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The Strange Case of the Missing Mass

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Dec 19, 2005

In his 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe mused on the compound ironies in the fact that America's leading capitalists were headquartered in "glass box" buildings that derived, ideologically, from radical socialist designs for proletarian worker housing. The very folks who could afford to build themselves Buckingham Palace knock-offs built low-ceilinged stack-a-prole chicken crates instead. As Wolfe writes of the flummoxed plutocrats: "It makes their heads hurt. They just can't understand it."

A similar sense of dislocation afflicts Roman Catholics in contemplating the liturgy they experience. They have an unsurpassably rich liturgical tradition. They have Joseph Ratzinger as their Pope. They have Francis Arinze as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Yet these heavyweights and that tradition seem strangely powerless to provide the faithful with the Mass the Church intends them to have. In a speech last year in Milwaukee, John Allen said even the Vatican's Office for the Celebration of Papal Liturgies is solidly in the hands of the Cage aux Folles crowd: "[Allen] joked that the liturgical office staff 'try to set a record for how many liturgical rules they can break in one papal Mass. These things usually have dance numbers that rival Cats.'"

If such things take place in the greenwood, what shall be done in the dry?

An oblique but telling indication of the sorry state of the Roman Rite is the interest in blogdom generated by the new Secretary, or number two man, at the Congregation for Divine Worship. It's an interest I share. But if the Eucharistic liturgy as we presently experience it were in good shape, there'd be no reason for ordinary folks to care who held the Vatican job. Why should they? Yet the rule-breaking that Allen cheerfully reports is at the heart of the problem: it deprives us not only of the Roman Rite, but of the possibility of ritual full stop.

C.S. Lewis once discussed the problem in terms I here paraphrase: During Mass I can exercise either a critical or a devotional faculty, and the two are mutually exclusive. If my critical faculty is alert, it interferes with worshiping God, and has to be "lulled to sleep" as it were. The eucharistic rite, when enacted properly, is precisely the instrument by which this faculty can be quieted and the devotional faculty engaged. However, this is dependent upon the expectation of participation in the Church's liturgy, not Fr. So-and-so's adaptation of it. For if I have reason to believe that the celebrant will depart from the text or the rubrics, my critical faculty is switched on whether I want it to be or not, because the celebrant's departures may be tendentious or heretical or imbecile or all three. And even if the celebrant's changes turn out to be within the bounds of orthodoxy and good taste, I still would have been forced, against my will, to engage in an activity of criticism rather than of worship. I will have been cheated of a Mass.

Characteristic of a rite is that it's uniform in such a way that the human variables, where they exist at all, become inconsequential. Yet massgoers know the contrary experience is all too common, and most of us -- at the announcement of a new pastor or bishop or CDF Secretary -- find ourselves groping for the handle of a (figurative) revolver: "OK, what's this clown going to take away from us ...?" Sometimes we're pleasantly surprised, sometimes unpleasantly. But few Catholics are indifferent.

The young woman who blogs at But I Digress has a post titled "It's never a good sign when you go to Mass and ..." -- completing the sentence amply from her own experience:

...the words of the Great Amen are interspersed with little tinkly piano riffs which build to a full-blown song in the "background" before Father's done.
...the Eucharistic Minister doesn't know what to do when you don't want to receive Communion in the hand.
...Father adds little phrases into the Eucharistic prayer. Nothing big enough to be a big deal, just stuff like "And then, we know that Jesus took the cup..."

Can you relate? I knew you could. Add to the list? I know you can. What's important to grasp is that these minor deviations are not random, they're of an entirely different order from the inadvertent blunders elderly or spacey priests commit -- rather, in each case an element of the self-consciously personal is used to intrude between the worshiper and his anticipated experience of worship, i.e., the experience anyone gets when the celebrant simply opens the Roman Missal, says the black words, and does the red ones. The problem, ultimately, is not what the liturgists want to give us, but what they want to keep us from getting.

So how is it that we, heirs-at-law of two millennia of authentic Catholic ritual, with every external circumstance in our favor, are still read out of the will? In Tom Wolfe's words, it makes our heads hurt. We just can't understand it.

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