Tuesday, July 5, 2011

History in the Making: More on the Reasons Catholics (don't) Attend Mass

Cardinal Burke presiding at Mass at Gricigliano,
Italy.  One does have to wonder if His Eminence
understands the difference between "reverence" and

Sorry that I have dropped this for a few days—life sometimes runs faster than I can catch up with, but now I’m back.  I had been discussing reasons why Catholics do (and don’t) go to Mass.   Some time back I had mentioned that Cardinal Burke, an American “serving” in the Roman Curia attributes the fall off in Mass attendance to the “lack of reverence” with which Mass is so often celebrated these days.  I must admit that I too am concerned about the lack of reverence, though I think his Eminence and I have different ideas what “lack of reverence: means.  (If you follow the “Reform of the Reform” or the “New Liturgical Movement” you might suspect that His Eminence has a tendency to confuse reverence towards God with pomp that is focused on him.)  But in any case, in speaking to people who do attend Mass, I am getting a more specific view on what draws people to Church.  I had mentioned the other day that for many the number one draw is a “sense of community.”  Much like the bar in Cheers, people want to gather in a place where “everyone knows your name.”  While some might object that this is not a sufficiently worthy reason for “true” or “spiritual” Christians, I remember the old axiom that “Grace builds on nature.” When people feel invested in a network of relationships, it draws them to return and to become ever more committed.  This is the most common response I had to the question of “Why do you faithfully attend Mass” when I spoke with people at the church where I (and approximately thirty-eight hundred others) gather each weekend for Mass.
This desire for “belonging” corresponds to my experience when I was invited recently to lecture at a major Evangelical mega-Church in California.  I had about twelve-hundred attend a Sunday Morning “Sunday School” where I was asked to explain certain Catholic practices to the attendees of a between-the-services coffee hour/adult education program.  I asked how many in the audience might be former Catholics.  About thirty per-cent raised their hands.  I asked them to fill out cards and explain why they had “left” the Catholic Church.  The overwhelming answer was the lack of community—of knowing others and being known by others—that they had experienced in their Catholic days.  Recently, after a similar program in a six-hundred member Episcopal Church on the East Coast, I again asked the reason why those former Catholics in the audience  (about thirty out of an audience of a hundred or so) had left and was told because they found the Catholic Church “impersonal and rigid.”   
The second most common reason I heard for regular Mass attendance among my fellow worshippers on Sunday Morning is the quality of the Liturgy.  Now, I was surprised to hear this as I find the liturgy in this particular parish where I normally go to Mass to be rather bland.  It isn’t bad—it just isn’t good.  The music is, to my taste, over-weighted to the contemporary musicians—Haugen, Haas, Cooney, etc.  Don’t get me wrong—I think their songs are fine.  The melodies are singable and memorable, with some emotional impact.  The lyrics are more than pious claptrap and reinforce a sound theology—especially a sound and contemporary ecclesiology.  But I don’t find this music to be enough by themselves to create the best worship environment.  We Catholics have a rich heritage of music that must not be forgotten.  I don’t mean the “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother” drivel but the great Latin Classics.  And while I am thoroughly committed to the new liturgy (and very hesitant about this new translation), I think that not only should the better Latin music be maintained (alongside new songs), but that every congregation should know the basic Mass parts in Gregorian Chant.  Of course I am a former Latin teacher and, as a historian, am somewhat biased towards what I think to be the best of the past.  And then there is also the rich heritage of Protestant hymnody from which we can draw.  It is not our heritage, but there is no reason why we can’t use it to enhance our prayer.  Charles Wesley’s hymns are particularly rich theologically.  (And in fact, often used in Catholic Churches.)  And while Protestant hymnody has its share of shallow sentimental crap that should be more revived than should our pre-Vatican II repertoire, there simply is far too much good music and good theology to ignore it.  
Well, I got carried away a bit there and liturgy is far more than music.  While I think we could do better with the music at my parish than we do, there are positive points about the liturgy.  We do have a great organ.  It is electronic and not pipe, but better than most pipe organs.  We just do not use it enough—a little too much piano for my taste.  We make good use of trumpet, violin, cello, flute and other instruments.  The choir, on the other hand, could use work; in particular they could learn to sing parts. The readers are excellent, but the altar servers could be much better trained.  (We have both boys and girls.  They serve together and there seems to be no problem recruiting either.)  The vestments and paraments are in good condition and the church is always tastefully decorated—somewhat understated, which works well in our building—every Sunday and not just Christmas and Easter.
The deacon is somewhat clumsy and basks a bit too much in the spotlight (the visiting supply priests have all asked that he not be assigned with them) but the various priests—both those attached to the parish and those who come to help out—are reverent without being either pompous or stiff.  They each have their own style.  Father X is somewhat pious, Father Y is rather “evangelical,” and Father Z has a somewhat Episcopalian formalism—but it provides a good balance.  Our pastor is just “homey”—a simple man who speaks and prays straight from the heart.  He’s best of all, but unfortunately he is taking a new assignment. 
So while I have seen better liturgy, I have rarely seen the combination of liturgy and community we have here and I think it is key to the equation that draws people to our parish for mass.     Next time—hopefully tomorrow—other reasons that draw people to Mass. 

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