to play the organ, the music director at the piano neither hammers away nor tinkles. St. Atypical’s knows better than to imitate the Big Box Evangelical church around the corner, realizing that a huge video screen and an ear-splitting praise band would dilute Catholic identity.
Many of the people in the pews get the message and mind their liturgical manners. Most know the Dialogues and the Ordinary by heart, so they don’t need to mumble their way through the Missalette. Volunteers keep the building and grounds tidy and in good repair. St. Atypical’s sustains a St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Knights of Columbus, and maybe even a Pro-Life group. If there’s a parish school, the pastor and deacon take an interest in the teachers, students, and families. The demographic profile does not resemble a retirement community but includes a moderate number of middle aged and young families.
St. Unique’s is another thing altogether. The teenagers are so stunned by liturgical beauty that they quit rolling their eyes and pay serious attention instead. The reverent atmosphere elicits their respect – it’s obvious that something important is going on, something totally different than everyday life. St. Unique’s is beautiful because the pastor and people are committed to the reverent version of the Ordinary Form, where the touchstone is continuity with the Great Tradition. The Real Presence is front and center. The positive results are plain to see: the church is packed every Sunday.
Back to St. Atypical’s: here we have a potential turnaround situation. With vision and good leadership, St. Atypical’s could bootstrap itself up and become another St. Unique’s. The pastor can’t do it alone. He needs support and assistance from his people. That starts with you and me.
Things lay people can do to help…
- Pray for the pastor and parish leadership.
- Be patient and tactful. Change for the better is incremental and takes time.
- Make friends in the parish. Many recognize scary issues – too many funerals, not enough baptisms, or weddings! – but have no idea of the root causes.
- When something good happens, compliment those responsible! Grumbling and complaining spreads negative energy but focus on the positive spreads good cheer. If the music director chooses a beautiful hymn, or experiments with chant during Advent, tell him how much you appreciate it and politely request more of the same. When the pastor gives a substantive homily, thank him!
- Atypical’s is likely to have an adult faith formation group. Request a study of Benedict XVI’s classic work, The Spirit of the Liturgy. Discussion will soon lead to what we’re doing now and how we could do better. It’s not easy reading but rewards thoughtful study.
- Many Catholics have zero experience with beautiful liturgy. Literally, they don’t know what they’re missing, or why it’s important. If a visit to St. Unique’s is feasible, it can be an eye-opening event.
- In twenty years as a Catholic convert, I’ve never once heard an explanation from any pastor about “We need to worship this way because…” In the Catholic liturgy, everything that is said or done has meaning. In the absence of explanations, worship can seem like empty tradition: “We do it this way because we’re used to doing it this way, no one knows why.” The temptation then becomes to fill the void of comprehension with something else, often a deadly combination of abstract talk and pop-secular blunders.
- A key barrier to change for the better is the vague, unspoken assumption that people learned basic Catholic theology in time for 8th grade Confirmation, and nothing is needed after that. Three generations of inadequate formation have left many Catholics adrift. In the absence of instruction, without realizing what we’re doing, we lay people will import secular concepts and attitudes into the Church. The good news is that lay people want to love and respect their pastor and will follow his lead provided he gives solid instruction in both liturgy and theology.
- Finally, remember that with God, all things are possible.