Rules, Rubrics and Reasoning

In the ongoing debate about church shopping some of the readers who go to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass defend their choice by saying, “It is objectively reverent.” Can this be so? It can be objectively formal. It may be objectively done ‘by the rubrics’ but ‘reverence’ is surely a subjective experience. They may experience it as ‘objectively reverent’ but I’ve spoken to other Catholics who have come away from a Mass at one of our local traditionally minded parishes and this is what they’ve said:

1. That didn’t do anything for me at all. I don’t think it was reverent. All I could think of was how po faced and uptight and mechanical those young servers were. Yucch. They were totally distracting.
2. I didn’t think it was reverent. In fact I didn’t think much about it at all except that I couldn’t understand any of it and wondered why Fr so and so is cold and distant and won’t talk to us in our own language and has his back to us. I was just bored.
3. I find Mass in my parish more reverent. (They’re referring to a parish which traditionalists would look down their nose at for being AmChurch) The lighting is soft and the music is quiet at the consecration and everyone goes forward to receive the Lord reverently.

I suppose some who favor the traditional forms of worship would say, “It’s simple. The way we do it is right and they are just wrong. We worship God in His way and they worship him in their way. If they’re Catholic they should learn the old Mass and get used to it.”

Those who would argue that the priest should just “say the black and do the red” have a good point and I agree with it. A priest should certainly not deviate from the words printed and the rubrics given. However, even when the priest does just this it doesn’t make the Mass reverent necessarily. Terrible music can intrude, poorly drilled servers can distract, bad vestments and awful architecture can distract, or the priest might ‘say the black and do the red’ with total faithfulness to the rubrics, but say the words either in hip hop– ‘look at me aren’t I making the Mass meaningful’ kind of way, or say the black and do the red in a casual and bored way and both would affect the perception of reverence. In other words, many priests ‘say the black and do the red’ and it’s not reverent at all. All one needs do is talk to an old cradle Catholic who will tell you that his boyhood experience of Mass was centered around the altar boys’ bets  that Fr Magillicuddy would set a new land speed record and say Mass in 22 minutes. That good Father ‘said the black and did the red’ but it sure wasn’t perceived as ‘reverent.’

Furthermore, simply ‘saying the black and doing the red’ doesn’t necessarily bring in any kind of simple uniformity of worship. In my own parish I aim to ‘say the black and do the red.’ The music will be simple, classic hymns. The servers (mostly boys) will be trained to serve with dignity and simplicity. I don’t want to do anything special. I don’t want the worship to be overly formal or overly dignified or for the music to be overly magnificent. Nothing will distract. All things in the liturgy should focus on the action at the altar and nothing else. However, despite my attempts to be as objective as possible in my celebration of the Mass I am sure before long my own parish will carry the stamp of its pastor just like all the other parishes in town and people will come to my parish or leave my parish according to how much they like ‘Fr Dwight’s Mass’. This is a frustration for me because I would dearly love to provide something that is ‘objectively reverent’ but I doubt if it is possible.

What is ‘reverence’ at Mass anyway? Some traditionalists think it can be packaged and performed and if it is all done ‘just so’ then it will be reverent. What they experience as reverence will leave many other Catholics cold. They make the mistake of assuming that because they find formality, beautiful music and splendid liturgy reverent that everyone else must as well, they then go on to insist that “If only those other Catholics could experience this fine liturgy they will love it and come back to the tradition and all shall be well. Sadly, the majority of ordinary Catholics are simply turned off by  traditional worship. They don’t appreciate the formality. They don’t like what comes across as exclusive, high falutin’ arty masses filled with snooty people who look down on them. They don’t think it’s wonderful, and so they vote with their feet and go to AmChurch parishes.

Now I know what will happen, all those who like traditional liturgy will think I am accusing them of being snooty and arty and high falutin’ and stuck up.  Some of them will write snooty comments and prove my point. However I’m not–repeat–not throwing stones at traditionalist Catholics. I’m actually on their side. I’m simply stating how many of them are perceived by an awful lot of rather nice, ordinary Catholic folk who have tried traditional Catholic worship and simply don’t like it.

So where is ‘reverence’ in worship to be found? All I can do is speak for myself: I have experienced true reverence at a Solemn Missa Cantata in Latin. I have also experienced reverence at a camp with 200 children and college aged students where a couple of kids with guitars had prepared contemporary music carefully and helped lead the worship with true love and devotion. I’ve experienced true reverence at a fishing village Mass on a hot summer night in El Salvador with illiterate people singing with just an accordion, a fiddle and a broken down drum set. I’ve experienced true reverence in worship at the Taize Community and at Kings’ College Cambridge. I’ve experienced it in the stillness after all the loud music has died down and communion is completed at a huge charismatic Catholic rally. I’ve experienced reverence at Mass at the tomb of St Peter, in the chapel once used by St Maximillian Kolbe, in an inner city Mass in England in a church crowded with the unemployed and homeless, and I’ve experienced reverence at a country church in England at 7am on a winter morning when my breath froze. I’ve experienced reverence after Mass at Mont St Michel or a hundred other monasteries, and at a big circus tent church in an American suburb, and at a 6pm weekday Mass at Westminster Cathedral–the great dark hall crammed with office workers and tramps and students and children who have stayed late at school.

Can someone come along and say I did not experience reverence in these places because the Masses did not follow the rubrics of the Catholic Mass?

I think not.

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