Liturgical Vigilantes

When one thinks of notorious vigilantes, several names and personality types come to mind. Perhaps Charles Bronson or Dirty Harry, or maybe even the Dark Knight, Batman. But personally, I have yet to run into tragic costumed figure or a rogue cop who has just had enough.

But I have met a person who has had enough and can’t take it anymore, a person who has seen too much lawbreaking simply ignored by the competent authorities, a person who has finally decided to do something about it—to become a vigilante—Mrs. McGillicuddy.  She sits in the third pew on the left.

As general rule, vigilantes are not born, they are made. Their steely resolve to right the wrong, forged in the fires of un-rectified lawlessness, transforms them into self appointed guardians of the good. They become—watchmen.

The Mrs. McGillicuddys of the world have had much to endure these last forty years. They sit in their pews and watch as liturgical experimentation and improvisation transform the holy mass into a vehicle of self expression for those who do not understand what it truly expresses. They sit and wonder, when will somebody do something about this? When? When they finally reach the reluctant conclusion of never, what follows results in either resignation or transformation.

Now a confession, I’m a Mrs. McGillicuddy. But I don’t want to be.

Some years ago, I bought a new house. In preparation for the move of my family, I excitedly went to mass at my soon-to-be parish home. I was floored. The holy Mass seemed almost unrecognizable. I actually checked the sign on the way out to make sure it said Roman Catholic, just in case I had accidentally wandered into some other strange denomination’s environs. No such luck, it said Catholic.

Folks, let me be clear here. There’s your run of the mill liturgical abuse and then there is this place. At my geographical parish, I imagine they must have traveled far and wide to discover each and every variation of liturgical abuse, only to bring all them home resulting in a synthesis of all liturgical abuse, a Noah’s Ark of liturgical abuse if you will. It was that day that I first transformed from mild-mannered Patrick into Mrs. McGillicuddy—Liturgical Watchman.

I resolved to call the diocese. I got the Director of Worship on the phone. I said, “I want to report some liturgical abuse.” I never knew this before, but you can actually hear eye-rolling over the phone. I am sometimes surprised that an epidemic of blindness does not plague diocesan liturgical directors, for all the eye-rolling they must do.

But I didn’t get angry or emotional. I simply recited the litany of liturgical abuses I witnessed. At first, the Director tried to defend this or that practice, but eventually the list was too overwhelming and specific for him to continue. Then his tone changed and the audible eye-rolling ceased. I knew then, I knew that he knew. His tone was not of a watchman, but that of the resigned.

He kindly told me that his brother lived in the same area and refused to go to that parish because it was so bad. You will be much happier if you join this other parish a few miles away, he told me.

We did, and we have been happy. But the question lingers, why should I have to?

In the years since, even at my happy parish, I had occasion to call my now former pastor due to an abuse that I could not ignore by a regularly visiting priest. (Ad libbing and impromptu ten-minute sermons during the Eucharistic prayers.) It happened time and time again.  “This is wrong,” I thought. “Seriously wrong,” I have to say something.

I didn’t want to be that guy, but I had to be. I politely spoke to the priest in question after mass, but he just laughed at me. I don’t want to be that guy, truly. Why should I have to be? But I couldn’t let it go.  So I called the rectory and left message after message. The pastor never called me back, not once.

Father John Zuhlsdorf regularly posts on his popular blog about the proper etiquette of reporting liturgical abuse, noting correctly that further bad behavior won’t help the situation. When reporting liturgical abuse, I advise following his very sage advice.

But, for me, it always comes back to this question. Why should I have to?

Reporting liturgical abuse can seem worse than going to the DMV or filling out health care reimbursement claims. Write a letter to your pastor, in triplicate, calmly explaining the abuses. Wait six months and send him another letter, in triplicate of course. After a year of no response, send a notarized letter to the Bishop destined for the circular file. Rinse. Repeat. I exaggerate of course, but not by much.

This is not my job. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be that guy.

Point is, somebody has to care for the law and I don’t want it to be me or the Mrs. McGillicuddys of the world. Its not our job.  It’s someone’s job, if they would only do it.

Permit me a final quick story. For a while, we had a semi-permanent visiting priest saying mass each weekend, a good man I think. But at each elevation during the consecration he would break into an impromptu hymn of “O come let us adore Him.” I knew he meant well, but it is just not right. This had been going on for months and each time I felt more compelled that I would have to say something. I thought, I really don’t want to be that guy, again. Please, not again.

But then something happened. We got a new young Pastor and shortly after his installment, the offending priest stopped doing it. This abuse stopped, just stopped. I don’t know the particulars, but somebody did his job and I am ever so grateful for it. For once, I didn’t have to be that guy, there was no need.  Somebody did the job, so I mercifully didn’t have to.

Nobody wants or likes liturgical vigilantes, not even those of us who do it from time to time. But somebody must stand watch. Ultimately it is the job of the local Bishop to ensure that the mass in each and every parish is valid and licit in all the particulars. When they don’t, for better or for worse, others will try.

By the way, ten years later at my would-be geographical parish, little has changed. It remains liturgical abuse central. There still remains much work to be done and the resultant question, who will do it?