Advent—that peculiar liturgical season of 22-27 days that no one can quite wrap their minds around. Between a kickoff weekend that concurs with Thanksgiving hangover, football, a befuddled Catholic liturgical calendar, foggy and repetitive seasonal preaching, hyper liturgical preparations for Christmas musical grandeur, overemphasis upon children’s catechetics, and a secular culture which begins Christmas observance the day after Halloween, Advent comes limping home on December 24 like a bedraggled Confederate soldier from Appomattox. Our present-day observance and emphases during Advent would stun our ancestors of Christianity past who understood Advent as a season of apocalyptic terror, immersion in hopeless evil, and kinetic hope in the impossible, an intrusive God who will turn a corrupt world upside down on its ear in a final victorious arrival.
I paid special attention to this year’s Advent experience as I observed it, beginning on the First Sunday [or Saturday night, to be more accurate] when I pulled myself away from those TV classic college football rivalry games to begin my Advent observance, which in 2022 went the “full Monty” of 27 days. The Gospel of the First Sunday of Advent [Cycle A] does not describe Mary and Joseph packing for Bethlehem, or anywhere for that matter. Instead, it is Matthew 24: 37-44:
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the Son of Man comes. For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away. It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. Then of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left.
‘So, stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming. You may be quite sure of this, that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’
As I sat there on Saturday night waiting to be swept up in the sermon into the redemptive drama of the end times, judgment, and the dramatic appearance of Jesus, I was surprised, to say the least, to hear that the evening’s sermon would be the first of a four-week series on explaining the Mass and the importance of the Eucharist, in connection with the U.S. Bishops’ Campaign on catechizing the Blessed Sacrament. Actually, that first sermon wasn’t too bad, and its conclusion on Christmas Eve, addressed to those many Catholics in the seats who only celebrate Eucharist on Christmas, was quite good. Many people applauded. However, as I grumbled to my wife in the car after the First Advent Sunday, “Thirty-four Sundays in Ordinary Time, and we have to erase Advent for a catechetical series that, quite frankly, shortchanges both the season and the Scriptures of the Mass.” [For the record, my resolution to stop post-Mass grumbling while weaving through traffic is holding up well, though.]
I’m not upset with the homilist, to be clear. My discouragement is over the massive pastoral and catechetical breakdown of the Church’s understanding and observance of Advent. Sometimes the Vatican itself is the worst offender. The First Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s Liturgical Year, and any changes in liturgical practice are instituted on that Sunday. The English translation of the Mass we use today was authorized for use in the United States on the First Sunday of Advent, 2011. The story goes that the American bishops asked for more time, and the authorities said OK, you can roll it out on Ash Wednesday 2012—knowing full well that publishing houses which produce annual missalettes and pastors paying the freight would raise a howl—if two sets of books had to be published and purchased in the same liturgical year. So I am told.
But there are other Advent-busters so embedded in our parish life that we are blissfully unaware of them. This came home to me in a variety of ways recently. On December 24, my little sister was in the eye of the disastrous blizzard that paralyzed Erie County, New York. I called her up to check in and she reported everyone was safe and sound, the house was full of food, heat, and power. But she expressed sadness that the blizzard and driving ban had erased any hope that the parish’s Christmas choir would be able to attend Midnight Mass, which would be livestreamed instead. Just about her entire family was involved in the choir, and they had been practicing for the Christmas Mass for months.
As it turns out, I had been seeing a number of Facebook posts on various religious education websites about parish Christmas choirs and pageants around the country, specifically the amount of time and energy devoted to Christmas performances at the expense of Advent observance, or even the normal parish functions of December. This is a good example of the genre:
“This is my first year as a DRE [Director of Religious Education] …so I am using the schedule for the year set by the past DRE. We haven't had regular classes since November 9! November 16 was scheduled as a PRE Mass, then the 23rd was off, and Nov 30, Dec 14, and Dec 21 are pageant rehearsals. Dec 7 was also off so people could attend the Vigil Mass for Imm. Conc. [Feast of the Immaculate Conception] Kids who aren't in the pageant (who travel for Christmas or who just don't want to be in it) receive no religious education from November 9 to January 18. Is this normal? How do you balance the Christmas pageant not taking over your entire program? How can I suggest a change for next year in a parish that is all about tradition and resistant to any change?”
One of the responses was less than encouraging:
“We have rehearsals on Saturday mornings and classes on Sunday mornings. Parents sign up separately and the play is completely optional. Our final class (Dec 18th this year) is replaced by the play and a party - snacks and Christmas themed crafts.” Aside from celebrating Christmas in the teeth of Advent, as happened here, it is a curious thing that Catholic pulpits and publications rail against the frantic pace of society on the days preceding Christmas. However, often Catholic parishes are among the worst offenders in succumbing to the secular culture. To make matters worse, the unique and awesome mystery of Advent as a stand-alone season gets lost in the shuffle.
My wife was a Catholic school principal for 25 years, including four years when I was the pastor of her parish. She understood the Catholic principal’s role as the senior officer of faith formation for the school, and she staunchly defended the unique theological identity of Advent and instructed her staff to “go thou and do likewise.” It was a significant challenge for her to ward off the countless demands for class Christmas parties, decorations, and the like. If my memory is correct—I am going back over thirty years—one solution to the problem was the use of purple/blue Advent motifs on the school property. In any event, the austerity and gravity of Advent was preserved.
There is another factor which the Church has never quite worked out in the quest to celebrate Advent in a focused way: the sheer number of major feasts—independent of the Advent Season—which fall between November 28 and December 24. Those of you who attend daily Mass and/or pray the Liturgy of the Hours are probably acutely aware of this abundance of riches.
Here is the list of saints and observances in the official Church calendar for the United States during the Advent Season, November 28-December 23:
St. Andrew, Apostle
St. Francis Xavier, Missionary to the East
St. Ambrose, Doctor of the Church
The Immaculate Conception of Mary
St. Juan Diego of Mexico
Our Lady of Loreto
Our Lady of Guadalupe
St. Lucy, Martyr
St. John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church
St. Peter Canisius, Doctor of the Church
St. John Kanty
[Consider that the 1970 reform of the Mass removed the December feasts of St. Bibiana, St. Barbara, St. Sabbas. St. Melchiades, St. Damasus, and St. Eusebius from the calendar and transferred St. Peter Chrysologus, a Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas the Apostle, and St. Frances Cabrini to other dates in the year. I’m glad I never disposed of my 1958 daily missal; it is invaluable as a historical resource.]
[Also, consider this year’s cavalcade of feasts during Christmas week: Christmas Day, St Stephen the First Martyr, St. John the Apostle, the Holy Innocents, St. Thomas Becket, The Holy Family, St. Sylvester.]
As early as I can remember learning about the Mass, I was always puzzled about the Sunday Advent Gospels, particularly the Gospel of the First Sunday [Luke 21: 25-33, read annually in the years before 1970], which speaks of “men fainting for fear and for expectation of the things that are coming on the world.” I had heard in school and in the pulpit that Advent was a time of preparing for Christmas, a cheery time despite the purple vestments. A Catholic was encouraged to go to confession to get ready for Christmas. In truth, there was a convenient overlap between December good behavior of impressing Baby Jesus and covering my bets with Santa Claus. Where the Advent Masses were concerned, I was too young to understand the term “apocalyptic” but all the same I sensed a disconnect between this vivid Gospel text and the delicious anticipation of cultural Christmas I was experiencing.
But we are adults now, old enough to face the hard reality of Advent’s message. The Gospels of the First Sunday of Advent [Years A, B, and C] are the keynotes of the Advent observance. Advent is not a “soft Lent.” As theologian Fleming Rutledge [1937-] puts it, “Advent is not for the faint of heart. As the midnight of the Christian year, the season is rife with dark, gritty realities…a time of rich paradoxes, a season of celebrating at once Christ’s incarnation and second coming….” [from Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, 2018] I need to call out Dr. Rutledge’s book on Advent. It is published by Eerdmans, an outstanding ecumenical Christian publishing house dating back to 1911; it is becoming my “go to” resource for excellent biblical and theological books. You can subscribe for free email updates of Eerdmans publications here.
What I am learning from Dr. Rutledge is the remarkable history of Advent as a stand-alone religious observance with a rich treasury of observance and writing dating back over 1500 years, in many cases quite distinct from the Christmas Season. How did our ancestors in faith understand Advent, and how did they observe it? I will pick this up in the next Liturgy post shortly. But I can say that I am already feeling more hopeful—personally, at least—about my Advent in 2023.
I was delighted to read the first edition of Why Catholics Can't Sing in 1990 when I was still pastoring a Catholic community. It remains the only book anyone ever threw at me—outside of high school, anyway. The 2013 edition is equally competent, and the author, Thomas Day, is honest enough in his new introduction to admit that he has mellowed a bit as a commentator. This second edition of Why Catholics Can’t Sing is mellower, too, though in a melancholic, resigned sort of way. Day observes that while some Catholic communities have established successful musical cultures, the errors and mistakes in the music practices of the immediate post-Vatican II years have become entrenched into the fabric of American Catholicism, except that they are now anchored by the weight of custom, the increasing power of the Catholic hymnal industry, and serious decline in the continuing faith education of Catholic adults on matters of sacraments and liturgy, among many other causes.
To set the table for Day’s books, it is necessary to go back to the Church Council Vatican II [1962-1965]. Vatican II was a cumbersome and stormy encounter; no teachings were produced at all in 1962. Its first product, “The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” [Sacrosanctum Concilium], was promulgated on December 4, 1963, by a vote of the world’s bishops of 2147-4. That many bishops voiced support for keeping the Tridentine Rite of 1570, the “old Latin Mass,” in the debates [Cardinal Spellman of New York, for example] suggests that this unanimity behind Sacrosanctum Concilium is evidence that the Council supported a moderate direction of renewal of the sacred liturgy. In fact, it is rather surprising to read the document’s directives on sacred music [paragraphs 112-121], for example, which assumes that key parts of the Mass would be sung in Latin and that the organ enjoyed a historical preeminence in the musical agenda of the Church.
Day’s 2013 narrative begins here. Those of us who lived through the 1960’s in the United States—in my case, in a seminary—remember well the rapid turnover from the congregation-passive, choir-driven Latin Gregorian Chant Mass to a flurry of full English singing—or encouraged singing—by enthusiasts who went full throttle to English and full musical engagement. In Chapter 2, subtitled “That S--t" [pp. 5-17], Day correctly pinpoints the reluctance of most American bishops and clerics to entertain a liturgical movement, even though its roots went as far back as Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914]. American Catholics were caught flat-footed when Conciliar documents turned up in diocesan papers speaking of “participation” and “congregational singing.”
Day correctly assesses the American dilemma—collectively, Catholics looked upon Mass as a silent engagement in reverential devotion. Most Masses were low Masses with perhaps one solemn high Mass with choir in the Sunday schedule. [p. 8] [An aside: as a boy I found the Sunday low Mass so dull and uninspiring that I wiggled my way into becoming the weekly master of ceremonies for my parish’s bells and whistles solemn high Mass at 10:30 with full choir.] The author, in Chapter 3, traces this silent reticence to the hegemony of Irish influence in the American Church. Centuries of British domination in Ireland, including the persecution of priests, led to the emergence of a silent Catholic culture. Mass in Ireland, after all, could be raided at any time. In this atmosphere the ringing of bells, the playing of the organ, and congregational singing became the hallmark of Protestantism, the persecuting Protestants. “Catholic quiet” was a political as well as a devotional statement.
The Irish who came to the United States in great numbers in the early 1800’s to build the Erie Canal and later to flee the Potato Famine soon became the dominant identity of American Catholicism, and particularly the clergy and hierarchy. Few of the American bishops who attended Vatican II would come home wildly enthusiastic about liturgical reform. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York [r. 1939-1967] supposedly remarked to a colleague after the Council’s concluding session that “none of this will get past the Statue of Liberty.” Day is somewhat unclear as to how the liturgical reforms—particularly music—caught fire at the local levels, to a degree well beyond the guardrails of Sacrosanctum Concilium itself and carried such influence in parishes despite the reticence of many bishops.
In the 1960’s, there were other ecclesial institutions with considerable local and national clout and influence. Religious orders, theology faculties, seminaries, Catholic universities, newly ordained priests, and influential Catholic publications all appeared to be light years ahead of diocesan chanceries—and, it is true, bishops were spending a lot of time at the Council and away from their sees until the end of 1965, two critical years after Sacrosanctum Concilium. And American culture itself was changing drastically. It is possible that Day felt no need to revisit this stressful era in detail. For more detail on the years immediately after the Council, see Patrick W. Carey, Catholics in America: A History , Chapter 9: “Post-Vatican II Catholicism: 1965-1990.”
Sacrosanctum Concilium had emphasized a greater need for lay participation in the Mass, building on the earlier smaller steps of Pius X and Pius XII [r. 1939-1958]. “Lay participation” in practical terms would come to mean more use of the common language in dialogue with the priest celebrant, lay ministers assisting at Mass, the shared communion cup, and singing. Of all these, singing ought to have been the easiest to address—we all have voices--until the earliest apostles of congregational singing took a sobering look at what was available in English. The only volume close to an American Catholic Hymnal was the St. Pius X Hymnal, the 1953 edition, which was in the pews of my seminary when I arrived in 1962. Seminaries and probably parish choirs had access to the massive Liber Usualis, the Latin/Gregorian Chant compendium of all music for Mass and the Divine Office [Liturgy of the Hours]. My home parish had no pew hymnals when I left for the seminary in 1962; congregations generally did not sing then, so this collective singing—little as it was--would be new to me as it was to much of Catholic America later in the decade.
There was a sentiment afloat among church reformers that most of the older traditional music of the Pius X Hymnal, which was written in four-part polyphony style for choirs, would not be helpful for liturgical participation in the post-Vatican II era, in style or philosophy. Untrained congregations do not spontaneously break into four-part harmony; nor did the optimistic atmosphere of the early post-Council years mesh with the gravitas of “O Sacred Head Surrounded” or “At the Cross Her Station Keeping,” classics of the generations ahead of me. This perceived disparity among American liturgical reformers opened the door to an era of wholesale cherry picking of existing vernacular music and, more frequently, to the composition of music for a new generation of worship. Day discusses the evolution of this new congregational composing and singing, the period we typically associate with the advent of the “guitar Mass.” I, who enjoyed singing the older polyphonic Latin hymns in seminary choir would later, in my 20’s, play a twelve-string Martin guitar and a bass fiddle at countless liturgies, including the Saturday evening folk Mass at Arlington Cemetery/Fort Myer, Virginia, and St. Mary’s Church in historic downtown Alexandria.
In 1968 the flagship hymnal of the new guitar era was “Hymnal for Young Christians,” published by F.E.L. [now defunct] If you google this publisher, you will find dozens of lawsuits; F.E.L. went to court quite often in the 1970’s because a lot of folks playing their songs on peace and justice were not paying royalties. [The Vatican II era brought many surprises, the enforcement of copyrights to feed struggling lay composers being one of them.] Although the term “folk Mass” was used to describe new guitar liturgies, there was quite a distance between the serious protest music of secular folk singers such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, on the one hand, and the F.E.L.-inspired stable of writers and singers on the other. The latter produced upbeat, chippy music that celebrated togetherness, not alienation. A good example from the Young Americans hymnal is Ray Repp’s “Allelu!” If you take the time to listen to the link, you can see why nervous or disapproving pastors often consigned folk Masses to the parish basement, as Day quips, or to an offbeat hour of the weekend schedule, such as Sunday night.
I should interject here the answer to a question younger readers might be pondering—who oversaw the liturgical musical renewal in the United States after Vatican II? The answer is no one. The closest thing to a liturgical music focal center was the growing publishing industry itself, such as F.E.L. and soon World Library and GIA Publications, and associations such as the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. The first American directive for liturgical music issued by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, came forth in 2008. The United States bishops did not construct any guardrails until 2021, when it examined 1000 hymns currently in use for possible doctrinal deficiencies and found a considerable number.
It does not seem that the bishops were overly troubled by the sheer proliferation of church music around the country. Toward the end of his 2013 work, Day will argue that present day publishers like Oregon Catholic Press—a major publisher of hymnals today—are shaping contemporary liturgical music through an uncontrolled amount of new music consistently flooding the market. OCP’s most recent parish hymnal, “Glory and Praise—Third Edition,” boasts 750 song selections alone. I regret to say that I have found few liturgists or commentators besides Day who have expressed concern that the proliferation of liturgical music may be counterproductive to any sense of Church unity, let alone that quantity is no guarantee of quality. [At last weekend’s Advent Mass, one of our seasonal hymns was four years old, not exactly an Advent classic and certainly unfamiliar to those of us in the pews.] Day observes that because salaries for parish directors of music are generally less than competitive, pastors/employers do not discourage employees from creative enterprises on the side--such as composing works for the major hymnal publishers. Few are questioning if more is always better in the church domain.
The “guitar era” morphed in the 1970’s and 1980’s into a softer phase that in many ways remains with us today. Day’s treatment of liturgical music in these decades is perhaps the most intriguing—and most controversial—portion of his book. Chapter 5, “Ego Renewal: Presenting Father Hank and Friends” assesses how the celebration of Mass came to turn upon the personality of the priest and away from the integrity of the rite of the sacrament. Hand in hand, the composition of church music turned from hymns to God to celebrations of “us,” to the degree that many of the hymns of the later twentieth century have the congregation singing God’s own words from the Bible. We have become God in the expression of our music. Day gives 26 examples of such hymns [p. 73], including “I Have Loved You With An Everlasting Love” [Michael Joncas], “Be Not Afraid” [Bob Dufford], “I Am the Bread of Life” [Suzanne Toolan], “Hosea” [Gregory Norbet], “Lord of the Dance” [Sydney Carter], and “You Are Mine,” a song which has disturbing undertones given recent disclosures about its author, David Haas. [For reasons I cannot grasp, my parish continues to use Mr. Haas' music, even after his own publisher disengaged from him.]
Collectively, this music is sometimes referred to as “St. Louis Jesuits” music, after one of its prominent collection of composers. Day’s critique of its theology of musical prayer is spot on, but he goes further. The music itself, he contends, is complicated, written to be performed by specialists, not the style likely to gather a large disparate group like we folks in the pews. As a rule, while it may be soothing and comforting to the ear and the heart, it is not congregation-friendly for ease of individual and communal singing; in this respect it falls short of the participatory goal specifically targeted in Sacrosanctum Concilium. [Sing “I Am the Bread of Life” in your head; in my parish this is a Holy Thursday musical pillar, but there’s not a man alive who can reach those notes.] Consequently, recent decades of church music have conditioned us churchgoers to become hearers of the song as much as hearers of the Word. By 2022 standards, most congregations judge and applaud music they like, blissfully unaware that present day attitudes disengage them from their Baptismal right to sing unencumbered. Remember St. Augustine: “To sing is to pray twice.”
Day’s parody of parish cantors is worth the price of the book. He describes them collectively as virtuosos whose mismanagement of their role has created a pernicious feedback loop. The author contends that an individual is more likely to sing in church if he or she can hear themselves and the immediate circle of people around them. However, the super-amplified cantor drowns out the individual effort with an imposing array of audio speakers to enhance an already enthusiastic voice. Getting little feedback from the beleaguered congregation, the cantor—growing frustrated—amps up voice and accompaniment further, making matters worse. Day’s critique is echoed in the 2007 U.S. Bishops directive cited above: “In order to promote the singing of the liturgical assembly, the cantor’s voice should not be heard above the congregation.” [para. 38, p. 12] The same rule applies to choirs and instruments. The bishops’ document cites the few examples where this would not be the case, such as ‘back and forth” music like the Kyrie Eleison.
And if I may add: why are we applauding musicians before and during Mass? After all, there are many liturgical ministers at Mass, all doing their special work. We don’t applaud altar servers or ushers. If I were going to applaud anyone, it would be my parish’s deacons who obviously labor hours over their sermons with Scripture, commentaries, and resource material spread across their desks after time on their knees. In the end, all ministers work ad majorem dei gloriam, “for the greater glory of God,” not our passive entertainment.
However, if we must give out medals, my parish deserves an endurance prize for surviving the sheer volume and number of musical pieces we must experience at Sunday Mass. Day is not the first author to pinpoint the American development of the “four hymn sandwich” approach to Mass: entrance, offertory, communion rite, and closing. In my parish, we often have six sandwiches, fries, and a hot fudge sundae: three, even four communion hymns on some occasions. Has anyone read the Roman Missal’s directives on the communion rite? In the U.S. bishops’ directive, a communion hymn is the fourth musical option for Eucharistic distribution! But I digress.
In his 2013 edition, Day devotes considerable attention to other contributing factors which diminish the participatory and devotional power of the Mass. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to Aristotle’s Poetics as part of my liturgical training. Aristotle’s text, written several centuries before Christ, laid down the principles for the famous Greek dramas which have survived the test of time—all action, spoken and staged, focused on the sole element of the plot. No wasted words or gestures. Day, in 2013, laments the loss of liturgical focus on the drama of the saving presence of Christ to the personality and eccentricities of the celebrant. The author gives an example: after the entrance hymn, a fictional celebrant extends the missal’s prescribed greeting, “May the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ…be with you.” Unfortunately, the fictional “Father Celebrant” in Day’s narrative feels compelled to follow up with, “Good morning, folks!” As the author comments, “We can be reasonably sure that the Last Supper did not begin with the words, “Good Evening, Apostles.” [p. 39] Day refers to these unfortunate intrusions into the flow of the Mass drama as “de-ritualization” [p. 38], changing experience of the Mass into a list of fragmented tasks to be gotten through, rather than one devotional whole.
Aristotle had a word for powerful drama--catharsis, the “washing out” of the emotions. When liturgy is celebrated with focus upon the mystery of Word and Eucharist—with every gesture, word, and action addressed to that sacred mystery, without ad lib commentary and the reading of church bulletin announcements after communion, there is a cathartic experience of redemption that works a change on our inner disposition to God’s salvation. I do not have my 1990 first edition at my fingertips, but in the 2013 edition Day seems to broaden his concern for music and liturgy to the totality of how the Mass is celebrated in each place. One alternative style is monastic mass in abbeys. My wife and I have made annual retreats for many years at Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, South Carolina, and we are always engaged by the elegant simplicity of the monks’ community Mass which, incidentally, is considerably shorter in time than a typical parochial Mass. Again, more is not necessarily better.
Day is humble enough to realize that he does not have an uncomplicated road map to return liturgical music to what the Council envisioned. His final chapters provide both philosophic musings and practical advice. One of his principles has an almost “synodal” ring to it, i.e., listening to and assessing the needs of the congregation[s]. I suspect that a fair percentage of any church’s parishioners would give a favorable, or at least passable, response if asked about the parish’s music. But the question must be more specific to the Council’s teaching: can you sing our selection of hymns? Singing, as a rule, is a benchmark of liturgical participation as defined by the Council.
In this 2013 edition Day addresses the physical assets and liabilities of church structures themselves as they help or hinder singing and participation. Having built a post-Vatican II church structure myself, I recall employing engineers to examine our blueprints for acoustic issues [would our building material soak up the sound of singing] and natural lighting [positioning the building vis-à-vis the position of the Florida sun for maximum natural lighting.] Day makes an excellent point that excessive artificial lighting can alter congregational mood. In my years as a college chaplain, my students flocked to our 10 PM Sunday evening Mass—candlelight, soft classical music, and no congregational singing. “It’s a great time for me to get my head together for the week,” seemed to be the consensus among these collegians. Who was I to argue with my congregation? [The custom was established before I arrived, and I cannot take credit for the idea, but I certainly continued it.] Day might have added the most basic obstacle to sacramental participation in general, our continuing dependence upon long rectangular church buildings which provide minimal opportunity for visual engagement of the sanctuary and shut out the experience for children entirely. Most of our churches are shaped like Eucharistic adoration chapels rather than gathering sites to reenact the Last Supper.
One common sense point is the author’s observation that every weekend Mass does not need to be a “high Mass” with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Prior to the Council, silent or “low Masses” were common Sunday fare. I would go one step further and argue that in small congregations—such as those rural parishes in consolidation which might have 30 or 40 people at the location’s sole Mass—music is not necessary at all. There are other ways to capture unity—bring the seating close to the altar, allow the congregation to stand around the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer and Communion, etc.
The author’s remarks about the feasibility of using simple Latin Gregorian chant at various parts of the Mass—easy to remember, does not require a text—may sound ambitious, but he reports that some churches are having success with this format. In general, the author seems to prefer a musical repertoire which is sensibly limited and does not require the use of a hymnal. It is hard for me to imagine how any parish needs a 750-hymn sourcebook, nor how a typical congregation can develop a comfort zone with familiar musical texts in the face of a seemingly infinite turnover of music. But beyond that, sooner than later we are going to need to address the question of how multicultural parishes worship together in a variety of tongues. With fewer priests to offer Masses in multiple languages, Latin chant can be a part of the solution to this growing challenge of worship in a Catholic America that is becoming more culturally diverse by the day.
One of the more disconcerting observations in the U.S. Bishops’ Sing to the Lord is this: “In the present day, many potential directors of music are not of our faith tradition. It is significant as we go forward that directors of music are properly trained to express our faith traditions effectively and with pastoral sensitivity.” [para. 45, p. 14] This is a remarkably candid admission. Imagine the uproar if the same admission had been made about Catholic school principals. Parents would immediately demand to know why they are shelling out the big bucks if the principal, the catechetical officer of the school, is unfamiliar with the Catholic tradition and “learning it on the fly,” so to speak.
My conclusion, after reading [and rereading] Why Catholics Can’t Sing, having led music during the early Vatican II reform era, and a lifetime of observation, is that on the whole Catholic musicians and directors—as well as those of us in the pew--are not conversant with Catholic liturgical teaching, specifically Sacrosanctum Concilium. Nor is this poverty of Catholic formation limited to church music. In many ways, the religious education status quo is even more bleak. Put another way, the odds are that every time a diocese or a parish hires a lay minister in any capacity, that individual will be less conversant with Catholic life and history than his or her predecessor. This, alas, is the drift of the Church as a whole.
We are embracing an age of Synodality, what Pope Francis envisions as an ongoing future of grace-filled conversation oriented toward the renewal of the Church, which is semper reformanda, “always in need of reform.” In my home parish, I am pleased to work with a very motivated group of fellow parishioners who, having studied Fratelli Tutti, are moving on to study the documents of the Council. As of this writing, they are wrestling with how to go about it. [In one sense, they are already sharing the frustrations of the 2500 bishops at the first Council session in 1962, a session spent “sorting things out.”] To them, and to any individual or group embarking upon hardball study of Catholic theology and practice, I say this: never in my lifetime has there been a greater need for an informed laity to step forward as leaven for the local churches.
In the spirit of Synodality, I would encourage parish music ministries everywhere to take a sabbatical, so to speak, to examine the principles of their ministry as enumerated in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Roman Missal, and Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing  is a pointed text which highlights our present-day problems participating from the pew and the need to rethink how we sing our praises to God.
Sacrosanctum Concilium 112: Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song and the same may be said of the fathers of the Church and of the Roman pontiffs who in recent times, led by St. Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.
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In reviewing and discussing Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing [1990, 2013] I stated in the previous post that I would take time to examine what Vatican II, specifically its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, has to say about the relationship of music and worship. SC was the first document promulgated by the Council, in its second or 1963 session, and it is worth your while to read it, though like all “committee documents,” it is not an essay that would win a Nobel literature prize. And it is obvious to even a novice reader that SC was a roadmap as much as a finished product, meaning that years of study, debate, and experimentation would need to put meat on the bones of SC’s general directives. One such follow-up is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship  which I will incorporate into this stream as we go along.
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The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy does not address the issue of church music until the 112th paragraph, in part because the Council fathers did not envision radical changes in this area. In fact, SC cites the work of Pope [St.] Pius X as having set the tenor of continuing musical reform, so it is worth looking at the first liturgical reform document of the modern era, Tra le Sollecitudini, issued in 1903. Pius X is often regarded as a reactionary, and it is true that he feared the many changes taking place at the turn of the twentieth century—the growth of popular democracy, the separation of altar and throne, scientific method, free thinking, historical deconstruction of the Bible, Darwinism, psychiatry, etc. Pius referred to these societal changes collectively as “modernism,” a force he believed would destroy the Church.
To his credit, Pius recognized that the internal parochial life of the Church needed reform, and he intuited that the faithful needed assistance in coming closer to the mysteries of the Mass. I have only been to Mass once at the Vatican, and that was in 2013, so I have no idea of what the Italian parochial experience of Mass was like in, say, 1903, when Pius issued his reform decree. Historians in general look to legal decrees and legislation to form a picture of what the everyday life of a society must have been like. [Contemporary biographies and memoirs serve a similar purpose.] It can safely be said that Pius X had firsthand knowledge only of Italian customs—he never left the peninsula. However, we do know that peripatetic bishops visited popes all the time—including those from the United States. Archbishop John Hughes [“Dagger John”] of New York sailed to Rome on several occasions between 1840 and 1860. So, we can piece together a rough picture of what Pius X hoped to address in the liturgy by looking at his renewal.
Before looking at Tra le Sollecitudini, however, we need to acknowledge that Pius X is most famous for his directives on receiving the Eucharist. A centuries-old heresy, Jansenism, had caused most Catholics to stop receiving due to an obsession with unworthiness. This Eucharistic misunderstanding reached well into the twentieth century. In my youth my elderly relatives would tell me that it was not unusual to go to Sunday Mass at which no one received communion. As a former professor and liturgist, Pius encouraged frequent communion, and in his Quam Singulari, he dramatically changed the age of First Communion from teenaged years to the “age of reason,” understood in Canon Law today as about the age of seven. At the time this was a radical change, one that brought him considerable gratitude in many quarters. I have heard a story that a curia official [probably more than one] told the pope that children did not understand the depths of the Eucharistic mystery. Pius responded: “So long as a child knows the difference between the bread received at Mass and the bread eaten at home, I am satisfied.”
Pius explored more ways to engage the faithful in the mysteries of the Mass. He encouraged the use of missals so that participants could follow the actions on the altar in their own language, though Catholics of my age remember that even in the 1950’s people at Mass said the rosary or read private prayers during Mass. Pius’s Tra le Sollecitudini describes the goal of the Church’s sacred music: “that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” He goes on: “It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.”
It seems that Pius viewed church music as a means of inspiration, a visceral capture of the emotions. He states in TLE that music must be “true art.” At the same time, he describes ideal church music as “universal.” He writes: “Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.” We can deduce that Gregorian Chant had fallen into disuse, sung only in monasteries where the Divine Office of psalms and prayers is conducted throughout the day [The Liturgy of the Hours], and even there into a pattern of musty routine. [The story is told that a Franciscan friary in San Francisco was singing its Gregorian-style psalms in its hum-drum fashion when the great earthquake struck the city and statues started toppling in the friars’ chapel. The superior slammed his book down and called out, “Never mind this. Let’s pray!”]
Pius called for church music to be “universal.” Some might argue that it is counterproductive to make the entire Church around the world sing the same things, but I think the pope was attempting to strike a chord here for a better consciousness of the worldwide nature of the Church and our responsibilities to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Unless a 2022 Catholic subscribes to a national or international Church news source, the persecution of Catholics [and other Christian observants] in Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Myanmar, among other sites, goes unnoticed. But these victims are our fellows in Baptism and the Eucharistic celebration.
I am getting ahead of myself here, but Pius X’s advice of 120 years ago is certainly pertinent in our American homeland; last night at Mass I recognized at best one or two of the musical selections at my wife’s parish. I have no idea who chooses our selections—our musical directorship is currently vacant—but I hope that whoever eventually takes the reins understands that flooding a congregation with a stream of unfamiliar works destroys a parish’s unity and selfishly feeds artistic narcissism among those who are supposed to be ministers, not imposers. [See, among other chapters, “Ego Renewal: Father Hank and Friends” (pp. 55-91) in Why Catholics Can’t Sing (2013)].
For the sake of brevity, I will just tick off the key remaining instructions of Pius X which the Vatican II fathers drew from in the composition of Sacrosanctum Concilium:
+ In addition to Gregorian Chant, Pius called for Classic Polyphony [multiple voices in harmony], especially of the Roman School, which reached its greatest perfection in the fifteenth century, owing to the works of Pierluigi da Palestrina. [Polyphony] must therefore be restored in ecclesiastical functions, especially in the more important basilicas, in cathedrals, and in the churches and chapels of seminaries and other ecclesiastical institutions in which the necessary means are usually not lacking.
+ Modern music is also admitted to the Church, since it, too, furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety, and gravity, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions. The language proper to the Roman Church is Latin. Hence it is forbidden to sing anything whatever in the vernacular in solemn liturgical functions, much more to sing in the vernacular the variable or common parts of the Mass and Office. [Pius is addressing the practice of performing songs in the form of Italian grand opera, a practice of the time. See Day, Why Catholics Can’t Sing (2013) p. 199]
+ Although the music proper to the Church is purely vocal music, music with the accompaniment of the organ is also permitted. In some special cases, within due limits and with proper safeguards, other instruments may be allowed, but never without the special permission of the Ordinary [bishop]….
+ As the singing should always have the principal place, the organ or other instruments should merely sustain and never oppress it. [Why Catholics Can’t Sing considers the overbearing noise of instruments a major obstacle to congregational participation and singing.]
+ The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like. It is strictly forbidden to have bands play in church, and only in special cases with
the consent of the Ordinary will it be permissible to admit wind instruments, limited in number, judiciously used, and proportioned to the size of the place.
+ It is not lawful to keep the priest at the altar waiting on account of the chant or the music for a length of time not allowed by the liturgy…The Gloria and the Credo ought, according to the Gregorian tradition, to be relatively short.
+ In general, it must be considered a very grave abuse when the liturgy in ecclesiastical functions is made to appear secondary to and in a manner at the service of the music, for the music is merely a part of the liturgy and its humble handmaid. [Again, to cite Thomas Day in our day, the function of liturgical music is primarily to assist the faithful in its full participation in the Eucharist or other worship.]
+ In seminaries of clerics and in ecclesiastical institutions let the above mentioned traditional Gregorian Chant be cultivated by all with diligence and love, according to the Tridentine prescriptions, and let the superiors be liberal of encouragement and praise toward their young subjects. In like manner let a Schola Cantorum [an ecclesiastical choir or choir school] be established, whenever possible, among the clerics for the execution of sacred polyphony and of good liturgical music.
+ Let care be taken to restore, at least in the principal churches, the ancient Scholae Cantorum, as has been done with excellent fruit in a great many places. It is not difficult for a zealous clergy to institute such Scholae even in smaller churches and country parishes. In these last the pastors will find a very easy means of gathering around them both children and adults, to their own profit and the edification of the people. [Pius X is encouraging choirs in even small parishes. However, in this document he continues the prohibition of women in church choirs, except in cloisters and convents; Pope Pius XII lifted this ban in the 1950’s though in practice in the United States women were singing in church choirs before Pius XII’s official OK.]
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The Roman Catholic Church clearly did not adopt to the letter the teachings of Pius X, particularly his Tra le Sollecitudini, during the composition of Vatican II’s decree on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, or in the numerous policies and directives that followed the Council as the Church reformed its sacred rites. But by including the name and memory of Pius X in SC 112, the Council fathers underscored several critical principles involving music and the sacred liturgy.
One of these is continuity. Para. 116 of Sacrosanctum Concilium specifically states the preeminence of Gregorian Chant in its Latin composition. We must stop and ask ourselves if one of the shortcomings of Vatican II’s liturgical renewal is precisely its discontinuity from our past. In several places Day makes a point of highlighting both an intellectual and an emotional overdetachment, an outright repudiation of Latin heritage and its music in favor of a sole contemporary music agenda. One wonders if the current estrangement of “progressives” and “conservatives” might never have festered to such stress had we adopted in our parishes and institutions a both/and approach, as the Council Fathers did. To carry it one step further, might we need to objectively examine the psychological-religious reasons for the repudiation of our past? In Santayana’s famous phrase, “those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.”
Sometimes research is pure luck. I was doing some academic legwork for a group in my wife’s parish which was planning an in-depth study of the documents of Vatican II. I was looking for a summary of the documents with group discussion questions and reflections, and I came across Edward P. Hahnenberg’s  A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II. An aside: this was the first book I downloaded to my brand new 7-ounce Kindle, and boy, is that device easy on arthritic hands. And, I should add, this is a fine study guide for individuals and groups attempting to break open the conciliar documents on this, the 60th anniversary of the opening of Vatican.
Hahnenberg offers an overview of all sixteen documents, including Inter Mirifica, “Decree on Mass Media,” promulgated in November 1963. IM has been considered the weakest of all the Vatican II documents. Wikipedia puts it best: “The document's immediate reception was fairly negative. The document was heavily criticized for falling short of expectations, as well as failing to provide any new or different thoughts or instructions on social communications. At the close of the Council, in a brief assessment of the documents it had produced, The New York Times said this text had been ‘generally condemned as inadequate and too conservative.’ These sentiments have been the long-standing memories of the document, with these sentiments continuing 40 years following the decree.” [Wikipedia, Inter Mirifica]
But in writing for a twenty-first century audience, Hahnenberg retrieves contemporary issues that Inter Mirifica could only dimly perceive, notably the influence of television, and he makes a remarkable observation for twenty-first century Catholics to consider. “It is not just what we watch on television, but how we watch it that influences us. Television and other technologies have trained us to a certain way of responding to everything else in our lives—including our religious faith. Thus, the minimal demands that television makes on the viewer transforms us into passive “viewers” at church. The inescapable din of advertising trains us to treat the sacraments like consumer goods. The overwhelming amount of choice made possible by the Internet leads us to expect a variety of options in the moral sphere. The individualism reinforced through personal digital assistants and other technologies can weaken our appreciation for church community.” [Hahnenberg, Loc 2564 Kindle]
This is heavy stuff. Hahnenberg takes the reflection far beyond the matter of singing liturgical music—which was not his primary target at any rate—but I believe that Thomas Day in his Why Catholics Can’t Sing  would find common ground that the reform of Church music after Vatican II, particularly in the past thirty years or thereabouts, has morphed from a drive for eager and full-throated singing of everything that is not bolted down to a more passive acceptance, or at least toleration, of a now-aging repertoire. Further, while it is hard to gather analytical information, I get the sense that where church music is concerned, English-speaking congregations take the music like they take their TV, as a passive entertainment of sorts and make their judgments about music based upon what they like. In fairness, there has been no concerted educational effort to provide the faithful with other purposes for singing.
I devoted an entire day to tracking down research on attitudes toward liturgical music—to find out if in fact more parishioners are listening to the Mass music than singing it--and regrettably, I have little hard data to show for my labors. [Shakespeare said that “knowledge maketh a bloody entrance.” He might have added that “knowledge maketh an expensive entrance” to a little old researcher like me trying to access the full reports of professional studies.] But to be frank, there is neither the money nor the enthusiasm within the institutional Church to assess the status of church music in American pews at the present time. As with the Synodality process, there is reluctance to go out looking for unwelcome news if that is what you expect to find. But the problem is bigger than that. To be sure, there are a decent number of sociological studies on American Catholicism, but what I gleaned from several commentators is the difficulty of analyzing the quality of a parish’s music program. One researcher explained it this way. When a bishop makes his annual visitation to a parish, usually for Confirmation, he has at his fingertips a set of metrics—the financial books, the sacramental tallies, attendance, etc. However, there are no such metric for music, as in how many people sing. The bishop’s assessment, if he ventures one, is based upon his anecdotal impressions of the liturgy he celebrates that day.
I should point out that professional researchers from institutes like PEW or CARA, to name a few, are continuing to study the Church from a sociological vantage point—why people depart, where they stand on “hot-button political issues,” and of course PEW’s famous/infamous recent study of the percentage of Catholics who believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But as a rule, researchers do not know how to analyze the existential musical experience of Mass for its participants. Day points out several critical unanswered questions about the celebration of Mass that deserve critical attention, alongside his obvious interests in liturgical music. In his 2013 edition, Day addresses the persona of the priest celebrant, pointing out correctly the schizophrenic role that the priest has been expected to assume over the past several generations. On the one hand, he is a mystical leader of the solemn ritual of the memorial of Christ’s redemptive act—a drama that should draw us up and out of ourselves as surely as the great dramas Aristotle describes in his pre-Christian classic The Poetics. We fail to appreciate that our Catholic brethren who embrace the Tridentine Rite of the Mass [the Mass of Pope Pius V promulgated in 1570, the rite which preceded Vatican II] are acting in good faith in keeping alive this transcendental experience of the Mass, and their voice is important.
On the other hand, since Vatican II the priest has been asked to preside over a living, breathing collection of the Baptized. I was trained to celebrate Mass in those early years after the Council and to engage my personality in joining the community together as best I could. Priests of my generations were trained to be socially conscious of the people in front of us. The downside of this is an informality that exaggerates the celebrant’s personality. Day gives the quite common example of the opening of Mass, where the congregation begins with a solemn hymn to God, and then the celebrant opens his mouth to say, “Good morning, everybody.” Day’s argument boils down to the point that you cannot have an “informal ritual,” because it only creates confusion for the people, and by extension creates an uncertain atmosphere in which to select and execute the music of the Mass. Are we celebrating our weekend collectiveness or are we raised to a higher plane of divine encounter? There is an element of “squaring the circle” here. A major part of the problem here is a collective failure to study what the Council said about the meaning of the Mass and music in the liturgy in its teaching Sacrosanctum Concilium (especially paras. 112-121). I will address that in a future post.
Researchers have been unsuccessful, overall, in developing a method for determining congregational sentiment and experience of music in the Mass, or for the sum experience of the Mass itself. Even CARA’s standard research template for parish analysis devotes only one question on parish music out of ninety-nine items. Day’s book cites The Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life [1984-89] which, although dated, is possibly the best attempt to examine how Catholics feel about their experience of Mass, and it is by far the most exhaustive, as over one-thousand parishes participated. Regarding liturgical music, the ND study found that “37% of those who responded expressed dissatisfaction with the music in their parishes; 40% were dissatisfied with the singing.” One of the authors of the study, Dr. Mark Searle, would later write of the study in the journal Worship “that the observers sometimes found a lack of conviction about the role and purpose of liturgical music…Rarely was there an atmosphere of deeply prayerful involvement [through liturgical music].” [Day 2013, p. 97]
To actively dislike one’s parish music, as I must admit is often my stance, is one thing. There is a lot of territory between “dislike” and “actively engaging.” There is toleration and there is passively enjoying, and neither was the hope of the Council fathers who wrote Sacrosanctum Concilium. In my next post in this stream, I will focus on the precise language of both the Vatican II teaching and the 2008 document from the U.S. Bishops, “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship.” Reviewing this material, I am reminded of my father’s oft repeated advice: “Read the instructions first.”
I would close with a clip I discovered in US Catholic magazine, a reader’s response to an article on Church music: "Most people in the United States no longer experience creating music (rather than listening to it) as an integral part of their lives and family celebrations, either with a piano or another instrument at home or in a neighbor's house. We don't have a sense that everyone can sing, just like everyone can cook. Many of us outsource singing at liturgy just like we outsource cooking."
Outsourcing the liturgical singing—what a turn of a phrase!
The first edition of Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste  created quite a fuss—pro and con—when it hit the market. I was particularly impressed with a terse review by the Catholic novelist J.F. Powers, whose 1962 best seller Morte d’Urban chronicled the collapse of a mythical mismanaged religious order in the Midwest United States. Wrote Powers: “We needed this book, had it coming.” He was right. A quarter century later, Day compiled an updated version, Why Catholics Can't Sing: Revised and Updated with New Grand Conclusions and Good Advice . This more recent work does not diminish the brash, acerbic, and outright funny critique of typical parish music; on the contrary, the author has added depth to considerations such as the relationship of music to the persona of the celebrant at Mass and the big-business impact of such liturgical publishers as Oregon Press that works against a true reform of congregational singing.
In both editions, Day provides an insightful history into the tradition of liturgical music in the United States. Historically, the largest influx of Catholics into the United States arrived from Ireland, where the Mass was by necessity celebrated in secret, often outdoors, as England outlawed the Catholic faith. In Ireland there was neither singing nor church bell tolling in Catholic experience; in fact, singing and bell-tolling became associated with Anglican and Protestant identity. This sentiment carried heavily into the United States; there was generally no congregational singing at Mass prior to the Vatican II reforms which began in the mid-1960’s. My home parish of the 1950’s celebrated one high Mass with the choir singing the parts of the Mass in Gregorian chant. The other Sunday Masses were “low Masses,” sometimes silent, sometimes with an occasional hymn. There was no expectation, in mainstream U.S. churches, that a congregation do much except prayerfully observe.
The exception in the U.S. was the collection of non-Irish ethnic parishes where immigrants from Germany and elsewhere brought the custom of strong hymn-singing from their homelands. In non-Irish parishes hymn singing was a feature of the low Mass; the high Mass was always accompanied by Gregorian chant. Given that the majority of American Catholics [and nearly all bishops] were Irish, there was an element of snobbery toward other ethnic Catholic communities engaged in “making noise” at what Irish Catholics observed in sacred silence. Moreover, bear in mind that mainstream U.S. Catholicism was not compiling anything near a national canon or collection of congregational music, aside from Marian hymns of questionable quality. “O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today….”
Jump ahead to 1963 and the promulgation of Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, “The Decree on Sacred Liturgy,” specifically paragraphs 112-121 on Sacred Music. Even today it is a bit of a shock to the system to read precisely what the Council said and what it did not say about the relationship of music and the celebration of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. For our purposes, it is safe to say that the Council Fathers hoped to reform the rites of the Mass with a continuity to the past. Always overlooked is SC’s call for a better rendering of the Latin Gregorian Chant Hymnal; evidently, it was hoped that Latin Chant, with its long history of usage in the Church, would continue to be a staple of Eucharistic celebration.
It is at this time and this juncture that transitional reform wires became crossed. Enthusiastic reformers in the United States read Sacrosanctum Concilium as a mandate to engage the faithful in active and full-throated communal celebration at Mass. But because of the enthusiastic rush to experiment with new forms of worship, there was no time for sober reflection, historical review, or, for that matter, consultation with the laity. Nor were local bishops prepared to supervise liturgical experimentation in their dioceses
For starters, there was an egregious misreading of the term “celebration,” at least in the United States. There are multiple meanings of the word, but the problem is that in American usage “celebration” is usually equated with exuberance. And thus, the early reformers of the Mass used their influence to energize the celebration of Mass with massive doses of music, very spirited music at that, at the cost of other elements of Mass celebration, such as silent prayer, the forgiveness of sins, etc. Day correctly observes that even in the present day few parishes have a “quiet Mass” or a low-key celebration under the mistaken belief that every public Mass must have the fanfare of Handel’s “Messiah.” [When I attended the Franciscan reunion of former members in New York a few weeks ago, we celebrated the Mass with no singing—but the Eucharistic fraternity was intense.]
As Day observes, the drive for visceral participation among the liturgical illuminati tended to override all other considerations of the liturgical reform, such as continuity with the tradition or the importance of prayerful silence at Mass. The author correctly detects a strong political element among certain lay Catholics to gain a toehold of authority and influence in the liturgy [and elsewhere, as in parish decision-making policy through the new “parish councils,” though Canon Law does not require such councils.] Concurrent with this trend was a distrust—and at times an outright rejection—of any pre-Conciliar practice as old, irrelevant, and again, authoritarian. Day sees a strong strain of militant feminism in the development of congregational singing in the U.S. after the Council. I have some reservation about Day’s inclusion of feminism in the musical problem; as we will see, the primary influencers of liturgical music in the second half of the twentieth century were men.
Once the Council issued Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963, many churches rushed ahead immediately to bring wholesale congregational singing into places where there had been none. But what, exactly, would congregations sing? I can recall as a junior or senior in high school the introduction of the first music source written for the post-Conciliar provisional Mass, World Library Publication’s The Peoples Mass Book.  You can still find this text online if you look hard. It was my first introduction to Vatican II era worship, and my initial reaction was favorable. PMB 1964 borrowed from Lutheran sources, notably such hymns as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Now Thank We All Our God.” Coupled with this were English translations of Eucharistic hymns used at Benediction [Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament], “O Salutaris” and “Tantum Ergo.” The hymnal included English arrangements for the parts of the Mass sung by the congregation, such as the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. The PMB was reprinted several times in the 1960’s as the final official formulary of the Mass was not completed and approved by the Vatican until 1970. [In 2020 World Library Publication merged with GIA Publications and continues to publish hymnals.]
However, it did not take long for composers to create contemporary music in English for Catholic congregations, and in a desire to achieve both energy and relevance, as well as distance from the old days, the “guitar Mass” or “folk Mass” quickly captured the fascination of many and the ire of others. In both his 1992 and 2013 editions, Day expands upon several theological and artistic flaws which he lays at the feet of its generation of composers and performers, which would eventually include the St. Louis Jesuits, the Weston Monks, Michael Joncas, Carey Landry, and the Dameans. [p. 78], among others. Of their music, the author puts it bluntly: “Simply put, nearly all of it—no matter how sincere, no matter how many scriptural texts it contained—was oozing with an indecent narcissism.” [p. 65] Day cites numerous popular church songs dating back to the late 1960’s and continuing in usage to very recent times—in which the song/hymn is not directed toward God but toward the identity of the congregation. “Here we are, altogether as we sing our song joyfully….” [In my seminary, we referred to this piece as “the hymn to the obvious.”] Even worse, the wording of many hymns puts God’s expression in the mouths of the congregation; the worshipper assumes the identity of God in song. Some examples: “I Am the Bread of Life’ by Suzanne Toolan and “I Have Loved You with An Everlasting Love” by Michael Joncas. A long haul from the classic “Praise We Christ’s Immortal Body.”
When the composer Ray Repp [1942-2020] died recently, many of the newspaper obituaries referred to him as the “Father of the Guitar Mass.” As a young guitarist myself, I recall him as the first composer of Church music I encountered when I started playing at Masses in 1969. [Repp, incidentally, was something of a pioneer in advocating for the legal rights of Church composers. His music was often mimeographed and printed by parishes without payment of royalties. His struggles with his publisher F.E.L. and The Archdiocese of Chicago are a fascinating and troubling tale.]
I have several samples of Repp’s music if you have time to listen. “Sons of God” and “I am the Resurrection” would have been among the first guitar songs most American Catholics encountered in the late 1960’s, so it is worth a moment to look at the characteristics that would influence the next generation of composers whose music is still with us today. “Sons of God” is addressed not to God—as we might expect a hymn to do—but it addresses the congregation, its identity and, in some ways, its success. The lyrics of “I Am the Resurrection” are direct quotes from the Gospel, which puts the congregation in the position of assuming the identity of God and singing back to God what God has already revealed.
That said, I have respect for Repp’s body of work—I am listening to his music on YouTube as I type this afternoon. Repp and I are of the same generation; our understanding of how the Mass was to be reformed was incomplete. I was hired by several congregations in my major seminary years in Washington [1969-1974], including the military base at Arlington Cemetery, and my employers all requested the same thing— “get them singing!” Repp’s music was singable and quite manageable for musicians; the old joke was that anyone could play guitar music at Mass with a knowledge of three chords: C, G, and D7. “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” required only an E-minor and an A-minor.
Day observes that the guitar Mass was a little too edgy to carry the freight for the parish. Until I read Repp’s obituary, I had forgotten that some bishops banned guitar Masses entirely. Repp himself joked that his career would have gone nowhere if bishops had not banned his music. With a touch of humor Day comments that the guitar Mass was originally relegated to the “church basement,” and the upstairs church Mass was more traditional. My recollection is similar in that parishes segregated the folk Mass to a one time slot and used more traditional formats at other scheduled Masses. This was [is?] still the practice at my wife’s parish where the Sunday evening Mass—formerly the “Life Teen Mass”—pulls out the guitars and drums.
By the 1970’s, numerous individuals and groups were composing religious music for Church use. One of the most famous is the five-man ensemble known as “The Saint Louis Jesuits.” Wikipedia provides a professional biography of the group which began as Jesuit seminarians, and it picks up a critical turn in their careers, from folk group to general congregational composers. “Over time, new arrangements for organ and full orchestration were created for more traditional settings.” This change summarizes a major shift in church music, in the sense that the folk music mentality now became mainstream music in most Catholic hymnals across the country and remains so today. Unfortunately, the shortcomings of the old music were never corrected, and in fact new impediments developed that would hinder congregational singing for generations to come.
One of Day’s biggest criticisms of the St. Louis Jesuit generation—which includes the other names cited above: the Weston Monks, Michael Joncas, Carey Landry, the Dameans, Dan Schutte, David Haas—is that it became something of a closed shop arbiter of the kind of music suitable for churches, and as I quoted him earlier, Day believes that this generation lost its vision as leaders and promulgators of congregational singing and morphed into performers and national stars of the Church liturgical music scene. Consequently, while carrying forward the theological shortcomings of the earlier era, the 1970’s added a repertoire of contemporary music—beauty to the ear [occasionally] but impossible for a typical church worshipper to sing. Which brings us to the heart of Day’s concern: Catholic churches are filled with listeners [maybe] but not singers [definitely].
In both his 1990 and 2013 editions, Day rails against the cult of the cantor—in fact, he creates a mythical leader of song, “Mr. Caruso”—who, like the musical stars of the Church, utilizes the function of cantoring for his own self-aggrandizement. The typical church attendee, Day argues, is so inundated with noise from cantors, choirs, and musicians that he or she can barely hear himself or herself and has no connectedness to any other brave souls in the pews around them trying to navigate the “Phil Spector Wall of Sound” that many churches create by an overdependence upon electronics [or, in the church I attend, trumpets!]
Day goes on to make the case that our church hymnals today are filled with the products of an earlier era too laborious to induce enthusiastic congregational singing. I might add here three additional factors—in nearly every church I attend, the music is pitched too high for the male voice, and I have given up on congregational singing personally. Second, the wide repertoire and continuing introduction of new music prevents a congregation from developing a community ensemble of familiar music that does not require constant use of books, missalettes, or jumbotrons. And third, some of the contemporary music pouring into churches is plain awful. I was meditating after communion on a Saturday night when I swore I heard the choir and a few congregants sing “God is the surgeon of my soul.” No, I said to myself, that’s my bad hearing. But I looked up at our jumbotron and sure enough! Who writes this? Or more to the point, who signs off on this?
I laughed all the way to my car.
Next: What is the Church teaching on music, beginning with Vatican II and up to the Roman Missal and the U.S. Bishops 2007 Statement on Music. What does Thomas Day recommend as a corrective to bring communities closer together in song?
A few weeks ago, I received this question via the Café’s Facebook page:
Sunday at Mass the concluding was a song written by David Haas, the songwriter from St Paul [Minnesota Diocese] who “allegedly” seduced and or raped women while in his musical role in the church. Dozens of women have come forward with claims. He has apologized (so that makes it ok?!?!?). He has been rebuked by his home Diocese, he has had his music removed from some dioceses, had publishers remove his songs from their hymnals, has had awards demanded to be returned related to his role in the church.
After mass, I questioned why we were using his music (he certainly can’t have been the only viable closing song for a random week in Ordinary Time) and I was told “we ran it up the chain and they did not tell us we couldn’t use it”. All music directors know this guy or they shouldn’t be music directors.
In my opinion, this is an ultimate “tone deaf” response. For context, this comes from an institution with a half century’s experience of turning a blind eye to sexual abuse. I learned a long time ago just because you have the right to do something does not make it the right thing to do.
First, I am grateful to the writer for raising a painful question that deserves attention. In fact, there are so many issues here that one hardly knows where to start. In the first instance, there is the conduct of David Haas himself and how he used his ministry and reputation to damage dozens of lives in the Church. Second, there is the legal, moral, and liturgical question of his musical legacy in Catholic circles, as the question is complicated. Third, there is the question of music ministry in the Church as a whole, as in who is responsible for who and what gets published in coordination with the Vatican II principles of worship. And finally, how healthy is the state of music ministry in the American Church—are people in the pews nurtured and enlivened by our present hymnody and musical leadership? [The third and fourth points will be addressed in a future post.]
Who is David Haas? His Wikipedia entry begins: “David Robert Haas (born 1957 in Bridgeport, Michigan) is an American author and composer of contemporary Catholic liturgical music. In 2020, dozens of women accused him of sexual misconduct spanning several decades, and he issued a public apology for harmful behavior.” Haas’s music has been published in hymnals and other products of GIA Publications, Oregon Catholic Press, Liturgical Press, World Library Publications, Augsburg Fortress, The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, Celebrating Grace, Disciples of Christ, and The Anglican Church of Canada, among others. Several of his hymns are staples of Catholic worship and enjoy immense popularity. A YouTube performance of his hymn, “You Are Mine,” has 12,081,000 views as of today, and his music is frequently requested for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, ordinations, etc. His theology—as well as that of many of his musical contemporaries--as expressed in his songs has come under criticism by, among others, Thomas Day, the author of Why Catholics Can’t Sing. But there is no denying that Haas’s music has enjoyed widespread appeal over the past thirty to forty years, and disengagement will probably be a lengthy protracted process.
[I decided not to provide a link to the support group “Into Account” because of its graphic description of abuse alleged by at least two dozen women. However, “Into Account” can be found easily enough on-line, and it may be required reading for those who continue to use Haas’s music.]
Should his music be banned from Catholic usage? Can it be banned? This is the heart of my correspondent’s question—why are we continuing to use the music, given what we know about the author today? I left the active ministry and the responsibility of liturgical planning just as Haas was coming on the scene, and truthfully, I don’t pay much attention to the music at Mass these days because it is usually pitched too high for me to sing, and the style/lyrics are painfully bereft of anything related to testosterone. But I still have friends “in the family business” and I called around to get a feeling for how dioceses are dealing with the “Haas problem,” and here are some things I learned.
As of this writing about eighty dioceses have issued prohibitions of Haas music at Catholic worship, and about one hundred have not, give or take. Not all church leaders are convinced that David Haas’s identity and ministry are well known or recognized by the average Catholic, to warrant a public declaration that might draw attention to a sordid narrative when, in their view, few people are impacted. For example, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee responded to an inquiry about Haas’s music from a victims’ advocacy group: “It doesn’t appear to be of concern to parish staff or Catholics in the pew,” he said. “I would guess the vast majority of Catholics have no idea who David Haas is. This is not his diocese.”
In one sense, this diocesan spokesperson is correct; how would Catholics even know about the David Haas scandal? Most Catholics do not know the composers of their parish music. [And, if Thomas Day is correct in Why Catholics Can’t Sing (2013), most Catholics are not interested in their parish’s music at all.] American Catholics are not generally attuned to Catholic news media, and I deliberately omit parish bulletins and diocesan newspapers here from the classification of media because they are, as a rule, house organs, and not journalism.
Here are some thought-provoking statistics: AARP the Magazine, the nation’s leading magazine by circulation, has 24,099,602 subscribers. By comparison, the national blue-chip Catholic news and analysis journals [all with paper and on-line formats] posted these numbers in 2021: National Catholic Register reported a circulation of 39,000; Our Sunday Visitor 43,000; America 45,000; National Catholic Reporter 35,000. I do not have figures on the relatively new but highly popular Crux news service funded by the Knights of Columbus and private donations. The Wall Street Journal reports that there are 82,000,000 Roman Catholics in the United States, which makes the above circulation numbers look even more paltry. In truth, the widest circulation on the Haas scandal has come from The New York Times and other secular sources. Not for nothing do we use the term “parochial” when discussing Catholic life.
Consequently, the odds are that only a fraction of the Catholic community understands the Haas case with any depth, or even knows of it at all. My impression of the past twenty years is that if the Catholic abuse scandal has not impacted one’s family, parish, or diocese, one’s approach to the issue can be disturbingly sanguine. [The same is true, I think, in secular American society.] This on-line response appeared under a YouTube feature of a Haas performance; “No matter what David Hass [sic] did, please let these beautiful and inspiring songs stay. The art and the music are much bigger than we, faults or not, and no saints even were perfect no matter what Haas did. Keep the songs please, Catholic Church.”
However, the Café correspondent’s point is that any church music minister should have known or been sensitive to the complications of using this composer’s music. I would agree with that, but there are some complications here, too. The first, alluded to above, is the uncertain trumpet of diocesan bishops and officers on the question. One diocesan official enlightened me to such a complication. Specifically, Haas has published both hymns and “service music,” i.e., full Mass texts [“Lord, have mercy;” “Gloria,” “Holy, Holy,” etc.] In fact, the largest association of Catholic musicians, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, continues to list twelve of Haas’s Mass compositions on its resource page here. I searched NPM’s website and two years of its Facebook posts and found little discussion of the Haas matter aside from two official notifications that, strangely, do not seem to formally disengage Haas from the organization as a member and presenter of its programs. By comparison, many dioceses have stronger statements and prohibitions.
This official told me that, in his opinion, some Catholic directors and musicians tend to continue using Haas’s service music—where the lyrics are taken from the Roman Missal—but have more reluctance about Haas’s own lyrics. As he put it, “If you didn’t know the man’s history, his songs wouldn’t be controversial. But if you knew the history, some of his music is deeply disturbing.” Consider these lyrics from “You Are Mine”:
I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My voice
I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near
I am hope for all who are hopeless
I am eyes for all who long to see
In the shadows of the night,
I will be your light
Come and rest in Me.
One need not be a Freudian psychoanalyst to parse out the multiple implications of this language to a vulnerable population, nor a theologian to see the impropriety of the congregation singing in the name of God. In case you have forgotten—and that is quite excusable in the current climate—we are supposed to sing hymns to God; we don’t sing in his name. [An aside here: in 2020 the USCCB issued “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics.” I recommend this source for the dedicated reader, for it pinpoints theological and doctrinal errors in Church music currently in use.]
One issue of disengagement from the Haas repertoire is sheer logistics. As my wife is convalescing, I went to Mass this weekend at “my parish” where I pastored for a decade and still have old friends. I checked the parish’s congregational hymnal, a monster of a hard cover text copyrighted in 2011. Haas’s hymn music is contained in this GIA hardbound hymnal, and I can safely say that few churches turn over their hymnals very often—it is very expensive and most of the copies are memorialized—nor is there any pressing need to do so in ordinary circumstances. [My guess is that the same is true of the hymnal in the mega-parish I attend with my wife, and I will check when she is able to attend church again.] As I remarked to a liturgist, “I guess we’re not going to be ripping pages out of $50 hymnals anytime soon.” Oregon Press, which publishes the “throw-away missalette” format, had to apologize that its product for the following year—which included Haas music-- had already gone to press when the abuse issue became widely known.
I agree with my Café correspondent that the response to his question was “tone deaf.” I hope that the minister to whom he addressed the question will take to heart the seriousness of the issue. In hymnals with 500 songs, we do not need to sing material with a troubled history. I can say that in recent times I am seeing a renewed interest in reexamining the documents of Vatican II, including the document on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which includes the role of music in the liturgy. In a week or two I will review Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing, which studies some of the mistakes in the development of church music after Vatican II, including the American development of the “four hymn sandwich” [Entrance Hymn, Offertory, Communion, Closing Hymn] which has veered us away from singing the psalms, for example, or singing in Latin, which contrary to popular belief, was never eradicated from the Mass after the Council.
As my wife and I are fortunate enough to travel, we are aware that church music is so diversified now that there is little or no sense of musical commonality between churches, a curious state of affairs for a Church professing itself to be “One.” It may be that a generation from now there is more attention to the unity of the Church in song with a weeding of the field to a repertoire of music that is doctrinally sound, easily sung by congregations, Biblical [i.e., Psalms] and intimately connected to the action of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. Conceivably such a new ensemble might be multi-lingual—Latin, English, Spanish, for example. For the moment, I am sad to say that three components of worship are greatly in need of overhaul: music formats and choir monopolies which discourage congregational involvement, poor preaching, and architecture which makes visual involvement with the action of the altar invisible to anyone past the third pew, and notably obstructs children. [Sacraments are, after all, outward signs!]
It occurs to me, too, that the Synodal sharing would have been an excellent opportunity to raise such issues. Regrettably, Synod participation was not embraced in many parishes, including the one my wife and I attend on most weekends. But it would be my hope that any thoughtful Catholic would follow the example of our Café correspondent and raise concerns about the celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments.
In about two weeks I will provide a lengthy review of Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing [the 2013 edition]. But don’t wait—get your own copy now. It is available in hardcopy and Kindle, but I recommend the former so you will have places to jot your exclamation points. It is an acerbic but funny critique of our present Mass music. It is the only book someone ever threw at me.
The 3 PM Good Friday Service in my Church [April 15, 2022] lasted 165 minutes: longer than a nonstop flight from Orlando to Detroit, ten minutes shorter than “The Godfather,” and a full hour longer than Pope Francis’ Good Friday observance of the same day.
Why, you ask, would the pope’s rite be shorter than the one in my parish? How could it be? Quite simple. Not surprisingly, the Bishop of Rome observed the Roman Missal’s instruction for the Veneration of the Cross: Paragraph 19 [the official ritual]: Only one Cross should be offered for adoration. If, because of the large number of people, it is not possible for all to approach individually, the Priest, after some of the clergy and faithful have adored, takes the Cross and, standing in the middle before the altar, invites the people in a few words to adore the Holy Cross and afterwards holds the Cross elevated higher for a brief time, for the faithful to adore it in silence [from their places in the pew.] In other words, the Universal Church directives call for a holy simplicity and does not elongate a particular part of a rite unnecessarily. Interestingly, the same principle applies to the distribution of communion at every Mass—there must be enough ministers so that the communion rite is not longer than the rest of the Mass.
I will grant that U.S. Conference of Bishops directives on its website may confuse the Good Friday cross veneration with its commentary on the Vatican’s Paragraph 19, the Veneration of the Cross. There seems to be sentiment in the USCCB office for the individual veneration of the cross by everyone in the congregation prior to the reception of Holy Communion, as occurred in my parish last Friday. Thus, from the USCCB website: “The personal adoration of the Cross is an important feature in this celebration and every effort should be made to achieve it…. It should also be kept in mind that when a sufficiently large Cross is used even a large community can reverence it in due time. The foot of the Cross as well as the right and left arm can be approached and venerated. Coordination with ushers and planning the flow of people beforehand can allow for this part of the liturgy to be celebrated with decorum and devotion.”
While the USCCB directive may be well intentioned, it is hard not to smile at the literal indicators— “the foot of the cross as well as the right and left arm can be approached and venerated.” This presents a spectacle far removed from anything inspiring reverence, i.e., multiple persons attaching themselves at the same time to the cross. It sounded for all the world like Twister. Fortunately, we did not have this kind of spectacle in my church, but we did have its opposite, twelve hundred individual acts of piety in succession—in many cases, inspiring to behold—but as my wife said to me as we began the third hour of the rite, “I think the mood has passed.” Or, as a veteran business executive said to me in the parking lot later, “Perfection is the enemy of outcome.” Or something to that effect. I knew exactly what he meant, though.
For the first hour of our Good Friday Rite, I was indeed engaged in its spirituality—particularly the Passion according to Saint John and the ancient Great Intercessions, that series of solemn prayers for all members of God’s family. Historians believe that these prayers are the forerunner to our “Prayers of the Faithful” at every Mass. This year’s Intercessions held our attention even more with a heartfelt plea for peace in Ukraine. If, at this point, we all had witnessed the unveiling of the cross and kneel for a moment at our places, and then received the Eucharist and departed for home, my soul would have been filled with the unique grace of the day.
However, at the juncture of the presentation of the Cross, it was announced that each member of the congregation would come forward and venerate the cross individually, making any devout gesture one felt moved to express. Except kissing the cross, though many people did that anyway, which would put our two attending deacons at the cross in unenviable positions as the heartless Covid cops. We sat down to wait our turns, all 1200 of us, and somewhere in the church an accountant instinctively started doing the math. I forget exactly what he told me later, but at ten seconds per person, I figured myself that the Veneration of the Cross might extend two hundred minutes. It did not miss by all that much.
My wife and I make retreats with the Trappist monks, and we know from experience [well, she does, because she attends the 3 AM Office of Readings and Meditation] that the longest communal meditation of a monk’s day is about 45 minutes. In our church the entire congregation found itself in the position of improvising something akin to meditation—at or least hold sacred thoughts—for at least twice the length of time as monks. The human mind just is not wired for that kind of unaided mysticism unless you are in a cult that stares into the sun on a river’s bank under the influence of a controlled substance.
Choirs have limits, too. Our fine choir went through every pre-Easter arrangement in their folders, and then they just shut it down, like exhausted hikers at the top of Pike’s Peak. For the next hour or two there was absolute silence in the building, like I have never heard before. Add to that, an inspiring number of parents brought their children to the service. I am always grateful when parents bring their children to Mass anywhere and anytime, but the endurance that was called forth from them caused my most intense prayer of the day— “Please do not give up this sacred tradition of the Triduum. We can fix this.” I was directly in line of vision of a father of an infant who held his baby for the entire duration.
For a good part of the second hour of the service there was little to do but sit and reflect upon what was happening and what was not happening. During this second hour an older gentleman turned to me and said, “Didn’t you people used to use three crosses?” And quickly another voice, “Yea, what is the rule about this?” So, I huddled, discretely as possible, with a small cluster in two pews explaining the provisions of Paragraph 19 and suggesting that they talk to the pastor or write a kind letter regarding next year’s planning.
Thinking back, I officiated at about sixteen Good Friday services during my years in the active priestly ministry, and I recalled how we had managed the service, mostly by postponing the full veneration of the Cross till after the formal service had completed and those who wished to leave could do so. Even so, many did stay to venerate the cross individually, and the kids could move about and visit the potty and the water fountain while waiting. The church was darkened [we held services in the evening] and I entrusted the holding of the cross to a father and son team, in part so I could sit in the congregation after divesting and witness the veneration and connect with my parishioners. The cross veneration had a powerful salutary effect as far as I could see, and working within the Vatican guideline of Paragraph 19, there was no pressure or frustration.
I also had the time while waiting my turn on Friday to think back to my seminary training on worship, and specifically to a professor who required us to read Aristotle’s [386-324 B.C.] Poetics. Aristotle put down the principles for dramatic plays, including the experience of catharsis, “the washing out of the emotions.” My professor taught us to apply this principle to the liturgy, to celebrate it in such a way that we were drawn into the action both intellectually and particularly emotionally, even viscerally. Aristotle abhorred such things as “dead space and time” or actions extraneous to the plot.
It is interesting that the term “liturgy”—the name we give to the celebration of our sacraments—comes from the Greek leitourgia, translated roughly as “public works.” Consider this definition: “In ancient Greece, particularly at Athens, a form of personal service to the state which citizens possessing property to a certain amount were bound, when called upon, to perform at their own cost. These liturgies were ordinary, including the presentation of dramatic performances, musical and poetic contests, etc., the celebration of some festivals, and other public functions entailing expense upon the incumbent; or extraordinary, as the fitting out of a trireme in case of war.” The operative word here is “work,” and the term became associated with Christian worship because all of us who assemble for sacraments are supposed to be “working” with the rite. On Friday, we spent a lot of time leaning on our shovels.
I wondered how people were managing the dead time. We had begun at 3 PM and it was after 5 PM that my pew was called to enter the queue. My line extended from near the ambo in front, all the way back to the entrance and then looped back down the center aisle. I had a lot of time to study the faces of parishioners, and I wondered what they were pondering. There were gaps in the seats; some had departed, to be sure. The old pastor in me was hoping they were not giving up on Holy Week. One irreverent thought crossed my mind—boy, this is what voting in Georgia is going to look like with the state’s new laws. A more pressing thought was the reality that we were spending three hours in a confined space with a new variant of Covid now appearing. I had neglected to bring a mask, of course.
Finally, the ceremony ended, although by this time any sense of spiritual drama or catharsis was long lost, at least for me, and we stood about with our friends in the parking lot sharing recollections and reactions. It was not an optimum way to conclude the Good Friday mysteries; my immediate frustration focused on a local lack of planning; all those parents trying to do the right thing by their children and put up against formidable odds. Aristotle was right: more is not better. On a lighter note, I was tempted to text one of the clergy who had served at the altar: “We wanted to buy you a drink after the service, but all the bars were closed by then.”
It is true, though, that the Triduum, in its present universal form, presents difficulties and contradictions that need to be revisited. The list is long, but I will stay with Good Friday. One of the most curious contradictions of the Catholic calendar is the fact that we regard Good Friday as the day Christ conquered sin forever. In St. John’s Good Friday Passion, Jesus handed over his Holy Spirit while on the cross, and the blood and water from his side splashed upon Mary and John and birthed the Church. Is there any day in our calendar besides Easter itself that embodies the meaning of Christianity? Given that, why is Good Friday of all days not a holy day of obligation?
That is an exceptionally good catechetical question, something of a chicken or the egg dilemma. Do we have just one major crowded Good Friday Service because we fear that few Catholics come out on Good Friday? Would we be better served by multiple observances of the Lord’s death on Good Friday so there were more opportunities to attend? It is little known that local bishops have the authority to allow multiple observances of the Good Friday rite. There is nothing to stop a parish from scheduling the liturgies at Noon, 3 PM, and 8 PM. The 3 PM service might be celebrated in a more family friendly style—with brevity, a simple homily, and the Paragraph 19 format of cross veneration, with the children coming forward at the close of the liturgy to venerate the cross. In all services, Paragraph 19’s guidance demands strict adherence. The musical/choir agenda in the Roman Missal for Good Friday is quite minimal and multiple services would not unduly strain the music ministers; several cantors would serve nicely.
Holy Week is an excellent time to think about our children and their experience of sacred worship. Twenty years ago, we built a church that is flat, and no child can see a thing from beyond the third row of pews, and that is a stretch. What children made of Friday’s Cross veneration is anyone’s guess. I hope someone asks them. [We are supposed to be listening to our young people in the Synodal process anyway.] I was deeply troubled—though not entirely surprised—at the findings of the 2018 St. Mary’s Press/CARA study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation of Young Catholics.” The results of this study are required reading for anyone in ministry. The biggest surprise to me was the study’s findings that the median age when a minor disaffiliates from the Church is thirteen, and commonly as young as ten. So, we must ask ourselves, is the way we worship having a positive or negative impact on children who are sizing up their future attachment?
Holy Week/Triduum was very influential in my life, but I had a tremendous advantage: in elementary school I asked the priest in charge to teach me how to be the master of ceremonies, and by the time I was in the seventh grade I was the MC for the entire Triduum of the Latin Tridentine Missal, all with deacons and subdeacons. My hubris knew no bounds. This was shortly after the rites were moved to nighttime [late 1950’s], and the priests themselves were not always sure what came next. My pastor at the time refused to be the celebrant for any services, and he passed it off to the senior associate. It was a wonderful experience to be involved in, but over the years I reflect that such an opportunity was rare for any Catholic kid.
When do you stop being a child at heart? Jesus did say, “Let the children come unto me,” and regardless of our ages we all need the engagement of a compelling liturgical experience. The liturgy of the Vatican II era, while not perfect, is an exercise in engagement when it is celebrated by the book—and that book has a great deal to say about architecture, music, and dynamic along the lines of Aristotle’s wisdom four centuries before Christ. Much of this responsibility rests with the pastor. I can tell you from experience that leading the eucharist—or any sacrament--is a divide between personal prayer [what went on inside me] and my accountability to my people to always draw them together in many tangible and intangible ways.
I hope my parish learned something from this year’s Good Friday liturgy. Will I return for next year’s Good Friday rite at my parish? It is hard to say. I will pray and reflect. I do have an alternative, as there is a Catholic Church here in my zip code—the very church where I pastored for a decade. It would be nice to “come home,” after 35 years, if just for the Triduum. I will keep you posted.
On a humorous note, my wife and I had planned to stop at Best Buy on the way home from Church. My Fitbit had a cracked face, and I was going to replace it. I used my old Fitbit to time the Good Friday service. When I was finally able to track down a Fitbit Versa 3 that evening [Best Buy was sold out], I was going to throw away my old one. But then I decided to keep it…and wear it every year at the Triduum as a memorial of sorts.
I received a good deal of feedback from Tuesday’s [February 22] post on the Liturgy Stream of the Café Blog regarding the issue of the misuse of the formula for Baptism. The best way to summarize those sentiments is with the adjectives “bewilderment” and “anger.” It is quite true that the recent insistence on the pronoun “I” versus “we” has put the Church in a bad public light and done little, if anything, to enhance the public image of the Church as an enlightened spiritual beacon. I do hope that those who read the first installment on this stream took note that of the four bishops coping with this problem, the leaders of the San Diego and Oklahoma City dioceses exercised magnificent prudence and turned the issue into a profound catechetical moment. They did not rebaptize or require couples married by unbaptized priests to renew marriage vows. Other bishops felt compelled to follow Vatican directives to the letter.
Today I want to go back and look at the Vatican’s oversight over the sacraments, including Baptism. The Council Vatican II authoritatively mandated the reform of the Church’s worship [by the bishops’ vote of 2147-4] in its Decree on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium of December 4,1963. Paragraph 21 of SC states: “In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.
In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, as far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.”
Paragraph 22 describes the legal supervision of the reform process and its observation around the world:
1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.
2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established. [In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops holds this position; the USCCB decides, for example, which Holy Days of obligation are observed in the U.S.]
3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.
The final drafts of all seven sacraments were completed over the next decade or so; today’s Mass was promulgated in 1970. In practice, the supervision of the celebration of the sacraments falls under two Vatican Offices:  The Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and  The Doctrine of the Faith. The Office of the Doctrine of the Faith becomes involved when a question or practice of worship involves a doctrine of the Church.
In 2004 the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued “Redemptionis Sacramentum: On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist.” This lengthy document is a specific critique of errors that had crept into the celebration of the Mass since the end of the Council in 1965, though its spirit applied equally to all seven sacraments. Redemptionis Sacramentum, issued in the final days of Pope John Paul II, is indicative of the Vatican’s concern about the way the Eucharist was being celebrated, certainly in the United States. It is an interesting document to peruse; ironically, many of the errors cited in the directive still go uncorrected and you can probably find several mistakes in your parish’s observance of public Masses. However, none of the errors cited in RS result in the invalidation of the Mass itself, except the consecration of bread that is not made exclusively of whole wheat and water. If you are a church minister in any capacity, it is certainly worth your while to review the official standards for the celebration of Mass, not least of which to avoid critique from “the liturgy police.”
For a long time after the Council, issues involving the Sacrament of Baptism were limited to such questions as, for example, whether the Mormon initiation rite suffices the Catholic intention of Baptism, as when a Mormon and a Catholic marry. [It does not.] The first significant Catholic doctrinal intervention into the Catholic practice of Baptism occurred on February 1, 2008, when the Office of the Doctrine for the Faith addressed two questions: “Whether the Baptism conferred with the formulas “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier” and “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, and of the Liberator, and of the Sustainer” is valid? And following from that, “Whether the persons baptized with those formulas have to be baptized in forma absoluta?” [That is, rebaptized with the Church’s ritual formula.] The Office of the Doctrine of the Faith answered “No” to the first question and “Yes” to the second, i.e., the baptisms are invalid and must be administered again with the proper formula.
In 2008, however, the problem was not “I” versus “We” but rather “he” versus “she” so to speak. As early as the 1970’s Catholic feminist theologians had raised the issue of the masculinity of the New Testament Baptismal formula. In their commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel and its treatment of Baptism, [Luke 3: 31-38] Reid and Matthews, in Luke 1-9, observe that “feminists have critiqued baptism as an initiation into Christianized patriarchy.” [p. 107] They cite a corrective strategy: “to use alternative formulae with female or gender-neutral names for the Trinity.” [cit.] The theologian Ruth Duck proposed changing the formula to three questions, to which the candidates for baptism and the congregation respond: “I believe: Do you believe in God, the Source, the fountain of life? Do you believe in Christ, the offspring of God embodied in Jesus of Nazareth and in the church? Do you believe in the liberating Spirit of God, the wellspring of new life?” [cit. footnote 30]
Exactly how widespread these feminist alternative baptismal formulas were used is hard to say. Certainly, the concept was being vigorously discussed and published among feminist thinkers, whose numbers were growing in the twenty-first century. The Vatican, in 2008, cites this practice by name and rejected the use of any formula which substituted the “functions of God” for the names of the members of the Trinity, i.e., the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as a way of diminishing the heavy masculine tone. Changing the Trinitarian formula is not a wise strategy given its deep roots in Scripture and ecumenical considerations. Protestants revere the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28: 18-20, “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
But there is another side to this 2008 Vatican intervention, specifically a targeting of what was perceived by the Holy Office as doctrinally dangerous tendencies of prominent Catholic women theologians. Notably, two American Catholic religious were censured for their publications. Sister Elizabeth Johnson in 2007 for her Quest for the Living God and Sister Margaret Farley in 2012 for her Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. Today’s generation of book banners and book burners would do well to consider the delicious irony of the censuring of Just Love. A technical theological text intended for specialists and students of theology at eighty dollars, the book shot to the top 1% of Amazon sales upon its censure. I reviewed this work for Amazon and found it a fine seminal text [and yes, worth the eighty dollars.]. This era was also noteworthy for a Church investigation of the lifestyle of women religious in the United States [2008-2014] for its progressive theological spirit, at precisely the time when new abuse scandals among American priests were making headlines daily. Women in the Church were not getting much respect, and certainly not much of a hearing.
One of the underlying currents that has impacting the thinking of Church leadership even to this day is an assumption that as “women increase, the male clerical role decreases.” The pressing need to preserve the unique role of a male clergy is a major factor in the June 24, 2020, ruling by the Office of the Doctrine for the Faith that the collective “we” in place of the singular “I” renders a sacramental baptism invalid when presided by a priest or a deacon. It is important to review the 2020 teaching carefully, for between the lines it highlights several theological issues in desperate need of public discussion in the Church.
In the first instance, the 2020 decree applies only to public baptisms conducted by ordained clergy. Many of you communicated to me your questions about this 2020 ruling vis-à-vis the long-standing practice of lay persons baptizing in cases of necessity, the principle we all learned as children. This emergency practice is unchanged because no ordained cleric is present, and that should tell you a lot. At its heart, the 2020 corrective has a great deal to do with the identity of the ordained priesthood, and less to do with baptism per se.
Second, the teaching Church is committed to an understanding of ordained ministry as a historical and eternal reality; a priest is considered ontologically changed by the Sacrament of Holy Orders, i.e., changed “in being” from other humans, men and women. “Thou art a priest forever” is a solemn teaching of the Church. Even in my case, when I was laicized by Pope John Paul II and given permission to marry my future wife, my priesthood was not “undone.” I can still absolve sin in an emergency, and hypothetically I could even celebrate a valid Mass in my own home. I choose not to do the latter because I respect the wishes of the Church that I do not—and that I worship in the full assembly of my parish’s Eucharist instead with my wife and laity--and my bishops have rewarded my good faith by entrusting me with numerous non-liturgical responsibilities in my diocese [mostly in teaching and mental health service delivery] over the past quarter century.
Given the Church’s strong declaration that an ordained priest is an alter Christus, “another Christ,” it stands to reason that in any liturgical/sacramental gathering, the priest, or in his absence the deacon, is the alter Christus. The role cannot be commuted to a lay person or a community. The commentary from the Vatican accompanying its 2020 decree goes into serious detail to describe the priest as the alter Christus through whom the saving grace of the sacrament is mediated. Therefore, the directive opted for “I” instead of “We.” The use of “We,” in the explanation, would convey a “shared priestly office” which would confuse the nature of the exclusive role of the priest or deacon.
Again, a number of you corresponded with me to assert the role of the laity in the celebration of the sacraments, including baptism. You would be correct, of course; the Vatican II Decree Sacrosanctum Concilium cited above instructs the Church to reform the sacraments precisely so that the rightful and necessary role of the laity is brought to the fore in its fullest. The 2020 instruction from the Office of the Doctrine of the Faith makes the point that the reformed rite of infant Baptism, for example, includes significant words and actions of the parents, godparents, and the larger church community. However, in the current theological positioning of the Vatican, at the moment of the pouring of the water it is only the ordained minister who stands as the presentative of Jesus and Jesus’ present-day followers, and therefore the only option for the baptizing priest or deacon is the pronoun “I.” Interestingly, if my memory of Canon Law is correct, the Church identifies the pastor as the most appropriate minister to bring new members into the parish family.
I am certain this explanation is not fully satisfying to my readers, nor should it be. In the first instance, the promulgation of this instruction by the Office of the Faith was more than clumsy. In an interview with the Washington Post about the “faulty pronoun” in the baptismal formula, Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit theologian and journalist, makes a critical point. Vatican officials, he says, “think there’s a problem and issue a document to resolve it, and they do that without any wide consultation.” He continues, “The proper way to do this is to say: ‘This issue has been raised, this is something we are studying.’ Then invite theologians and canon lawyers to send in comments.” Synodality should extend to the theological discourse between the Church’s thinkers and the Church’s policy makers.
The ”I” versus “We” controversy is a flashpoint involving many aspects of the Church’s theology, from Scripture and History to Liturgy and Ecclesiology to Discipline and Pastoral Care. In our follow up, let us not throw away the baby with the bathwater. As unreasonably trivial as the controversy seems, it is the offspring of many major theological concerns, all of which need attention.
This is the first of several installments discussing the accidental misuse of the Baptismal formula which has come to light in several dioceses.
1. A LONG HISTORY OF COMMON UNDERSTANDING
It says something about my seminary training that I never baptized a baby during my deacon year when, presumably, you are supposed to learn how to do this at the baptistry; however, I officiated at hundreds of baptisms in my years in the ministry through the year 1992, and it never occurred to me to change the baptismal formula in the official Roman Catholic Baptismal Rite, for I had already been taught it in grammar school! In truth, every child in my Catholic elementary school, St. Mary Magdalene in Buffalo, N.Y., and presumably everywhere on the planet, learned how to baptize, and exactly which words to say: “I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
Catholic school children of my generation were given this instruction precisely because, according to Church Law [then and now], we were all extraordinary ministers of the Church in the unusual but thinkable circumstance that someone of any age might be unbaptized and dying, desiring baptism but without the prospect of a priest coming upon the scene. [Think of battlefields and natal units in hospitals.] It was our duty to baptize. That was drilled into us.
The Baptismal catechetics of my 1950’s school years had a long history behind it, and it has carried through into the era of Vatican II. Para. 1256 of the Catechism states that “the ordinary ministers of Baptism are the bishop and priest and, in the Latin Church, also the deacon. In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention, can baptize, by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula. The intention required is to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes. The Church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of Baptism for salvation.” Let me reword this for emphasis: an unbaptized person can, in case of necessity, baptize another unbaptized person so long as there is an intention to do what the Catholic Church would wish. We kids were educated to a generous understanding of the ministry of baptism, which I trust has been passed down to the present day.
Further, we were taught as children that there were extraordinary circumstances where the saving grace of baptism is given by God in actions other than the use of the Trinitarian formula and the pouring of the water. We were taught of the instances of “baptism of blood,” when someone is martyred for the name of Jesus before being baptized, and “baptism of desire,” where someone dies without the opportunity of experiencing the Church but who responds to the inner calling of God. In the Catechism [para. 1281] we read that “Those who die for the faith, those who are catechumens, and all those who, without knowing of the Church but acting under the inspiration of grace, seek God sincerely and strive to fulfill his will, can be saved even if they have not been baptized.”
I would bet that these elementary principles are embedded as deeply in Catholics as any sacramental principles, including Real Presence. Which is why what has followed in the past two years has created such a public uproar, being counterintuitive to our sense of baptism and grace.
Given that we grew up with such clear parameters of baptismal action, how did the ritual get so “messed up” years later by people who should know better? It is a long story, but bear with me, because I remember it well.
2. A TIME OF CHANGE AND EXPERIMENTATION…AND WELL-INTENTIONED MISTAKES 1962-?
After the Council Vatican II [1962-1965] the Church embarked on a generation or two of reforming its rites of worship. The Council Documents called for both a return to ancient practices [such as the extended RCIA for catechumens, the restoration of the permanent diaconate, communion of both the bread and the cup, etc.] and incorporation of new rites and practices for greater congregational understanding and participation [Mass in the native language, architectural redesign of churches, varieties of music, etc.] I came to adulthood in this era and was ordained at the height of it in 1974 and ministered in its immediate aftermath for twenty years.
Looking back, I can say that for the Catholicism I experienced in my little corners of the world, including five years in Washington, D.C., these were the best of times and the worst of times. For many of us who had grown up in the older “Latin” era, Vatican II felt like the gateway to a glorious new era of Church and societal reform. The principles of obedience and common order were questioned as themselves being repressive and alien to a new constructive spirit of freedom. Recall that the Council and its aftermath coincided with the Civil Rights Movement, the growing anti-Viet Nam War movement, women’s liberation, gay rights, school desegregation, etc. Every major institution was questioning its charter and modus vivendi. When I arrived in Washington as a student, many of my classmates at Catholic University were protesting the firing of a popular moral theologian who publicly stated that the Catholic Church had erred in restating its teaching that artificial contraception was sinful, in the 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae. [He was reinstated by CU for another decade and granted tenure.]
Seminaries were hardly exempt from the currents of the times. As major seminarians of this era of changing emphases, we were taught that our primary responsibility in leading sacraments was the full engagement of the people of God into the rite, whether it be the Mass, Baptism, or any of the other sacraments. Our daily and Sunday seminary Masses modeled this value. Moreover, our seminary training taught us to be compassionate listeners and to do whatever it took to extend the mercy of Christ—whether that be in the pulpit, the confessional, or the counseling office. I took a concentrated elective in graduate school on “ministry to the divorced and remarried”—somewhat cutting edge then--which instructed me on the procedures for filing for annulments and administering pastoral advice in the confessional to those who could not obtain annulments but wished to receive the Eucharist. It is sad that when Pope Francis, many years later, adopted some of what I had learned into his public teaching  on family life, Amoris Laetitia, he was accused vehemently by some critics of violating Divine Law.
Like most of my fellow young priests of that era, I made my mistakes. The biggest one was not getting my bearings in an extremely complicated church world around me. My seminary formation was weak, almost nonexistent, on matters of meditation, prayer, and spiritual direction. Contemplation took a back seat to action. As exciting as the post-Council years were, they were also terrifying in many respects. We were trying to do too much; our superiors and our seniors, as it turned out, were feeling very insecure themselves, as they had not had the benefit of formation in post-Council theology. My classmate and I were assigned to campus ministry after ordination and told to create it from the bottom up.
Consequently, one of the lasting impacts of the immediate years after the Council was the sense that many priests graduated from them with a stronger sense of ownership of the liturgies they were celebrating. We did not feel as bound to the Roman Missal as the priests of my youth. In fact, today’s Mass Missal itself offers the celebrant several options for the various parts of the liturgy, such as the penitential rites and the Eucharistic Acclamation. The phrase “in these or similar words” appears in several places in the official sacramental rites—though not at the Consecration, for example. As one might expect, the personal piety and emphases of a priest may drift into territory that is off the established liturgical reservation, even with the best of intentions. This may in part account for the personal adaptations of the baptismal rite, though there are other factors in play, as we will see on Thursday.
I should add, too, that most of us who were formed and educated after the Council did not feel the weight of Church Law, or Canon Law, as the generations before us had. My schooling took place with the 1917 Code still in effect; the Council had called for a reform of the Code, which was completed in 1983. [Personal confession: I failed the “Canon Law” question in my final ordination examination; fortunately, I passed three other areas on the exam.] There was a provisional sense of Church law and authority among many in the Church through much of my priesthood. A true story: when I applied for laicization during the papacy of Pope John Paul II in 1998, I was told by my canon lawyer that the story was going around Rome how priests ordained before 1978—my cohort—had a better chance of success than those ordained after 1978. It seems that Pope John Paul II felt my generation had been led to believe that there would be a change in the celibacy requirement, and he was inclined to be more forgiving toward us. When John Paul II was elected to the papacy in 1978, he was firm that no such change would be happening, and supposedly he expected greater obedience and dedication from the ordination classes of his era.
The highs and the lows of this era of the Church continue to influence us today. What I hope I have accomplished in this segment was provide the background of how deacons and priests might feel free to improvise in worship, including the Baptismal formula. As we will see in Thursday’s post, some of the variations on the baptismal formula were the product of present-day theological thinking as well.
3. WHAT HAPPENED RECENTLY?
In 2019 a young priest from the Archdiocese of Detroit, Father Matthew Hood, was watching an old videotape of his baptism in 1990 with his father when something troubled him. As a National Catholic Reporter story of February 21, 2022, summarizes, “Indeed, an error by a deacon who said, ‘We baptize’ instead of ‘I baptize’ spoiled Hood's baptism in the eyes of the Catholic Church — and, in domino-like fashion, erased his other sacraments and meant that he wasn't really a priest.” Consequently, every sacrament Father Hood ever celebrated—every baptism, every Mass, every confession—was invalid in the eyes of the Church. The most serious consequence dealt with baptism. The errant deacon baptized about eight hundred candidates before he retired. The Archdiocese of Detroit then began a rigorous campaign of public information to alert all the impacted Catholics that they would need to be rebaptized and, in most cases, remarried.
To date, again quoting from NCR, “That sent people at St. Anastasia [parish] scrambling to find videos of their children's baptism, the official entry into the church and a gateway sacrament to other Catholic rites, such as Holy Communion and even marriage. About two hundred baptisms were found to be valid, while seventy-one people stepped forward to go through baptism and other initiation sacraments again, archdiocese spokesperson Holly Fournier told The Associated Press. Another forty-seven people are making new arrangements, she added, but 455 still have not responded. Ten declined to participate.
‘We reached out directly, mailing letters to everyone impacted using the most recent records we had on each individual. ... We're eager to accompany anyone who comes forward,’ Fournier said. She declined to make clergy available for interviews to discuss why they believe so many people haven't responded over the past 18 months.”
Interestingly, while this baptismal fiasco was churning in Detroit, it did not immediately catch media fire until other cases began to pile up.
In the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, another priest in 2020, Father Zachary Bozeman, learned he had been baptized with an irregular form, i.e., the “we” instead of “I”. The priest had been ordained one year. He approached his superior, Archbishop Paul Coakley, to inform him. Archbishop Coakley made this public, and the priest was quickly baptized and ordained. Curiously, Archbishop Coakley adopted a much more tranquil general remedy. He did not require that the children baptized by the priest be rebaptized, explaining according to the Catholic News Agency, “as baptisms can be validly performed by anyone using the correct formula (wording) and the right intention.” About marriages performed by the priest, Archbishop Coakley sanated, or validated, the marriages witnessed by Father Boazman prior to his valid ordination. See Canon #1161 #1. The term is an established principle, an executive order by the bishop that validates a defectively performed marriage from the time of the vows. [When I studied years ago, a sanation application needed approval by the Vatican.] Given that no baptisms or marriages were repeated, the Oklahoma Archbishop chose a less intrusive solution within Church law, and this case did not receive significant news coverage.
It is the third case that consumed social media and has proved to have the most widespread implications. Several weeks ago, in the Diocese of Phoenix Father Andres Arango was discovered to have used the “We” baptismal formula after the Diocese investigated a complaint possibly prompted by the Detroit news story of the previous year. The difficulty here is that Father Arango has been a priest for twenty years. Prior to his pastoring in the Phoenix Diocese, he had served the Church in Brazil and then in the Diocese of San Diego. There is an interesting link here to the San Diego Diocese’s publication of Bishop Robert McElroy’s letter. The bishop states that the baptism question is “a pastoral dilemma rather than solely a matter of church law.” He reminds his readers that “the bounty of God’s grace powerfully suggests that any men and women who were possibly baptized so long ago have received from the Lord the graces of baptism and all that goes with them in their lives. And thus, they should be at ease.” This is sound theology and sound pastoral practice.
Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, where this third case became known, has adopted the Detroit legal approach of attempting to track down everyone who was baptized by Father Arango. See the letter of introduction to pastors outside the Phoenix Diocese linked here which provides some idea of the staff work and paper involved. Father Arango remains in good standing and is actively helping to assist in the process. But this is the case that made the national evening news—thousands of people denied baptismal salvation because of a pronoun. As a blogger I subscribe to multiple Catholic social media sites, and not since the abuse crisis in 2002 have I seen such anger and ridicule vented by the Catholic public against a Church policy.
The public announcement of a third clerical baptismal irregularity is probably as welcome to bishops in the United States as a new variant of Covid, for this practice of the inclusive “we” in the baptismal formula is more widespread than we know. If nothing else, the appearance of other such irregularities will highlight a division within the Church between an emphasis upon form and an emphasis upon spirit. Two bishops cited above chose to address the issue in a formal and legal way, and two did so with discretion and theological prudence. Not surprisingly, the two cases which doggedly adhered to the letter of the law were the two that garnered what almost amounts to a public scandal. The discrete, prudent resolutions have received little or no attention.
NEXT:  We decipher three distinct Vatican directives on the Baptismal formula issued in the past two decades, which seem to be the sources of the confusion.  We will consider what can be learned from this liturgical fiasco.
Those of you who connect with the Café through Facebook, Linked In, or Twitter have already seen my mildly irreverent cover picture of Frosty the Snowman’s cremation. No sacrilege intended—just a touch of humor to bring us to the most serious question we face, what happens to us when we “shake off our mortal coil,” as Shakespeare put it five centuries ago [Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.] We are now a week into November, a month Catholics devote to the souls in Purgatory, and as the end of the Catholic Church calendar is just two weeks away, the Sunday Gospels focus on what theologians call the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. [The technical term for this science of theology is Eschatology, from the Greek for “last or farthest,” per Webster.] These are among the most difficult faith issues we face, and I fear that present day Catholic catechetics and preaching does not give us better insights into addressing preparations for our own death aside from “call a priest.”
I am in my mid-70’s, and death takes on a much more concrete existence as more of my friends die and I myself will follow in the not-so-distant future. There is a lot of practical business in the preparation of death. My will is filed. The funeral is prepaid. My bookies are paid except for over/under waging on the age of my death. I have not yet prepared a funeral Mass because I need to research better hymns than “On Eagles Wings;” I can’t stand that song.
I had always envisioned myself interred in a nice, wooded cemetery, preferably a Catholic one. This romantic vision dulled a bit after I had to manage a parish cemetery for several years. So, I left my burial decision up in the air for the indeterminate future and moved on to a new career and marriage. When I received my laicization and permission to marry from Pope John Paul II in 1998, our pastor told my fiancé and I, as two fifty-year-old Church professionals, that we did not need to take the Diocesan pre-Cana program. Instead, he recommended that we take several days of spiritual retreat at the Trappists’ Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, S.C. We did, and we both fell in love with the monks, the worship, and the retreat setting overlooking the Cooper River. I took particular note of the fact that Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, America’s power couple in the twentieth century, were buried on monastery grounds by the Cooper River. Henry, among other things, was the founder of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated. I make it a point to put a new issue of SI on his grave at our annual retreat.
Meanwhile, after our marriage our pastor let it be known that he was planning to build a columbarium on our parish grounds here in Central Florida in conjunction with a new church and other additions. This was the first time I gave thoughtful consideration to cremation, and interment on the parish grounds seemed like a very good option for us, but the columbarium could not be built, possibly due to city ordinances. However, not so long ago, Mepkin Abbey announced its plans to construct a columbarium next to the Luce burial site on abbey grounds on the river.
This immediately appealed to us; the two biggest reasons were the opportunity to assist the monks financially into perpetuity and in return, to receive the prayers of the monastic community, which prays seven times daily and remembers those buried on its land. I believe I will need those prayers.
One of the doctrines of the Catholic faith which gets lost in the shuffle is Purgatory. Very simply, when we die, we are not ready to see God. We acknowledge that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is the only sinless being by virtue of God’s intervention for her unique role in history. The rest of us cannot make that claim, and no matter how good we think ourselves to be, we are in no shape to behold the glory of God, face to face. This is counter to the “funeral parlor conversation” you so often hear at wakes. “Old Joe, he’s up there now teeing it up with St. Peter on the eighteenth fairway.” It is comforting talk for the survivors, but it doesn’t square with centuries of Christian tradition.
Admittedly the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on such matters is archaic, borrowed from prior catechisms centuries old, which can be misunderstood as portraying Purgatory as “hell, but with an end date.” That said, it is true that we die with unfinished business. Certainly, one roadblock to postmortem encounter with God is the sin of pride, i.e., that we are ready to see God just as we have lived all our lives, and that all we need do is pick up our suite key from St. Peter. No responsible saint or Church doctor ever described death in such a pedestrian fashion. Certainly, the Scriptures suggest nothing of the kind.
Having lived many years in the Franciscan tradition, I was always intrigued that as St. Francis grew older and more fervent in his life of faith—his very hands and feet were marked with the wounds of Christ—he came to understand the gulf between himself and God. In his last years he would privately throw himself on the ground and exclaim, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm, and not a man.” This is a pattern of the holy saints—the closer they imitated Christ and reflected upon their own reality, the greater they realized the gulf between God’s perfect love and being, on the one hand, and their own wounded humanity on the other. It is this profound awareness of God’s love versus my lukewarm response that makes the beholding of God a possibility and points us toward the direction of heaven.
Part of our Catholic heritage, drawn from the Gospels, is the reality of a final judgment. The Gospels are united in this reality, whether it be Matthew 25, Mark 13, Luke 21, or John 8: 12-58. In a variety of ways, the Gospels speak of a climactic moment of judgment, a determination of the life of every human being. If one does not believe in life after death, the discussion of post-mortem destiny is hardly a pressing concern. But the heart of Christian living is Christ’s conquering of death. Every Sunday is a memorial of Easter, when we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection not just as his own triumph over death but as the promise that we, too, may one day share in his eternal glory.
The popular Catholic wisdom of life after death is optimistic, perhaps too optimistic, as many believe that the reward of eternal life is an automatic progression. Generally, present day catechetics and preaching does not clarify the picture with significant depth. Pastorally and popularly, we live with several “avoidance” factors in play. The first is a studied avoidance of judgment narratives in the Gospels as cited above. Human nature tends to cherry pick; we gravitate toward the biblical texts where God rewards gratuitously with no questions asked. We identify with the surprised recipients of God’s mercy in the Bible and assume that, to paraphrase Woody Allen, “90% of redemption is just showing up.”
The second “avoidance” is the mistaken notion that the end time judgment narratives of the Gospels are mythic, time-conditioned visions with no historical basis or predictive value. It is true that several narratives cited above were written after the destruction of Jerusalem, and probably influenced by what was known of the horrors of that event in 70 A.D. But in truth one of the most common literary forms in the Gospel is allegory, a type of language that Jesus uses frequently. For example, ““The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” On the matter of judgment at the end times, Jesus uses several analogies [see above] to drive home a single point: there will be a measure of personal accountability for what we have been given, i.e., God’s grace. Of course, if analogies are not your thing, you still must contend with John 8, which carries the directness of a hard-boiled county sheriff.
The third “avoidance” is the oft heard belief that God is too merciful to send anyone to hell, or to any measure of afterlife punishment, for that matter. God is indeed infinitely merciful. But, as baptized Christians, we are called to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5: 48] In other words, we are to be the merciful ones, the donors and not just the recipients. One of the most powerful of Jesus’ parables is the tale of the unforgiving servant [Matthew 18: 21-35], sentenced to indeterminate torture “until he paid back the last bit” of the mercy he had received. Chew on that.
As a graduate student a half-century ago, I did not sleep through every class despite what my report card says, and I remember a lecture that made a great deal of sense at the time, and even more so in my seniority today. I was taking an elective in eschatology, and our professor explained that as we age, we begin to see our lives with a growing wisdom of the totality. As I recall, he quoted a famous theologian “that we have the full picture of our lives at the moment of our death.” At that moment the judgment of God and our own assessment of our lives jell in an instant of clarity in which our post-mortem future becomes as clear as the sun.
Call this a psychological analogy, if you will, but what an image to carry forth as we reflect upon life after death. I am not aware of any theological formula that better summarizes for this century the meaning of Biblical judgment. If life is about meaning, what a terrible suffering to realize that one has squandered countless opportunities to extend God’s love, or even worse, to understand that our conduct has led others to despair of it. Those late medieval theologians who formulated the language of Purgatory as “this final purification of the elect” [Catechism, para. 1031] were struggling to describe the pain of awareness of the personal gulf between the goodness and wholeness of God and the brokenness that mars our personal histories. The awareness is the pain of healing. At that final moment of life, we all sing the same dirge as St. Francis, “depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm, and not a man.”
Somewhere on your Catholic calendars is the reminder that November is the special month for prayer for the “poor souls in Purgatory.” We are those poor souls.