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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Liturgy and the mess of incarnation - guest blogger response

I'm happy to introduce to any who might not know him Father James Hurlbert, former associate pastor
at St. Anne in Barrington, former pastor of St. Alphonsus in Chicago, and now chaplain at the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos orphanage in Guatemala. Information on his work and efforts to build a chapel there during his 30-month sojourn can be found here. Happy feast day, Father Jim, and thanks for your candid, nuanced, and touchingly thoughtful remarks.
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Hi Rory,

Thanks for your blog post this morning. As you probably remember from our time together at St Anne, I sometimes felt a tension between the desire for reverence/transcendence at Mass and a powerful sense of community connection and participation that unfortunately also sometimes seemed to take away from the transcendent. The horizontal/vertical contrast was something of which I felt keenly aware, and with which I continue to wrestle. I don’t want to put too much energy into drawing up a contrast that doesn’t serve, but to put your reflection about the Incarnation into relief, I wonder if one might propose that if the Incarnation is powerfully reflected in the “messiness” of liturgy, perhaps the resurrection finds its most powerful expression in a more traditional/solemn Mass celebration? O don’t want to argue the point too much… but it is just an idea that I stumbled upon after reading your post.

A few other thoughts:

One way of processing things that came to me: I experienced some of the most powerful/most meaningful experiences of worship when I was at St Anne; I experienced some of the most powerful/most meaningful experiences of liturgy at St Alphonsus. Is this a fair distinction? Perhaps it is worth exploring the difference between “liturgy” and “worship?” As creatures, we are called to worship / as Catholics we are commanded to celebrate liturgy? Sunday Mass is our poor attempt at uniting these??

I think that the messiness of the incarnation can be evident in the Extraordinary Form as well as in the Novus Ordo. In Rome last fall on sabbatical I decided to go to the parish that is the center for the Extraordinary Form there for Mass on All Souls Day, figuring it would be nice and solemn. And it was. But it was also messy. In fact, older priests have told me that was a real problem with the old Mass: it was very difficult to celebrate well. It is complicated and requires a kind of precision choreography that is difficult to achieve. Even with a cardinal as celebrant, a deacon and sub-deacon, a Gregorian schola and loads of servers (all seminarians), there were plenty of glitches.

I have tried to enter into the Extraordinary Rite, but with little success.  My first time it actually bugged me; I felt offended by it. But I have pushed myself some, mostly because I hope to understand why it is so meaningful for others. With time I have developed a respect for it, and for the people to whom it best speaks. I think I once wrote a piece comparing appreciation of liturgy to appreciation of opera (an appreciation for which I have not yet managed to develop).  The idea being that opera is usually boring to the uninitiated, but for those who can enter into its language, its music, its meaning, it is sublime. Aesthetic experience can transform those engaged by its complexity, its richness, its transcendence even. Cultural effetes dismiss those who do not like it as simply ignorant, and maybe this is the case with opera. With the Extraordinary Rite, I think we can just leave the issue open and allow it to speak to those to whom it speaks. 

Right now I am living (in what some liturgists might think of as) the dregs of liturgy: 300 kids who appear bored, along with their adult leaders- many of whom are not Catholic and would rather be anyplace but at a Catholic Mass; lectors who read poorly, made worse by poor sound equipment; song led by a single guitar played by someone who is "rhythmically challenged"; the same songs every week; preaching (my own) handicapped by language and accent deficiencies; a cavernous mess hall converted for an hour into our “chapel.” We have well-trained altar servers, and a sense of reverence, though. The kids have responded well to me as a person, and as bored as they seem at Mass, they are constantly asking when the next Mass will be. Since the music is so bad, I wanted to avoid having an ugly experience of the Holy, Holy and the Lamb of God- so I taught them the Latin “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei,” along with the chant tones which we can sing a capella. They sing these better and louder than anything else in the Mass, often singing and humming the tunes outside of Mass as well (even the 3 and 4 year olds!)

Evangelical churches have made great headway here in Guatemala- mainly due to the funding send from the US and former governments here to lure people away from the Catholic Church (the government didn’t like the Catholics siding with the poor, and wanted to dilute Catholics’ influence by attracting its members into other churches that focused more on personal spiritual experience). From what I have read about the Church in Brazil, it seems that they have had some success holding onto members by switching to a more theatrical style of liturgy, drawing out emotions with a particular style of music and preaching. It will be interesting to see if this does the trick.

Surprisingly (to me at least), the parish in town where I help out on Sundays has liturgies every bit as reverent and traditional as what we had at St Alphonsus. The music is different, though, and I hate it. (Synthesizer and drum machine, uneven vocals, deafening volume). But the people pack the place, and display a reverence and intensity that is inspiring. Maybe this is an example of the “happy medium” that so many speak of with regards to a Novus Ordo Mass that incorporates some of the best of the old with the best (?) of the new (hard to imagine this music as being the “best,” though).

If the earthly liturgy is intended to reflect the idea of an eternal “celestial liturgy” (perhaps an arguable presumption), I can see  how giving us a hint of “what is to come” by dressing it up, formalizing its actions, reaching for the transcendent, etc can make sense. Who knows- from this perspective, maybe differences of opinions about what makes for meaningful liturgy really reflect differences of opinions about what we hope to experience in heaven!