Tag Archives: liturgy

Music at Mass: Fewer Guitars, More Chant

By guest writer Sarah Coffey.

This is a post that’s been brewing for months but I didn’t quite have the right words to say until recently. In the past year, I’ve gone to several Masses at several different parishes (which are wonderful parishes, by the way) and the music was altogether disappointing. Loud. Overdone. Reminiscent of a Protestant revival (seriously).

For example, at one, the “worship band” extended out IN FRONT of part of the sanctuary. There were no fewer than four singers, 2 guitarists, a pianist, and a guy on a full drum set. When I walked up to receive communion at this Mass, the music was so loud, I could not even hear the Eucharistic Minister say “The Body of Christ” before I received Jesus. I left that Mass exhausted because of the constant noise, noise, noise that the Church had been subject to for the past hour.

At another Mass at a different parish, there was yet again an example of the recurring trend of having at least four singers, two guitarists (one acoustic and one electric!), a pianist, a drummer; and this one included a tambourine, too. The only way to describe every time this group started playing and singing is that it was oppressive. Call me an old lady who hates noise but the volume was so incredibly loud I couldn’t hear my husband speaking to me in a normal-level voice as he was sitting right next to me.

Even the Lamb of God was made to sound like part of a Matt Maher concert.

In both cases, the sheer number of participants in the “worship band” and most especially the high volume of the music made it so that the Eucharist was not the focus; the music became the focus. How could it not have been when it was so loud and marked by constant concert-esque flourishes? In true concert fashion, this Mass was marked by people swaying to the Alleluia with their hands in the air, and the congregation cheering – yes, cheering – the band when the recessional hymn ended.

Again, I left exhausted. And frustrated as it had been nearly impossible to pray or focus on Jesus.

Contrast this with my experience last weekend attending the priesthood ordination Mass at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. This city is blessed with a beautiful and very large cathedral – a church in which the size of both those worship bands may have be appropriate, only in terms of size.

But instead of a Catholic jam session, we were blessed (THANK GOD) with the Cathedral choir and organist, who provided absolutely STUNNING hymns and chants in both Latin and English. Just by the music, one could tell that this ordination Mass was a special occasion – and it was, of course. Two amazing men gave their lives to Christ and His Church. It was solemn. It was quiet in some parts. The voices of the choir sounded angelic as they sang the parts of the Mass. And the focus was the Eucharist.

I left that Mass having been able to focus on the prayers, the parts of the Mass, the beauty of the rite of ordination, and my own silent prayer and reflection because the music was COMPLEMENTARY to the Mass itself. It didn’t try to insert itself as the main focus, but provided a backdrop conducive to worship, prayer, and a spirit of reverence.

Of course, this was a special occasion. A special Mass. But shouldn’t every Mass be like this?

Shouldn’t we come to every Mass prepared to create the most reverent possible atmosphere for the moment when the bread and wine is consecrated on the altar and becomes the BODY and BLOOD of Jesus Christ?

But how can we do that when the music is so loud that we can’t hear ourselves think? How can we focus on the mystery and the miracle when the music demands all our energy and attention, robbing us of the silence we need to truly appreciate the depth and beauty of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

The short answer is that we can’t. You can’t hear the Holy Spirit speaking to you in the recesses of your soul when the excessive sound of drums and guitars and tambourines are drowning out His voice.

Robert Cardinal Sarah, a great and holy man of the Church, wrote recently in his book on the topic of silence, “Sounds and emotion detach us from ourselves, whereas silence always forces man to reflect upon his own life… wonder, admiration, and silence function in tandem.”

There was absolutely a sense of wonder at Mass at the Basilica. It felt like I was experiencing a very small piece of Heaven on Earth – because that’s precisely what the Mass is.

And it’s sad when we aren’t able to have that very same wonderous atmosphere every Sunday at Mass in our parishes because the music is just too loud or too excessive.

I’m not saying we should not use any contemporary music at Mass. My wedding liturgy had several Matt Maher and Audrey Assad songs! But I’m saying the music at Mass should not try to thrust itself into the forefront of our minds; it should not distract from the real reason we are there – to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist and to let His grace work within us.

It should pave the way for our hearts to seek and find Jesus at the altar, at the foot of the Cross. And it shouldn’t distract us from hearing what He is trying to say to us.

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus becomes really and truly present on the altar. Let me reiterate: Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the Creator of the Universe, becomes present on the altar and we receive Him.

The music at Mass should serve as a backdrop for receiving Our Lord and creating an atmosphere conducive to worship; but it can never make that reality – the reality of the True Presence of Christ – more “cool” or “hip,” or more entertaining. And it doesn’t need to.

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Originally published at Sarah Coffey.

Sarah Coffey is a convert to Catholicism who enjoys delving into Church history and the Theology of the Body. She is blessed with a wonderful family, husband, and a cat named Stella (as in “Ave Maris Stella”, of course).

Image: PD-US

Kneeling at My First Mass

By guest writer Tasman Westbury.

In the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. – Philippians 2:10

I was raised in the Uniting Church, but never truly grasped any of its teachings, and spent several years as an atheist before a series of events and signs led me to conclude that there was a higher, spiritual power, which I eventually came to accept as God. This Easter Vigil, thanks to Divine Providence, I was received into the Catholic Church.

When I first walked into a Mass, what really struck me was when everyone knelt for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. What encouraged me to kneel when everyone else was kneeling was that it is written in the Bible, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time He may exalt you.” (1 Peter 5:6)

When you feel something inside, you should be able to express that in a gesture, and that gesture should be a clear and concise representation of your belief. Humility is not expressed in big, loud gestures. Humility is quiet and small in physical appearance. It’s not seeking attention or approval, but rather the renouncement of yourself in a moment, for the sake of the good of another.

Kneeling is a gesture of making oneself quiet and small in the face of the presence of God, allowing ourselves to feel small in the presence of God, so that we recognize that we are like grass, which is here one day and gone the next (cf. Psalm 103:15-16; 1 Peter 1:24). Objectively, we can humbly say, without feeling that we are diminishing our worth, “we are absolutely nothing.” But at the same time, we are so special and of great value to God, Who has created us in His image and likeness, Who has suffered and died for each one of us, so that we may share in His divine life of Love.

Kneeling does not come from any culture — it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God. The central importance of kneeling in the Bible can be seen in a very concrete way. The word proskynein alone occurs fifty-nine times in the New Testament, twenty-four of which are in the Apocalypse, the book of the heavenly Liturgy, which is presented to the Church as the standard for her own Liturgy.
— Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

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Image: Joy-Sorrow

Tasman Westbury is a new Catholic who is currently exploring the Church’s treasure trove, which is found within prayer life.

The Archived Life: On Scrapbooking, Catholic Liturgy, and Transitional Justice

By guest writer Melvyn Foo.

On all my holidays this year, my routine when I return to our accommodation is the same. I transfer the photos from my camera’s SD card to my laptop, I edit and select them, and then I upload them to Bonjournal1 and complete my travel log.

In the course of this most recent trip, I have come to call this routine ‘reaping the harvest’. By corollary, then, the day’s experiences are the seeds sown, the harvest of which are the memories that I immortalise in the web.

I have been asked repeatedly why I am so obsessive about archiving my life. I sometimes reply, “The unarchived life is not worth living.”

Remove the double negatives, rearrange, and you get something less tongue-in-cheek and more defensible: life is worth archiving.

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Scrapbooking is the epitome of archiving memories. You choose the happy snapshots, you write nice words, and you frame everything in a pretty page – exactly how you would like to remember those moments.

I am not good at scrapbooking. I took a course years ago, and since then, I have concluded that I have no natural talent for it. I take hours to do what the artsy girls can do in minutes (e.g. choosing paper). I work laboriously (e.g. take exact dimensions) to do what they do by sheer guesstimation. I use science (e.g. rule of thirds, triangulation) to do what they do by feel. (I have since learnt that you can’t really plan every detail out, so you just have to make decisions and improvise along the way. This works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. After all, just like jazz, improvisation requires talent, which I lack.)

It does not help that I have color disorder.

Despite my difficulties, I am still drawn to scrapbooking. I have a drawer full of materials, I have a Paper Market membership card (which may have expired), and I scrapbook a cover page for each year’s journal (which comprises largely of blogposts that I compile and print out).

Why? Why is the past – not just knowing what actually happened but remembering what happened – so important?

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An answer may be found in an unlikeliest of places: Catholic liturgy.

In every Mass, Catholics take Jesus’ words literally to “do this,” – i.e. to eat His body and drink His blood – “in remembrance of [Him].”2 This is not just symbolic. The Church holds that the Mass re-presents Jesus’ sacrifice on Golgotha.3 Father Jude had thus alluded in a talk on how there is only one Mass and “one single sacrifice”4 – the one on Golgotha – that we remember and re-present in all our Masses.

This remembrance and re-presentation is called anamnesis, which comprises the heart of the Eucharist.5 The word, sharing a similar etymology with ‘amnesia’, means “a calling to mind, remembrance”.

This word is also used in philosophy and in medicine. In philosophy, it is a Platonic concept which conceives of learning as a rediscovery of knowledge within us from past incarnations. In medicine, it refers to a patient’s medical history which a physician needs to know in order to diagnose and care for that patient.

Regardless of context, the point is the same: when we recall the past, we affect our present and our future. This is the power and the importance of memory.

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Transitional justice is an emerging field which increasingly recognizes the critical importance of memory (alongside the four traditional elements of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence). This field studies the various processes by which a community recovers from large-scale human rights abuses. With the hindsight from Rwanda, Timor Leste, the former Yugoslavia, et al., it is now incontrovertible that criminal prosecutions alone, while necessary, are far from sufficient. More is required.

Memorialisation is one such process.

Professor Ariel Dulitzky thus wrote that “[c]ertain standards of the United Nations insist on the duty of remembering, educating about the past and rejecting negations of atrocities. They also highlight the role that archives play in the search of truth and justice, and they are also essential for recovering and building memory.”6

This is not just pure sentimentality. Professor Dulitzky quotes the UN Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-recurrence, who says that “[it] does not suffice to acknowledge the suffering and strength of the victims,” and concludes that “ultimately, the challenge for a policy of memory is not building memorials or installing sleepy statues, but creating more fair, egalitarian and democratic societies.”7

Again, the point here is: remembering the past determines the present and charts the course for the future.

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And yet, if all that is required is to recollect objective historical facts, it is surprising that judicial rulings are insufficient. After all, the trial is democracy’s most potent fact-finding procedure. Why is more – in the likes of film, theatre, museums, etc – required?

In 2001, my family and another family got into a bad accident in South Africa. Both families were traveling together in a single vehicle. The tyre burst, the vehicle ran off the road, hit into barbed wire, and flipped a couple of times. We later learnt that the other family’s dad had been thrown out of the vehicle, and the vehicle had crushed his lungs, killing him instantly.

Two years later, they sued my dad, who had been driving the vehicle at the time of the accident. The judgment arising from the suit is reported as Loh Luan Choo Betsy (alias Loh Baby) (administratrix of the estate of Lim Him Long) and others v Foo Wah Jek [2004] SGHC 230; [2005] 1 SLR(R) 64. It is 18 pages long, and it goes through the evidence in detail. It mentions so much.

And yet it mentions so little. It does not mention the red-stained t-shirt that my mum had used to soak up the blood that had welled out when she performed CPR on their dad, which I had included in an essay based on this accident that I wrote in Secondary 4. It also does not mention a detail that I always talk about when I shared about this accident, that is, how fine the sand was, and how it got into my fingernails when I knelt down and clutched at it, praying to the patron saint of hopeless cases St Jude to make this all a dream.

And it does not even ask that most pressing of questions – where was God in all this? The answer becomes more layered as the years pass.

Examining the different processes of truth-finding, history-telling, and formation of collective memory, Professor Chrisje Brants and Professor Katrien Klep conclude: “The legal truth, laid down in the rulings of an international criminal court is, by definition, not open-ended. The verdict of a court is definite and authoritative; in this context, closure, not continued debate about what it has established as the truth, is its one and only purpose – indeed, on this its legitimacy depends. But then, also by definition, its contribution to history-telling, collective memory, and justice for victims is limited indeed.”8

In this regard, the learned writers also point out that “[h]istory and memory change as time goes on, and are never ‘finished.’”9

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Remembering the past, then, is not just a scientific and once-and-for-all endeavor of ascertaining the 5Ws+1H. It is also an art of attributing meaning and finding a narrative in the events that have happened.

Beyond the context of transitional justice, there is a word for this art of dwelling on the past: klexos. And of this artform, the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows echoes: “Maybe we should think of memory itself as a work of art—and a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

There are therefore two key elements in klexos: accuracy and meaning.

To speak of accuracy in recording the past is trite. Dates, names, sequence of events – these matter. Research on the fallibility of eye-witness memory highlights the grave consequences when we remember wrongly.

But to think of memory merely as a recording device is misconceived. In Elizabeth Loftus’ TEDtalk on the reliability of memory, she confirms that when we remember, we are not so much playing back what our senses have recorded. Instead, we reconstruct the past.

Beyond the factual data set of what actually happened, we make sense out of our past experiences, we connect the dots, we construct and reconstruct narrative arcs. We infuse an objective timeline with subjective meaning.

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The forms that the archives of our lives can take have evolved with the rise of social media. At the most extreme, Snapchat and Stories inveigh against the very idea of permanence, since the pictures and videos (allegedly) vanish forever after some time. Instagram heralded the prioritization of pictures over words. Twitter limited any expression of thought to 140 characters.

Perhaps it is inaccurate to conceive of these social media initiatives as archival tools, since they seek more to share and to capture the moment rather than to reflect on the past. All through a screen, of course. As one article puts it, “For Generation Z, there is no struggle to make sense of things. There is only the impulse to share.”

But there seems to be a counter-movement arising. Amidst the FLFC-culture of our times, slow journalism is gaining ground. A New Yorker staff writer opined: “We binge on instant knowledge, but we are learning the hazards, and readers are warier than they used to be of nanosecond-interpretations of Supreme Court decisions.” In 2015, The Huffington Post launched Highline,10 a magazine dedicated to running only cover stories based on months of investigations. Even our local newpspaper Today now has a section called the ‘Big Read’,11 which publishes longer and more thoughtful pieces.

While speed, brevity, and the power to grab attention will still remain foremost news values, slow journalism recognizes that readers also hunger for insight, for immersion, and for analysis. And the Web is taking notice.

But prose is not the only or even the best medium to archive, to reflect on, or to just make sense of life.

As a blogger, I am naturally a proponent of longform journaling. But as my Gen Z friend (who studies linguistics) counter-proposes, “Just cuz there r fewer words doesn’t mean we think less.”

Indeed, many of the Gen Z Instagram accounts that I follow are often filled with musings – be it through photos or captions or something in-between like typography – about life. One 20-year-old I know even has a third account (two is common among Gen Z – one ‘main’ account as a curated public persona and one ‘spam’ account for closer friends to follow) dedicated to more introspective posts.

While sheer wit and conviction certainly drive much of the content that Generation Z produces, not everything is simply “big, colorful, and hysterical”. There is depth and maturity too.

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Be it blogging, scrapbooking, or instagramming, a question persists: are we being merely self-indulgent? Archiving the great events or the lives people that have shaped history is uncontroversial. But what of the grain of our own lives, so lost and so insignificant in the sands of time?

Vanity is undoubtedly a temptation, against which the easiest way of resisting is to keep our archives private.

But as Brené Brown says (and the Gen Z instagrammer above quotes), “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

These words resound with those of us who share regularly: we are honest with ourselves, we share with others, not necessarily in that order. To the extent, therefore, that the sharing of our lives intertwine with our pursuit of authenticity, perhaps we should be willing to endure some pretentiousness as the price of knowing ourselves.

For myself, blogging is many things. It is a way to make myself available to others. When people ask me a question about my life, the lazy (though admittedly lesser) alternative to sharing with them in person is to send them a link. It is also a way to make myself available to myself. It is amazingly convenient to have a compendium of my life to refer to at any time, to frame a more articulate sharing, to recall a personal story for a session, or just to remember what I went through before.

Perhaps, most importantly, it is a way for me to make sense of my world. To echo Gaiman, “All too often I write to find out what I think about a subject, not because I already know.”12

When my dad and I got into another bad accident in August 2014, I wrote about how I had lost faith in miracles. In September, I wrote about how I had to content with finding God in the ordinary, if I could not find Him in the extraordinary. In July 2015, I wrote again, but this time about how the accident formed part of a period of desolation, which was in turn, part of a larger narrative arc of learning to trust God.

The archive of my life thus becomes a lens through which I see the world. And if we can see the world in our grain of sand, we can move from klexos to sonder, to the humility of realizing that every person’s grain of life is as rich and as varied as our own.

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Moving beyond the individual, the wisdom of transitional justice underscores that klexos is not only relevant to individual lives, but to communities as well.

Just three weeks ago, I was surfing through our community’s spiritual bucket list, and I realized that some of us have already checked items off the list. To some extent, 1Cor12’s narrative has been captured in Mere Community. BASIC will be celebrating their 10th anniversary soon, and their ten years of journeying together will be digitally engraved into the blogs and Instagram accounts of their members.

Other memories are worth preserving. Consider, for example, OWL’s formation, journey, and eventual dissolution. There are precious shards here that I would love to see pieced together into a panel of stained glass.

Stained glass, after all, is a common sight in the Church.

In the final analysis, perhaps stained glass should be the ideal that all our archives aspire to. Because all our lives are broken and fragmented, and will remain so, regardless of how we curate or scrapbook our memories. It is only when we let Christ’s light shine through our past, into our present, and to guide our future, does beauty emerge.

Perhaps, then, it is not so much the unarchived, or even the unexamined life, but the un-examen-ed life, that is not worth living.

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1. Bonjournal is a minimalist travel logging app. It has a clean interface and limits the number of pictures per post to three. I have been using it since 2014, and will probably continue to do so.
2. Lk 22:19.
3. See CCC 1366.
4. CCC 1367.
5. See CCC 1106.
6. Ariel Dulitzky, “Memory, an essential element of transitional justice”, 20 April 2014. He was a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in 2014.
7. Ibid.
8. Chrisje Brants and Katrien Klep, “Transitional Justice: History-Telling, Collective Memory, and the Victim-Witness”, International Journal of Conflict and Violence Vol. 7(1) 2013, pp.36-49.
9. Ibid.
10. See e.g. “Mothers of ISIS“, a paradigm-shifting angle on ISIS recruitment.
11. See e.g. this article covering the glut of lawyers, providing probably the most comprehensive and insightful analysis on the situation. 
12. Neil Gaiman, “Some Reflections on Myth (with Several Digressions onto Gardening, Comics and Fairy Tales”, in A View from the Cheap Seats.

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This article was originally blogged at Mel.

Melvyn Foo is a Singaporean ex-lawyer. He is supposed to be a young adult, but he is really a lot more young than adult. He committed to God while sitting alone before a small and unadorned tabernacle. Since then, everything has pretty much fallen into place. You can visit his blog at http://melvynfoo.wordpress.com/

Losing my religion: How Church music causes unbelief

Imagine for a moment you are an enemy of the Catholic Church. You wish everybody could just leave this horrible institution.

Yet you know that a full frontal intellectual attack on the tenets of Catholicism would probably only provoke a defensive reaction. Rather, your method has to be more sophisticated. It has to be something subtle, subliminal. Something which Catholics might listen too and mouth regularly, believing that by doing so, they are fulfilling their sacred obligations. As you scratch your head wondering if such a scheme is even possible, you decide to visit a typical Catholic parish on a Sunday.

And you smile.

“No need for me to do anything,” you say to yourself. “They are doing it to themselves already.”

In case you might be wondering, I am referring to the music at Sunday Mass. My thesis is as follows. That often enough, that there is a real danger that the music we use at Sunday Mass does more to unevangelize Catholics than do the so-called “enemies of the Church.”

Consider what the Mass is. It has been called many names. “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” The “Eucharistic celebration.” The “sacred liturgy.”

At the Mass, a Catholic is supposed to be present at the memorial of the death of Jesus. The Catholic nevertheless considers it a celebration because Christ did not only die but rose from the dead in forgiving love. Hence, His one hour on Sunday is supposed to be the participation in a public and sacred act (the word “liturgy” once referred to public and solemn acts performed by important people in Athens).

Yet very often, our music does not reflect this. In fact, in many subtle and often unnoticed ways, what we sing is often contrary to what we believe Sunday Mass is about.

I will highlight two main problems: that we often have lyrics in songs that that make it seem that we are really not worshiping, and that we often chose melodies that do not convey what the Holy Mass is about. More often than not, these problems overlap in one song.

Consider the following example: “Here we are, all together as we sing our song, joyfully… Altogether as we pray we’ll always be/Join we now as friends/to celebrate/the brotherhood we share, all as one/Keep the fire burning, kindle it with care/And we’ll all join in and sing.

This song with the awe-inspiring title “Here We Are” is problematic not for the sentiments of brotherhood it expresses, (which no Catholic can possibly object to) but in what it does not say.

It does not express the reason why Catholics are summoned to worship every Sunday. That we are saved by Jesus Christ; that by assembling on a Sabbath, we are proclaiming to the world what the destiny of Creation should be.

Instead, what we get are vague sentiments of friendship over a fireplace. The melody too reflects this. It practically invites you to sway your head from side to side and snuggle up with loved ones. This begs the question: do we really have to assemble every Sunday for one hour to celebrate “brotherhood”? Why can’t we do it at home or in a restaurant?

Or consider another popular ditty: “Sons of God, hear His Holy Word/Gather round, the table of the Lord/Eat His body, drink His blood/then we’ll sing a song of love/Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Allelu-uia!

If this was spoken and not sung, one could actually transform it into a solemn call to listen attentively to the Lord and partake of the Eucharist, even though the last line about “singing a song of love” is a bit tacky.

But all is ruined when it is accompanied by the melody. It is that of a lullaby. If someone wanted to wean Catholics off belief in the Real Presence, they could not have found a better melody tacked to the lyrics.

If I can sum up my concerns in one phrase, it would be this: “Music maketh a man.” A person becomes what he hears and sings.

August Wilhelm Roesler, Music in the Monastery
August Wilhelm Roesler, Music in the Monastery (1837)

If you are exposed to such music Sunday after Sunday from childhood, the subliminal and tacit message, probably not even intended by those who selected the music itself (which makes it doubly tragic) is as follows:

“The great theme of salvation is something unrelatable to you. We understand, so let’s talk about more ordinary things like friendship, a fireplace, cookies and milk.”

“The idea of the Real Presence is something we don’t really believe. It’s something for children. A lullaby would be good enough.”

The Church has launched a New Evangelization, and desires very much to help Catholics re-encounter the Person of Jesus Christ.

I fear that we might be fighting a losing battle if we do not first get our music right.

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Image: PD/US

Order

Most of the liturgical year is comprised of “Ordinary Time”, when the Gospels follow the earthly ministry of Christ. This does not mean that the time is humdrum or nondescript; rather, it refers to ordinal numbers – first, second, third, and so on.

Humans have a compulsion to order things, and Catholics are no exception – we have ordered time according to the Gregorian calendar, constructed by Aloysius Lilius and Christopher Clavius SJ, and introduced by Pope Gregory XIII so that we could celebrate Easter in accordance with the seasons. Monks invented our system of timekeeping in order to pray the Divine Office. Catholics have formed healthcare, charity, school and art patronage systems throughout the ages, ordering human society according to Christian conceptions of what is good, true and beautiful.

Why do we do this? Watching the news is often depressing, because we are constantly reminded of the terrible suffering and disorder throughout the world. A friend asked me, “Can there be a world which is completely good?” We are used to living with contrasts: good and bad, better and worse.

Even just looking at ourselves and our loved ones can be a sobering process. We are so full of faults! Fr. Edmund Campion wrote in A Place in the City: “All attempts to live a religious life are partial, for to be human is to be a failure.1

Why, then, do we strive so hard for excellence or even perfection?

The word primordial comes from primus ordiri, “first” and “to begin”. In the beginning, God created a perfectly good, orderly world; Adam and Eve lived in harmony with God, each other, and creation, in a state of grace. The Greek word kósmos literally means “order”. With sin, humankind’s friendship with God was broken; suffering and chaos entered the world. Sin occurs when we act against our human nature, bringing harm to ourselves or to others.

Most ancient creation myths have the gods creating order out of chaos. The Judeo-Christian tradition is unique in positing creation ex nihilo, out of nothing. It is from this tradition that the Belgian priest and astronomer Msgr. Georges Lemaître formulated the “Big Bang Theory”, or hypothesis of the primeval atom.

Thus, in the Christian tradition, we do not subscribe to dualism. In the beginning, everything was good. Evil is a corruption or absence of goodness; it is not an equal force, but a parasite that distorts the goodness of creation.

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Our entire lives are strivings toward things we perceive to be good. The drug addict or chain smoker did not start off the habit of substance abuse simply by deciding to harm themselves thereby – even in a decision to self-harm, there is a perceived good of relief from emotional pain, or destroying what one thinks is irrevocably bad.

People who form cults generally seek some good, based on an ideal. The historian Ian Breward wrote in his book Australia: The Most Godless Place Under Heaven?:

“The desire to experience new kinds of community led a number of thoughtful and idealistic people to reject the patterns of vocation, family life and religion with which they had grown up. Their attempt to establish new patterns of social bonding in uncontaminated rural retreats can be seen as a secular monasticism, but they often discovered that to abolish the boundaries of authority, family and property created a whole series of problems which they did not have the spiritual and personal resources to solve. At their best, such groups have opened up new horizons of discipleship, but they have often learned some hard lessons about the intractable sinfulness and selfishness of partly-redeemed human nature.”2

We are tasked with proclaiming the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand; at the same time, we are faced with the reality of living out the Gospel in a world wracked by sin, and have to accept the limitations and sufferings which come with it. It is out of these very sufferings that God recreates the world, restoring it according to His divine plan. We were made in the image and likeness of God, but we are marred by concupiscence and sin; we are wonky compasses which need to be realigned with the magnet of the Gospel, so that we may point accurately to Christ, and lead others to Him.

Discord would not offend our ears if there were not a standard of perfect harmony against which to judge all sounds. In the same way the existence of evil is an argument for the existence of God. We should not recognize imperfections as such unless there were a Perfect which they opposed. The world cannot be rationally explained without God; its very complexity forces the mind to believe that there must be something beyond all this, to have put it together. When we see a painting inside a frame, we know that someone has joined the two together. When we see a watch, we know that some intelligence has assembled it. Matter does not form itself into patterns without intelligence to guide it. The whole material universe is an argument for God.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Crisis in History

Image: Amsterdam (via Joy-Sorrow).

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1 A Place in the City, p. 107. [Penguin Books Australia (Sydney, 1994)].

2 Australia: The Most Godless Place Under Heaven?, pp. 79-80 [Beacon Hill Books (Melbourne, 1988)].

Read the Bible By Going To Mass

I remember an impactful talk given by Dr. Scott Hahn in an Atlanta home a little less then a year ago. In it he compared Catholics’ knowledge of the Bible to children’s knowledge of the streets in their hometown, not so much by knowing the street names, but from the memory of walking through them their whole lives. He underlined how the Liturgical hermeneutic, reading the Bible in the Mass, allows us to experience and know the Scriptures.

St. Paul authored the first Letter to the Thessalonians, the first document from the New Testament to be written down, around A.D. 51-52. This means that there were about 19 years in which the only Scriptures the early Christians had was the Old Testament. The New Testament would come about by Christians writing down the teachings and events of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, with some explaining these things through letters, like First Thessalonians.

The importance of Scripture is highlighted in the Catholic faith, as it is one of two modes of transmission of the Divine Word of God, His Revelation of Himself to man so that we might not just know about God, but know Him personally. The Scriptures, along with Oral Tradition, the other means by which we have received God’s Word, allow us to come into contact with God’s Revelation of Himself. These two unique communications of this Revelation meet in the Mass, where the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist form together for mankind the highest and most meaningful prayer.

Therefore we can accurately say that in the Mass is the best place to read the Bible. An analogy may be drawn with the works of Shakespeare. While for some, Shakespeare’s plays are a little confusing at times, they are nonetheless wonderful stories to read. Moreover, an interesting aspect of these stories is that they were not only meant to be read in a book. They are meant to be acted out on a stage. To be seen live in person, with the words heard as they are pronounced in iambic pentameter.

So too are the Scriptures meant to be performed, not at a playhouse, but in the Mass. In the heart of the Church, with the Source and Summit of Grace, the Eucharist, we are able to experience the Scriptures. The Mass is drenched with the Bible. From the prayers of the priest to the responses of the people, and the very actions within this Holy Celebration, we see the Scriptures brought to life. We might not see the Centurion and his servant when we quote Matthew 8 crying out, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. Okay, we say soul, he said servant, but the message is still the same. Furthermore, we hear the Word proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word.

In fact, it was the Holy Spirit guiding the Early Church in choosing which readings of that time should be proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word that helped to form the Canon itself. We can say that the New Testament was assembled in the Mass. And if we look at the direction in which both the Old Testament and the New Testament go, both separately and united, we can see that we are guided by the Scriptures to the Mass. The Israelites were formed and eventually brought to the Promised Land, and were given a Temple to worship in. The Temple Life was active around the time of Jesus and He was very happy with most of what was going on there. However, He came to give us more, and the Scriptures bring us to what He does in the Upper Room. Moreover, Acts 2:42 gives us a glimpse of the life of the Early Church after Christ’s Resurrection: “And they held steadfastly to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”

The Breaking of Bread refers to the Eucharist. At least that’s what St. Paul communicates in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the Body of Christ?” Holy Mass

The Scriptures lead us to the Mass and the Mass gives us the Scriptures. The relationship between the two highlights the heavy celebration of the Word of God by the Catholic Church. It also connects us to the Scriptures as we participate in the Heavenly Liturgy we read about in the Book of Revelation.

And so we see that not only is attending Mass a great way to read the Bible, it is irreplaceably the best way to read the Sacred Page. Or better yet, to breathe the Sacred Page as we truly act out the Bible by going to Mass. In fact, in the Mass, the whole person experiences the Scriptures, body and soul.

In each part of the Mass, the human person is either standing, sitting, or kneeling. And in each part of the Mass, the human is either praising God through His Words, adoring God with His Words, or Reflecting on God in His Words. When we stand we pray and receive God through the Scriptures; when we kneel we adore and exalt God with the Scriptures; and when we sit, we reflect and meditate on God in the Scriptures.

Furthermore, through our responses taken directly from the Bible, we allow for the Scriptures to move through us, using all three powers of the human soul, the memory, the intellect, and the will. In this way, we are not merely passive in the Liturgy, but are actively participating.

With the memory, we memorize the responses to recall and proclaim and further remember the stories of Scripture as they are read to us again and again over the course of our lives. We are assenting to the Scriptures with our intellects, receiving them and reflecting on them as they too are proclaimed back to us throughout the Mass. Finally, we use our wills to choose to participate through the responses with the Holy Words of the Scriptures, and honor God through them. This last part is true love, attaching the heart to the mind’s and body’s participation.

The Scriptures are then breathed in and out of the Mystical Body of Christ at every Mass united together throughout the whole World. Moreover, we have the same Scriptures at every Mass to drive the heartbeat of the Church to one rhythm filling our veins with grace, as we not only allow God’s Word to once again build us up from clay, but also to cover our bones with the flesh of dignity, and then redeem us through His sacrifice and Resurrection. This same Mystery, proclaimed to us in the very Word, is again and again re-presented to us in the Mass, while the words that first inform us and remind us of it are actually proclaimed.

In this way, we see the greatest method to read the Bible and know its truths. In the Mass, we are not simply given a map of the Bible, not even a street view, but in a mystical way, an experience of the Bible. In the Mass, we breath, we speak, and sing the Words of the Sacred Page as actors in the Liturgical Play. Let us continue to commit ourselves to giving our best in each performance. May God be with us all.

‘As the Mass moved on, however, something hit me. My Bible wasn’t just beside me. It was before mein the words of the Mass! One line was from Isaiah, another from the Psalms, another from Paul. The experience was overwhelming. I wanted to stop everything and shout, “Hey, can I explain what’s happening from Scripture? This is great!” Still, I maintained my observer status. I remained on the sidelines until I heard the priest pronounce the words of consecration: “This is My body… This is the cup of My blood.”‘
The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass As Heaven On Earth by Scott Hahn (former Presbyterian minister)

Image: Signum-Crucis

Redeeming Lent this Holy Week

Tomorrow we begin the Triduum, the great celebration, and the climax of the Christian year. We’ve spent 40 days preparing for this great feast, and our very beings are quivering with anticipation of the joy and feast to come.

Or, at least, they’re supposed to. But for many of us, Lent is a time that we aren’t sure how to approach, what to do, or how to make the most of it. Even if we choose something “good” to give up, we often fail, and when Easter rolls around it’s hard to see how we’ve prepared for the great feast when we slipped up and had chocolate 20 minutes ago.

Rather than go into an exegesis on the nature of Lent, I want to offer a few ideas on how we can redeem our Lent this Holy Week, and make of ourselves a fitting offering to the Lord this Easter Sunday.

  1. Immerse Yourself in Liturgy.
    There are many great liturgical celebrations during Holy Week. For example, one of the lesser known traditions is Tenebrae. Celebrated on Wednesday night (tonight!), it is meant to encapsulate the darkness surrounding Holy Week and the Passion of Our Lord. If your parish or a local parish hosts a Tenebrae service, consider attending tonight, and allow that to prepare you for the Triduum to begin tomorrow.With that, immerse yourself in the Triduum. Technically, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil are all one celebration. They are not three unique liturgies, and are therefore considered only one day in the liturgical year. Try to go to all three services. You’ll love the continuity and how it ties your Holy Week together!
  2. Fast.
    Traditionally, the Good Friday fast was carried through until the Easter Vigil (or Easter morning, depending on what service you go to). Consider embracing this tradition. Refrain from meat on Saturday, and eat only one regular meal and two small meals that together do not equal the regular meal on Saturday as well as Friday. If you want to get really gung-ho, you could do a Triduum-long fast: abstain from meat today until Easter Sunday, refrain from snacks between meals, or drink only water until Easter Sunday.
  3. Embrace Silence.
    To keep the somber solemnity of Holy Week, consider adding a new level of silence to your day. Turn off the radio. Keep silence during the three o’clock hour on Wednesday and Thursday and from noon to 3 pm on Friday in remembrance of our Lord’s death on the cross. Refrain from unnecessary talking on Saturday, out of reverence for our Lord’s death. Abstain from watching TV in the evening. Instead, take the time to pray the Stations of the Cross or do some spiritual reading or mental prayer.
  4. Embrace Austerity.
    Since it is the Lord, the Bridegroom, who brings all joy and all good things, embrace a new level of austerity for the next few days. Cover beautiful objects – specifically holy ones – in your home with purple cloth. Take cold showers, and eat simply in preparation for the feast of Easter Sunday.

ThePassionThe celebration of Holy Week can do amazing things to prepare our souls for the grace and celebration of Easter Sunday. I hope these ideas help to make the most of this time in the Liturgical year and truly allow us to embrace the joy of Easter!

The Importance of Childhood

A very wise teacher once told me that “good things are hard.” While rich with fulfillment and abounding with joy, parenting is definitely something that fits the bill as a great good while being extremely difficult at the same time (like putting clothes on a toddler who is running away from you difficult). However, it is precisely this degree of difficulty in our parenting that will aid us in the raising and sanctification of our children and ourselves.

St. Theophan said, “What good fortune therefore it is to receive a good, truly Christian upbringing, to enter with it into the years of youth, then in the same spirit to enter into the years of adulthood.” Childhood has a profound impact on a person’s life. If a person’s life is a tree, then childhood is that stage in which the roots of the tree grow in order to establish a person in a life of either joyful abundance or despairing emptiness. However, unlike the house built on a foundation of sand set on a course of irreparable destruction, God’s grace can rescue anyone, regardless of his or her childhood experience. Yet, we can still see that a moral and uplifting childhood mixed with other positive elements can pave the way for a good and fulfilling life.

Three of the most important aspects of childhood that can lead to a good life are: 1. Innocence, 2. Playtime, and 3. Imagination. Each of these can help lead the youth toward truth and grow in virtue, two of the main ingredients for this life of peace and joy. One might say that people can be happy without them, but it seems that it would be easier for people to find happiness and fulfillment if they are allowed to experience these naturally occurring aspects in their early years.

First, Innocence is powerful in childhood as it aids in avoiding sin and assists the child to maintain purity. Innocence is a return to Eden before the Fall when lust and other evils were left unknown. It is that joyful part of life when one almost lives exactly as man was created to be, without the annoyances, stress, fear, and responsibility of knowing the sinfulness of lust, almost free from the chains of brokenness.

While children are still born with Original Sin and it’s effects, there is still much about the world they do not yet know. This is a positive ignorance that should be sustained as long as possible. What true good can come from knowing the ways of sin during one’s childhood, particularly the sins of impurity? Would it not help a person to lead a better life later on in practicing the angelic virtues if he or she is able to more easily practice these as a child without the temptations of immorality?

I have heard that scuba divers learn to dive in swimming pools, firefighters train in difficult yet still controlled environments, and pilots train on flight simulators before climbing into a real cockpit.  Allowing a child to grow up with innocence could be like these various persons training in less dangerous environments, before facing the real danger later on. With a longer experience of innocence, a child could continue growing in grace and virtue in a less dangerous environment before facing the real dangers of sin later on.

Parents can help protect their children’s innocence by screening the movies and tv shows their kids watch to ensure they will not see corrupting images or themes. They can censor the music their child listens to so as to ensure age appropriate material. Furthermore, they could even help their kids find good friends with whom to spend their time.

The next important aspect that helps set a child up for a good life is playtime. A child at play might seem like silliness and nonsense to an adult, however playing helps children learn and prepare for their future. While studies show that playing assists in forming the brain to better handle emotions and practice critical thinking, I think the best benefit of playing is that it prepares the child for a life focused on heaven.

Children at play, whether pretending, participating in a game, putting on musical or theatrical performance, or other traditional modes of play, concentrate only on what is before them. They are essentially living in an eternal moment of joyful satisfaction. This experience is a beautiful image of heaven, in which all the souls of the just will live in an eternal moment of joyful satisfaction. In this way, children’s playtime is also a foretaste of the Liturgy, which itself is a foretaste of heaven that allows us a similar freedom from worries and struggles that childhood play can allow.

In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Romano Guardini compares the playtime of a child to the Church’s Liturgy. While not forgetting the sacred importance of the Object of our worship, Guardini notes that within both playing and Liturgical celebration is found the aspect of meaningful purposeless. To play, for a child, is to simply move, speak, and act in the realm of youthfulness without a cause that one might deem “productive”. So too could we find the same “unproductive” element in the Liturgy as it has not a specific goal in mind as it does not truly exist for the sake of man, but for that of God.

Moreover, just as the play of a child exists in a realm all its own, so too does participation  in the Liturgy. Guardini sates, “The liturgy creates a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life, and allows the soul to wander about in it at will and to develop itself there.” The child truly plays in his or her own realm set apart from the world of adults, which includes stress, worries, and other burdens of life. This is what we should experience within the Liturgy, a time away from these discomforting realities so as to focus on Jesus and our relationship with Him. Therefore, the playtime of a child will help to train him or her for the Liturgy and seek the eternal playtime of heaven.

Finally, the imagination of childhood is of the utmost importance. The continual practice of believing without seeing helps to send the child down a path of Faith. While God is not just real, but the absolute center of reality, I think a child’s act of ‘make-believe’ or ‘pretending’ can lead him or her to understand that this world is not merely material or only validated by what immediately meets the senses.

Furthermore, following in the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, I think that Fairy Tales are a great tool to foster imagination in children, first to assist with leading them to the realm of Faith, but also to better instruct them of the great important truths one needs to lead a faithful life. These truths, which are handed down with clever narratives and poetic imagery, can include that evil exists and can be defeated, that we are made to be happy and can be happy, and the true sacrificial character of love.

Tolkien writes of the nature and importance of Fairy Tales in his work entitled, “On Fairy Stories”, concluding that they pass on to us much more than important facts. They give us a slew of values and ways of being, not merely listed for memorization, but delivered beautifully in  a story that is easy to follow and retain. Tolkien expresses this poetically when he quotes George Dasent, a translator of ancient folklore, “’We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.”

Moreover, the imagination sets the child up for meditative prayer. It is much easier to think about the life of Jesus with a well exercised imagination than without. Even more difficult would it be to read or hear the stories of the Bible for one who cannot imagine the events found within it.

The way we raise and form our children is of utmost importance. In the fabulous journey of life, this is the stage during which we hold their hands and teach them the correct way to travel this road. By concerning ourselves with the three aspects of childhood mentioned above I believe we can set them up for an easier joy-filled life.

Choral Music in the Churches: Part I, Inculturation

When I imagine liturgists, this is what comes to mind:

Dalek Meme

Inculturation, the adaptation of liturgical texts, languages, rites, and, most especially, of music, to respect or reflect the sensibilities of various peoples, while certainly a watchword in the postconciliar Church, has been a reality from the very beginning of Christian history.

At some point in the earliest years of the Church, we witnessed the divergence (whenever it was) of Aramaic, Greek, and Latin liturgy, alongside the emergence of the very unique Ethiopian tradition, amongst many others. Later on, history records the translation by Sts. Cyril and Methodius of the Greek liturgy into Old Church Slavonic, the fusion of the Frankish and Roman traditions of ecclesiastical singing into the Franco-Roman body of sacred song that would come to be known to the ages as Gregorian Chant, just to name a few representative examples.

In each case, these adaptations have come about by the conspiracy of legal fiat and organic growth, growth often born in response to the legal change. When Pope St. Gregory the Great in the 6th Century declared that, on weekdays, the petitions would be left out of the litany in order to draw attention to the meaning of the prayer contained in the formulaic response “Lord, have mercy” alone, he set in motion the process that would eventually express that humble and profound prayer for the Church and world more beautifully than any litany could. This gave birth to a text simple and supple enough to inspire music that moves as freely as a setting of Alleluia, but, unlike that cheery text, uses that freedom to convey the depth of this suffering world’s need for God’s loving help and great mercy:

Or, to take another instance, when Charlemagne insisted that the Church throughout his Empire should sing as the Roman Church, the exchange of master chanters that followed actually led to a mixture of the two traditions, and to their eventual harmonization into the so-called Gregorian chant. While those in authority may have a certain vision in mind when they set about reforming worship, what results often far exceeds it in scope, and lies certainly beyond their control.

While inculturation is often viewed as liturgy’s response to the culture in which it finds itself, history reveals that it is just as much, if not even more, that culture’s response to the liturgy.

It is interesting to see these two perspectives juxtaposed in the Magisterium of the 20th Century. On the one hand, in 1903, we have St. Pius X writing about sacred music in his famous Motu Proprio Inter Sollicitudines, which, in addition to containing the seeds of the liturgical reform and of vocal, congregational participation as a major priority of the Church, also contained the seeds of the modern discussion of inculturation. He writes:

“[W]hile every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.”

Notice here that St. Pius assigns the agency of inculturation to the nations themselves, acknowledging the historical fact of the matter, especially obvious in sacred music, that cultures will attempt to suit the liturgy to their sensibilities, and to adorn it with their own contributions. The role of the Church’s authority is neither to encourage nor to discourage this, but rather to ensure that this natural process does not weaken the link of any local church’s liturgical prayer to that of the universal Church.

Contrast this attitude with paragraph 40 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which enjoins:

“The competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, must, in this matter, carefully and prudently consider which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship. Adaptations which are judged to be useful or necessary should when be submitted to the Apostolic See, by whose consent they may be introduced.”

This attitude assigns the agency of inculturation to ecclesiastical authorities, whose responsibility it is to adapt the liturgy to the local cultures by incorporating local customs or traditions into the rites themselves, in an effort to render them more effective and edifying.

In broader context, this is a missionary attitude, echoing the Slavonic liturgical books of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, music sung in Iroquois during Mass in the missions, and the Chinese Rites controversies during the reign of Benedict XIV, which were especially fresh on the mind of the Council Fathers after the recent reversal of that pontiff’s negative judgment under Pius XII. In a preceding paragraph (38), the Council acknowledges this:

“Provisions shall also be made, when revising the liturgical books, for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved.” [emphasis mine]

It is also interesting to note in this paragraph the subtle change in expectation for the inculturated liturgical project. Whereas St. Pius X expects that this will exhibit practical unity throughout the Church, such that any Catholic from anywhere in the world can hear another culture’s liturgical music without scandal, and indeed come away with a good impression, the Council expects only that the substantial unity of the rite be preserved.

Reading immediately postconciliar commentators on Sacred Music, such as Joseph Gelineau, Lucien Deiss, and others, one cannot help but suspect that this relaxed expectation flows in part from a certain skepticism about even the possibility of music that truly transcends culture, an attitude that views art as intelligible only within its own cultural context, and incapable of aspiring to universal human values. It is similar to the view that yielded the “dynamic equivalence” model of translation for liturgical texts set forth in the 1969 document Comme le Prevoit, a model which at its worst views languages and cultures not as interactive, living realities, capable of absorbing other syntaxes, constructions, and thought patterns, but rather as frozen, hermetic realities, sealed in their own prison of self-reference, into which no new thought can be introduced unless it is expressed in the way it would have been expressed, had it originated in the target language and culture.

What I am arguing for should not be construed as cultural insensitivity! It is obvious, to take one example, that the Our Father (which, as an aside, 21st-century man is able to recite just fine with all its “thees” and “thous”) is both good English idiom and a literal translation in a way that so very nearly all of the pre-2011 ICEL prayers are neither. And no one can doubt that our language, Germanic though it may be, has been enriched by the liturgical idioms (“Lord, have mercy,” for instance) carried over quite literally from the Latin & Greek, and by all of the Hebrew words carried straight over without concern for translation. We are fortunate that, as of 2002’s Liturgiam Authenticam, the Church now recommends literal translation where possible, and dynamic equivalence only where absolutely necessary, and then discreetly and, as the document puts it, “soberly”. This represents a matured understanding of the way that languages respond to ritual texts, and are more enriched by a faithfulness to the content of the prayers than by any attempt to reproduce their “impact” on worshippers in the target language (supposing we have any native speakers of Latin on hand to experience and describe that “impact” in the original language). It also represents a renewed aspiration for that universality in worship called for by St. Pius X, in which local usages of the Roman rite are experienced harmoniously enough to engage and edify the faithful of whatever nationality.

With the 2011 translation of the Roman Missal, the American Church is once again able to experience a Gloria, responses, prayers, prefaces, and Eucharistic Prayers that are the genuine equivalents of those prescribed by the universal Church. Like tuck-pointing a building, this kind of restoration is not glamorous business, and its benefits are invisible to most; the inconvenience and expense of the work are what are most obvious to many. Possibly most of the response to it will consist of complaints. But the good it is accomplishing, though invisible, is real.

But how can this practical, experiential unity, the kind envisioned by St. Pius X, that is now being recovered in the language of the liturgy be recovered in the music of the liturgy? Dare we yet assert that musical expression might not be entirely culturally relative? That the people of one culture are not only not hermetically excluded from appreciating the music of other cultural expressions, but that they may adopt these modes of expression, take ownership of them and, perhaps by the addition of some local color, actually contribute to them?

Gangnam-Style

Certainly this has been the case with popular music, and there’s a strong argument to be made that the same has been true for sacred music, which I hope to tackle in my next post.

Feasting on Advent

In his stunning work, the Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI states that worship requires that God “give back” and reveal Himself to us, otherwise we are simply “clutching empty space” when we try to worship God. Despite attempting to move toward God in our mind or will, we will never find God if we do not allow Him to reveal Himself to us. Pope Benedict goes on to say, that if God doesn’t reveal Himself to us and we are anxious for Him, we risk making false Gods.

The Liturgical Year is established so that our worship is rightly ordered all year. God reveals Himself in the Liturgy in unique ways: “Christ is always present … in the Church’s liturgical functions. He is present not only in the person of His minister… but especially the Eucharistic Species,” the sacraments, the baptized, and “in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when Holy Scriptures are read in church” (CCC). Christ is present also in the worship that comes from properly living the Liturgical Year. So, when we “hop over” a large season, such as Advent, we skip over that by which Christ longs to make Himself known to us. Instead of trusting that Christ will bring the joy of Christmas, we establish a celebration which becomes a “feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation” (Spirit of the Liturgy).

This type of inordinate feasting then leads us to that exhausting Christmas Consumerism which plagues this time of year. This Christmas Consumerism threatens us, not merely in the material goods we buy, but in the approach we take to the season. A desire to psychologically, emotionally, physically, and spiritually feast on the season of joy that has not yet come inevitably means that “man is using God” and “instead of being worship of God, [this merry-making] becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating, drinking, and making merry” and “ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources” (Spirit of the Liturgy). This will inevitably exhaust man, for when man removes God from the center of his activities, nothing can be rightly ordered and man’s activities and relationships suffer.

Now, Catholics are all about feasting. It is good, right, and proper to feast at the appropriate times (Easter, Feast days, etc). But that means that there are also inappropriate times of feasting, such as during seasons of preparation. This makes sense; to begin a feast before the preparations are finished is foolish! This early-feasting is why we often feel, as Benedict put it, “frustration, a feeling of emptiness” on December 26th, rather than the peace, joy, holy anticipation, and edification supposed to be present on that day.

After all, the Liturgical Year, and specifically December 25th, is not without reason. When the Church established the Liturgical Year, it placed Christmas on December 25th for specific reasons.

One reason was to replace the Winter Solstice, and get people thinking about Christian holy days in place of pagan ones.

The main reason, however, was because of the darkest day of the year, which is December 21st. This means that the light is only just returning when Christmas occurs on the 25th. This becomes very significant. At the literal and metaphorical darkest time, the Light of the World enters the world. To jump to Christmas too early is to celebrate the Light of the World when the world is still in darkness – and getting darker.Advent Wreath

The great saints speak of how we have to purge ourselves not only of sin, but also of imperfections. Even though imperfections are not themselves sins, they still prevent us from intimacy and total union with God who is Perfection, for we are called to “be Perfect as your Heavenly Father is Perfect.”

So, just as there are imperfections which prevent us from union with God, so too there are more and less proper ways of living which prevent our actions from becoming means towards our sanctification. For example: while it might not be wrong to have a banjo at Mass, it is perhaps not as proper as having an organ. Or, put another way, the organ is a more proper expression of the liturgy and its solemn celebration than the banjo is. The same is true of the liturgical preparation of Advent. While not sinful to celebrate Christmas early, it’s not the most proper action to take, either. We don’t want to clutch at empty ritual and meaningless joviality. We don’t want to use God to give us a reason for celebration. Rather, we want Him to reveal Himself to us in the proper way at the proper time as the reason for our celebration.

Christ said in Matthew 9:15: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” The Bridegroom is not yet with us, and won’t be until Christmas! So we must save the feast for His arrival and prepare accordingly! The Christmas season is one of joy and rapt attention to the salvific mission of our God. We don’t want to be spent from meaningless celebration when the Light of the World, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, God, Father, Savior, and Redeemer arrives! Let us embrace this time of preparation and renew in our souls a wonder at the season of Christmas and what it holds for us.

The Relevance of Worship

This coming Sunday is the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, and it was with a quote from the Secret Prayer of this Mass that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council began their discussion of the Sacred Liturgy. They wrote that it is the liturgy of the Church through which, as the prayer says, “the work of our redemption is performed.

If we took this teaching seriously, we would never allow ourselves to be convinced that discussions of the liturgy are in any way secondary to the works of mercy, peripheral to the Christian life, needless bickering over mere externals, or a waste of time. The passion of those who take part in these discussions on all sides is, when charitable, appropriate. An indifferent apathy is inexcusable.

The liturgy is the work of Christ for our redemption in and through His Body, and all our works, however mighty, must pale in significance before His work. As the Council says, “[E]very liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.”

What we can do of ourselves is nothing; what we can do through Christ who strengthens us is limitless; but what Christ wills to do through us in the sacred liturgy is more than we can possibly imagine.

Indeed, it is from and towards the sacred liturgy that all of the other activity of the Church flows. Again in the words of the Council, “[T]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper.”

Worship is the end, not the means, of our apostolate, our works of mercy. If the word “Mass” carries with it the note of sending forth, it is that we are sent forth in order to return again, bringing with us yet more souls to join in Christ’s prayer of praise and sacrifice to the Father as members of His Mystical Body. It is in corporate worship that we are given a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem, and in the heavenly Jerusalem we will be forever engaged in an act of corporate worship.

Indeed, worship, especially liturgical worship, must always be a paramount concern of Christians, even in the face of what appear to be more urgent difficulties, for no problem is more pressing than a soul that does not hunger to sing the praise of God.

Hagiography is replete with examples of this attitude among even the martyrs. For instance, the heroic Jesuits who, in spite of real danger of death, returned to Elizabethan England to minister to recusant households were consumed with zeal for the house of the Lord, however humble they found it.

The journal of one of these men, I think it was of Fr. Robert Persons, S.J., recalls his careful attention to the worthy appointment of the home chapels of the nobles who harbored them, which had often been cared for negligently by half-hearted chaplains, and to procuring vestments of suitable quality for the sacrifice. As he saw it, the celebration of the sacred liturgy as worthily as possible, even in such trying times, was of paramount importance to putting the spiritual life of the recusant nobles back in order.

Or think of Bl. Titus Brandsma, who, imprisoned by the Nazis, recited the prayers of the Mass and much of the Divine Office each day, fashioning for himself a kind of religious life even under such difficult circumstances. Perhaps more telling, as his captivity wore on, it was this life of prayer and praise, rather than the political concerns of the outside world, that consumed ever more of his energy and attention.

As he writes in his letter of January 28, 1942, in which he details his rigorous daily routine, “At ten o’clock I start writing. During the first days I was occupied in writing an answer to the question Why do the Dutch people, especially the Catholics, resist the National Socialist Movement? I tried to give an answer in eight pages like this one. Now I am trying during my hours of writing, to fix my impressions of the time spent here; furthermore, I am writing the life of Saint Teresa. . .”

I find it fascinating that a man imprisoned for speaking out loudly against a political ideology could, so quickly it seems, lose all interest in writing and thinking about politics, becoming totally immersed in a hidden life with our Lord.

Strengthened by such an inward life, even the greatest suffering can be made sweet. As he wrote the previous day, “Blessed solitude! I am already quite at home in this small cell. I have not yet got bored here, just the contrary. I am alone, certainly, but never was Our Lord so near to me. I could shout for joy because he made me find him again entirely, without me being able to go to see people, nor people me. Now he is my only refuge, and I feel secure and happy. I would stay here for ever, if he so disposed. Seldom have I been so happy and content.”

And these lines, I think, throw the whole question into very sharp relief. If a hungry, sick, poor captive could write such things, if the love of God can make even imprisonment in Nazi Germany sweet, what becomes of the works of mercy? Even though we understand and emphasize the importance of the works of mercy, we do not, I think, often have a clear sense of their goal. If we are to be servant Church to the world in need, why?

One answer to that is perhaps that the whole world is not Bl. Titus Brandsma, but it should be.

In light of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s teaching on the apostolate and its relationship to liturgy, I think that all of the world’s problems could be summed up quite concisely thus: Souls do not burn to praise their Maker. And it is in response to this problem that the Christian is to act in the world:

Wherever burning hunger and thrist burn more strongly than the fire of divine Love, we are to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.

Wherever the biting cold puts out that fire, we are to clothe the naked.

Wherever souls feel alone and unloved by God and by others, we are to harbor the harborless.

Wherever suffering and pain cause souls to forget the goodness of God, we are to visit the sick.

Wherever souls are despairing in chains, wherever by force or intimidation their faith is threatened, we are to ransom the captive.

And when a soul departs this life, we are to bury the body and pray that she may join with the angels and saints in praising God without end.

In short, wherever the trials of this life present a stumbling block for souls, an obstacle to their praising God, the Christian must be there to relieve, refresh, and invite that soul to renewed love of God.

Our goal as Christians can never be a full tummy, a wet whistle, new threads, nice digs, health, freedom, or earthly life itself, not for ourselves, and not for others. We will each lose all of these, in the end, no less than did Bl. Titus, one by one. Rather, our goal is gratitude, love, worship – communion with one another and with Our Lord, both here and hereafter. When we take our place in liturgical prayer, we have one foot in heaven already, and we should take that opportunity to keep our eye on the prize.

An old Folk Mass favorite puts this thought remarkably well,

…and unless there is, we should pray
that soon there may be one true brotherhood,
and we’ll all join in and sing:

Here we are, all together as we sing our song joyfully,
Here we are, joined together as we pray we’ll always be.

When Attending Mass is Tedious

Even the most devout Catholics have to drag themselves to mass on some days. What should we do when attending mass seems more like a chore than the spiritual delight it should be?

The short answer: go anyway. The supernatural graces we receive from the mass have nothing to do with the euphoria (or lack of it) that we feel while attending. Attending mass when we’d rather be doing something else is a doable, but great way to show our love for God.

At the same time, it would help to ask ourselves why we find the mass tedious. One reason could be that we do not understand it, in the same way that watching a game is tedious when one is unfamiliar with the sport.

During my year in Spain, I could not, at first, share the Spaniards’ passion for soccer. But once I’ve acquired a basic familiarity with the rules, I had fun watching the games, joining the others cheer whenever our team scored goals.

Similarly, understanding what the mass is all about can get us engaged with what goes on at the altar. There are plenty of resources — books, pamphlets, and recorded talks — that could help us understand what the mass is all about. One example is Understanding the Mass by Charles Belmonte, downloadable here and available in html format here (scroll down).

However, sometimes attending mass can still be tedious even if we understand what it is all about. This is usually the case when the sublimity of what occurs at the altar is obscured by the uninspired church architecture and music, the distracting behavior of the other mass-goers, the superficiality of the homily, the weird liturgical innovations introduced in well-meaning attempts to make the mass more “relevant”.

What does one do in this situation? First, one must check if there are ways to be part of the solution. For example, here is an article on how to organize one’s own schola that can volunteer to sing chant and sacred polyphony at mass, and here is an excellent resource for learning to sing sacred music.

Second, it helps to remember that the mass is the same sacrifice as that of Calvary. There, at the first mass, the atmosphere was hardly conducive to a spiritual high either. There were jeering and gambling in the presence of the crucified Lord, as well as demands that He perform a spectacle. But amidst all the public maltreatment of Christ were a handful of people accompanying Him with compassion and solidarity: His mother, John, the holy women. There were people, such as the repentant thief and the Roman soldier who pierced Christ with a lance, who allowed the graces of the event to move them.

Perhaps those of us for whom attending mass is a struggle because of irreverence in many of today’s masses are called to be among those people whose mere presence at Calvary consoled Christ in His sufferings.

Reasons not to go to mass will always be abundant. But none of these reasons weigh more than the one reason to go to Mass: because we will encounter Christ there.