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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sad State of the Catholic Liturgy

When I went to my nephew’s big Catholic wedding last month, it was the first time I attended a Catholic Mass since walking out on one while vacationing in Wildwood Crest a couple years ago. At the Wildwood Crest Mass the priest began the service by strolling around the altar table while saying good morning to the congregation. Then he proceeded to make a series of announcements in place of the old prayers at the foot of the altar. The lone altar server was dressed in a white bathrobe of sorts that rode up around his jeans and dirty sneakers. I did not feel like I was attending Mass at all but felt that I had somehow stumbled into a Presbyterian service by accident.
I did not feel good walking out but I had no choice. As someone who spent most of my childhood going to the Latin Mass and even serving as an altar boy for a time, the post Vatican II Mass, or Novus Ordo Mass, seems like a dumbed down secular affair compared to what the Catholic Church threw out the window.
With that said, I can also state that Pope Benedict XVI, with his recent Motu Proprio, has encouraged the return of the traditional Mass, and has allowed Catholic parishes to hold Latin Masses without the permission of a bishop. Unfortunately, 40 plus years have gone by since Vatican II, and huge numbers of Catholics don’t even know what the Latin Mass was about. You cannot miss what you never experienced, so it’s no surprise to me that Latin Masses are not offered in any of the Catholic churches in Fishtown or Port Richmond. Catholics seem to be generally happy with the status quo. Most have no idea that the traditional Mass was much more than the use of Latin. In fact, if the Council Fathers had just stuck to changing Latin to the vernacular, and not changed anything else, the Mass would have been okay, but along with Latin many extraordinary rites and traditions were abolished.
While there’s currently a push for return of tradition in the Church, it is probably too late to restore everything that has been lost. That is tragic.
I got a taste of that at my nephew’s wedding. The big Catholic church where the wedding took place looked more like a gymnasium with glass stained windows than a Catholic church. A minimalist altar table (in place of a high altar), a crucifix the size of a UFO descending from the ceiling, and one lone image of the Virgin Mary on a side altar were the only recognizable traditional images. Spartan, cold bare simplicity seemed odd in a church so large.
An agnostic niece of mine commented, “I hate modern Catholic churches. They are so cold.”
The Novus Ordo wedding Mass was much like the one I experienced in Wildwood: uninspiring, full of announcements with the priest walking in circles trying to be “cool,” even slapping the bride and groom on the back “good ole boy” style. The altar servers were in bathrobes rather than cassock and surplice. At least they had bells at the consecration, something that many Catholic churches have eliminated, although there was no altar rail in the church. The tabernacle, which for hundreds of years had always been at the high altar, was placed in a cabinet off to the side of “Julia Child’s table.”
I was glad when the talky and hand shaky Mass was over. I told my nephew it was a beautiful service. I lied.
My nieces and nephews, as far as I know, have never attended a traditional Mass. They grew up with the revised “new Coke” liturgy with its Kumbaya song lyrics, altar servers in bathrobes and Eucharistic ministers delivering communion in hand like deli meat slicers handing out Lebanon bologna samples.
All this hasn’t helped me find a church to attend on a regular basis. That seems ironic, I know, with all the beautiful Catholic churches in my neighborhood.
Recently, however I bumped into a group of traditional nuns shopping in the local Thriftway super market. I introduced myself, congratulating them on not throwing away their religious habit. They told me they were Eastern Catholic nuns from the Ukrainian Cathedral in Northern Liberties. They also told me that whenever they shop in Thriftway, scores of people come up to them and thank them for looking like nuns, not corporate CEO’s in pant suits.
The nuns told me about an English liturgy at the cathedral on Saturday’s, a non Novus Ordo affair where announcements come at the end of the Mass and where reverence and ceremony hasn’t been replaced with…Roman-style Kumbaya.
I think I’ll give it a try.

Thom Nickels

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