Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Para-liturgical lament
Despite my best efforts in recent years, I just have not been able to match my affection with my intellectual knowledge about what happens at Mass. I just don't seem to experience or be able to generate a sense of awe, of being in the presence of the mysterium tremendum, my Creator and Judge.

I put part of the blame on the fact that I don't prepare adequately to participate in the Mysteries. I need to arrive earlier and spend more time in quiet prayer.

But I also put some blame on the unrelenting casualness and indifference toward the sacred in the life of the American Church especially in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s. (sounds like an oldies station or something).

I can still remember the time before 1965 when the sense of awesomeness was palpable. I would no more dare step into the sanctuary before being an altar boy than step into fire. And when my mom brought home some unconsecrated communion wafers when I was preparing to take my first Communion, I refused to eat them.

Suddenly, in 1965, all kinds of things began to change. And I'm not referring to official changes in the liturgy, but to the way priests and people did things and treated things outside of the official rubrics.

For instance, suddenly instead of beautifully bound black leather books with gold leaf edged, missals became disposable paper missalettes with the very Word of God in them. Gone was the stately orthography and the beautifully etched illustrations (not to mention the Latin). Instead of saying special prayers for each item while vesting, and then reciting Psalm 43 (42) while approaching the altar, the priest chats about who know what until the opening hymn starts. Altar rails were removed. Altar boys became servers and, instead of cassock and surplice, began to wear a ratty white alb with a plain rope cord for a cincture. The music became informal folk guitar music.

Things got very strange in the seventies. The Masses at the Bulla Shed at Notre Dame were done in a sitting position, using homemade bread that resembled cake more than anything. Even Emil T. Hoffman, the famed Notre Dame chemistry teacher, went to these Masses. I recall one C.S.C. priest celebrating Mass with us on a Frisbee altar on a mounting in Austria. It was quite common for students to go to the dorm Mass in their bathrobes. Or to study in the chapel lying down on the floor behind the altar.

Even at our parish, St. Anthony's, which is one of the liturgical gems of the diocese where there is a strong emphasis on the sacred, the parishoners chat in the isles after Mass (but, gottseidank, not before).

The accumulated effect of all these incidental changes in behavior was to deaden me, seemingly permanently, to the sense of the sacred. I remember, for instance, having absolutely no sense of holiness when I met and shook hands with Mother Teresa in the early 1980s. Nor was I exactly awe struck when I went to a papal audience in 1979.

As noted, almost none of these things have anything to do with the official changes in the liturgy since Vatican II. Much of the old ways could still be in place with the new missal. Something as simple as dressing up for Mass could still be done.

What we have here is an instance of bad inculturation. American have a strong preference for the casual and the informal. Why do we even need dress-down Fridays at work? Which then becomes the norm for all days? Comfort is more important than having our clothes say something about the importance or meaning of what we are doing.

I would suggest, for those of us, priest and people, who are growing impatient with the romanitas of current liturgical reforms aimed at enhancing the sense of the sacred, that we should begin with these things we can do something about. Lets dress up a little, get nicely bound missals, etc. Priests, those vesting prayers are still in the Roman Missal. Use them!

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