Francis, Mary De Turris Poust, the Word and Trust – UPDATED

The weekend was busy and I was offline for most of it, so I came late to Mary DeTurris Poust’s most excellent rant on the state of homilies and parish liturgies in general but when I read it, I cheered. I completely understood where she was coming from, because so often I’ve gone to mass half-dragging my feet, dreading the sort of (can I say this?) half-assed manner in which so many parishes serve it. And I don’t mean “serve it” as entertainment for the rest of us but serve as in service: as in an act of vertical worship to God and horizontal openness to the community.

Mary wrote:

It wasn’t that the priest was preaching heresy, which also isn’t unheard of in my church-going experience, unfortunately, or that any one thing outraged me to the point where I felt I just couldn’t remain. It was the overwhelming, long-building, near-constant feeling that my Church really doesn’t care enough to try to feed me spiritually. . .Quite frankly, these parishes don’t deserve any of us.

Oh, lady, you are so singing my song! Recently after a 25 minute homily that went nowhere, I ranted at my husband, “could he not see that after the first ten minutes he’d lost us? That we were sitting their glassy-eyed and no-longer present to him or the mass; could he not see people with their arms folded as though they were defending themselves or just determinedly riding out that mediocrity until he finally finished droning? We deserve better!”

My husband finally asked me if I hate the liturgy and I began to cry. “No! I love the liturgy!” I said. “I just hate how poorly we do it!”

In Strange Gods, I’ve described the unusual Sunday when a younger priest — a rare ‘always pretty good’ homilist — concluded a humdinger of as sermon on John the Baptist. It was so excellently built, so instructive, so satisfying, that when he finished and turned back to ascend the altar, the entire congregation broke out into spontaneous, vigorous applause. You could tell from his body language that he was embarrassed by it.

I’m no lover of excessive applause at mass — and neither was this priest, who could often be cranky — but this was something different. The tribute welled up from us like an unstoppable, natural geyser; I think it was because we were so grateful for real instruction, real thought-provoking and challenging stuff coming from a priest, instead of the usual “special people, special mass, special church” droning. A few months later, while I was putting together a retreat, I sought out a copy of his remarks and was surprised to learn that the whole homily had been spontaneous.

“I learned a long time ago,” he said, “to just get out of the Holy Spirit’s way.”

Maybe another way to say that is “drop the plans, step into the path of the Holy Spirit, unencumbered, and let ourselves be used.”

Perhaps the problem with our liturgies is that no one is praying about them beforehand, and if that’s the case, we are all a little culpable for the mediocrity. Our music ministers rush in and set up spare minutes before mass, chatting together as they do it; our priests amble in just in time for mass, vest up and charge into it. Often its clear that our readers are scanning the Lectionary for the first time, just before the processional begins. Very few participants at mass spend much time praying beforehand. Not the musicians, not the lectors, not the priests. . .and not the people.

I’ve written about going to a Yoga class and finding there the kind of respectful and sacred silence one never finds in a Catholic worship space, before mass:

Outside of it, there was a great deal of socializing and chatting, but once people entered the room, all talking ceased. People moved carefully, so as not to disturb others who…were sitting or kneeling in postures that suggested recollection. This oasis of calm remained until the instructor arrived, and then—silent, still, but for the teacher’s voice—the class began to move through their forms: forty-five to fifty minutes of focus, silence, and shared striving.

We Catholics currently seem incapable of reproducing that sort of serious interior preparation for an hour of shared striving. Instead, the pre-mass chattering can get so bad that one week a vesting priest — actually it was the same cranky fellow who gave the great homily — came out half vested and said, “excuse me! EXCUSE ME! This is not Grand Central Station! Some people might actually be trying to pray before the mass; have a little courtesy.”

Oh, yes, Father got in trouble for that because parishioners complained. How dare the priest tell us to stop yakking and perhaps recollect ourselves a little in prayer and silence before the mass began?

Pope Francis clearly prepares interiorly for his masses, and prays them with great reverence. Perhaps in our parishes, the example of the priest’s preparation matters.

I think Mary makes some excellent points, and today she has posted a follow-up over at her blog — a response to some who figure as long as the Eucharist is available, we shouldn’t get too exercised about the rest of it.

Well, we should care about the totality of the mass. It is not a series of disjointed rituals and moments; it is meant to be one glorious whole of prayer.

Yes, it all needs to be better-served; we need to be better served, but as frustrated as I get by our own droning priests, I do think we all possess a measure of culpability for the kind of masses we get. We all need to be the liturgy, and the church we want to see.

This goes back to the idea of the priest praying over his the weeks’ readings and then trusting the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

We have to trust that if we put a little prep-work into our role at mass, be that from the choir, the lectern or the pew, and settle down enough to give the Holy Spirit room to move, we might be astonished at what happens, not just in the liturgy but in our hearts and minds.

One of the big themes I am taking away from Pope Francis’ interview with Antonio Spadaro is that the pope is urging the church toward trust. He has talked a lot about detaching ourselves from idols, in his pontificate — almost every week, in fact — and in the interview, he seems to suggest that holding on to dogma too dearly can get in the way of the larger work of the Holy Spirit; that when black-and-white hits an area of greyness, we need to be able to trust in something greater than the rules that ground us and instruct us but are not meant to paralyze us, or bind our hearts too tightly. That’s where mercy comes in, and the grounding of mercy is trust:

God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

This comes from the “Church as field hospital” portion of the interview, but I think it applies here, too. We are wounded in our liturgy, and Mary De Turris Poust has well-articulated our pain. Some are disagreeing with her; I mostly agree. But I believe I will stop short of the sort of revolution she is calling for — I doubt I will walk out of bad liturgies or withhold our offering, because we have to have a little mercy on our priests, too, who are also wounded. They’ve just endured a horrific decade due to the sexual abuse crisis; often their bishops are inattentive to their needs or assign them to roles for which they are ill-suited, or their seminaries have stumbled in giving them training in practicalities like preaching.

Our priests are short-handed, overstretched, often spiritually undernourished, themselves, and rarely prayed-for. We need to acknowledge that if they fail us, we often fail them, too.

Within the church, outside the church, amid the church, we are all so greatly in need of the field hospital of mercy — of developing a shared mindset of mercy. And a shared experience of recollection. And a shared understanding of the power of prayer, when it is offered with complete trust.

The Holy Spirit is clearly working on something; the Holy Spirit is always working, of course, but, as I said here, ever since Pope Benedict was inspired to resign his papacy, its working seems more obvious, more visible. We see it in Pope Francis and how the world has finally sat up and begun to pay attention, once more, to Peter. We see it in Mary’s righteous rant. Hopefully we will begin to see it in our parishes, and within the movements of our own hearts.

Let us pray. Let us pray a lot. And let us trust. A lot.

And, a lovely bit of synergy. Today the pope said: “The path of peace is the only one that builds a better world! But… if you yourselves do not build, no one else will!”

WOW. From today’s Office of Readings:

– from St Augustine’s sermon on Pastors

“I shall recall the straying; I shall seek the lost. Whether they wish it or not, I shall do it. And should the brambles of the forests tear at me when I seek them, I shall force myself through all straits; I shall put down all hedges. So far as the God whom I fear grants me the strength, I shall search everywhere. I shall recall the straying; I shall seek after those on the verge of being lost. If you do not want me to suffer, do not stray, do not become lost. It is enough that I lament your straying and loss. No, I fear that in neglecting you, I shall also kill what is strong. Consider the passage that follows: “And what was strong you have destroyed.? Should I neglect the straying and lost, the strong one will also take delight in straying and in being lost.”

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • naturgesetz

    Seeking the straying, the lost. This is the underlying theme of “rebuilt.” I think the change in direction which the authors sought would be very beneficial.

  • Marilyn H

    I remember when I returned to my faith and became serious about participating in parish life. When I called to volunteer to be on the liturgy committee, the priest , who I had never met, said “I’d like you to be a Eucharistic Minister.” A little surprised, I agreed and was sent through a quick training session. When I showed up for my first scheduled “assignment”, I was surprised that we were to assemble in the sacristy and everyone was just hanging out and chatting. It took me by surprise that the sacristy wasn’t treated as a holy place of silence where the priest would prepare spiritually before Mass. I am no longer a minister and have moved on to a different parish, but I am always surprised by the amount of chatter I can hear coming out of a sacristy prior to the Mass.

    Also, I’m not a big fan of the “let the Spirit move me” brand of homily. In my experience, very few priests can carry this off without going on and on and on without making a memorable point. I always appreciate the priests who prepare ahead of time and have written homilies , or at least notes, to guide them.

  • fondatorey

    “Recently after a 25 minute homily that went nowhere…”

    There really needs to be a workshop or something to prevent this sort of thing. Every priest does not need to be a good or creative homilist but should realize that quantity is not a good substitute. Also to prevent those obviously fake stories about ‘Bob’ or that start ‘a little girl was…’ Also a reminder to mention Jesus in every homily more often then ‘researchers’ or ‘scholars.’

    On the other hand there is a little bit of redemptive suffering that can be accepted whenever we hear about Bob or that little girl, so bad homilies can not be written off as a total loss.

  • happy catholic

    I feel like I should start this comment with “nah,nah,nah,nah nah” , because I love my liturgy and for the first time in a whole lot of years I look forward to attending Mass. I discovered an Anglican rite Catholic parish. The reverence and the respect were so startling the first time I attended Mass there that I felt like yelling “Yeah! That’s what I’ve been missing!!!”. But we don’t shout there, nor applaud. I’ve been attending Mass there for about 8 months and I have seen no shorts, no halter tops, and not one Cheerio. The whole atmosphere, fostered by the priests and the deacons, just calls for that same kind of reverence and respect from the congregation.

  • Gordis85

    “Pope Francis clearly prepares interiorly for his masses, and prays them with great reverence. Perhaps in our parishes, the example of the priest’s preparation matters.”

    Without wanting to be distracted during Mass or critical, I have often wondered if Father prepared for Mass after listening to his sermon or observing how he celebrates the Mass. I believe if many priests were to truly prepare themselves interiorly before Mass, then we would see more reverence and love with a call to live as Christ and the Church would have us live.

    I have been to too many Masses that are celebrated in a way that leaves me wondering if it was rushed, routine, or because “he had to.”

    That is just too sad.

  • Augustine

    The Pope said some very interesting things about discernment that particularly caught my eye:

    “You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in
    spiritual consolation.”

    “God is always a surprise, so you never know where and how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with him. You must,
    therefore, discern the encounter. Discernment is essential.”

    “Christian hope… is a theological virtue and therefore, ultimately, a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead
    hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.”

    Perhaps because I share his Latin culture, I too am quite undisciplined. I loathe planning and plans and consider the level of planning currently practiced an exercise in hubris. In some cultures this can be pathological, which explains why these cultures struggle with the vicissitudes that fate throws at them, because they cannot react without a plan. But I digress. The main point I think is that the Church already provides a great deal of the liturgy for us: music directors do no need to pick the hymns, different antiphons and verses are provided for each and every day; probably no verse in the Bible was left uncommented by a Church Father (Catena Aurea) and could easily be used as the starting point of a homily.

    So, why not just obey and follow the guidance of Holy Mother Church instead of trying to reinvent the liturgy every Sunday? Haven’t the last few decades proven this exercise as futile, if not downright harmful?

  • Lorraine

    As a Catholic, Yoga sets up a red flag for me! I’m just wondering, what does the Church teach on the occult and its practices? What concerns me is the degree to which people come into the silence of yoga. Seriously, this is a concern I have.
    In regards to homilies, I find that the Spirit usually provides a way to nourish my soul. There are some homilies I’ve heard whereby the words moved me so deeply that I couldn’t jump into the continuation of Mass without making mental notes to myself to further reflect at my own convenience on the priest’s message. Then there are times that I cannot connect with the priest. But there is always something I walk away with, if only the Word!
    Distracting are those that have conversations during Mass. SILENCE I want to shout. But the silence I seek evades me for a time. There are moments of blessed silence in private prayer and sometimes even at Mass. But, silence does not always exist because my inner chatterbox goes none stop, or noises in my surroundings call out to me…. I slowly find myself focusing back on where I got off because I seek Him in His Word who my heart loves.
    In terms of our priests, I find that they do the best they can for who they are. If one has a problem with the Church, then one needs to pray for direction, and if called to, confront the person in question in a Christian, loving manner without placing blame. There is such a thing as loving confrontation. We need to truly seek solutions that will bring us together rather than separate us. Prayer, Discernment and Peace in our hearts when we confront are all indications that we’re working through the problem as adult Christians and seeking God in our world. This is called being Anchored in Christ.
    Seek to find solutions, not alienate one another.

  • Manny

    I read Mary DTProust’s blog post as well, and while i sympathized I came away with what exactly do she want? The liturgy is the liturgy and what exactly can be done with it? Other than better music, and there are rules on music selection and style, there isn’t much. You can’t change the liturgy of the Eucharest at all. The Introductory rites are what they are. I guess you can open up the liturgy of the word to questions but that can get messy. The liturgy is what it is.
    I do agree about the sacred silence. I try to go to mass right after the previous is let out, which gives me a good half hour to light a candle, pray, read the bulletin, and review the readings. I cherish that half hour. But I go to mass alone. When I bring my four year old, he’s making noise and talking and moving around. A lot of elderly tend to talk and what can you say to them? They’ve been going there forever. And if we insist on sacred silence aren’t we contradicting that very field hospital vision to the church? My pastor encourages us to bring children.
    So bottom line is I don’t think there is very much to alter our liturgy.

  • MeanLizzie

    Re your Yoga question: In 1989 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith delivered aLetter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. In Section V of that document, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote: “Just as ‘the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in [the great religions]‘ neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian. On the contrary, one can take from them what is useful so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured.”

  • Francis

    Thank you for posting this -very helpful.

  • Augustine

    In principle you are correct and a Catholic can indeed practice yoga with no problems. But in practice many yoga teachers push incantations to Hindu deities, some principles of Tantra contrary to the Faith, etc.

  • Phil Steinacker

    I am a refugee from the parish which is the focus of Rebuilt, the book mentioned below. There are some good ideas in that book, but despite the lip service they give to respecting liturgy the reality has been terribly lacking on a number of levels.

    However, the pastor’s homilies have always been excellent, even to the point of riveting, and perhaps too much so because – at 30 minutes or more – elements of the Mass are removed to make room for Father’s homily. This approaches the Protestant form in which the service is built around the pastor’s sermon while the Mass culminates in reception of the Eucharist.

    Most importantly, the personal relationship with Jesus is glossed over. Rebuilt also gives lip service here, as well, but it avoids drilling down into that and instead focuses on marketing principles gleaned from the mega-church model. I find that glossing over of the personal relationship with Christ a real surprise because Church of the Nativity models itself on Evangelical mega-churches. Then again, when you don’t have the true Presence to offer it should be no surprise that a non-Catholic church would do so, but a Catholic church using that model does damage when it fails to focus upon enabling people stumble onto a path to personal holiness.

  • Fiestamom

    I am not the first person to note this, but this is also a problem of architecture/beauty. Or lack of beauty. So many churches today were designed as ‘worship spaces’. There is such a hunger in our world for beauty as well. It would be a dream to go to an ‘old school’ Catholic Church with beautiful statues, stained glass, etc. At my last parish, the tabernacle was a square box (steel..not even silver!) with an etching of wheat. If we believe that the host is truly transformed into Jesus, shouldn’t we be building more beautiful homes for him to live in?

    But she is so right about the homilies. Out there in the pews, we need Truth. Not a self affirmation workshop.

  • Adam

    Our family includes four children 8 years of age and under. It’s work to keep them occupied for an hour. Going to mass alone or with another adult is a privilege. Just be thankful you can do it and don’t feel guilt about drawing something from the solitary moment with God. I often feel exhausted after attending mass when it’s supposed to be replenishing. I wish the homilies could be a tad more to the point. There is no need to drone on, i.e. more than 10 minutes. If you can’t say it in 10 minutes, there is a problem with the message.

  • Victor

    (((I shall search everywhere.)))

    Sorry Anchoress but I don’t think that St Augustine had a vision of this twenty first century cause I’m still trying to catch up with emails comments of the past and my wife wants me to play cards with her….
    I hear YA folks! Maybe that’s GOD (Good Old Dad) Way of telling you to forget about starting that third blog Victor!
    Go Figure! God does work in mysterious ways so they say! :)
    God Bless Peace

  • Ginny

    “I doubt I will walk out of bad liturgies or
    withhold our offering, because we have to have a little mercy on our priests,
    too, who are also wounded.”

    The way I see it, if one walks out of a bad
    liturgy, one is abandoning Christ. St.
    Therese of Lisieux wrote:

    “ . . . it is in the Host that I see you
    consummate your self-annihilation. O
    divine King of Glory, with what humility you submit yourself to all your priests,
    without making any distinction between those you love you and those who, alas,
    are lukewarm or cold in your service.”