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Our Not-So-Glorious Selves: on the Crises of the American Catholic Church

Fr. Joseph F. Wilson

It is ironic that the Catholic Church in the United States has become such a spectacle for the world. For years, I have dealt with African and Eastern Europeans who arrived here as summer supply priests with the idea firmly implanted in their minds that the American Church was a model of efficient organization for the rest of the world—a conviction that I have always found extremely naive.

It is now undeniable that something is very wrong. The revelations of situations of clerical sexual abuse of minors in various dioceses have arrived with numbing regularity, yet as horrifying as these are, how much more so what we have learned about the failure of the various dioceses to focus upon the victims and respond in a timely, compassionate way.

As I write this, the bishops are preparing to gather in Dallas for a meeting devoted to the crisis, but they will make a most serious mistake, as will we all, if they fall into the trap of considering the clergy sexual abuse crisis in isolation. It is not an isolated crisis; it has a context, a severe and dismal context, which is why I always thought my African friends naive in their high regard for our efficient organization. Ultimately, little or nothing will be accomplished for the good of the Church if we neglect the context.

A Series of Crises

The fact is, we do not face a single crisis, but a series of them: Ten or twelve easily identifiable, major crises afflict the Catholic Church in America. They have not suddenly or recently sprung up; we have been laboring under them for forty years, desperately trying to ignore them by keeping up a constant chatter about this “age of renewal.” Monsignor George Kelly chronicled them in The Battle for the American Church, and since then the problems have only worsened.

After forty years of this “renewal,” our Catholic colleges and universities are largely secularized, our Religious communities are rapidly declining into extinction, and religious education has been effectively gutted of its content so that at least two generations have grown up woefully ignorant of Catholicism—most Mass-goers cannot identify the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist when it is put before them. Seminaries are afflicted with serious problems (as recounted by Michael Rose in his recently published Good Bye, Good Men), and Catholic moral teachings have been rejected by so many that it often seems as though most Catholics are indistinguishable from amiable pagans in their opinions on moral issues.

At the very heart of this turmoil stands one particular area of crisis, which, I would suggest, has strongly affected all of the rest: the crisis in the sacred Liturgy. The Liturgy should touch the life of every baptized member of the Church. It draws us together weekly, even daily, for worship; our thoughts and reflections, our prayers, our understanding of God and his ways are shaped by its images, rites, and words.

Forty years ago, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council directed that a long-awaited liturgical renewal should begin. Many fine scholars had worked towards this renewal for decades. The council Fathers set forth the basic principles as well as some concrete directives. They called for the preservation of Latin in the Mass, the fostering of Gregorian chant, and the recovery for liturgical use of ancient, worthy texts that had been lost through the centuries; and they directed that, where over the centuries the rites had been obscured by additions, the liturgy be restored to its noble simplicity. Anyone reading the liturgical directives of Vatican II will see that it called for a deeply traditional liturgical renewal.

Most Catholics would find that startling news indeed—and therein lies my point. Forty-five years ago, some 78 percent of Catholic Americans were drawn to Mass at least every Sunday. The Liturgy used by the priest at the altar was essentially unchanged in its invariable parts from the days of Pope St. Gregory the Great, who died in 604. The ceremonies used by the priest were carefully prescribed, each gesture expressive of reverence and adoration. The unchanging reverence of that Liturgy spoke deeply to Catholics about the very nature of the Faith; the Liturgy and the Faith were gifts from God, a precious inheritance handed to us from the previous generation to be guarded and lovingly passed on in turn.

That world was turned upside down within a few short years. Stories of postconciliar liturgical excesses are too widely known to need rehearsing here. Many parishes seemed to consider that they had implemented the renewal by switching to English, installing a picnic table altar, and assembling a folk group. The Liturgy had become a kind of consecrated karaoke night, and anyone who wished might perform. We were told that we were returning to the simplicity of the early Church, that we had gotten rid of the medieval baggage.

But if we could have returned for a Sunday to that early Church, we would have seen that presider and people faced East for the prayers, towards the rising sun, the symbol of the Lord’s Second Coming, just as we had before the council. One never heard that much of the Liturgy we had just jettisoned actually went back well before the Middle Ages. Indeed, far from returning to the springtime of our Tradition, it seems that in these past four decades, something wholly alien to Catholic worship has been introduced into our rites. No longer is the Liturgy something we gratefully receive through generations past; now it is something we “do,” we “put on ourselves.”

Our focus has changed, and I fear we are often not worshipping at all; we are celebrating ourselves. Gathered for the Eucharist, we have largely lost our focus on what God has done for us in Christ, so intent are we on celebrating each other’s giftedness, not to mention our own.

Anything Goes

A striking example of this from my own experience is the funeral Mass—specifically, the eulogy. In the course of my ministry, I have celebrated funeral Masses at which there were four separate eulogies. I have sat patiently as innumerable family members burst into tears and delivered a completely unintelligible discourse. I have listened to frequent references to the drinking, gambling, and smoking habits of the departed. I have often heard people canonized even under the most dubious circumstances (“I know he wasn’t much for church or prayers or stuff like that, but he really loved people and a party, and that’s what I think heaven is gonna be like,” said his girlfriend. His second wife was in the congregation).

I remember the “karaoke eulogy,” when the son-in-law, who by no stretch of the imagination could be described as an intelligible public speaker, started inviting other family members up to the pulpit for a series of amateur eulogies. I have heard heresies uttered in eulogies (speculation about what sort of animal Uncle Sam will come back as; a serious, solemn statement about how all religions are equally valid). I have watched as a bereaved son used his eulogy to settle scores with the rest of his family, resulting, I was told, in a fistfight at the restaurant later.

But there is one thing that I should have heard in every eulogy I have ever sat through, yet actually have heard extremely rarely: any kind of statement of faith in the merits of Jesus, in his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. The whole heart of our Faith, the whole reason we were in church at all, went completely unmentioned in the overwhelming majority of these eulogies, which presumably were the things each eulogist most needed to say.

The purpose of a funeral Mass is the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the repose of the departed soul. It is the specific application of the fruits of Calvary to this individual departed Christian, the opportunity for the mourners to participate in the Eucharist and offer their Communion for the departed. It’s about the Lord Jesus, the Resurrection, the means of grace and the hope of glory.

You’d never guess it from the eulogies through which I have sat. Liturgy has become entertainment; it is a sort of karaoke experience we put on ourselves, to suit the mood and needs of the moment. The notion is now strange to people that secular show tunes should not be performed during worship, that irreligious or heretical discourses should not be delivered from the pulpit, that someone who is pouring out the inmost thoughts of his heart during a Liturgy ought to have something to say about Jesus! As the priest, I am supposed to be amused by a postcommunion, light-hearted character sketch of the deceased as a boozy broad who loved her scotch and her card games and swore like a sailor at TV game shows.

Slowly, but surely, our sense of reverence, of the majesty of God, has eroded. As late as twenty-five years ago, if I opened the tabernacle before Mass to bring the Blessed Sacrament to the sick, everyone in church would fall to their knees until the doors swung shut again. Today they simply sit and chatter away; indeed, I once had a young man step right up to the top step of the altar next to me to ask where the bathrooms might be! In an age when we are bombarded with constant sensory distraction, we naturally try to turn our worship into entertainment as well.

We are often not worshipping at all, and we don’t even realize it; we’ve forgotten the transcendent dimension of worship, the awe and wonder at the majesty of God, and we are actually lost in wondering contemplation of our glorious selves. The Liturgy has become the vehicle for our self-expression, the consecrated karaoke hour.

A Devastating Effect

I would suggest that this perversion of the Liturgy has had a devastating effect on every aspect of the life of the Catholic Church in our country and, I would suspect, on other Christian churches affected by our liturgical revolution. If such violence can be done to the central Symbol of our experience of the Faith, the Liturgy of the Mass—if we can take it, and shape it to our will, and make it an expression of our own preferences—then the lesson is clear: We can do the same with anything. We can gut Religious Life of its distinctive traditional expressions, we can disembowel our religious education so that we replace the Catechism with contentless coloring books and rap sessions, we can edit for ourselves the moral teachings of the Church—oh, especially the moral teachings!

And I believe that this goes a long way to explaining the hostility one often finds towards traditional customs, conservative Religious communities, and especially the Tridentine form of the Mass. A friend recently told me that he had concluded after years of observation that “sexual liberation” was the key to much of the turmoil he had seen in the Church. You don’t have to dissolve Religious Life, ransack the Liturgy, and ruin catechesis if all you want to do is put the Mass into English; but you would want to do these things if you didn’t want to have around you any uncomfortable reminders that the new goal of your life, sexual autonomy, might not be such a good idea after all.

Whether or not one would agree with my friend in focusing on sexual autonomy as the key to this tragedy, I certainly think that, upon reflection, most would concede that at least personal autonomy is key. Achieve the situation where those inconvenient moral teachings are rarely if ever mentioned, and where the Liturgy is as malleable to our whims as a can of fresh Play-Doh, and the gospel becomes much more user-friendly.

Sadly, it is most unlikely that anytime soon Catholics will hear our bishops’ conference concede that as a Church we find ourselves in the grip of many long-standing crises. The bishops are alive to the need to develop a protocol for dealing with sexual abuse, and the media is watching carefully to see what they will do about that. But they are unlikely to address the faithful of our country and acknowledge that a sixty-percent decline in Mass attendance in thirty years is a crisis. They are unlikely to concede that, after a decade of dithering over Rome’s norms for Catholic colleges, our institutes of higher education are more secularized than ever. We will wait in vain for them to express alarm over the widespread religious illiteracy among our two youngest generations, or over our failure to teach the church’s moral norms.

They have spent quite a bit of time on the Liturgy at their meetings; one has to concede that. After years of preparation they finally approved and sent over to the Holy See for authorization a new English translation of the Roman Missal—it was so fatally flawed that Rome trashed the whole thing and is reorganizing the translation process. They also approved, again after much delay, a new translation of the lectionary—four handy volumes the size of a large city phone book, featuring what is surely the most turgid translation in the English language.

But one waits in vain for a clear expression of concern over the state of our worship—what happens when we gather. A few years ago, a Lutheran pastor who was reading her way into the Church finally decided to stop by the nearest church to see the Mass for herself. It proved to be something of a stumbling block in her path to Rome: Having read our beliefs on the Mass, she found it hard to believe that we really believe them ourselves once she saw what we actually do at the altar! In my ministry to converts in different parts of the country, I find that the deplorable state of the Liturgy is a heavy cross for many to bear.

Not one crisis, but an even dozen; and we shouldn’t even imagine that we have begun to address them if we stop after acknowledging only one—especially if that means neglecting the one which is a crisis of “the source and summit of the Christian Life,” the Liturgy.  

Joseph F. Wilson was ordained a priest in 1986 for the Roman Catholic diocese of Brooklyn. Currently serving St Luke’s Parish in Whitestone, Queens, as parochial vicar and Director of Education of the school, he has also preached retreats, days of recollection, parish missions, and the Forty Hours devotion in different parts of the country. This article is a revision of two columns that originally appeared on the CruxNews website.

“Our Not-So-Glorious Selves” first appeared in the September, 2002 issue of Touchstone.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved