Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Place of the People

The sloganeering about the centrality of the people at Catholic liturgy has been absolutely overwhelming for decades. They scream at us constantly: the people, the people, the people. They are the point! One could easily get the impression that the center of liturgy is the people, without whom nothing could take place or should take place at Mass.

For anyone raised in a Protestant environment, all this haranguing, by Catholics for Catholics, must come across as strange. In their own worship environments, the anthropocentrism - the primacy of the community - is taken for granted, and therefore there is no need to constantly teach it and make sure that everyone believes it. It is given, something inherent in the ethos.

But what about a liturgical structure that is theocentric? To change this structure to something different invites many questions. The managers of worship need to know something about what the people want. They need to know their values, their preferences in music, their demographic background, their professional and social class, their cultural sensitivities - and what they are given in liturgy must be tailored to match issues like health, age, language, and much more.

You can't serve everyone because people have no interests that are common to them all; people are radically heterogeneous. If there is going to be anything to draw them "together as a community" they must sort themselves out along common lines of their own choosing. They must come to occupy niches.

This is the very essence of Protestant worship communities and why it is not especially troubling to them that there is no end to the "schisms" within this world. There naturally must be infinite number of schisms in order that all people are served in the best way possible. These communities eventually become similar to civic clubs with a religious gloss, places to meet and greet and seek supportive personal relationships, marriage partners, and the like.

It should go without saying that the Catholic view is different, but, then, why are we so afraid to say it? The propaganda about the people is so pervasive, even in the Catholic world, that rarely does anyone stand up and say what is overwhelmingly obvious from all of Catholic teaching: it is not the people but God who is the center of worship, and this is precisely the great merit of the way the Catholic Church goes about its prayer life. This is what makes it different and so attractive.

A priest friend drew my attention to a passage from Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain, published in 1948, by a man who became a hero to the progressives. He is speaking here of his college years in New York, from his memories of the first time he entered a Catholic Church. I'm quoting from the Harcourt 1998 edition, pages 227-228.

It was a gay, clean church, with big plain windows and white columns and pilasters and a well-lighted, simply sanctuary.... the thing that impressed me most was that the place was full, absolutely full. It was full not only of old ladies and broken-down gentlemen with one foot in the grave, but of men and women and children young and old -- especially young: people of all classes, and all ran on a solid foundation of workingmen and -women and their families.

I found a place that I hoped would be obscure, over on one side, in the back, and went to it without genuflecting, and knelt down. As I knelt, the first thing I noted was a young girl, very pretty too, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, kneeling straight up and praying quite seriously. I was very much impressed to see that someone who was young beautiful could with such simplicity make prayer the real and serious and principal reasons for going to church. She was clearly kneeling that way because she meant it, not in order to show off, and she was praying with an absorption which, though not the deep recollection of a saint, was serious enough to show that she was not thinking at all about the other people who were there.

What a revelation it was, to discover so many ordinary people in a place together, more conscious of God than of one another: not there to show off their hates or their clothes, but to payer, or at least to fulfill a religious obligation, not a human one. For even those who might have been there for no better motive than that they were obliged to be, were at least free from any of the self-conscious and human constraint which is never absent from a Protestant church where people are definitely gather together as people, as neighbors, and always have a at least half an eye for one another, if not all of both eyes.

What he had walked into was a Low Mass. He had very little idea what was going on. At some point he shuffled to his feet like everyone else, and heard the Gospel read in Latin. The homily followed, and it was about a core teaching of Christianity, but the message hit him hard, appearing as it did in the midst of all this strangeness. The Mass continued and grew every more obscure and mysterious. At some point he heard Sanctus bells and he finally became afraid and left in a hurry out the back door. The experience changed him and his outlook, and the world began to take on a new color. He was intrigued enough to study and learn -- it became an obsession -- and eventually to convert.

It all began with not being noticed by people who were not noticing each other. It began with a liturgy he didn't understand and couldn't follow. It began with a stark and bracing focus on a God he did not know and with a liturgy that, for all appearances, completely excluded him. It included others because they all had that natural and normal (for Catholics) theistic orientation. The experience was not about him. It was not about others either. It was about only one issue, one Presence. They all looked the same direction, toward the East, led by the Priest.

But note too that the Merton passage begins by observing a massive and diverse community gathered in that Church. The idea of community was present, not as a goal but as an effect of another goal. Perhaps if we recapture some of what Merton observed that day, we will once again have a reason to "gather as a community" that forgets the differences among us in order to be united in the only way that really matters for liturgy.

For now, the emphasis on the people as the center of worship has led not to unity but to extreme divisions, micro-schisms even within our own parishes. The people have no common culture, no common worship preferences. Therefore, our parishes have come to serve a wide range of niches. These are first sorted by language: the Spanish Mass, the Korean Mass, and so on. Then they are sorted by style and demographic: the adult contemporary Mass, the youth Mass, the college Mass, and crabby old people Mass, the slacker Mass, and so on (any Catholic can pretty much tell you the times when these niches worship).

How long will we allow this to go on? How much longer can the single parish be stretched to serve the ever-expanding number of sectors of people who want to use its facilities for worship purposes, with the strongest possible emphasis on meeting our human needs? Here is the irony: this is not about unity. The focus on the people leads to the revealing of disunity among people, necessarily.

If we want unity, we will find it not in the mirror but in the cross, the grandeur of which necessarily makes our own petty wishes and interests shrink into the background. Part of conversion, Merton came to realize, involves burying the ego and relinquishing the selfish desire to have our own preferences accommodated in every respect.

It is for this reason that the Church has long embraced modes and methods that challenge us to do precisely this: the music is unfamiliar, the language is no longer a vernacular, the movements and ceremonies are not seen anywhere else in the world. When we experience this as a people, each person leaving his or her ego at the door, we then have a theocentric basis for feeling truly unified.

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