Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Prudence, Pizza, and Role Fatigue in the Liturgy

Other writers on this blog have often highlighted the role of organic vs. inorganic change in the liturgy, especially as regards the reforms and effects of the Second Vatican Council. It’s not my purpose to discuss this here. My purpose is instead to discuss the role of wisdom and prudent change within boundaries of an obedient, reverent liturgy celebrated according to the relevant norms. I wish further to discuss the topic of role fatigue and subsidiarity as it relates.

If faith put in practice is to persevere, it must also be sustainable and dynamic. Quite simply, the Eucharist is the source and summit of all Catholic life; therefore, if someone burns out with the liturgy, he or she will not persevere in faith. This is where questions of prudence and role fatigue come into play. Let’s begin with two examples:

I recall an invitation to sing in a Gregorian chant schola that rehearsed Sunday mornings at 5:30 am and sung for a 7:00 am Mass. It was a good group, so naturally I was interested; however, as much as our readers know my deep love of Gregorian chant and traditional liturgy, I confess that my first utterances upon hearing the alarm at 4:30 that morning were not in praise of the benevolent Creator. The time simply didn’t work with my other responsibilities, and I quit after the first season. Three of the men in that group are now faithful Benedictine monks, and I am a faithful lay Catholic, married and serving full-time in a parish. If practicing my Catholic faith required me to wake up every Sunday at 4:30am, I probably would have quit. Thank God there were options that were more prudent for me at the time.

Prudence and role fatigue don’t simply apply to time commitments but also to ideological tenacity, one’s participation in society at large, the battles one fights, one’s emotions, and even family and intergenerational dynamics. I call to mind someone who, in younger years, had been a public champion for traditional liturgy with all of the trappings. All of a sudden one day, she quit Catholicism entirely, because she had grown tired of fighting. She could only conceive of Catholicism as a sort of sacralized politics, an ever-present revolution where every minute detail was a sign of a larger battle of good and evil. She had fatigued in a role, a closed cycle of anxiety, that admitted no change, development, or relief. The last I heard, she was delivering pizzas.

In these two examples, one might argue that God’s grace was not lacking. Grace gives one supernatural ability to accomplish what is naturally impossible. No Catholic marriage lasts, nor does any priest remain faithful to his vocation, without it. Every good action is inspired, sustained, and brought to perfection through the working of grace. I get it; but no person receives exactly the same gifts and graces. I have prayed for the grace of being a cheerful early riser, and all I have been given is black coffee and an alarm clock.

Nevertheless, prudence and subsidiarity are key principles for perseverance and sustainability. Prudence is key insofar as a community must apply the liturgical norms obediently, to the letter of the law, but also in a manner that takes into account the stakeholders in the community. Early risers, golfers, monks, and farmers may appreciate a quiet 6:00 am Mass; urban families may prefer a sung 11:00 am; college students may appreciate a candlelit 10 pm. Within the norms, therefore, a parish needs to cast a broad net. In this sense -- and obediently keeping the applicable norms -- the variation of practice is a sign of healthy subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is key insofar as it allows one local parish to differ from another; similarly it allows the pastor to vary the culture within the parish from a short low Mass with no music, to a two-hour High Mass with incense, soaring music, and innumerable servers. A good shepherd knows his sheep, and accordingly a good pastor, in his role as liturgist, knows what sustains the people he serves, and what they in turn can support in the various para-liturgical ministries such as choirs, altar servers, etc. It is often a varied diet.

Others also share in the pastor’s responsibility to sustain the faith of the people of the parish. Writing as music director in a parish of 4,500 families, with extraordinarily strong Mass attendance and a regular diet of orchestral Masses, Gregorian chant, polyphony, hymns, and organ repertoire, my responsibility is to engage as many people as possible in our various choirs, scholas, and other ensembles; and through them, to support the sung prayer of all in the parish. My success or failure depends on my ability to make participation in my choirs sustainable, fun, worthwhile, and engaging for each member, while at the same time reaching deeply, together, into the authentic sacred treasury of our Catholic tradition. All is done so that God would receive fitting praise, as beautiful and noble as our community is able to offer. It is possible to have the right goals, and still miss the mark-- whether it's the right music at the wrong time, or too much unfamiliar repertoire at once, or not enough fun and recreation. It takes time and wisdom to find the balance.

I respectfully issue a challenge, to anyone who might join me, that the work of restoring the liturgy isn’t so much about argument, as about ongoing education; it isn’t so much a sprint, as it is daily persistence toward a worthy goal. The old house is not restored in one effort, nor the fractured neighborhood reunited in a single week; both are restored by a commitment to live and to remain amid the challenges, with joy and gentle strength. Virtue is the wisdom to fix the roof before the rains, the humility to ask for help when “you’re in over your head”, the patience to teach one’s children to keep the garden, the generosity to help a neighbor with a project… and lastly it is respect for the tools, for the work itself, and for one’s companions.

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