Friday, April 18, 2008

The Papal Mass in Washington - It's About the Culture

So, the Pope celebrated Mass yesterday in Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C., and he preached an inspiring homily, and moved the hearts of thousands (if not millions) of people closer to Christ in prayer. He celebrated the Mass, as we've come to expect, with dignity, reverence, and obvious devotion.

However, all was not as it could and should have been, especially with the music. Many others have commented on the poor musical choices, and how they seemed to reflect little awareness of Pope Benedict's teaching on the liturgy, or even much awareness of the Church's teaching and directives regarding liturgy and music. Fr. Richard Neuhaus, commenting during live coverage on EWTN, may have expressed the problem best when he pithily remarked "Perhaps those responsible for this are unfamiliar with Pope Benedict’s many writings on the liturgy..."

I won't rehash what others have already said at The New Liturgical Movement or Fr. Zuhlsdorf's trenchant commentary. But I will make a few observations about the reactions to the Mass, and what this Papal Mass reveals about the state of Catholic culture.

Firstly, I was taken aback by the sheer violence and passion of the reaction from the supporters of the Reform of the Reform and Traditional liturgy. I'm not here speaking so much of Shawn Tribe and the people at NLM, nor of Fr. Zuhlsdorf at "What Does the Prayer Really Say?". Their commentary has been measured and quite insightful. No, I am speaking of the many commentors at both sites (Some 300 at NLM alone!). I gathered from many of the comments on the above mentioned sites that people were shocked and surprised by what they saw and heard. I can't see why anyone should have been surprised - the music selected for the Mass was announced almost three weeks ago. I don't get the shock: the organizers of the DC Mass reveled three weeks ago that they intended to present a mish-mash, or, again in Fr. Neuhaus' inimitable words, a "liturgical stew". And that's precisely what they did. Don't get me wrong: I'm not minimizing the problems with the music for the DC Mass. But I wasn't shocked by it. Indeed, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the occasional "good" musical moments of the Mass.

I was also, alternately, both dismayed and amused by some of the commentors who spun wild conspiracy theories suggesting collusion of Msgr. Marini (the pope's Master of Ceremonies) or even of the Pope himself, in the nefarious agenda represented by the music of the DC Mass. Some tried to lay the blame on Marini, saying "he was the one sent over to approve the arrangements, he' s the one to blame." As though Msgr. Marini is supposed to have a a current and particular knowledge of the repertoire of American Catholic sacred music. Really - is Msgr. Marini supposed to know Manolo's "Come, O Spirit of God", Chepponis' "Go Up To The Altar Of God" and Hurd's setting of "Ubi Caritas", and the rest? I laughed out loud when I read one commentor's suggestion that henceforth, whenever the holy father celebrates Mass away from Rome, he should bring with him his own MC's, servers, and choir. Not exactly a practical solution. Sooner or later the holy father and his staff have to rely on the locals organizers to, well, organize. That reliance may be well or ill-placed, but there's really no alternative. If, as I believe happened in this instance, that reliance was ill-placed, chances are that reveals deeper problems that papal micro-managing won't really solve.

I also was struck by the apocalyptic tone of many comments as well. Quite a few suggested that the DC Mass indicated that the Reform movement had failed, and that we were henceforth doomed to Haugen, Haas, and the St. Louis Jesuits per omnia saecula saeculorum. Please, people, get a grip. I do believe Jesus had something to say about "the gates of Hell" prevailing, and all that. Have some faith. Since the liturgy belongs to the Church, and is the "source and summit" of our faith, it seems to me that Our Lord's promise to the Church extends to the liturgy as well. The Kingdom of God always advances in fits and starts, never in a straight line. One setback is hardly cause to abandon the field. Yes, I'm sure some will be tempted to use the DC Mass as "evidence" to perpetuate the Americanized "Spirit of Vatican II" liturgy. But really, that whole way of thinking is becoming more and more patently dated by the day. It just isn't flying anymore, because more and more people are becoming aware of what Vatican II really taught about the liturgy, and Pope Benedict's teaching in this area is having an inexorable effect. The priests ordained in the last 10 years are almost universally tradition-friendly, and that trend is only expanding. The current liturgical disorder wasn't created overnight, and it won't be undone overnight.

Furthermore, we have to recognize that, in the greater scheme of things, the music offered at the DC Mass was in many respects far better than what you'd find in a lot of American parishes. There are still many parishes (indeed, I would say a large majority) where you would never hear as much Latin, chant and polyphony as we did at that Mass. I have been acquainted with pastors who forbid the singing of a single syllable of Latin at their parishes. We have to recognize that, in spite of the widespread resurgence of tradition, in spite of the rapidly growing number of Extraordinary Form Masses being offered throughout that country, the work of authentic liturgical renewal has just barely begun. There are many, many Catholics who aren't even aware of what is happening, much less have been won over.

Which brings me to the larger point. Archbishop Wuerl, in his greeting of the Holy Father at the beginning of the Mass, stressed the different cultures and ethnicities represented at the Mass. Fr. Neuhaus observed that the spirit of "multiculturalism" pervaded the Mass. A different EWTN commentator, after the Mass, gushed about how the Mass represented the "diversity" of the Church in America. Others waxed about how the Mass was an opportunity for the Church in America to show the Holy Father who we are. The problem: That's. Not. What. Mass. Is. About.

The Mass is not an "opportunity" for me, or we, to "show" anyone anything, let alone "who we are." The Mass is not about "representing" the diversity (or anything else), of those who participate in it. The Mass is about re-presenting the eternal Sacrifice of Christ at the Last Supper and Calvary. It's about Him, not me, and not even about we.

We live in the age, as Mark Shea has coined the term, of "Generation Narcissus". Our collective motto as a society is "It's all about me." In liturgical terms, this translates to the "Self-Actualized Community Celebrating Itself in Its Okayness". In our pride and self-centeredness, we want to turn the liturgy around to focus on ourselves. As a priest I have encountered this in many ways. This attitude commonly rears its head in weddings. When, from time to time, I have had to say "no" to the unreasonable liturgical demands of some bride, I have heard the reply "but this is my wedding". To which my response is, "yes, it is, but it's not about you. At confirmation, graduation, and other special Masses, frequently the organizers try, in ways verging upon the silly, to concoct ways to "involve" all the confirmands or graduates, to give them all something to "do" in the liturgy, because it's "about" them.

This kind of thinking was evident in the DC Mass. There was a seemingly never-ending parade of cantors, musicians, and pieces of a dizzying variety of styles and ethnic origins, all aimed at trying to "include" every possible different ethnic and racial group. This process had what Amy Welborn aptly called a "frenzied" quality. It seemed frenzied because it was so obviously labored, and so obviously detracted from experiencing the liturgy as any kind of unified whole. This "multicultural" approach failed liturgically, and it also failed in it's own putative aim: rather than celebrating unity in diversity, or some such thing, it ended up exaggerating the ethnic differences and working against the communio that the liturgy is intended to bring about.

No, the problem, as I heard another priest once say, is that most Catholics "don't know anymore what the Mass is for. " And not knowing what something is for, we will tend to make it for ourselves. Part of the cause for this state of affairs is the collapse of catechesis in the 70's and 80's. I belong to the generation for whom CCD stood for "Cut, Color, and Draw." There is a whole cohort of Catholics who were never taught the rudiments of sacraments and liturgy, nor much of anything else. However, this "knowing" what the Mass is for is something that goes deeper and reaches farther than intellectual understanding. I would imagine that, if you asked the musicians and participants at that liturgy, most of them in one way or another would say that the Mass is about worshipping God. But in spite of "knowing" this in some way, most Catholics experience of liturgy in their parishes, and the experience of the DC Mass, in fact works against what we supposedly "know". In order for what we "know" to really form our lives, it must be "incarnated" in the culture in which we live. And I believe we have come perilously near a point where we cannot, in any meaningful sense, identify a coherent and unifying Catholic culture in the U.S.

No doubt there are many reasons for this, but it seems to me that at bottom the foremost cause goes back to this tendency to try to re-focus the liturgy back on ourselves. For thirty years, have been trying to impose one agenda after another on the liturgy, and all of those agendas boil down to "It's all about me." We have tried to re-make the liturgy in our own image, and in doing so have enervated the culture which makes the liturgy intelligible. The Mass, of it's nature, is, as Amy Welborn said, about Something. And that Something is objective. It is what it is, and calls us to conform ourselves to it. But once we start imposing our own agendas and on it, we create confusion, and lead people to think that it's about Whatever I Want It To Be About. That leads to fragmentation, chaos, and the breakdown of culture. As soon as the liturgy is seen as about Anything, it will be perceived by some to be about Nothing.

The liturgy, as Pope Benedict has written, should form our culture. But for the last thirty years the prevailing culture, and it's winds of trend and fashion, has been allowed to to de-form the liturgy. This is the lesson that our bishops and priests must learn. Once again, the evidence of this tendency was glaring in the music at yesterday's Mass. This process has both damaged the liturgical life of the Church, and weakened Catholic culture. The reversal of the process cannot begin with the prevailing culture that surrounds us - it contains much that is simply antithetical to the Faith. We must begin with the liturgy - as it is understood and lived in the continuity of the Church's Tradition. We must allow ourselves to be formed by the liturgy, so that we can be conformed to the Something that the liturgy is about. Then we will, almost without consciously trying, begin to rebuild and reform the culture of the Faith and of the world.