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Monday, June 3, 2013

Looking for rite in all the wrong places

It is a never-ending struggle for a liturgist - how on earth do you convince priests, who
are charged with presiding over the Church’s liturgy, that they have no authority to change the language or the ritual willy-nilly to suit their “style” or mood? This is not the same as saying that the mass has to be the same on every day or every week. There are plenty of places in the liturgy for “improvising” or personal touches. It’s just that, in general, priests tend to improvise and put personal touches where they shouldn’t.

Ritual is the “property” of the whole group, in our case, the Church. One of our problems may be that, in the USA at least, we’ve lost what it means to be a group, or at least ceded our solidarity to occasional shows of "patriotism." Rather than thinking of the church—us—as a community, we think of ourselves as, at best, an amalgam of individuals. The difference is the difference between consensus and majority rule, or between independence and interdependence. Ritual makes equals of us, or at least delineates our roles with equality—in the case of the mass, for instance, the priest says “The Lord be with you,” and we say, “And with your spirit.” That’s just the way it is. But if the priest decides on a Sunday morning to riff on that and make it groovier, he might say, “God is here among you.” What do we say to that? By putting himself above the rules of ritual, the presider has put him himself above us. He is subtly saying, “Look at me, how keen I am! I get it!” But he doesn’t, because it’s not a dialogue any more, it’s a monologue. This is an obvious example, generally the differences are subtler. But I have encountered priests in my ministry who not only don’t say the ritual words, they berate the assembly for not answering them back properly. How much sense does that make? He isn’t doing the ritual right, and is castigating the assembly for being confused by his deviance. I have known presiders during my years of working in liturgy with whom, if I only respond to the priest when he uses the actual words of the rite, the only words I’ll ever say are, “we lift them up to the Lord” and “it is right and just.” If I can remember the words. Sigh.

RItual passes down the tradition of the group. This is another reason that it is dangerous to change ritual language. Even a well-intentioned presider can alter meaning by changing words he says at mass. And whether or not his new words are “correct” or not doesn’t matter: what matters is, they aren’t “our” words, “our” faith. They’re his. And that’s just not good enough for liturgical prayer, which is by its nature corporate, belonging to the whole group. This is not even about the group that is present, it’s about the whole church, everywhere, and its past and future. So I’m saying that not even a bishop or theologian (who should know better anyway) ought to take liberties with liturgical texts. The orations (prayers) of the mass and the Eucharistic prayers transmit sacred traditions, and we are expected to give our assent by means of Amens and other acclamations. But if the priest isn’t praying the words of the tradition, of the whole-capital-C-Church, then how can we be expected to say an authentic “amen,” or “give thanks and praise” for things that sound more like Dr. Phil or Dear Abby than Hippolytus or Athanasius?

No sense in my cataloguing every example of this I can think of here - there is only so much bandwidth and you only have so much time. You can think of your own. Honestly, the whole reason I started on this idea was that it occurred to me that the irony of this ritual void that is being created by the erosion of normative texts through the casual disregard of priests is that most of the presiders I hear most often are, in fact, not riffing or improvising but living in their own ritual world. They’re not making it up as they go along, usually, they’re substituting their own rituals for the ritual of the Church. The priest will, for instance, always say, “The Lord be with each and every one of you,” or will always say, “And this, my brothers and sisters, is the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, “ or will always substitute a meaningless “we pray one God forever and ever” for the doxology at the end of an oration! You see? It’s not an aversion to ritual. In fact, it’s a substitution of personal ritual for the communal ritual, of the individualistic for the authentic. It’s not ritual, apparently, to which these fellows are averse, it’s submission to normative ritual. They’re giving us ritual aplenty; it’s just the Smithian rite by Fr. Smith, or the O’Learian rite by Fr. O’Leary.

Ritual is doxology. We learn the truth of faith by repeated sacramental behaviors that rehearse us, in a way, for the way we live when we’re not doing sacramental ritual. If we’re constantly exposed to bad ritual practice, then one can only conclude that in the long run it is faith itself that suffers. If we act like the priest is allowed to manipulate rite in any way he wants, then no amount of preaching about the priesthood of the laity or the equality of all people in the reign of God can undo that damage. We can't preach community and solidarity and then ritualize individuality and unrestrained creativity. Ritual means something. I have heard a priest say, in the epiclesis of the Eucharistic prayer, “Let your spirit come upon these gifts. Let them live!” Let them live? Let bread and wine live? It’s a sacramental Frankenstein. I think what we’re praying for is that the spirit transform the gifts into the living presence of Christ, which is quite different from letting the gifts live! But that is beside the point. Even if it were true, it's not the way the church expresses its faith. It's an individual creed.

The American document Music in Catholic Worship may have been getting at this when it declared, all the way back in 1972, that “good celebrations foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken and destroy it” (paragraph 6). In those heady days, we were concerned that slavish adherence to an older version of the rite might never unleash the potential of the new order of Mass. Now, thirty-five years later, having sown what we thought was holy wind, we may be reaping a bit of the cyclone as some of the priests who dragged the church kicking and screaming through those changes following Vatican II remain unreflectively trapped in the license which they took back in those days. 

All I’m asking for is for all of us to revisit the rite as we actually have it. Priests will say, “People like the way I say Mass, even if it isn’t what’s in the book,” but I say, people need you to say mass as it is in the book, and, if it really matters to you, they will still like you. That, and you’ll finally be doing your job, and not making us all the bullied prisoners of your shamanistic malpractice. There is plenty of room for your insight and personality to come through; just give us a break, and train yourself and restrain yourself to do your personal thing at the times when it is appropriate. Don’t you think you owe us that much? Then, when you say, “the Lord be with you,” boy, we’ll be right there with “and with your spirit,” or, because anamnesis is such a fragile thing, "and with your spirit." ☺