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Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Only Real Catholic Parishes

A brilliantly incisive comment from a dear relative of mine set me to thinking about the Latin Mass parishes around the country.
I think what made something like Newman special or a parish with a school is the commonality of people's experiences. Once you graduate or move beyond what many people are doing, you have chosen something different than the common experience, which automatically makes for an outsider feeling. It's exceedingly difficult to overcome. I once was a member of the church choir. Maybe I need to rejoin to have commonality with my fellow parishioners.
Now, what is said here is absolutely correct. Common experiences are what make for community. Once you have chosen something else (to be a commuter on a college campus that is mostly residential, or vice versa, for instance), you are instantly an outsider, not part of the life of the community.

According to Catholic theology and praxis, the liturgy is the height of Catholic community, and the Mass the height of the liturgy. Catholics are bound together as Catholics by the Mass. Yet is that really the case in most Novus Ordo parishes?

In my experience (and I've lived in four states and eight parishes in the last twenty years), it isn't. Far from being a unifying experience, the Mass is absolutely incidental to the community experience.

Isn't That Typical?
Think about the typical "parish life" - it's built around choir, Bible studies, mothers' groups, Scout troops, Knights of Columbus, and pre-eminent among all activities, THE SCHOOL.

Indeed, if you ask most parishioners who have children in the school which came first, the parish or the school, they would answer "the school." And they would sometimes be literally correct.

In the United States, it was not unusual for the school building to be erected first, with Masses celebrated in the gymnasium or cafeteria until the parish church got built. Most parishioners think the parish exists to support the school, that the school is the pre-eminent purpose of the parish, when it is actually quite the reverse. Indeed, I've seen pastors specifically instruct parish councils in the correct understanding after the parish council expressed the backward understanding and yet also have seen the parish council so dumbfounded by the instruction that they all uniformly refused to accept it could be true.

Now, to be fair, this pre-eminence of school over parish happened well before Vatican II was even a twinkle in John XXIII's eye, well before John XXIIII was a twinkle in the eye of the cardinals who elected him, in fact.

Predictably Protestant
But, it is the case that this mis-ordering of priorities is now a commonplace in Catholic parishes. No one, and by that I mean literally NO ONE in the typical Catholic Novus Ordo parish thinks the Mass is what forms their community. Despite their lip service, it's plain that even most of the bishops don't believe it.

After all, if the bishops and priests believed it, they wouldn't spend tens of thousands of dollars on programs like RENEW or Christ Among Us or whatever this year's "small group parish renewal" project is. None of these things are ever centered on liturgy of any kind, much less (God forbid!) the Mass.

Instead, the "small group projects" always center on creating small groups of families who gather in each others home to break bread, speak of Scripture (generally without benefit of guidance from priests, bishops or Magisterial documents), etc. In short, the Catholic parish renewal projects are always very Protestant in character.

And the effect is always predictably Protestant.
It works great the first year or so, starts to decline the second and third years, and when the boxed material from the publisher runs out, the groups disband. Everyone comments about "how great that was" and can't figure out why it deflated like a child's party balloon.

It never occurs to anyone that the whole experience was artificial to begin with, held together by dollars and the paper glue of some wit's Bible study. The "sense of community" was literally purchased with an invoice, and was therefore as solid as the exchange of goods and services between a man and woman interested in... mmmm.... ahem.... temporary mutual enrichment...

The Difference
But with an Extraordinary Form parish, it is not so. The people there are not there because they much like each other (although they may, they often don't) or because they have shared experiences (although they might, they often won't). No, they are all there because of the liturgy. If the pastor didn't offer the Mass according to the 1962 Missal, they wouldn't go, no parish would exist. Whatever community life flows from this parish (and it can be quite good), flows from it because the Mass brought these people together first.

Now, there are a couple of exceptions to this rule. For instance, I know of at least one pastor who offers the Novus Ordo in Latin ad orientem, and I think it can honestly be said that his parish has a large number of members who are there precisely and only because of the beauty and fidelity of the Mass he offers.

The point is, it is only the parish whose community joins together because of its common love for the Mass, it is only that parish community, which can be called a real Catholic community. Only the community which sees liturgical preparation in general, and sacramental preparation most especially, as the common binding heritage of the whole community, only that community really understands itself. Only the community which joins together primarily and precisely to celebrate that for which it has prepared itself is joined together by Christ Himself.

Every other parish, every parish that builds its "community" on the basis of its school, its choir, its small groups, its Scripture study, its Cub Scouts or Knights of Columbus, every such parish is not Catholic in any real or permanent sense at all, because it is not bound by that which is peculiarly Catholic - the sacraments, the sacraments and the liturgy which wraps itself around the sacraments like swaddling clothes around the Christ Child.

The first Catholic community came together in a stable, not to share coffee and donuts or to swap tips on how to tend sheep, but to worship the living God become the Son of Man, the Christ.

Let us imitate them.


R said...

Awesome post!

DMofDOOM said...

Steve, what are your thoughts on whether or how a refocusing on the Mass in a Novus Ordo English parish might be achieved? Do you think this would inevitably lead to interest in the Latin liturgy? Do you think that, however distant, a Mass renewal in a Novus Ordo English parish might share in the type of community you are speaking of in the Extraordinary Form parishes?

Steve Kellmeyer said...

My guess is it would begin by introducing the Kyrie, Agnus Dei and similar parts of Mass back into Greek/Latin responses, as VC II originally called for.

Spend time teaching your choir and congregation how to sing the music in Jubilate Deo, which Paul VI required and no one implemented.

Turn the priest to celebrating the NO ad orientem.

Those changes alone will make the Mass different enough so that it becomes a distinguishing mark of the parish - ironic, since it would simply be implementing what VCII asked for.

Eventually, add an EF High Mass to the parish Mass schedule so people have a chance to experience the NO as it is SUPPOSED to be done and the EF as it is SUPPOSED to be done.

The major problem with the NO is it is done in a mediocre, half-asked for fashion, if you know what I mean. No one finds it interesting because it doesn't elevate the mind.

It would help to work with the architecture too - give the eye some eye candy to contemplate, (statues, icons, etc.) and make that eye candy the subject of frequent sermons - the richer in symbolism, the better. Give people's minds something to engage with.

DMofDOOM said...

Thanks for the reminder about actually following the rules!

Matheus F. Ticiani said...

...ironic, since it would simply be implementing what VCII asked for.

And that's something that both the "modernist" and the SSPX-type rad-trad crowds ignore since it doesn't fit their ideology.

If more faihful Catholics could do their homework and be more vocal about the kind of stuff in this post, things could improve significantly (but a little help from some bishops wouldn't hurt, either... :))

Ignatius_Laconi said...


I love your suggestions above but how do you convince your Priest who acknowledges the importance of these things intellectually and knows church teaching about them but doesn't implement them because he believes it is not pastoral(i.e. too much for the liberals to handle)? Basically my parish Priest's philosophy is to "fix the school and the liturgy will work itself out." He doesn't really have a plan except to introduce stuff very slowly over the next umpteen number of years and I feel dragged down by it and want to leave for a TLM parish down the road. How do you change his mind when he sees the intellectual value of these things, knows there church teaching but gives them a lower priority because he has probably never been formed by these externals? It is very clear he gives renewal of the School priority over renewal of the liturgy in terms of restoring the faith in the parish. How do I convince him that renewal of the Mass is a higher priority than renewal of the school?
God Bless!!!

Steve Kellmeyer said...

The short answer: you can't.

He's drunk the Koolaid.

If he places the reform of the school over the reform of the liturgy, he honestly thinks the parish school is more important than the parish itself - that is, he thinks the parish exists to support the school, and not vice versa.

He may say otherwise, but his actions demonstrate that the school has priority. You are a layman, so you won't change his mind since he considers you unqualified to have an opinion.

The only persons who MIGHT change his mind are:
(a) his parish business manager, if he has one. She is often the biggest influence on his parochial decisions, typically greater than the bishop or his fellow priests. Other lay parish staff can also make him change his mind occasionally.
(b) his bishop and
(c) other priests whom he respects and whose adulation or friendship he wishes to retain.

You aren't on that list.

Ignatius_Laconi said...

Thanks Steve!!