The Vanilla SermonRead Now
I am pleased to announce that all three of my old seminary high school buddies lifted off from Orlando International Airport around lunch time after a very full weekend of activities. After two spring training baseball games we changed the pace yesterday (Sunday) and I successfully produced several wild gators for them to photograph on the shores of Lake Apopka.
Before our Crocodile Dundee exploits, however, we attended yesterday’s 8 AM Mass at my home parish. This is the earliest one offered; one of my friends lives in the Philadelphia area and lectors regularly at 6 AM Mass at home. As we were participating in the Mass of the Fifth Sunday of Lent, I had time to reflect upon the several in-depth discussions we had shared during the reunion about religion and the Church. I don’t think it would surprise many readers that we four are at different places with Catholicism. My 6 AM lector buddy has a deep devotional faith and is a regular at the Right to Life March in D.C., among his other “faith in action” good works. I am a practicing Catholic and faith formation minister, among other things, but with the critical eye that comes, I guess, with higher studies and a few too many wounds from administrative malfeasance or infighting. Another remains Catholic but worships from time to time in the faith communities of his children, which seems very reasonable to me. My final buddy is from Boston, the epicenter of the child abuse scandals in 2002. No thoughtful Catholic in Bean Town looks at Mother Church as a comforting bosom after those days.
Along with my wife, the quarter-century Catholic school principal whose faith life has been built around parish community wherever she has lived, we as a group represented a pocket of distinct individuals in a good sized early morning congregation, whose faith needs and personal imperfections were as varied as the species of birds along Lake Apopka. Later in the day I remarked to someone that I could never go back to being a pastor again, in large part because “I wouldn’t know how to do it.” I meant that as a homilist I would have a great deal of difficulty finding common ground in personally addressing the hearts and minds of my hearers, which is what I have always understood the purpose of good preaching to be. Somewhere in our conversation later the term “vanilla preaching” came up, which seemed to embody our general concern with liturgical preaching in general. One of my classmates had discussed this with his own pastor at some length.
Philosophically I have battled with this before, frequently, in my own mind. My better angels tell me that worship is for God, not for my needs du jour. However, the Eucharist is structured precisely to meet human need. Vatican II defines the Eucharist as the source as well as the summit of Christian life. The Penitential Rite, for example, does indeed forgive sin, except for those defined as mortal, because the participants need forgiveness. Holy Communion is a real feeding of the sacred species to meet the hunger of our souls for life. And the homily? Karl Barth, the twentieth century’s greatest evangelical Protestant theologian, spoke of preaching with the “Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Put another way, Barth and the great preachers of all faiths—and that would include Catholicism’s Fulton J. Sheen—proclaimed the Gospel message to this world, at this time, in a language marked with clarity, passion, and motivation. In the best of all worlds, we meet the Christ of March 23, 2015 in a homily preached today with the same sacramental intensity and effect as we would in receiving the bread and wine of Real Presence.
Real preaching is hard to deliver and hard to hear; the naked truth is always hard to hear. I have long suspected that potentially effective preachers are not actively recruited in seminaries because of a kind of ecclesiastical fear of the “fuss” they would create in grounded Catholic parishes. Also, the good potential homilist brings to the admissions office a resume of skills that might make him suspect—critical thinking, an insatiable curiosity, interdisciplinary and interfaith tendencies, imagination, a sense of the poetic, and a fearlessness that would look for all the world like insubordination to a local bishop.
That said, Catholics still need to be fed, even if many are content with a steady diet of vanilla pudding. In an early morning walk with one classmate, I talked about my teaching efforts to introduce catechists, for example, to the variety of Catholic religious experiences of longstanding. We, of course, both came from Franciscan rooting, but I shared with him my growing interest in Benedictine writing and spirituality, for example, and how such reading was at least partially feeding my hungers. We agreed that in parochial life continuous and predictable reaffirmation of “the good, the true and the beautiful” might not be enough for a genuine New Evangelization. The task falls to the catechist and faith formation personnel to awaken the power of the Gospel until the Lord comes again, teaching a Gospel that, in another scholar’s words, is nothing less than a two edged sword.
(Oh yes, although it’s been many years since the four of us saw the inside of a seminary, the training never disappears…the only evidence of four days of celebrating was one stray almond on the living room floor.)
Oil over Aging WatersRead Now
The annual Chrism Mass is rapidly approaching. The current directives put this observance under Holy Thursday, but it is rare to see this Mass actually celebrated on Thursday, given that the Triduum begins on the evening of Holy Thursday in every parish. The Chrism Mass is something of a command performance for the priests of a given diocese, who renew their vows of obedience to their bishop as part of the rite. As many of our dioceses are territorially large and participants need to be home for Holy Thursday evening, bishops have discretion to celebrate this Mass earlier in the week. Fittingly the Mass is celebrated at the cathedral; in my diocese it is presently observed on Wednesday evening.
In my years here in Orlando this particular Mass has served multiple agendas aside from the one cited in the Missal. Thirty-some years ago it was a jolly fraternal gathering; the Mass was celebrated early enough so that after the vestments came off there was a cocktail hour and full dinner in the cathedral. We pastors were all in our prime drinking years. Then the powers that be decided that since we were only getting together infrequently, the Chrism Mass was an opportunity for other various additions, such as individual recognition of priests celebrating anniversaries of ordination. Orlando has a very large number of retired priests who live and work here; add a biography to each retiree’s anniversary and the Mass was now taking on Easter Vigil length proportions. Other recognitions were added, and finally I said to someone that I expected the awarding of Eagle Scout Badges the next year.
As a layman I have not attended very many Chrism Masses in the last twenty years. Parishes make note of it in church bulletins, but Orlando is cursed with a very small cathedral. My wife and I attended last year’s, and my guess is that with the priest concelebrants, religious, diocesan officials, etc. filling the pews, there is at most seating for 300 people, and that may be generous. I noticed from my spot in the rear that pockets of people cheered their pastor in the processional. I don’t know when or how that practice evolved in our diocese.
The instructions in the Missal note that the Chrism Mass is a special Eucharistic celebration that “manifests the communion of the priests with their bishop.” The underlying theology of celebrating the unity of Orders with the blessing of the pastoral oils is the continuity of the bishop’s ministry through his pastors in the local parish. The oils blessed in this Mass are bottled and given to each pastor for use in the Triduum of that week. In the old days the “bottling” was done while we pastors were emptying other bottles at dinner. I don’t know the procedure today; it did not seem to me last year that the priests were having dinner given the lateness of the hour at the Mass’s end. Although the Missal does not mention it, the custom in many parishes is to present the oils blessed at the Chrism Mass in some fashion at the solemn Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, often in conjunction with the presentation of the gifts.
Attending a Chrism Mass is a sui generis event. It is the only time in a year when a Catholic gets to see the entire diocesan presbyterate gathered as one. I have to say, the visuals of last year’s Mass have stuck with me. No participant can deny that our presbyterate—and no doubt most others—is old, ill, and in other ways infirm. The clash between the theology of priesthood of mission embodied in the Mass texts, and the tired men who carry them forward, is stunning. The closest existential comparison I can think of is my father’s World War II reunions; old men, rightly honored for service, many still bearing arms, carrying the scars of battle, and determined to meet again until they die out, which has actually happened in my father’s unit.
I have not mentioned the other visuals. There is great cultural diversity, particularly among currently serving pastors. In my day Orlando was a predominantly Irish presbyterate. Statistically we have known of this cultural shift for years, but the visual impact is quite powerful nonetheless. I wonder if priests in today’s dioceses have enough common background for a shared fraternal and affective life. I tend to doubt it, and I fear for their isolation. Another visual is the occasional young priest of five years or less in Orders. Again, in years past the young priests were idealistic, antinomian (I failed my Canon Law question in my written comprehensive exams in 1974—surprise!), experimenters, and cultural rebels to a degree with long hair, beards, and guitars. Today’s young priests, sometimes referred to as the “John Paul II priests,” strike me as if they want to get older as soon as possible. Some have what appears to be a grim determination to “restore the Church” to something that, frankly, they are too young to know anything about.
Be that as it may, you might want to attend the Chrism Mass in your home diocese this year. If it is true that sacraments are signs, this Mass is a symbol of the living presbyterate in your future. It is the consummate classroom on Holy Orders.
Whose Saturday Is It?Read Now
November 16, 1955 was the day Pope Pius XII issued his general decree restoring the Liturgy of Holy Week. This was seven years prior to Vatican II, a reform to address one of the strangest aberrations of liturgical history, the celebration of the Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday rites in the morning. For much of the Church’s history the memorials of the Lord’s Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection were celebrated at the times they actually happened: Thursday evening, Friday afternoon, and a mid-night vigil between Saturday and Sunday. Possibly because of the Industrial Revolution the observance of these feasts crept forward into the morning hours. The most glaring irregularity of this format was the Holy Saturday liturgy, which prior to 1956 would have been conducted around 9 AM Saturday morning. In this older calendar, Lent ended at noon on Holy Saturday, and many of us of a certain age remember that at the stroke of 12 PM Saturday we could begin to eat our chocolates (and I suspect the saloons did pretty well that afternoon as well.)
I became an altar boy in 1958 and soon became the house master of ceremonies for my parish’s Holy Week events. The Latin liturgy was still the norm, of course, and the ceremonial of the Tridentine rites of Holy Week was a multi-sensual delight of colors, music, sounds (the wooden clapper, for example, replaced the hand bell at the altar), processions, the stripping of the altar on Thursday and the decorating during the Holy Saturday (now Easter Vigil) rites, the veneration at the altar of repose are but a few of the experiences a worshipper of 1960 would recall.
With the reform of the Missal in 1970, the rites of Holy Week were revised extensively. In fact, the term “Holy Week” itself was put to rest and the focus of the week was returned to the more ancient “Triduum” of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. I was living in a seminary/friary during the first years of transition, so I did not have a good feel for the liturgical experiences of local parishes at the time. What I saw in my own friary’s observances of the Triduum were rituals with solid historical and theological correctness—in my own language, of course—but milked of what the philosopher Aristotle termed catharsis, a healthy draining of the emotions which was key to the enduring power of the ancient Greek plays. Aristotle believed that catharsis was a key component to health. It began to nag at me that for all of its richness, the Triduum was lacking in one key component: we do not experience the rites, particularly the Vigil, as saving us, making us perpetually healthy.
The Easter Vigil is, according to its own text, the most sacred night of the year. Without the Resurrection we have no future, and indeed would return to the dust as the Ash Wednesday liturgy phrases our fate. It is the ultimate “come to Jesus” moment of the entire Catholic worship cycle. My question, I guess, is whether we are catechizing this event, and by extension the entire Triduum, in appropriate ways. Typically, when I hear mention of the Easter Vigil in any context or see it in popular Catholic print, the term is immediately linked to “catechumens.” This choice of language designates emphasis upon a particular population as opposed to the whole, something like “First Communion Mass” or “Wedding Mass.”
This is consistent with the ground experience as I have known it now for some decades. The ritual itself speaks of participants gathering in darkness, waiting for the Master’s return (Luke 12:35ff). When I walk into my church, I do feel like I am attending a wedding. People rushing back and forth, photos taken in the sanctuary, a lively buzz in the church itself among family and friends of the catechumens. And most curiously, it is the people I don’t see that surprises me: the “regulars,” my friends. The regulars, if you will, attend Mass on Easter Sunday morning. Attendance at my Vigil in general is good but hardly stellar, a strange state of affairs for the holiest night of the Church year.
No one, to my knowledge, is or has recently studied the Easter Vigil from a demographic/sociological vantage point. Nor, for that matter, are we looking at the effectiveness of the catechumenate process as currently practiced, with the great deal of time, money, and personal investment that goes into the year long process and which dominates the Easter Vigil experience.. Do converts through the catechetical process remain members of the Church longer than, say, those baptized at infancy?
This is said not to harp upon the catechumenate process, though its adaptation in different parishes deserves objective scrutiny. The bigger issue is the presently baptized, those who for whatever reason have come to believe that the Easter Vigil offers little for their affective faith life, the absence of healing catharsis. In subtle ways the parish rite can be seen as, if not exclusionary, tangential at best to my soul. If anything, the time and energy if the year-long catechumenate might best be shared with the baptized members—whose needs for such might be equally strong!
My parish baptizes about a dozen persons per year at the Vigil. Last Saturday night my parish announced the deaths of about ten church members, fairly typical in a given week. Those liturgists who look exclusively to the catechumenate as the life of the Church’s future may wish to do better math and start rewriting the theology to include the rank and file.