Whatever the complex reasons may be, many modern Christians in our part of the world have lost any real sense of what Christian worship is supposed to be. Perhaps it is the result of the so-called megachurch mentality that is so prevalent today. While megachurches are large, their congregations are nevertheless isolated from any serious tradition. These innumerable non-denominations have no seminaries and no hierarchy. They are devoid of any history and exist only for a season. Because they more often than not grow out of the Baptist denominations, these new groups often have the same curious blend of sentimental music coupled with long and detailed sermons. But undoubtedly there are other reasons why Protestant worship seems flat and blandly suburban. Maybe it is because we live in a democracy and have lost any context of king or court. Maybe it is because we live so far from Jerusalem or Rome and have no ancient churches or even ruins to look upon for context.
Of course, we can be sympathetic on some level. These megachurches go “non-denominational” to try to overcome the disunity within Protestantism, but by so doing, they really only bring about even more divisions. It is understandable, because if everyone can interpret scriptures for themselves, then uniformity of doctrine will never be possible, and unity in worship even less so. Still, on an emotional level, those Christians are seeking a kind of unity. Because they have no history, they strive to be thoroughly modern in every way. As moderns, they can tend to pride themselves in their rationalism and may have little appreciation for mystery and little time for contemplation. They are impressed when they are entertained, as they often don’t know how to abide in silence (remember, God said, “Be still and know that I AM.” We cannot find Him in the midst of noise). They tend to like the latest thing, not the things of the past. The old prayers and old languages of their ancestors seem absurdly foreign to their minds. So they build a huge windowless warehouse surrounded by oodles of parking and they bring in video screens and banks of speakers, and their congregants drink coffee in the lobby as a kind of communion. This is where we are. And, so that we are clear, this is NOT to say that these people are insincere, but only that they are so very, very far from the Tradition. Little of what they do reflects what we learned from the apostles or the saints of old. Sadly, some Catholics envy that same up-to-date sentimentalism and emotionalism and want to integrate it into our Catholic worship, and some parishes will now and then try to accommodate these ephemeral expectations. But there is little authenticity in that novelty, and as Catholics, we should not trade our birthright for a bowl of lintels.
But to be honest, we Catholics can’t point fingers at the Protestants, for we have muddled our own Tradition. In introducing the vernacular into the liturgy, we have impiously and foolishly banished any and all Latin. In our pride, we have tried to re-create ourselves, and this has gotten too many of us stuck in the 1970s and in a kind of perpetual adolescent spirituality. The old heresy of iconoclasm reared its ugly head again, so we stripped and ruined our rich tradition and replaced it with a maudlin matrix of bad music and art. We have all but forgotten how to create stained glass windows, paint icons, use incense, or sing Latin (or for that matter, English) chants. Priests have lost their own sense of identity, and with that, the lay people have found themselves confused. The clergy and the other so-called “experts” have led us down these lost paths with a wrongheaded zeal and in a misguided obedience to what they presumed was required, but was, in fact, never required.
Consequently, a sense of authentic Catholic worship is now difficult for us to express within contemporary parishes. Our churches have sanctuaries without steps or altar rails, the tabernacles and crucifixes have gone missing, the altars look like picnic tables, the celebrant’s chair looks like a throne, and we find ourselves sitting in pews without kneelers all set out in stadium seating – and all of this now being accompanied by a bad version of easy listening elevator music (or worse, bad rock-and-roll-for-Jesus music) which is as inappropriate as a barbershop quartet Mass, a polka Mass, a Dixieland-ragtime Mass, a country-western Mass, or a rap-hip-hop Mass. Sometimes Catholics have to check the sign as they drive off just to make sure they worshipped at a Catholic parish that weekend!
Updating the Tradition really was the idea of Vatican II, but the vast majority of the western hierarchy of the Church jettisoned that Tradition rather than update it. On the other side, we have those folks who simply refuse to acknowledge what millennium we’re living in. One group says no more Latin. The other group says no more English. One side demands more “active” participation. The other side wants more sacredness. One side wants only the music written after 1970 to be played or sung (pre-1970 music is to be banned forever). The other side desperately wants to preserve the repertoire of the saints, and to save the organ and 2000 years of culture. The more extreme proponents of both sides can be arrogant snobs, and sadly at times, these two camps fight like cats. Meanwhile, most folks in the middle pews just want to be faithful (and secretly desire that we stop building so many darn ugly churches).
Then of course there is sin – lots of sin. And 1970s catechesis went just as wonky-wobbly (if catechesis was taught at all) as did the 1970s liturgy (after all, orthodoxy means both “right worship” and “right doctrine,” so when you jettison orthodoxy, you jettison both). Subsequently, the poor family, and chastity, and marriage have all been undermined by all that sin and doctrinal confusion which is still prevalent at surprisingly high (and what we might have thought would have been more informed) levels within our Church. So this breakdown in prayer and worship was paralleled by a moral and cultural breakdown besides. The devil must delight in all this confusion and one can only guess how disappointing it must all look to our Lord.
All that paints a rather abysmal picture, and we don’t want to be delusional about our challenges, to be sure. But remember, in Christ, there is always hope. So, let us be positive. Let us start by saying what Catholic worship should be. First, Catholic worship should be noble and dignified, courtly and manly. It isn’t a fervid flailing about waving our hands and weeping or falling upon the floor. Authentic Catholic worship is sober and ordered, and it is meant to have a structure to it that is given to us by our Lord Himself and passed down through the ages. It should be universal worship and not individualistic. It should include praying the Our Father and offering up the Eucharist, as these are directly commanded by our Savior. Our worship should be timeless. It should be based on the scriptures and it should reflect the Tradition given to us by the saints. It should reflect the same structure as it did in apostolic times and the early Church, so St. Paul, Justin Martyr, St. Ambrose, and our Christian ancestors should all recognize it as the same way they worshiped. Moreover, we should respect and preserve the patrimony they passed on to us for future generations. We Catholics need to remember that we worship as a Church spread out through time, spread out across the world, and touching both heaven and earth. If a Catholic from Africa or Paraguay or Zimbabwe walks into our church, he should be able to recognize that we are Catholics, too.
And Catholic worship should be transcendent. It should be a foretaste of heaven. It should reveal something sublime, powerful, merciful, and beautiful about the God whom we worship. There should be something awe-inspiring to Catholic worship, because we should recognize that our worship is coming before the Lord. Its music should come primarily from the scriptures (that is to say, the Psalms and other Biblical canticles), and it should reflect that eternal worship of heaven before the throne of our Lord, as envisioned in St. John’s book of Revelation in the New Testament. So, if St. John sees the heavenly hosts on the Lord’s Day singing a Sanctus, then we should sing a Sanctus here. If the saints in heaven praise the Lamb of God, then the saints on earth should praise the Lamb of God. If they angels raise a chorus of the Gloria or of an Alleluia in eternity, then we should reflect those practices here in our earthly worship. If the elders fall down upon their knees in heaven, then we should be able to kneel on earth. If St. John speaks of a heavenly altar, then we should have an earthly altar. If St. John saw angels offering up incense in heaven as an act of worship, then we should offer up incense on earth.
Finally, authentic Catholic worship requires of us humility. The Mass is not about us; it’s about worshipping God in the way He asked us to worship Him. Too many of us still want to change our worship or our rite into something that better reflects ourselves, but that is missing the point. The objective should be to allow our Catholic worship and ritual to form us, to form our spiritual and moral lives, and to turn us into saints. Consequently, and with all due respect, we need to have the humility to accept the Missal and the documents of the Church and live by them. If we think we know better than the documents, and if we don’t care what they say, but presume to know what they meant to say, or what they should have said, and if we force that personal agenda upon the rest of the people in the pews, then we are behaving in an arrogant and harmful way.
The fact of the matter is we Catholics are supposed to preserve Latin and chant. That means we all need to sing it and hear it — all of us, at every parish. We don’t need it at every Mass every Sunday, but it should not be done just at one Mass on the weekends and for a few weeks, for then, we are failing to follow the documents. So, if you hate Latin and hate chant, you need to get over it. Be adults. Recognize what all your ancestors saw as valuable. Bend your wills; be obedient! And yes, we Catholics can and will undoubtedly forever worship in the vernacular. So, if you hate English and you hate the new Mass, then you need to get over it, too. And okay, translations will always be imperfect, but someone has to say, “Enough is enough,” and someone has to say that, after two generations of fiddling and debating, “This is now the final draft,” and finally, “You musicians can get started on setting these texts to music.” Thank God! Finally our parishes can invest in some permanent books for the pews. So, if you don’t like the present translation, then do us a favor and get over it. For God’s sake, have the humility to let things settle for a generation or two, at the very least.
And let us older folks keep in mind that the battle lines that were drawn in the sand some decades ago make little sense to our children. Our children come at this with fresh eyes. We may be like Moses, but they are like Joshua! They are the future. It is their time. It will be their genius that can refine the reform. They will find the equilibrium between the past and the future. Perhaps we can keep collecting the materials, but if one generation is likened unto David who took the Tabernacle into the Holy City, the next generation might be thought of as Solomon who will build the Temple. The older generation’s job is to help them, but with humility, it must accept that the 1970s are over. This next generation of young people wants to see clarity, but we too often give them confusion. And at times, the older generation can act shamefully before their children. Remember, kids simply don’t have the same prejudices or hang-ups that their parents or grandparents had (they have their own issues, mind you).
Do we want our children to become “non-denominational” because they see us as just another set of bickering partisans arguing about whether or not to use a chalice pall, or do we want to hand on the treasure of our ageless Faith to them? Maybe it is time we move forward? Let us embrace our Tradition, but also recognize where we are today, and together, thank God that at least a remnant of us may have made it through the forty years of desert. Dancing around the golden calf needs to be a distant memory, folks. Put it to rest. Enough is enough. This is serious. We need to get to heaven. And our world is falling apart. Our children need us to be unified and demonstrate to them authentic Catholic worship. They need to know the Lord of Hosts! The king of heaven and earth is present here among us. The Lord is here! Let us behave ourselves. We have a responsibility. Our world needs our Catholic obedience and humility before the all-powerful Lord. Now it is time to settle and build a beautiful future that reflects the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, who calls us to praise Him now, and in eternity.
And so, friends, this rather unflinching assessment upon where we stand in our Christian worship today is offered in hope, for if we’re paying attention, we can see the path forward. This also is published to follow the one-day weekend workshop our parish offered on Sacred Music last Saturday. You should know that folks from dozens of Catholic parishes (and some non-Catholics!) from all around the region converged on Jasper to learn about chant, polyphony, and sacred music. They came from nearby states, and from all over Georgia to find like-minded souls. There were monks and priests and choirmasters from every size parish. These folks are so desirous of finding other serious colleagues in search of that authentic voice for Catholic praise. They are weary of confusion. They are serious. They seek clarity, and they can help us find it. They are longing for that stability and longing to connect to a worship that embraces both the Tradition, but also the reality of where we are in time.
As a parish, we should thank God for our musicians here at OLM. They lead us with such clarity and commitment. We should also thank God for their vision and docility towards the will of God in our Church. They prove that despite ours being a small parish, and despite the fact that we are all sinners, we can nevertheless express the great timeless tradition of our worldwide Faith in this particular place, and be connected through saints and prayers to all eternity. Because our music people and our liturgical ministers teach us how to pray! So, let us, as fellow Catholics, pray that we may all soon begin to come together and work together with that great and common purpose of offering fitting and authentic Catholic praise to our Triune God.