I’m tired of being nice about it, tired of being politically correct when this issue comes up. So I’ll be blunt. Someone just left my parish to join one that has an altar on wheels, and I’m angry about it.
Let me explain. On most days, the altar in my ex-parishioner’s new house of worship stands exactly where one would expect it to in a Catholic church—for the last forty or so years, anyway, ever since the Second Vatican Council called for celebrating Mass versus populum. But on Sunday mornings at 10:15, the same altar is rolled against the wall, so that Mass can be celebrated as it was in the good old days. And that’s just the beginning of the show. I’m guessing you’ve seen this movie. It’s in black and white, the characters are dressed up in fiddleback chasubles, and they use a dead language to mask a basic inability to connect vibrant gospel living with twenty-first-century American life.
My gripe is not about Latin. That language is a rich part of our tradition, and its use makes sense, especially when congregations include different cultures and tongues. My gripe is that those who consider themselves Catholic “conservatives” or “traditionalists” are often promoting more than just a type of prayer. Often it is a whole agenda, one favoring dictation over discussion, uniformity over diversity, a narrow gate over an open door, and rules, rules, rules. After my parishioner jumped ship, I checked out the Web site of his new parish and found plenty of rules there—plus fashion advice to the parish’s women from a 1926 interview with a Mother Superior; a sober reflection on the Latin Mass as the only basis of authentic worship; and an explanation of how lay Eucharistic ministers caused the vocation crisis. Yet I found absolutely nothing about feeding the hungry. Or about the formation of conscience. Or even about a parish picnic or dance or musical event.
I’m no sociologist, but it seems to me that the attitude behind such a harsh and cheerless Web site does not seek to convert the multitudes. Its joy-killing grimness won’t appeal to many, and I suspect that’s just fine with the parish’s pastor, content to worship with his small but merry (that is, grim) band of like-minded comrades.
Which brings us to the infuriating—and, to me, heartbreaking—question: Why? As a pastor of a vibrant faith community, as a priest who has witnessed countless times the joy of resurrection, as a follower of Christ who works to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer, I ask myself, Why would anyone settle for less? Why all the doublespeak about doctrine and magisterium and all the silence about subversive parables and inflexible Pharisees? Is it a lack of intellect? It’s certainly not a lack of opinion.
Meanwhile, I await the new Missal set to debut in November [see "It Doesn't Sing"]. Product of a decade-long effort that followed the Vatican’s 2001 instruction Liturgiam authenticam, the new Missal is intended to steer us back toward a more traditional liturgy. Ominously, it has elicited advance rumbles of discontent from many who find it, according to a recent New York Times article, “archaic and inaccessible.” And I note with foreboding that traditionalists eagerly expect the new Missal—this comment comes from a Web site devoted to blogging about liturgy—to enforce “a new sense of dignity and decorum...[and] other related reforms such as an altar orientation toward the East, kneeling for Communion, and better and more dignified vestments and furnishings.”
Goodbye versus populum, hello ad orientem? I hope not. I’m not sure I could get used to turning my back on my congregants during Mass. Or to putting our altar on wheels.
Most days, none of this gets to me. I have mercifully little time to dwell on it. When the door is wide open, and anyone who walks by is invited in, there’s a lot to do. There’s also a good chance that the Lord will slip in when you least expect it, and with the most unlikely of people. When that happens, one suddenly discovers a joyfulness, a holiness not dependent on language or incense. On those days, it all makes sense and it’s all good. Every once in a while, though, when the day has been exceptionally long and the quality of mercy is past strained and about to snap, I find myself losing patience. That’s when I give in to an unkind thought for my colleague, the one who wrote the Web site for the church my ex-parishioner now attends. At such moments I find I’d like to put that pastor on wheels and give him a big push toward the wall.
An unworthy thought, I know. Do you suppose it would sound nicer in Latin?