Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
I don’t like thinking about the liturgy for the same reason I don’t like thinking about the fact that I blink. Blinking is very important. If you didn’t blink, extremely horrible things would start to happen within minutes and never stop getting more excruciating till you went mad and then went blind.
But important as blinking is, it is one of those hugely important things we should (unless we are neurologists, ophthalmologists, or blinkologists) not think too much about, because if we do, that will also drive us mad and blind. Both liturgy and blinking have, for most people, a “so that” importance: Blinking is hugely important so that we will be able to do the far more important thing that is called “seeing”. If you spend all the time you should be spending seeing instead focusing on your next blink--wondering if it will come, and whether you will get a lash in your eye if you do, and worried about whether both eyes blink together, and timing your blink rate, and worrying if your blink will make you miss seeing something, and then noticing how and when and how often other people blink—you will make yourself blind and crazy. Not physically blind perhaps (unless, of course, you gouge out your eyes in madness). But the day will come when you will become so obsessed with blinking that you will not even see the truck bearing down on you as you cross the street, crazed and babbling to yourself about the consuming issue of your next blink.
Quarrels about liturgy have, for me, this same maddening and distracting quality. I don’t want a liturgy I can look at. I want a liturgy I can look along—to see God. Liturgies should be like a well-done play: anything that takes you out of the story is bad.
Just as you don’t want the actor to break character with weisenheimer limericks or announcements that he is playing Hamlet and he’s doing a pretty good job, so you don’t want the priest to bust out in show tunes or try to impress you with how cute he is as he consecrates the Eucharist with “Hey! Everybody! Check me out!” winks and asides. Just as you want the costumes and music to lead you into the story of Hamlet and not out of it to thoughts of “What gimmick is this idiot director up to now?”, so I want to enter into the Paschal mystery, not keep being dragged back out by the thought “What is he doing now?” I want music that makes me think of God, not of the fact that the musician, in a fit of whimsy, just decided to tag the end of “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness” with a riff from Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” because they are both in 5/4 time. I want vestments that clothe the priest in Christ, not in gimmickry. I want them to just stick to the script. Say the black, do the red, as the saying goes.
I’m not at Mass to be entertained, charmed, fascinated by a dazzling personality, or amused. I’m not there to worship myself or hear about the People’s Democratic Republic of Heaven, where the energies that should go to build up the kingdom of God are wasted fighting over which lay martinets dominate a few “ministries” in the parish that have long ago ceased being about serving the least of these and are now platforms for personal power struggles in tiny tyrannical fiefdoms. I don’t want to hear a homily in which a priest is now so remote from the most elementary truths of the Tradition that he sees the Mass as a forum for giving barn-burner political speeches to inform me that “Jesus needed to learn to overcome his racism like the rest of us” (and by “us” he means “you lot”). I don’t want to improve the Our Father to the Our Mother nor pray in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. I don’t want to live with the impression that the last words of Christ to Peter were “Try experiments on my rats” and not “Feed my sheep.”
Why am I at Mass? I want God. That’s why.
But for exactly the same reason, I’m also not interested in the reaction to all this sort of twaddle from laity who have made it their life’s mission to be perpetually angry or obsessed with the minutiae of liturgy and hyper-critical of the Paul VI rite. Just as I don’t want a priest to take me out of the Mass and into the cult of “Aren’t I Fabulous?” so I likewise don’t want angry Reactionaries endlessly critiquing and carping about how intrinsically inferior even a well-celebrated Paul VI rite is. I don’t want to listen to paranoid rants about the Jewish conspiracy tunneling under the sanctuary, or how the vestments aren’t quite the right color, or how we must all panic because Pope Francis’ priorities are not particularly on gorgeous liturgy. I find his simple offering of a beach ball to God in gratitude for 3 million hearts touched by Christ at World Youth Day to be an occasion of deeply moving joy, not a reason to scream "Sacrilege!" I also don't think the Little Drummer Boy insulted God by not playing Palestrina. I’m not super-inspired by singing “City of God”, and I can't stand "Anthem", but on the whole, I think that if that's the worst suffering I have to endure, I’m getting off way better than the Hiroshima martyrs and I am not going to let it destroy my peace.
As it happens I go to a Dominican (yay!) parish that has a wonderful liturgy and great preaching (a specialty of the Order of Preachers). But I try to cultivate a habit of not being too choosy about liturgy. Any liturgy holy Church offers me, Ordinary Form, Extraordinary Form, Maronite, Byzantine, you name it, I will receive with gratitude. If it’s celebrated reverently by people who are giving it their best—even if their best is a pedestrian homily, bland music, and mumbled responses—I’m going to receive it with gratitude and honor the reverence as Christ honored the Widow and her mite. If it's offered abusively, I'll do what I can to combat the abuse, but continue to thank God for the fact that, even in broken clay vessels, the treasure of the Eucharist is still to be found. Because at the end of the day, Eucharist means Thanksgiving. And if I'm not giving thanks at Mass, then what’s the point?
St. Spencer Tracy used to have two pieces of advice to politicized actors: 1) Remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture and 2) Remember who shot Lincoln. So just give me my lines and my blocking and let me enter into the liturgy—without all the liturgical politics.