Mass Appeal and the Rigorous Priest

Mass Appeal and the Rigorous Priest January 27, 2015

A long long time ago I watched the play Mass Appeal, excellently acted in Paris by Jean Piat and Francis Lalanne. It is the confrontation between a popular and complacent priest and an idealistic but perhaps too rigoristic seminarian. Predictably, in the end, each realizes that they have something to learn from the other and can find a via media.

The liturgical blog PrayTell has an interesting item about what seems to be a trend: most young priests today are much more “traditional” than the average Catholic and when they leave the seminary for the trenches of the parish, sparks fly.

All of the anonymous criticisms of those young traditional priests seem to fall into two buckets: first, a criticism about their more traditional approach to the liturgy; second, a criticism of a more general “Elder Brother”-like disposition.

Just some random thoughts.

First, sparks flying is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m reminded of the quip by an Anglican bishop: “Wherever Saint Paul went, there was a riot; wherever I go, they serve tea.” It’s all too easy to get to an implicit mindset where the priest’s popularity is the yardstick for their holiness or talent. While the Spirit moves in the Church and over the long term that’s not a bad rule-of-thumb, it is also the case that tragically lackadaisical parishes and complacent-to-the-verge-of-Grand-Inquisitorial diocesan bureaucrats exist, and that where they do, it is the job of priests to turn over some money-changin’ tables.

Second, guess what, we do need liturgical traditionalists. Most of the liturgy in most Catholic parishes is bad. Not as bad as it used to be, but still inexcusably bad. Lex orandi, lex credendi. We do need a reform of the reform. The liturgy really is the source and summit of the Christian life. For young priests to come in and shake things up and provide some beauty is a good thing.

Third, there is probably an unavoidable, and probably good, generational phenomenon going on. As I pointed out in re: the play, the story of the young, sure-of-everything, well-trained, wet-behind-the-ears new guy who gets hit with a nice helpin’ dose of The Real World is as old as humanity itself. And, as one of PrayTell’s anonymous writers, this can be healthy: idealists need to be reminded of stubborn reality, and perhaps of their own arrogance, and complacent pragmatists need to be reminded of the loftiness of the Christian vocation. As a monk, St John Chrysostom was very austere and demanding, and then he got appointed bishop, and he changed his tune to some extent, realizing that not everyone was called to rigorous asceticism. Was he a bad pastor? So this is by and large healthy and normal.

“Conservatives” need to be particularly on watch for “Elder Brother Syndrome.” The Catholic both/and is very subtle, and very hard, and very demanding. We are called to love and welcome everyone and have no tolerance for sin, and to do both of these things simultaneously and supererogatorily.  I think what is needed is a good dose of virtue ethics, and a recognition that for each of us, there is a natural, temperamental tendency, or gravitational pull, towards one “end” of the spectrum. Each person needs to do some discernment, and recognize which side they are on, and that while it is not bad per se to be on one end or another, those who are ought to be particularly watchful about the risks inherent in each posture. “Conservatives” ought to recognize that they have a tendency and temptation towards “Elder Brother Syndrome” just like “progressives” need to recognize that they have a tendency and temptation towards indifferentism, and each needs to look at the mote in their eye and correct their own tendencies.

In particular:

– The very natural and very understandable human tendency is to respond to some excess by overcorrecting in the other direction. A common complaint of conservative Catholics in the West is that the “Church of Nice” has been too afraid to speak the Truth on controversial issues. This is very valid, and this is something that needs to be fixed. But one should be very aware of the risk of overcorrecting in the other direction. At the end of the day, the heart of the Gospel is that Jesus loves you and dies for you and wants you to be united to him and share in the divine life. The theology of the body, as true, good and beautiful as it is, is not the heart of the Gospel (as John Paul II himself would be the first to say!). The opposite of “Church of Nice” is not “Church of Nasty.”

– This is also true when it comes to the liturgy. As I wrote previously, while the liturgy is definitely not up to snuff in the average Catholic parish, there is a tendency among the “reformers of the reform” to go #fullcappamagna or #1955OrBust which is both spiritually erroneous and pastorally disastrous.

– Speaking practically, in terms of prudence, “conservative” pastors need to be highly aware of the fact that it is very easy for them to confirm to a preexisting stereotype–the rigid, pharisaical, rigoristic, love-less, etc. Mean Pastor. And that’s not who you are, riiiiiiight? When you get to the parish, there is going to be a lot of lukewarm Catholics, not because they are terrible heterodox sinners, but simply because the culture (not to mention the Four Gospels) has created this stereotype, are going to be “waiting for you” to fall into that bucket. Not to anyway equate the fate of conservative Catholics with that of African-Americans under Jim Crow, but there should be a similar sense of needing to be “twice as good” because you will be pastoring to people who are basically waiting for you to confirm their preconceived notions of what a “conservative” is.  If you’re going to have a more traditional liturgy, if you’re going to preach more on hot button issues, then you should GO OUT OF YOUR WAY to confound the stereotype-confirming that this could lead to by always making an effort to be smiley and friendly, by always talking about “Elder Brother problems” in the same breath when you mention “Younger Brother problems”, by talking about social justice if you’re going to talk about below-the-belt issues, etc. etc.

A good example of what NOT to do is this story from Deacon Greg about a priest in a San Francisco parish. The priest banned altar girls. Now, I’m no fan of altar girls, so I’m not one to complain about that. But, according to the story, the priest also made a comment about needing to go to confession if you voted for Obama. Now, I’m sorry, but that’s just completely out of line. But more to the point: it’s just dumb. It’s just asking to be known as “That Mean Conservative Rigoristic Priest” and never having the trust of your parishioners. Pick your fights. If you’re going to do something that’s going to be necessarily sensitive like banning altar girls then you can’t also do twelve other things that are going to make you look like the Spanish Inquisition.

That’s how you get your lukewarm parishioners–the sheep you’re trying to reach, right?–to not think “He’s a conservative, period” but “He’s a conservative, but“, and it’s a few years of that that gets you from “He’s a conservative, but” to just “Beloved Father Bob”–Beloved Father Bob who counseled me through this tough situation, Beloved Father Bob I would have lost my faith when my mother died if it hadn’t been for him, Beloved Father Bob who is always working with the homeless of the neighborhood, Beloved Father Bob who likes incense a little bit too much-but-you-gotta-admit-the-music-is-so-beautiful-now-not-like-at-St-Cecilia’s-next-door, Beloved Father Bob whose church is packed every Sunday when it was half empty when he showed up.

Or anyway, those are just a few thoughts. You know, given my extensive expertise in the priestly life as a twentysomething married layman.



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