Friday, September 20, 2013

Of Circuses And Saints

This seems to be my week for getting irritated with things I see floating around the web.

Today's doozy is this:

"If your church's worship feels like a circus, don't be surprised if its members act like animals and clowns."

The guy who came up with this gem is a "Professor of Theology and Church History."  He is Catholic, I assume, based on where I saw it.  And when I saw it, I was ever so thankful for Pope Francis and the things he has been saying lately.

If you are not Catholic, you may not really understand what this guy means.  If you are Catholic, you probably have a clue.  Based on the context, I assume this professor is especially enamored of more traditional liturgical worship.  Perhaps he is a fan of the Latin Mass, polyphony, chant, hymns, chapel veils, and a quiet, peaceful, contemplative atmosphere during Mass.  And the things he might think of as a circus?  I might be going out on a limb here, but perhaps he is referring to a more modern musical style for liturgy, which may be comprised of Praise and Worship Music, accompanied by drums, electric guitars, the bass, and a certain amount of congregational hand-raising or swaying in the pews.  He may also be thinking of the presider asking the people to greet each other before Mass begins, the priest occasionally coming down among his flock during the liturgy, and a congregation that is a bit more spirited at certain points throughout the Mass (such as at the Sign of Peace).

Now, first of all, I just have to take issue with the whole tone of this professor's statement.  It is arrogant, condescending, and disrespectful.  It sounds to me like something the scribes and pharisees might have said in Jesus' day when they saw our Lord surrounded by and speaking with all of the "sinners" out in the countryside.  This professor is taking an unnecessary and cruel swipe at people who are probably sincerely seeking God.  I am reminded of how the "righteous" people in Jesus' day reacted when he ate dinner at the homes of tax collectors and allowed "sinful" women to do such things as cry their tears on His feet.  I mean, come on, referring to your fellow Catholics as "animals and clowns?"  If I were a non-Catholic thinking of converting and I heard this coming out of the mouth of a respected professor of "Theology and Church History," I'd probably make a hasty retreat from RCIA.  Catholics, and all Christians, are called to meekness and understanding.  This statement is the antithesis of those things.  (Heck.  Maybe I'm not being very meek or understanding right now, either.  Oh, well...)

Secondly, as Catholics, we recognize that there are different forms of spirituality.  What helps one person in his/her journey to and with God may not help another.  What helps a person at one point in life may not help at another.  That is why the Pope and the Bishops and the priests allow (and, occasionally, "put up with") different types of worship in church.  I'm not saying the Mass should be warped into some kind of nearly unrecognizable form.  There is a need for observing what is necessary.  But, the more "traditional" voices in the Church sometimes tend to take on an air of all-knowing superiority in this area.  Deciding what is allowed and not allowed is, many times, a matter for each Bishop to decide.  And, perhaps, allowing certain things -- such as hand-holding during the "Our Father" -- is being made in wisdom and understanding by our pastors for the edification of many of the people in the Church.  So, in my opinion, some of these people who consider themselves to be the more "faithful" Catholics should just bite their tongues and refrain from putting unkind statements on the internet.

I know I could be blasted here by the Catholics who are more "in-the-know" about Catholic things.  I could be accused of approving of liturgical abuses, and such.  I do not intend to approve of liturgical abuses.  But, there is room for at least some diversity in church worship.  And we need to allow our Bishops and priests to do their job, part of which is to know and guide their individual and diverse flocks, giving space for the things which might edify the particular people who make up each one.

For example, I enjoy attending the Latin Mass occasionally.  The music is beautiful.  The language is stirring.  The atmosphere is very contemplative, assisting me in reflection and prayer.  There are many people who feel that their souls are truly at rest when they attend this traditional Mass.  It is a beautiful thing.

BUT, I also LOVE going to St. Monica's in Santa Monica.  The 5:30 pm Sunday evening Mass is my favorite.  As you enter the church, the ushers greet you in a way that actually makes you feel welcome.  Often, the person sitting next to you in the pew will greet you, also -- in a warm, authentic manner.  The priest asks the people to say hello to each other before Mass begins.  And the people do it, in a way that is meaningful and unifying.  I have never felt so welcome in a church in my life.  They have an extremely talented band at St. Monica's, consisting of keyboards, drums, electric guitars, and bass.  There is a large choir, each member of which could easily win "American Idol."  I kid you not.  Their music consists of a mix of styles, mostly modern and Praise and Worship, but some more traditional music, also.  And it is AMAZING.  The pastor clearly knows and loves his people.  His sermons are uplifting and always help you on your spiritual journey.  On Mothers' Day, we moms were asked to stand around the altar during the Consecration.  Some of you are probably completely freaking out now, but that's okay.  My daughter Andrea -- a pretty traditional Catholic, herself -- told me afterwards, with a big smile on her face, "You looked SO happy."  And I was.  I have gone to St. Monica's four times, the first time almost 20 years ago.  I believe the pastor all those years ago was the same one who is there presently.  That first time I went, I was at a very low point in my faith -- the lowest in my life.  St. Monica's is the reason I didn't leave the Church. 

Andrea, who has a film degree, told me that she thinks St. Monica's is so special for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, it is right next to Hollywood, so it is a parish attended by many of the Catholics in the film industry, thus accounting for all the talent.  I'm not just talking about the music, either.  You should hear the lectors.  Mind-blowing.  Also, as Andrea reminds me, Hollywood is a pretty cut-throat, high-stress, competitive place.  The pastor of this wonderful parish is well aware of that fact, and he has created a community for his flock where they will truly fit in, belong, find comfort -- and be able to exercise their irrepressible creativity.

So, I guess that's why I get ticked off when I see statements like the one made by this professor.  A lot of the more conservative Catholics would probably look at St. Monica's as an example of what he meant when he made his little assertion.  His totally unfair assertion.  Because I know from my own life and the lives of people I have encountered that some of the best Catholics -- Christians who will help you through thick and through thin, who will be there for you when you are aching and in need, the saints of our day -- might be the so-called "animals and clowns" from those so-called "circuses."

And this is why I am so grateful for Pope Francis.  Because I think he's putting the emphasis back where it needs to be in the Church.  Yes, there is a place for rules and regulations.  But, in the end, people's spiritual lives are the priority.  Helping people to have a relationship with God is the priority.  And people of all different stripes are sincerely looking for God -- gay, straight, male, female, transgender, rich, poor, old, young, married, single.  So, if you like the traditional Latin Mass, that is wonderful.  But, not everybody is made that way.  So, don't take cruel, needless, low-class swipes at those who might march to the beat of a different drummer.

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