A couple of weeks ago a family friend (we’ll call him John) took me by surprise with an unexpected question, “Do you mind if I go to church with you on Sunday?”
Mind? Are you kidding me, I thought. I was thrilled!
Then came the next question; one that was entirely predictable but ended up being far more difficult to answer.
“What time are we going,” he asked?
“Ummm...” I hemmed and hawed, “I’m not sure. Let me get back to you.”
Yes, I know, it sounds like I lost my mind, but once I tell you a little bit about my friend (who I suspect will sound an awful lot like someone you know) my reaction will make more sense.
John is humble and simple and he’s sincerely searching for God; a great combination of traits that gives me real confidence that he will one day be “fully incorporated in the society of the Church,” to borrow a phrase from the Council Fathers (LG 14).
Even though he was baptized in the Catholic Church as an infant, this was the extent of John’s sacramental life. Apart from his grandmother taking him to Mass on very rare occasion as a child, he has had very little exposure to Holy Mass. Searching as he is, John has spent time in a number of different Protestant settings over the years, but ultimately none of them fully satisfied.
Now here he is asking if he can join me for Sunday Mass, and I have a dilemma on my hands as my mind immediately began rifling through the possibilities to determine which particular liturgy, within a reasonable geographic radius, might best fit John’s needs.
Sure, there’s only one Roman Rite celebrated in two forms, Ordinary and Extraordinary, but let’s be honest; that’s just on paper. In the real world, the Ordinary Form comes in more flavors than Baskin Robbins. Here are just some of the choices at my disposal:
The 7:30 at a nearby parish. Beautiful, traditional church building. No music. No singing. No nonsense. (Well, not much.) A holy and reverent pastor, but also a regular visiting priest whose homilies tend to set up false dichotomies between social justice and other matters of doctrine. During the Prayer of the Faithful the names of more than 150 people are read aloud at every Mass; those serving in the military and those who are sick. (Yup, I admit it; I was bad and counted them one day, though I usually just pray silent Ave Maria’s.) It troubles me, among other things, to think that the parishioners are being conditioned to think that if Bobby in boot camp or Grandma in hospice aren’t having their names read aloud they’re somehow being cheated. Let’s call this Mass, Vanilla with a few Fruity Sprinkles
Later in the day at the same parish. Ever hear of that show called “America’s got Talent?” Well, you wouldn’t know it thanks to the choir. Not to be mean, but no matter how decent the song choices are, there is nothing sacred about the sound emanating from the loft in this place. I know it’s not easy for a pastor to tell his sharp-noted parishioners that their gifts are best suited for the Rosary Maker’s Guild, but someone has to do it, and soon! Off Key Lime Custard
The 9:00 or 10:30 at another nearby parish. Modern, theater in-the-round building. In contrast, the choir here (positioned right up front where all can admire how well they “actively participate”) is very good. Vocally, that is. The choice of music, however, all too frequently consists of those dreadful hymns that are either all about us, all about us pretending we’re “the bread of life,” or all about us being Protestant. Not infrequently the congregation is invited to clap for this person or that, but usually only after we’ve extended a hand in blessing them. The Gospel for the Sunday in question was about the Samaritan woman at the well. This parish, I know from hard experience, traditionally interjects choral refrains of “Give us living water... give us living water...” intermittently throughout the reading. I don’t care how many years this exercise works off of my Purgatorial sentence, I can’t go through that again. Rocky Road
The 8:45 or 10:30 at yet another nearby parish. New building, very traditional in design and very beautiful. The pastor is an enigmatic blend of rock solid orthodoxy and liturgical ambivalence. The earlier of the two Masses is the children’s liturgy. After enduring one of these several years ago as the kids got to play Mass (reading the readings, gathering around the big marble table for the Mr. Rogers style homily, singing what felt like 17 verses of “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” etc.) I avoid it like Ruth’s Chris on Fridays during Lent. The later of the two Masses suffers a unique strain of musical malady, literally, as the music director sometimes treats the congregation to a performance of his original compositions. This gives the Mass a “Prairie Home Companion” feel that I’m not at home with. Make-Your-Own Sunday
The 7:30 at another friend’s parish a little further away. Contemporary 1970’s style building, low ceilings, lots and lots of brick. No music. No singing. No predictable order either as the pastor is prone to skipping parts of the Mass when he’s clearly in a hurry. When he’s not, he delivers lengthy animated homilies on various topics of interest, sometimes even related to the faith! I’m sure this isn’t the “welcome home” my friend John is looking for. Rainbow Sherbet
The 8:30 Novus Ordo in Latin about a 45 minute drive away in a magnificent historic church building. A truly sacred liturgy in a truly sacred place. No shenanigans. The readings, homily and Prayer of the Faithful are in English. One cantor leads the congregation in singing beautiful Latin hymns accompanied by pipe organ. Reverence abounds, though I long for this Mass to be offered ad orientem at which point it will come rather close to resembling the Council’s intentions. I’m concerned, however, that John will feel like a fish out of water here. Classic Neapolitan
OK. You get the point.
Back in the day, the Catholic Mass was pretty much the Catholic Mass. A visitor who showed up with Protestant baggage packed with hand clapping hymnals, homespun hospitality and a professional preacher that could give Tony Robbins (no relation to Baskin) a run for his motivational speaking money might not “get it,” but they’d leave there knowing that the Mass is sacred, that a real Sacrifice is being offered, and that it sure as heck isn’t all about us.
Nowadays, however, Mass in the Ordinary Form is available with such a staggering array of embellishments that they can be chosen like side dishes from a menu. The process is very much consumer-driven. It’s also very Protestant.
It occurs to me now that the reason I found it so difficult to let my friend know where and when we’d be going to Mass is simple; I jumped headlong into the same trap that captured the collective imagination of the liturgical renovators after the Council.
In crafting a Catholic liturgy that is less of a “culture shock” to other Christians (and let’s be honest – this was a major motivating factor in how the Mass was changed) we now find ourselves competing in a foreign market; an all-too-earthly one in which we don’t belong. In trying to calculate which liturgy would best fit John’s comfort level, I entered into that very same territory.
As we drove that Sunday toward the “Vanilla” Mass, knowing that John would naturally draw comparisons, I tried to give him some sense for how very different the Catholic liturgy is from the Protestant worship services of his past. I’m afraid, however, I blew it.
You see, while well-catechized Catholics can look beyond the less-than-sacred elements of the Mass to gaze upon the Sacred Mysteries (albeit with difficulty) people like John, equipped with sincerity though he may be, cannot.
This Sunday, God willing, we’ll get a do-over, and this time I’m not going to let earthly concerns stop me from treating my friend to the ancient and venerable Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite; a decadent serving of Heavenly Hash that I’m sure he’ll never forget.
The rest is up to Christ.
Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio has been a columnist for Catholic News Agency since April 2009. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com