Cleansing Fire

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A Tale of Two Masses – Part II: Good Liturgy Done Poorly

June 14th, 2011, Promulgated by Gen

Part I here.

Most of the time, when we discuss liturgy here at Cleansing Fire, it’s in reference to a certain abuse, a particularly tasteless occasion at Mass, or some irreverent incident taking place within the sanctuary, regardless as to whether it’s a part of Mass or not. We have devoted hundreds of posts on these matters, exposing countless acts of sacrilege and profanation alongside abuses that were more akin to one-time mistakes than malevolent and intentional disobedience. However, chronicling these events of the City of Bad Liturgy Done Well is only half (or even less than that) of what we, as Catholics, ought to be doing. And I don’t mean simply as a blog, as a parish, or even as a diocese – I mean universally.

While bad liturgy done well customarily betrays some political agenda (i.e. massive gender-neutral/race-neutral foam puppets at the Call to Action “Mass”), good liturgy done poorly betrays the exact opposite. Rather than the people of the parish having a clear mission, the inhabitants of this second city are complacent, knowing that they’re doing what is asked of them . . . nothing more, nothing less. While the abuses we witness in far too many places thrust the lance ever deeper into Our Lord’s Sacred Heart, those who are apathetic custodians of Truth are like those “disciples” who simply walked away from Calvary thinking to themselves, “Well, that was a wretched end.” It is regrettable that many of those who defend dignified worship simply give up on their mission when they bring about change in one Mass, one parish, or one priest. No, the mission before us to restore the liturgy to something beautiful is something which never wanes, never goes away in its pressing and undying necessity. Good for you, you have your Latin Mass. But does it have life and energy? Wonderful, you’re starting to sing Gregorian chant. Are you actually going to pursue its use at Mass? You should be commended for your piety at Mass, but does your catechesis end when you genuflect and walk out of church?

Good liturgy means absolutely nothing if we do not seek to find God in it, through the ceremony and devotion unfolding before us at Holy Mass. However, when good liturgy is done with the right spirit, not one of arrogance or conceit, but of praise and singular devotion to Our Lord and Our Lady, that is the pinnacle of human achievement. Seeing as how the Mass is the one place where humankind comes into contact in such a physical, undeniable way with God, it is our duty to make it seem that special. This being said, there is one caveat: make it special, yes, but do not make it special in our sight alone, but also in God’s. In a recent post at the Chant Cafe, Fr. Wadsworth says the following:

Another example may serve to illustrate how far we have deviated from the path (of genuine worship): I have deliberately removed any details which will enable you to identify where this Mass took place. Suffice to say, that it could reasonably have been witnessed in just about any large city in the English-speaking world. The occasion was a youth Mass involving a large number of young people of school and college age. The nature of the occasion meant that it would be reasonable to assume that the majority of those present were what could be described as practicing Catholics, at least in relation to the frequency of their liturgical life.

As the entrance procession began, so did the entrance song. It was sung by a male singer who accompanied himself on the guitar and he was joined by a female singer with a very nice voice. I did not know the song (something I have come to expect) but neither, it would seem, did anyone else and despite the text of the song being reproduced in the participation aid, the only ones singing were the two singers I have already described. The song was certainly religious in content without being noticeably liturgical or scriptural in its text. Musically it was entirely secular in character but skillfully sung and played in genuinely affecting manner. As this beginning to the liturgy unfolded, it became more and more obvious that this was a performance and we were cast in the role of the audience. This intimation was further confirmed as the song ended and it was greeted with enthusiastic and prolonged applause, curtailed only by the celebrant beginning the Sign of the Cross.

This experience was repeated at several subsequent moments in the Mass and notably during the Liturgy of the Word, at the Preparation of the Gifts and during the distribution of Holy Communion. Each time, the dynamics were those of performance and the liturgical assembly slid perceptibly into another mode but one clearly familiar to these young Catholics, that of the concert. At each subsequent moment, the pattern was repeated and the performance was recognized by applause. Am I the only person who is profoundly ill at ease with this, or can we identify that style, content and delivery all determine whether our music is truly liturgical or not? Once again, it would be a mistake to identify this difficulty with purely contemporary musical styles, I have witnessed much the same phenomenon with traditional liturgical music in some of our great churches and cathedrals.

This concert-mentality described by Fr. Wadsworth is exactly what we see in the City of Bad Liturgy Done Well. It’s catchy, it’s fun, it’s stimulating, but it’s not suitable for Mass. To reduce the Mass, the summit of human achievement, to a mere show, wherein the congregation has no life and no awareness of the Sacred Mysteries, is to lose touch with the immensity of the occasion.

And here we see the commonality between these two cities: there is a fundamental lack of understanding of the Holy Mass. On the one hand, the Mass is not some celebration of community – that’s what parades and festivals are for. On the other hand, the Mass is not just having a mastery of liturgical functions. Good Liturgy Done Poorly has lost just as many souls as Bad Liturgy Done Well, because the inhabitants of both cities are forced by their lords to thrive on a diet of gruel. It pains me just as much to see a “traditional” parish act with indifference as it does for me to see a parish act in blatant opposition to the will of the Church and Her Mystical Spouse. A lack of understanding is a lack of understanding, whether it’s trimmed in lace or festooned with rainbow ribbons. What the Church calls for, and what is demanded of us by God, is genuine devotion, as made manifest through dignified liturgy.

However, we ought to consider also the spirit in which these two liturgies are, for lack of a better word, “put on.” Both are unsuitable, for in the one is irreverence, and in the other is lukewarmness. But in the City of Bad Liturgy Done Well, there is a sense of unbridled arrogance. “This is what we want to do, so we’re going to do it.” This is, in my opinion, much more sinister than the mindset of inhabitants of the City of Good Liturgy Done Poorly. “Well, it’s good enough.” Nothing we can do is ever “good enough” for God, and the fact that some people are content simply to do the minimum is shameful indeed. Naturally, sometimes the bare minimum is all that’s possible. Maybe there’s not enough people. Maybe there’s not enough money or patrons. Maybe there’s just not enough “young blood” to get things done. That’s fine, and God knows that these people are doing their absolute best, much like how the woman who gave her last penny in the Gospel is praised by Our Lord, whereas the rich man who withheld his maximum donation was admonished. This can and ought to be applied to the liturgy.

When we have the ability to do great things for the glory of God, in humble obedience to the norms of Holy Mother Church, we are obligated by God and all that is decent and good in His world to render our greatest efforts to His people through dignified, reverent, and majestic liturgy. Apathy and complacency are not virtues, nor are they gifts or fruits of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, to see parishes sitting back without any care to excel “for the greater glory of God” is appalling. Is God not worth our every thought? Is He not worthy to receive our attention for all eternity? Can we not give Him His due for just one hour, and to do so in a way pleasing to Him and pleasing to His Church?

(Part III will be coming along shortly.)

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3 Responses to “A Tale of Two Masses – Part II: Good Liturgy Done Poorly”

  1. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    excellent, Gen.

    You wrote:

    Is God not worth our every thought? Is He not worthy to receive our attention for all eternity? Can we not give Him His due for just one hour, and to do so in a way pleasing to Him and pleasing to His Church?

    A good setup to plug today’s Gospel:

    be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect

  2. avatar anon says:

    Why is 95% of Catholic liturgy in America ugly? If truth is beautiful, what does this tell us? How can this be evangelical? – come to my church service – it is wretched.

  3. avatar Nerina says:

    Anon, you are not alone in having to endure “wretched” liturgy. Believe me. I’d say more and more, though, I endure what Gen describes above – lazy liturgy, or “good enough” liturgy. Usually there are no outright abuses and the Mass is celebrated according to the rubrics, but it seems to lack proper intent. It has become rote or mechanical. Yes, the music is predictably “contemporary folk” (what an oxymoron that is) with an occasional hymn thrown in for us “throw backs” who complain about guitars and bongos. But beyond that, it is obvious that we truly don’t understand the supernatural reality that takes place at every Mass – the meeting of Heaven and earth in praise of God, the creator of the Universe. Whoa. It is too much for our human brain to comprehend, yet the Church attempts to help us appreciate the reality by giving us rubrics and imploring us to put forth our finest efforts. I think if we begin our Liturgy with our focus on worshiping and praising God, true communion naturally follows. When God is placed above all else, we will cease to falsely elevate ourselves and hopefully find a cure for both “Bad Liturgy Done Well” and “Good Liturgy Done Poorly.”

    Looking forward to Part III, Gen. Fantastic stuff.


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