Today, Father Steve discusses the new English translation of the Mass in light of a creeping tendency to approach the Liturgy as a vehicle for personal praise and affirmation... and what this means for the way we introduce our children to proper praise and worship.
This past Friday I received an envelope from the Archdiocesan Liturgy office containing a booklet. The text was a presentation of the new English translation of the Mass. I have reviewed these changes many times, but the booklet gave me the opportunity to appreciate better what the new translation will accomplish. While reading through the Mass parts, an article by Katrina Fernandez entitled “The applause at Mass has to stop” came to mind. The gist of the piece is that the self-congratulatory practice of applauding young people for their various services offered on behalf of the Church’s worship is undermining the purpose of that worship itself. The Liturgy is not a place where we are praised, but an occasion through which the Lord is to be praised. Has the disposition that the Mass is best appreciated when we allow ourselves to disappear into it, rather than promote ourselves, become utterly incomprehensible? Humility in one’s service to the Lord is precisely the attitude towards Catholic worship that has for the most part prevailed for much of the Church’s life. The broad acceptance of the Liturgies of the Church as an occasion in which we should expect to be recognized and applauded for our contribution is a recent development- and I would agree with Katrina Fernandez that it imperils the Church’s worship.
What is behind all this? Is it the ascendency of a culture of self-esteem? Likely. Perhaps more specifically it is the conflation of our culture’s preoccupation with the self and the prevalent notion that the Church’s worship is some type of faith based entertainment. Worship is spectacle, and we are the spectators and performers. We see this not just in the applause, but in the multiplication of “special” blessings, interventions by Father, introductions of the clergy lay ministers and guests as if they are a cast of characters, performance homilies, and show tune sounding hymns that go on and on and on. What concerns me is that the prevalence of these kinds of “liturgical gestures” has given the impression that this is what Catholic worship is in its essential form- any digression from this “norm” produces an experience of cognitive dissonance. The very idea that the Church’s worship is foremost an act of justice in which we render God what is due to him has been supplanted by the notion that worship is something that is for me and about me, with God acting to deliver my best life now- after all, isn’t that what I should expect and what I deserve?
One of the great risks in all this is that the human ego is absolutely rapacious in its need for congratulation. The more you get the more you want, and if you are cut off cold turkey, the withdrawal is severe. What is going to happen to those who have been brought up expecting that when you go to Mass you should be praised not just for singing, reading, or even just showing up (or in some frightening cases for dancing) if that expectation for praise is not met? “Well, Father, I’ll just take my business elsewhere.” Believe me, the Bible necessitates the shattering of idols, and therefore the pretenses of the human ego. So, unless the Church turns its back on the witness of the Scriptures completely, this experience of alienation from the ego-driven desire to be congratulated is inevitable. (In fact, in terms of an authentic Biblical spirituality it is absolutely necessary.) For some it might be the occasion for conversion, for others it will be the opportunity to just walk away. Conversion is hard, and in a culture that prizes both expedience and entertainment in terms of its religious institutions, my bet is that most will just walk away. If this happens, we can’t just say good riddance and absolve ourselves of responsibility, especially when we created the conditions for the culture’s potential inability to understand the substance of our professed Faith by socializing people from an early age to believe that the Church’s worship is meant to do something that it isn’t meant to do.
Is it ever too soon to learn that true happiness (and, therefore, true worship) happens in not only recognizing the distinction of oneself from the Creator, but also in the appreciation that we discover what is best in ourselves when we accept that our lives are not simply about us? I would agree with Fernandez that this lesson can and should be taught early. Learning the disposition for prayer and worship that embodies these truths is a helpful way to begin.
The new translation of the Roman Missal might be an occasion through which an important corrective can be introduced to the faithful. Through this means, some Catholics might see and experience, perhaps for the first time, the beauty and nobility of the Church’s worship. At least I hope so.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.