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My Summer Vacation

We had a lovely summer vacation.

It didn't start well. On the Sunday nineteen of us -- staying at three lake cabins in northern Minnesota -- attended Mass at the parish in town. Last year, on this same day, we had heard a marvelous homily about the efforts of rural Minnesotans to work with a poor community in Mexico.

This year there was a new homilist. The readings couldn't be better -- Abraham asking God if he would save anyone in Sodom and Gomorrah in the first reading, and Luke demanding that we account of our actions to our neighbor in the Gospel.And the little kids behaved, atypically, so I heard them.

Then a twenty minute rant. The self-described "newly ordained late vocation" priest, about age 67, offered a rambling tour of his enthusiasm for the Latin Mass ("we better start learning the pater noster!"), purgatory, the church's view of "heretics and schismatics", the need for more priests (a bit ironic, that) and the inadequacies of secular culture. After a feeble stab at the actual readings, "I hope there aren't any scripture scholars out there", he returned to a more congenial subject, the beauties of the Mass. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, he grew frustrated when the baffled congregation did not kneel at the exact moment he requested them to do so.

But funny thing. That night I began Daniel Mendelsohn's "The Lost" a 2006 history of his investigation of the death of his aunt, uncle, and their four daughters in Bolekhiv, Poland, during the Holocaust. Mendelsohn is a classicist and writer for the New Yorker. He is a bit self-indulgent as a writer, and his own sentences are not as laconic as, say, Thuycidides. But Mendelsohn's ability to recreate the world of his lost relatives through archival research and interviews of survivors located around the world mesmerized me. The story is of course overpowering in its sadness, but Mendelson's own humanity -- and the honesty in describing tensions in his own family as he embarks on his quest -- has a redemptive quality. The cumulative effect, when Mendelsohn discovers where his relatives hid from the Nazis, and where they were slaughtered, is overpowering.

One of the book's most unusual and attractive features is Mendelsohn's repeated interrupting of his own narrative to reflect, as a classicist and a Jew, on the Torah, specifically the Book of Genesis. Near the end of the book, Mendelsohn returns to Bolekhiv in an emotional visit, meeting Ukranians and Poles who knew his relatives. He then offers his own reading of the same passages, of Abraham wondering if God will spare inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, that  I had heard in church. The specter of his decades long quest to understand the fate of his relatives, and the motives of the perpetrators, rescuers, and collaborators in Bolekhiv, hovers in the background. He wonders: "As long as there is one good inhabitant of the country of the wicked, can we say that the entire nation is guilty?"

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Of course it is OK to ordain men like that "late vocation" guy because (1) he has the right plumbing, (2) he's single .... I presume, and (3) any old port in a storm.We have met the enemy and he is us.

At occasions such you describe there is a neat bit of Latin that is of some comfort, "ex opere operato". Of course there is no remedy for twenty minutes of idiocy, except, as the nuns used to say, offer it up.

What a mess! I'm reduced to praying that my children and their spouses can learn to "sleepwalk" past this kind of nonsense. Would that the hierarchy would begin to pay attention to the foolishness that all too often passes for "preaching the Gospel."

So you got babel from a priest and redemption from a Jew. Are there ten good priests left?

Was this guy a permanent deacon who "crossed over" after his wife died?Just curious. The ones I've met sound about like the Minnesota Rambler--i.e., overgrown altar boys.However, that's just my experience, and I ought not tar the entire diaconate with that brush.

I asked a priest friend what to do when a homily is driving me crazy. He said he usually prays the Rosary. "Usually" implying that it happens with some frequency...

A "twenty minute rant"? I WISH I heard such "rants" more often. I say "Yay Father!" for having the courage to speak about truly and distinctively Catholic things!

I wonder about those who denounce secular culture and seek high liturgies. I wonder if the stricter rubrics of the "extraordinary form" of the liturgy create a false sense of control. Indeed it concerns me slightly to hear a priest preach not on the scripture, but about his own high liturgical preferences. Odd, that is -- to be so caught up in one form of the liturgy and yet be unable to offer an actual homily. For those wondering, the GIRM says:65. The Homily is part of the Liturgy and is strongly recommended, for it is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life. It should be an exposition of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or from the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners. I sense that priests take the "particular needs of the listeners" perhaps too generally and indeed in some cases it is mere projection about their own needs/concerns. Sometimes priests forget that they need to break open word more than breaking us down. And while certainly I believe that most priests are doing the best that they can, I wonder if the sorts of homilies that grouse are not symptomatic of the current trend of of trying to control secular problems through liturgy.

Perhaps faculties for preaching AND confession should be renewable every few years like a driver's license.

Ditto what Kathy said. I've heard priests give the same Christmas sermon three years running.Last time I went to Confession, I was dismissed with a "Thanks for coming!"Confession is an absolute mess. In trying to make it more "comfy," it's become simply confusing. Not to keep pushing Anglican rites at people, but in the BCP, there is a rite of Confession that is simple, predictable and standard.Confession/Reconciliation is one of the most difficult Catholic sacraments for many converts to get used to. I suggested to the RCIA leaders that they take people into the confessional and walk them through the rite.They were appalled. Maybe they though I was suggesting people actually say what they were planning to confess.

I know a priest who says "Thank you all for coming!" after every daily Mass. Another, "Thank you for being here this morning."I think this is a result of the very deep confusion about the role of the priest at Mass. He is not an emcee, not Jay Leno. It's not about him, and it shouldn't feel like it is all up to him.So why don't we just turn the altars around?

I am amazed at the criticism that having the celebrant face the people is an invitation for the priest to perform. My experience is that they performed more when they faced the altar. Did they ever!!The idea of the celebrant facing the people is to show that we are all the people of God and that the celebrant is the servant of the people.

If we're all the people of God, why aren't we all facing the same direction?The versus populum posture accentuates the difference between cleric and congregation.

As an Episcopalian, there were still some priests who faced the altar. Their services were no less or more decorous than those who faced the congregants.That's because they followed the words and rubrics that were clearly printed in the BCP. Some Catholic priests seem bent on improvisation. They're not bothering to follow the ones we have now, so why would changing them matter?I have to say that on a scale of sins these liturgical "innovations" strike me as up there with, say, wearing white belts with plaid pants or saying "he don't" when you know better. It's poor taste, distracting, but the miracle is that God loves us anyway and shows up in the face of these and other faux pas.

Jean,Oh sure, GOD shows up. No problem. The question is, how present are we to God?In my mom's parish, which is by no means a champion of Latin rigamarole but a regular enormous suburban parish, one priest happened to want to chant the Eucharistic prayer. He did it in a way I wouldn't recommend, with the rather random and bland musical stylings of the Mass of Creation, but still, it made a difference. Instead of fiddling with their bulletins or pretending to pay polite attention, all of the grownups really, really listened. It was so abnormal.

Eager for some very good homilies?If so, you may want to try homilies prepared and delivered by Fr. Walter Burghardt, S.J. His best of the best are collected in about half a dozen different books (e.g., "Love Is a Flame of the Lord," and "Let Justice Roll Down Like Water"). Excerpts of his homilies are easily accessible at amazon.com. Preaching is obviously a skill like any other--some excel and some don't--but I'd like to throw in a good word (no pun intended) for the new permanent deacon in our parish. He's not one of the "crossed over" deacons Jean mentioned (his spouse is still very much alive and justifiably proud of him), but he is an empty nester with adult children, and though somewhat reserved in ordinary conversation, he comes alive while preaching. Though still finding his stride, he clearly has the natural ability and style to develop into an excellent homilist. (Now if we can only have a permanent diaconate that includes women among it. But that's an issue for another thread, another day.)

William, glad to know there are good deacons out there, and thanks for the plug for Fr. Burghardt.Kathy, I keep thinking of something Tolkien wrote that was excerpted in Magnificat some years ago (and am kicking myself for not saving it). But the gist of it was that it's easy to be present to God in Church where everything is done right, but that God calls us to be faithful even in the churches that are half full, the preaching is uninspired and the women are wearing slacks (it was written some time ago). Nevertheless, I have to say that one (of many) reasons I don't go to Mass in my husband's parish is because of the improvisation that goes on. It's not the straw that broke the camel's back, but it became really irritating.

CS Lewis said something similar in Screwtape, the hymns were "mostly corrupt, and in very small print"--something like that. He went on and on.I think "Thank you all for coming" is a special kind of ad lib. That's what a host says at the end of *his* party. Not the party that he has been privileged to be a special part of, but the one that has been his own doing. "And let's hear it for the band, aren't they great!"Or, in the lingo of the day, the party that he himself has "gathered."(I just said that last bit so I could use "scare quotes" one more time.)

I sometimes think I've been to the wrong Catholic Churches. Where to begin? In my time as sacristan (or whatever the job was, it certainly involved intense personal contact with priests and a chance to observe them when they weren't "on") I was constantly impressed by the quality of priests -- American priests, immigrant priests, young priests, old priests, conservative priests, priests with views closer to mine, holy priests, gay priests -- you name it. I calculated that of 35 "guys" I'd worked with there was precisely one I didn't consider it an honor to have known -- and I always considered it completely backwards when they generously thanked me (as they always seemed to do) for my help.Likewise, while I have observed only a couple of deacons, they have been first rate -- or better.And my general impression of the late vocation priests has also been favorable; although I do know one sort of horror story to the contrary from the media, they strike me as having the humility and sense of proportion that comes with life experience.Frankly, one of the things that has been most significant to my moral life in the last ten years is a small "ad lib" -- if you will -- that a priest (who, I happen to know was ordained a month before my parents were married in 1946 -- and four blocks away) used to use at the very beginning of mass.Where have I gone wrong? My overwhelming experience is that the currently serving priests are far superior to those of my youth (think 50's and 60's -- and 70's!), and that very few Catholics give them the respect they have earned.On the other hand, maybe I will redeem myself if I say that have little regard for the last 20 years of bishops, not to mention their spokespeople, consultants, realtors, and attorneys.

We're all offering our own experiences, which is interesting, but I think this is one area where a quantitative study might be useful. How much ad-libbing is there, and what does it consist of? How many homilies are unrelated to the readings (one of my big beefs).Anybody know of one?

Jean, unfortunately I doubt you're going to find a lot of data. Liturgical accuracy isn't exactly a hot topic for sociologists...Best thing to do, though, would be to survey the priests anonymously. Ask straight out whether they have any special touches that they like to add to the Mass. The thing is, they're not usually to blame for that; There is a whole generation that was encouraged by mentors and sometimes teachers to personalize the liturgy, make it warm and welcoming, etc etc.So there wouldn't be widespread hesistation to answer that question honestly.I'm not sure, though, whether you would get good data on the homily question. I take it that this is something priests are aware that they are supposed to do but don't always get around to preparing for.

What I find interesting about the "ad-libbing" of some priests is that they tend to become ritualized. What begins as a sort of earnest "ordinary-Joe" introduction is done over and over again, until it is an expected part of the liturgy. I know of one priest who practically every Sunday begins Mass with a sports update, either (a) apologizing that the assembly is missing some vital sports event by attending Mass (b) updating them on the score of a simultaneous game/tournament or (c) expressing his glee at some recent triumph of any one of his favorite teams. It's become predicatible and tedious. Of course when he announces at the end of Mass that he tried to hurry things up so they could still catch the final innings/quarter or whatever, it becomes maddening.

Kathy, that wasn't the way I would have thought to approach such a study, but it's interesting. Some parishioners narc on priests who ad lib too much or don't follow the rubrics. At least I can only assume so, because sometimes the ad libbing stops abruptly. I wonder if the narcs are those who still insist on kneeling for communion--which is also not in the rubrics.Amen, Eric. But this is not a particularly Catholic thing. In the Episcopal Church, our priest brought a TV set up to the sanctuary when we were greening the Church for Christmas.

Of the several priests I hear regularly two have particularly odd intro pieces. One speaks of calling to mind "our own sins". The "own" sets up a false contrast. Would any one imagine that a penitential rite was the occasion for recalling the sins of others? So I conclude this is something he has memorized but somehow mismemorized. In other words, if he knew what he is saying, he would not say it.From another priest we get something along these lines: "Let us call to mind our sins and to [sic] ask God's pardon." Now the "to" is clearly a mistake but he always makes it. I again conclude that he does not know what he is saying. Whle i'm at it, why do whole congregations say: "Thy kingdom come [FULL STOP] on earth as it is in heaven" when the sense is surely: "Thy kingdom come on earth [SLIGHT PAUSE] as it is in heaven."

Perhaps I should clarify my point about one particular ad lib -- small additions or changes that make the listener pay closer attention to what is being said or hear things one usually lets pass by can be very useful; things that call attention to the personality of the priest, talk down to the audience, or make the proceedings more "down to earth" are almost always bad. The last thing I want to know is that the priest is a regular guy.And sports metaphors simply do not belong in church (nor in politics, for that matter, I'm coming to believe); least of all football. I take consolation in the fact that Theodore Roosevelt, great champion of muscular Christianity and the strenuous life -- which meant a good deal more than war as a spectator sport -- despised football and worked hard to dislodge it from the place it had in American culture even at that time.

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About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.