Missing Your Blessing

I’ve refrained from answering comments about my post on liturgical abuse because I wanted to see what people would say.

It’s been a sad sort of education. Evidently, all that’s necessary for a person to be labelled self-righteous, heretical and told to leave the Church is to say that the Real Presence and healing graces of the mass are more important than liturgical irregularities.

Before I go further with this post, I want to make something clear. Those who say that I am not worthy to be a Catholic are correct. I am not worthy. And I know it. But I don’t think I’m unworthy because I refuse to boil my pastor in oil for allowing applause during the after-mass announcements for the people who put up Christmas decorations.

I am unfit for far more substantial reasons than that. In truth, I never walk into a Catholic Church that I don’t feel just how unworthy I am. Even after all these years, I am grateful — and astonished — that anybody ever let me in. So, if this debate is going to devolve down to me and my sinful, unworthy-to-be-Catholic state, I will short-circuit it by telling you right up front that you are right. I have no business standing in the presence of God. None.

I can only do it because of the Catholic Church and its forgiveness. I am here by the grace of God working through the totally unwarranted kindness that a priest extended to me once upon a time. He just opened the doors and let me in, something I’m sure the liturgy cops would want him punished or censured for doing.

I understand that the Church (not you; not me; but the Church) is responsible for keeping the liturgy whole and handing it forward intact to future generations. I know that conformity to the rubrics is part of this. I’m not arguing with that. I just don’t think it’s the laity’s job to police the liturgy.

I also think that some of the articles I’ve read about this are mean-spirited and hateful (as were a couple of the comments on this blog) and that our priests do not deserve this kind of treatment. I don’t look for mistakes in how my priest says the mass, just as I don’t ask to stay awake during surgery so I can birddog my surgeon.

The mass as it is actually said in parishes all over the world is bound to be imperfect because human beings are imperfect. That is how things are, and how they will continue to be until we share in the banquet of the Great High Priest in Heaven. There is no amount of criticism or angry denouncing that can change this.

People who stand before the miracle of the love of Christ and only see the faults and failings of the priest who has given his life to bring Christ to them in the sacraments confound me. They are blinding themselves to the miracle.

The mass is a living re-enactment of Calvary. It is heaven come down to earth, so that we can be in communion with heaven while we are still here on earth and experience the healing power of the living Christ in the Eucharist. In my opinion, standing before the throne of God and engaging in a petty snipe-fest about this or that “abuse” is itself an abuse.

We cannot experience the miracle of Christ in front of us and indulge our angry obsessions over the faults we see in the liturgy both at the same time. Our brains just aren’t made that way. We will do one. Or we will do the other. Worship Christ, or critique the priest: That is the choice. Those who critique the priest are missing their blessing.

I don’t honestly know if this over-concern with the real and imagined faults of our priests is a genuine concern for the liturgy and a miss-placed attempt at devotion or if it’s an expression of anger over other things. What I do know is that we can trust the Church to do this job of defending the liturgy. The Holy Spirit is going to protect the Church from failing in this regard.

I also know that this is not my job, and it’s not yours. Our job as laity is to worship Christ at the mass; to let the love that is there heal us, and then to go out from there to change the world. We are God’s great change agents for a suffering world. When we indulge these obsessions with what we think the priest is doing wrong, we block ourselves from receiving the graces that are there for us in the mass and unfit ourselves for the battle we were made to fight.

If you walk out of mass seething and angry rather than loved and healed, then you’ve done something wrong while you were there.

I’ve often said that if people were the ones who decided who would go to heaven, then none of us would go. We would all judge one another and send each other to hell. I’m going to amend that to say that if the liturgy cops were the ones who determined who goes to heaven, the rest of us wouldn’t want to go there. These people remind me of the Puritans who first settled this country and who, I’ve read, used to walk up and down during church services with sticks so they could jab anyone who dozed off.

I am not fit to stand before God under any circumstance. And yet I do stand before Him and receive Him in the Eucharist as a free and totally undeserved gift of grace. The Catholic Church makes that possible; the real Catholic Church that is full of imperfect priests who sometimes commit errors while ministering to the confused and imperfect people who sit in the pews.

We are all of us standing before the cross in the solidarity of our sins and lostness. If that isn’t true, then why do we even need the Eucharist? Perfect people have no need of the sacraments or a Church to preserve those sacraments. Perfect people don’t need any Savior but themselves.

If you spend your time in mass looking for faults and picking things apart, then you’re impoverishing yourself with a second rate experience. You’re like a child who refuses to open his present because the bow is crooked.

Do you have any idea what is happening in the world? Do you understand that Christianity is under attack, that the world is a butcher shop, and that these priests bring us the only hope there is? Priests are human beings. I’ve sometimes gotten exasperated with one or another of them, as, I assure you, they have with me. I’ve had disagreements, and rather heated ones, with priests I know. But not over their advice to me about spiritual things.

I have never felt anything but awe when one of these very human men looks down at that wafer and says “This is My body,” and by saying that, makes it so. They bring us Christ in the Eucharist, and, my experience has been, when you’re in trouble and you call them, they come.

When I talk about the people who were at the Christmas Eve mass, I am talking about living miracles of grace. The pillars of the community, illegal immigrants, the gay man, the transsexual, the gabbling ladies, the cop who was supposed to never walk again, and, yes, incredible as it is to say, me. We are all miracles.

The only reason I can say that I am Catholic is because of the love of Christ and the kindness of a priest who helped me when I needed it badly.

This dear priest is also one of the most quick-tempered, sometimes difficult people that I know a big part of the time. But he is God’s man and he, like most of his other brother priests, does his best. I’ve seen God reach right through these men and into suffering people, have experienced it myself, again and again.

They are my brothers in Christ. We, all of us, owe them a debt of gratitude.

 

 

Jesus was There

I attended mass on Christmas Eve.

There may have been liturgical abuses, were, in fact, according to several articles I’ve read this week by prominent Catholics.

These people evidently bring a spreadsheet to mass so they can tally all the disrupting liturgical abuses they find there. I don’t know how they have time to worship during all the liturgical-abuse minding they must do. I would imagine that a priest, on seeing one of these folks enter his church, must feel the same anxiety that a young bride feels when her mother-in-law comes to call.

It would be difficult to get on the right side of parishioners like these. One of the sadnesses of these articles is that they find such a ready audience among people who evidently go to mass to carp rather than to pray.

Let my tell you what I found at my church on Christmas Eve.

I saw a church that was packed to overflowing with people of every description. There was the rail-thin gay man who almost certainly is suffering with HIV, the odd-looking transexual whose bulging forearms belie the surgeon’s work, the families with screaming babies, the elderly ladies who sat behind me and gabbled their way through the mass, the deaf man who sat next to me and watched intently but never spoke, the young man with gang insignia on his arms, the young police officer who was injured in the line of duty and was never supposed to walk again but who walked, albeit slowly, into church that night. There were pillars of the community and illegal immigrants, packed into the pews together. Last, but not least, there was me and mine.

We (shudder) held hands during the our father, (gasp) applauded the folks who’d spent hours decorating the church and (can you believe this) got up after mass and talked to one another on our way out of the sanctuary.

It was enough to make a liturgical abuse cop foam at the mouth and fall over in a dead faint.

But do you know who else was there?

Jesus was there.

He was there in the eucharist. He was there in the tired, screaming babies, the gabbling ladies, the odd-looking transsexual, the deaf man who couldn’t hear the mass but felt it anyway, the sad, tired HIV sufferer, the miraculously walking police officer and all the chitter-chattering celebrants as they exited to the Narthex. He was there in the priest whose lunch I once interrupted with a call when my mother was ill, and who came immediately to the hospital.

He was there when we held hands during the Our Father, during the applause and the Christmas carols. He was there in the faith and trust of people who don’t give a care about liturgical abuses but who left their homes on a blustery Christmas Eve to go be together before the Lord because they know He is real, He is present and when they enter that sanctuary, He is there.

These are people who have followed Jesus across the rocky landscapes of their rocky lives. They’ve walked with Him through death, life and everything in between. Some of them had walked right over drug addiction, sexual disorders, terrible injuries, loneliness and fear to be there with Him. We are all riddled with sins, failings, weaknesses and shame. That is our condition. And that is why when we walk into a Catholic Church, we are not searching for liturgical abuses and laundry lists of petty crimes and misdemeanors to assure ourselves of our righteousness. We know that our righteousness resides behind that altar, in the tabernacle, because He is there.

I went to mass Christmas Eve. I didn’t go in search of liturgical perfection. I also didn’t go in search of abuses that I could call out and feel self-righteous about. I went because Jesus is there, and He alone has the words that lead to eternal life. I went to be with my Lord.

And I found Him. Because He was there.


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