When Catholics Play Tug-of-War, the Church Loses

I’m glad I had to step away from the blog for a few days. It’s allowed me some time to watch things unfold, through Facebook and Twitter, without jumping in.

The first night Pope Francis was our Pope, I clicked over to Rorate Caeli and read the combox with horror, shock, nausea, anger, etc. I wasn’t happy. I was so pissed at those rad-trads I couldn’t see straight. I’ve learned my lesson about blogging when angry, though. I didn’t want to repeat the hasty, juvenile tirade that left me so unsure of my own motivations that I considered giving up blogging altogether.

I was pleased to see Larry D’s response. In the days that have followed, though, I’ve become less and less pleased to see this game of tug-of-war drag on. I found that I had started keeping mental tabs on who’s on which side (Fr. Z and Taylor Marshall, yay, they’re on the Francis side even if they’re big fans of the TLM; Pat Archbold, though, he’s going rad-trad, that actually surprises me...). Tonight I read the Crescat’s post and found myself trying to figure out where even I stand, anymore. I’m no fan of Latin, that’s for sure. My inner Protestant screams, “Give me the vernacular or give me death!” anytime I step an unwary foot inside a Tridentine Mass. But I adore stone walls and stained glass, shudder a little at copious gold, love Gregorian chant, and cringe when I hear sappy songs from my Protestant youth murdered inside a Catholic church, (because let’s be honest, y’all…Protestants do Protestant so.much.better.). I also confess to having bounced from parish to parish in Vegas because the Ogre and I didn’t like the cry-rooms and the unruly effect other children were having on our children. Looking back, I want to kick myself for that kind of pious Puritanism, but at the time having children who showed proper reverence was more important to us than having a regular place to go see God. Then again, on the flip side, the only time I’ve ever seen Catholics be truly, outright cruel to their fellow humans was at a Tridentine Mass.

It was right then that my internal debate stopped. How stupid is this? I thought. Catholicism isn’t a religion where you have to make a choice between the NO and the TLM. It isn’t about who loves which Mass or who thinks helping poor people is more important than incense and Latin, or vice versa. What’s beautiful about Catholicism is that we don’t have to choose. We get it all.

As I understand it, the liturgy after Vatican II blundered into chaos and irreverence. Having attended a few horrific Masses myself, I really understand the frustration with irreverence and Protestant-style “rock band” Masses. But after the lesson my 5-year-old taught me two years ago, I always, always try to remember that Jesus is there too, because he loves us in spite of our awful taste in music and liturgical irreverence, and he’s the reason I’m there. When faced with a Tridentine Mass, I inevitably find myself so nervous and distracted by the glances and glares I get from fellow parishioners when Liam drops a hymnal or Lincoln tries to dive down the neck of my shirt that I can hardly focus on why I’m there. But Jesus is there, and so I stay, and try to receive him with humility instead of just humiliation.

I’m more comfortable at Novus Ordo Masses, and I probably always will be. I’d prefer if incense and Gregorian Chant were mandated church-wide, but I understand there are other Catholics who actually like those campfire-guitar songs that make me want to hurl, so in deference to them, I’m glad resigned to the fact that there hasn’t been a ban on all guitars ever. See, that’s the great thing about the Catholic Church. It means universal, because it’s for all of us.

Benedict gave us Summorum Pontificum, which was really important. The changes he’s made in the liturgy have reminded a Church that had forgotten just what this is that we’re doing. Who it is that we’re consuming. What it really  means to be Catholic. Eat my flesh, drink my blood. There’s no overstating the importance of the Mass. It is why we’re Catholic, why we believe what we believe, why we do what we do. It’s all for Christ, present to us in the Eucharist. The people who support the TLM and battle to protect it are some of the strongest Catholics I know. Whenever I’m really in need of some prayers, I always try to ask one of my TLM friends to pray for me, because they pull out their rosary beads and pray right then. And I know they’ll keep praying later, too.

Then there’s people like my sister-in-law. Not so big on the Latin, not hung-up on the rubrics of the mass, but she has that unsettling compassion that’s so unique to Catholics who truly have a heart for social justice issues. I can get so haughty sometimes, and she never fails to call me out right then and there, in the kindest, most non-judgmental way. Just a few quiet words, and she drops the subject and goes smilingly on with her day while I spent weeks agonizing about just how prideful I really am, to have thoughtlessly said what I did and meant it.  God gave us Francis, I think, to do that to us on a Church-wide scale. To unsettle us with his compassion and example. To make us less comfortable in our ways, to make us question whether we’re really living Christ’s commandments or just talking about them.

We had Benedict because we needed him. We have Francis now, I think, because we also need him. We need beauty in the liturgy. We also need to help the poor. These two forces seem so ludicrously opposed to each other in American Catholicism. Either you’re a conservative, rad-trad, pro-Liturgy Catholic or you’re a liberal, social-justice, pro-guitars-and-holding-hands-during-the-Our-Father-Catholic. And anyone who takes the blogosphere as an example probably thinks we Catholics spend all our time hunkered down in our trenches, lobbing carefully-worded-blog-post-bombs at each other, waiting for the other side to go over the top so we can mow them down and cleanse the Church of that crap for once and for all.

We’re waging a pointless and counterproductive war on each other. Both sides are defending deposits of the faith. Good, beautiful, true things that we have learned through our mutual faith, things which our faith needs equally in order to flourish. Can you imagine what might happen if we stopped haunting each other’s comboxes, accusing each other of heresy, and instead spent that energy working together to make the Church better? Maybe we could even *deep breath* try and see what’s true, good, and beautiful about the other. Like, maybe I could go to a Tridentine Mass and viciously repress my inner Jan Hus and really, really try to see the beauty in that ancient liturgy that bequeathed to me the faith I hold so dear today. And maybe whoever runs Rorate Caeli could go to a Novus Ordo Mass in Spanish in Immokalee, the town down the street from me, and instead of being horrified at the abuses in the liturgy really, really try to see the beauty in these migrant workers shuffling into the pews after a day of back-breaking work in the Florida sun, sweaty and dirty and wearing jeans, but resisting the urge to go home and collapse until they’ve seen Jesus.

Our faith is so multi-faceted. That’s why we have a gazillion saints. They’re all doing something different, giving us different examples to follow. Not everyone can be Francis of Assisi, living in blissful poverty, fasting and praying. Someone had to be St. Thomas Aquinas, puzzling out the finest points of theology while remaining very very well-fed. And our Church would be infinitely poorer if Francis and Thomas Aquinas had spent all their time arguing over whose way was better instead of just doing the work God had set before them. We all have different work to do in the Church, and God wants all of us to help make his Church complete. But we can’t very well do that if we’re busy tearing each other to shreds.


  • LA Ekstrom

    I so agree. Both/And. Why not? The Church is big enough for all those expressions of love. God looks to the heart, so should we.

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  • Deacon Greg Kandra

    And as James Joyce so elegantly put it: “Here comes everybody!” :-) One of the reasons I began my blog nearly six years ago (insert jaw-drop here…has it been that long?) is because nobody seemed to acknowledge this irrefutable, beautiful fact: it’s a big church. It’s James Martin and Father Z., Sister Simone Campbell and Mother Angelica, First Things and Commonweal, organs and bongos. Ain’t that something?

  • Elaine

    I agree with your article, but I was shocked when I read your blog about the Tridentine Mass. I just wanted to ask, in a non-accusatory tone, why didn’t you go greet and sit with the family that violated the dress code? Did something stop you or did you just not think of it or what?

    • calahalexander

      Elaine, we were seated in the middle of the pew with people on both sides, and I was 8 months pregnant with two little ones. The logistics of trying to get out stopped me from moving during the Mass, and also I think that climbing over people to interrupt the Mass to show solidarity with strangers is, in its own way, a selfish and inappropriate reaction. I tried to catch them after Mass but they were gone before I could get out of the pew. I even huffed out to the parking lot to try and find them, but they just took off. Not that I blame them. I wish I had left earlier and moved more quickly. Not catching them before they left is something that still haunts me.

  • BSinko

    Well done, faithful servant. Well. Done.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Wow, what a terrific post, Calah! You really said it!

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  • http://fathershane.com/ Fr Shane Johnson, LC

    Amen! Preach it, sister!!!

  • http://onecatholicmama.blogspot.com Amelia

    This is a great post, and I totally agree. The Church IS big enough to all for different “tastes” and preferences in the Liturgy. The Holy Spirit sent up the right pope, Pope Francis, when we (the world Church) needed him. He is both orthodox and compassionate/concerned with social justice, Because the fact, is we SHOULD be concerned with orthodoxy, but also need to have compassion and work for social justice (as much as we are able in our state of life).

    Unfortunately, there are people on both sides who don’t ahve the other. Some very compassionate Catholics that do a lot of work for social justice aren’t orthodox and believe in things that go against church teaching, while some very orthodox Catholics dont have compassion and social justice.

  • Bonnie Doherty

    Well said, Calah!