Sunday, August 7, 2011

Some thoughts on Mass improvisations


Auxiliary Bishop Chris Coyne of Indianapolis had an interesting story yesterday about "Why I Didn't Go to Confession Today". While, to do the full story justice, you should read his account of the matter let me give you a précis of it:

It seems Bp. Coyne had need of an early morning Saturday Mass, but couldn't find one until late Friday night, when it was too late to make arrangements to concelebrate it. So he went as an attendant; whether he went in his episcopal robes or in mufti he doesn't say.

When Mass began, the priest, a guy about my age, came out and said, "Hello," and then proceeded with the Mass. The only problem was he had forgotten the Sign of the Cross. Well, maybe he was just a little distracted. I think we did the penitential rite but I'm not sure. There was no "Gloria" so I was beginning to think we weren't going to be celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration since it hadn't been mentioned yet but eventually we got there when he "prayed" a spontaneous opening prayer that did mention the Transfiguration.

And it didn't get any better after that. Though Bp. Coyne conceded the validity of the celebration, he decided, for both his sake and that of the offending priest, not to have his confession heard by "Father X".


Now, there's probably a few people who would like to have been flies on the wall when Bp. Coyne took action; though he primly says, "What I did or did not do, I will leave between me and the priest. I hope it was helpful," I'm sure a few hope he took Father X behind the woodshed.

The good bishop then closes:

Every time people ask me why some in the Church have a desire for the "extraordinary rite," the traditional Latin Mass, I guess I can give them at least one good reason. Masses like this. When one attends the Mass according to the Tridentine Rite, you know what you are going to get. There is no one being "creative," no one making up their own prayers or rite, and no question of validity.  ... I have no desire to celebrate the Tridentine Rite but any time I hear people criticize those who want the "traditional" Mass, I am more inclined to understand why they want this form of the Mass. Perhaps if each priest were committed to the correct celebration of the present Mass of Paul VI — the Church's rites and not the rite of Fr. X — then maybe there would be less clamor for the "traditional" rite. Just a thought.

Here, the free-church Protestant might wonder, "Why is it so blamed important to get all the prayers and rubrics right? You'd think that the priest's improvisation would make the service more alive, more 'happening', more spiritual, instead of dead words on dead paper."

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley asks her brother Charles, "Would not conversation be more rational than dancing?" The latter sensibly replies, "Much more rational. But much less like a ball."

In the same way, the Mass isn't offered for the direct purpose of congregants "having an experience" just as people don't throw dance parties for their intellectual stimulation. Rather, the Mass is for the communal worship of God. We say that the Mass is built around the sacrament of the Eucharist. This sacrament is also called "Communion" (L. commūnio) because of the joining together not just of spirit but also of belief and worship — the formation of community. In this matter, our worship together is matter of more than just all being in the same room at the same time.

Given our belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, looking for some kind of emotional kick out of the Mass is a bit like being told that you've won a nine-digit jackpot in Lotto and saying expectantly, "And …?" In this light, without unnecessarily impugning the sincerity of its members, the charismatic/Pentecostal movement has still always struck me as a kind of spiritual thrill-seeking, as if one can't have a full Christian life unless one starts to prophesy or speak in tongues.

Another point bears mentioning: Like Bp. Coyne, I too am a child of the Mass of Paul VI. I have seen and heard it done reverently, most recently at a Cistercian monastery where the monks chanted — a fairly ethereal experience. And I too can understand why traditionalists gravitate to the 1962 Latin Mass, though I've not been to one in conscious memory (perhaps when I was a baby).

Nevertheless, I think it's a mistake to assume that, because Latin Masses today are celebrated with all due reverence, we can create greater reverence for the Mass by getting rid of the Paul VI rite and going back to the TLM. Priests are human beings; as such, there will always be those who lose sight of what they're doing at the altar, either due to time pressures, or inattention, or ill health, or a loss of the sense of their vocation.

This is a shame, because in strict justice the faithful have a right to a Mass that's performed both licitly and validly. In this sense, the Mass doesn't "belong" to the priest alone but to the Church, both in its institution and in its faithful adherents, precisely because it's the prayer of the Church and not just of the celebrant.

But it's also because the Mass is the prayer of the Church that the Church generally discourages "church shopping", or calling the rectory to find out which Mass Fr. Goodsermon is celebrating so you can go specifically to his Mass (or, alternately, to avoid Fr. Milquetoast's limp, ineffectual preaching). Ultimately, you're not going to church to be entertained or given a spiritual "high". You're there to receive the Body of your Lord from the hands of His consecrated priest.

Priestly improvisation: Much more unique … but much less like a Sacrament.