Thursday, August 29, 2002

Grip and Grin: Hi, Howya doin'?

Well, I didn't anticipate that my question about shaking hands before Mass would generate as much comment and opinion as it did. I received more than 30 e-mails about this, and there are 89 comments for my blog below. Obviously, I tapped into some strong feelings about this out there.

A number of my fellow bloggers chimed in about this at there own sites as well. In case you haven't seen them, here is a list of the other bloggers who addressed this question on their own blogs:

Amy Welborn: In Between Naps
Dom Bettinelli: Bettnet
Mark Shea: Catholic and Enjoying It!
Pete Vere: Canon Law Blog
Lane Core: The Blog From The Core
Fr. Jim Tucker: Dappled Things
Peter Nixon: Sursum Corda
Greg Popcak, Emily Stimpson, Woodene Bricker-Koenig, et al.: HMS Weblog (this one's turned into a real grudge match!)
Dave Alexander: Man with Black Hat
Chris Lugardo: Rosa Mystica
Fr. Jefffrey Keyes: The New Gasparian

If I missed any of you bloggers out there, I apologize. Send me an e-mail and I'll add you to the list.

Several people have e-mailed me or commented today that they think it is high time I weighed in. Well, your wish is my command: here goes!

The comments, e-mails, and opinions of other bloggers were overwhelmingly negative regarding the pre-Mass "warm-up" handshake. But, as I said, this is not so much a poll as an examination of the reasons for or against this practice.

First, I need to explain a couple of principles that I take as starting points for any discussion about liturgy:

A The liturgy is not our personal property: it does not "belong" to me, or to my particular parish, or even my diocese. It is not ours to manipulate or change as we see fit to suit or own particular preferences or perceived needs. I say "perceived" because what we in any given generation or place think we "need" is very often not at all what we truly, objectively need. C.S. Lewis once wrote that particular peoples or generations often get caught up in thinking that they most need the one thing that is most destructive or counterproductive to them. So a generation that thinks The Most Important Thing, or the Thing they Most Need, is a more "down to earth" and less formal social order, when viewed by more objective later generations, is seen in fact to have been in desperate need of more formality and decorum in its social relations, and vice versa, etc.

The liturgy is not ours to manipulate. It is something that is given. It certainly isn't mine. I treat it as a gift, a treasure, a patrimony. And my job is to hand it on to you, whole, entire, and unadulterated. And you have right to receive it that way. I don't wake up in the morning and wonder how I can add my own "personal touch" to the liturgy. By my ordination, I was configured to Christ the Head and Shepherd. I was made an alter Christus. That means what you must see when I celebrate the liturgy is Christ, not Rob Johansen. My biggest concern must be making sure that I don't let I get in the way of Christ. And more priests need to take that to heart.

By extension, then the parish's celebration of the liturgy must be about Christ, not itself. It must try to make sure that its collective ego doesn't get in the way of what is given to us: Christ. The parish is participating in the liturgy which belongs to the whole Church. Sometimes I have gone to a parish and seen it doing something in the liturgy that is at variance with the Church's actual published texts or instructions. And when I ask about that, I am told "that's our custom/tradition here." I must confess that I have always done a slow burn when I hear that. I want to say in response (I have so far managed to keep a civil tongue in my head) "Who the H*ll do you think you are? This isn't a game, this is the re-presentation of the eternal sacrifice of Christ! How dare you muck around with it!" There is no such thing as a custom or tradition that contravenes the Church's actual norms or laws for the liturgy. Liturgical rubrics have the force of Law in the Church. They are not mere guidelines or suggestions.

B The Liturgy can stand on its own. It does not require us to tinker with, alter, or change it in order to make it more "relevant" or "exciting". It is the height of arrogance to think that I or We can "improve" the liturgy. The liturgy is part of our Tradition. It is corollary to, if not actually part of, The Deposit of Faith. Therefore, when we tinker with it, we risk tampering with or damaging its ability to communicate the Faith. By making changes to it, we are saying that we trust more in Us than in the Church that gave us the liturgy. Fr. Jeffrey Keyes said it very well on his blog, The New Gasparian, using the example of priests who substitute "Good Morning" for the greeting of Mass:

> To interject “Good Morning” into the ritual is to say that “The Lord be with
> you” is not effective liturgy or ritual. We have unfortunately raised a
> generation of priests who have no faith in the Liturgy or the Eucharist and so
> must constantly add to or alter the Eucharistic texts to make them more
> “meaningful” or effective.

So, starting from those two principles, and taking into account a couple others, which I will discuss later, I have to say that I think what Mark Shea referred to as the "Grip and Grin" before Mass is a bad idea. It is a bad idea because it introduces an element into the liturgy which is not common to the whole Church and therefore both manifests and encourages the mindset that thinks of the liturgy as "ours" to change in order to serve whatever the Good Purpose of the moment is. And the Purpose of the eucharistic liturgy is not to "foster community". The purpose is to make present in the here and now the eternal Sacrifice of Christ. It is true that this is a communal celebration, but that is not the same thing as a "celebration of community". To say we're going to add "X" to our celebration of the Mass in order to foster community is to confuse purpose and result. A result of celebration of the Mass and participation in that celebration by the people of God is that community will be built, formed and fostered. But that happens as a result of our sharing, our participation, in the Communion which the Sacrifice of the Mass brings about. To introduce "community building" elements or techniques into the celebration of Mass is to ignore or confuse the identity of the community and its proper Source. It doesn't give credit to the Liturgy for what it is, as Fr. Keyes wrote so forcefully on his blog:

> So, Fr. Rob, to force the congregation to greet each other prior to the
> beginning of Mass is to make a statement that you no longer believe the
> celebration of the Eucharist has the power to bind us together into his
> Body.

A number of commentors and e-mailers mentioned that they and many other people, are rather shy and are made very uncomfortable by things like the "grip-and-grin". Others said they don't like it, find it intrusive, but go along anyway, trying to be good sports. But I know that there are many people who really like such things. So it seems to me that considerations of people's comfort level with the practice are almost besides the point. Dave Alexander points this out at his Man With Black Hat blog. He reminds us that, ultimately, this is not a matter of our personal tastes:

> This is not a matter of likes or dislikes. There is a centuries-long tradition
> of silent preparation before Mass, one that is reinforced in the newly-revised
> General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Our "community" is built around the
> Eucharist, not the back-slapping of boneheads who wouldn't cross their freshly-
> manicured lawns to do you a favor.

Now, I'll leave aside the question of whether the people who like the grip-and-grin are "back-slapping boneheads", or whether or not they're the sort of people who "wouldn't cross their freshly-manicured lawns to do you a favor." I think that Dave might be a trifle uncharitable there. But he does bring up an important point.

The Mass is rightly called the "Source and Summit" to which all the activity of the Church is directed, and from which all Her power flows (Sacrosanctum concilium, 10). There is literally nothing more important that we do as human beings than participate at Mass. There is literally no more powerful source of grace than the Mass. We cannot casually approach this mystery in which "Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us." (II Vespers, Feast of Corpus Christi) It has, therefore, been a long-established tradition that in order to participate most fruitfully, we need to prepare ourselves by recollection, prayer, and self-examination. To do that requires an quiet and reflective atmosphere. The Mass takes place outside of any particular place and time, in the Eternal Now of Heaven. If I am praying before Mass, trying to recollect myself before entering into the mystical eternity of the Sacrifice, then to "introduce" Mass by getting people to engage in chit-chat seems to me to be a jarring interruption. Here I am, my heart, mind and soul lifted up into the eternal and timeless, and you want to jerk me back into the here and now with a banal, very this-worldly, and not-very-meaningful gesture?

Frequent commentor Maureen Mullarkey (you really ought to have your own blog, Maureen) summed up the problem very well, writing:

> It is just one more thing that whittles away at our sense of the sacred:
> socializing the Mass and diverting attention from the Cross to ourselves.
> No amount of Christ talk disguises a mundane, secular gesture for what it is.

Liturgists have a word to describe this sort of thing: De-Ritualization. The grip-and-grin before Mass is a deritualizing gesture which confounds and obscures our entering into the sacred mysteries by injecting a foreign and antithetical activity.

This brings me back to an issue I raised earlier: that each generation is likely to identify as its Greatest Need the very thing it needs less of or is getting in the way of what really is needed. I for one think that the last thing we need in most parishes is more "community", at least in the sense intended by those advocating the grip-and-grin and similar activities. In many parishes the liturgy has been turned into The Self-Actualized Community Celebrating Itself. Now, I would not characterize the liturgies at my parish as anything approaching that nadir, but do we really need to take any steps in that direction? The minute you take your gaze off of Christ and focus on yourself, you are in spiritual danger. This principle applies to communities as well as individuals. In many Catholic parishes the level of chit-chat and conversation before Mass rises to that which can only described as a "din". Recollection and preparation is impossible in such an atmosphere. People are already using the time before Mass as social "hi howya doin" time. Do we really need to encourage that and give it official sanction?

All of that being said, I want to make it clear that I'm not "against community" or indifferent about it. I think that Greg Popcak at Heart, Mind and Strength blog made some excellent points about the importance of parishes having a strong communal identity and the need to be welcoming and inviting. But there are better ways to do that than the grip-and-grin, and ways that don't have the added disadvantage of confusing or confounding the meaning and nature of liturgy. Some commentors had excellent suggestions along these lines: Greeting people as they come into church, inviting parishioners, and especially visitors, to join in coffee and donuts after Mass. Other people accurately pointed out that community is built up when people who worship together put their faith to work together. That means having a vigorous devotional life in the parish (something many modern American parishes are lousy at), numerous organizations and sodalities (what ever happened to the Holy Name Society, which used to be a staple parish activity for men?) such as the Altar Guild, etc. It means turning people loose to organize different service projects and charitable activities. Those are the things that really build community.

Some have pointed out that this issue, in the greater scheme of things, isn't that big of a deal. And they are correct. But the fact that there are more important issues confronting the church and even my parish doesn't mean it's OK to just give this a pass. If I were a new pastor coming into a parish where this was established practice I wouldn't make abolishing it a high priority. But I would look for opportunities to teach the my parishioners the deeper meaning of the Eucharist and the true source and meaning of community. Since this practice is newly introduced in my parish, it is appropriate and even incumbent upon me to make my opposition and reasons for it known. What impact that will have, I don't know. After all, I'm just the associate.