Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Psalms, the liturgy, the Mass

Today I went over to the Transfiguration Center in West Milton, Ohio, for a talk by Father Tim Schehr on the psalms. Father Schehr teaches Scripture at Mount Saint Mary Seminary of the West and generously gives talks on the Bible all around the diocese. If you see him scheduled--go! (He will be back, next Saturday, in West Milton, for part two.)

Perhaps I will write another post about his observations on the psalms, which I found very helpful, but I wanted to write down some thoughts that sprung out of this session, concerning the liturgy and the Mass.

The occasion of my reflections was a conversation, over lunch, with a gentleman attending the talk, who is almost completely deaf. He relies on an electronic device that, if paired with a proper transmitter, enables him to hear. As it happened, even though he had both devices, when he set the transmitter near me, it didn't seem to work; so, naturally, he did most of the talking--he didn't hear everything I was saying and I didn't want to shout, whereas I understood him just fine (Deo gratias).

We talked about church acoustics and sound systems; he is very interested in how well people can hear the Word of God at Mass; and he has many observations about how poorly that seemingly simple purpose is served. Meanwhile, as he's talking about amplification, I'm thinking somewhat the opposite direction: about the drawbacks of emphasizing amplification as opposed to a church being designed so that it's "alive"--sound carries without additional amplification. That, in turn, raised the question about spoken v. sung word, and who is really speaking to whom.

Well, our conversation touched on that briefly, but then it was time to return to another talk. But I continued to mull this over, especially as I drove home. I'll post my reflections here, but perhaps not in the most artful way:

Q. What is the Mass, in its essence? A. The Mass is essentially offering, gift, oblation. Ergo, all the other things that are included in the Mass, are not the purpose of the Mass, but serve its purpose. Example: we have readings, songs, movement, preaching, and more, in Mass, but these are not the main thing. They serve as part of a great offering.

Q. Who is the principal actor in the Mass? A. God the Trinity, of course; but if we mean, who is the principal earthly actor, then it is the priest: if Mass is essentially offering, he is the one who offers. And when you understand the true nature of the priesthood, then he is both a human actor, but also, mirabile dictu a divine actor, insofar as Christ acts in and through the priest, wretch that he is! The priest is a mediator, a "go between": he represents the people to God and God to his people--at all times in the person of Christ.

These lead to this observation about the "dialogue" or the communication that occurs at Mass. It is not mainly horizontal--people to people--but almost entirely vertical: between God and humanity, heaven and earth. Any "horizontal" communication occurs along the way.

Well, these observations may seem obvious, and yet can we not see how many things can happen at Mass that diverge--or tempt one to diverge--from where we ought to be going?

For example: given the above, what is our fundamental orientation in Mass? It is clearly of humanity toward God. (Hint: this illustrates why the question of where the priest stands and faces at the altar is so very important, and why so many are concerned that the "versus populum" orientation--i.e., the priest facing the people across the altar--is so problematic. For all its advantages, in making his actions at the altar more visible, and being engaging, it also risks expressing a "closed circle." Many think this is a "settled" question, but on the contrary, in years to come, we will see this question revisited, and folks who think they've seen the last of priests and people facing the same direction should prepare themselves to see it again.)

Also, this raises the question about how we emphasize comprehension. I'm not saying comprehension--understanding--are meaningless; I'm asking, how does this, as a good to be served, fit into the overall scheme of things? Or, say it another way: what sort of understanding are we aiming at? I can understand something on the level of abstract reasoning; or I can "get it in my gut." Or I can simply respond to something because it attracts me.

A priest gave a talk at the seminary; I can't recall the overall topic, but along the way, he talked about a conversation he had with students at the Catholic college where he'd been president for a few years. He was explaining why he'd put the kibosh on co-ed dorms, and the students protested, and he was addressing the issues involved.

He said something like this: there are so many levels on which men and women interact, come to know each other, and become intimate. They are different and all important. One of them--so very powerful--is sexuality. It is so attractive, so powerful, for good reason; so we like it and we are drawn to it, again for good reason. This sexual interaction is not bad! It's good; but it has to have its right place, and be entered into in right relation to all the others. But here was the key point: granted that men and women interact on all the different levels, does it make sense to collapse them all together, and have it all focus on the one dimension, the sexual? (Which is, of course, what happens so very often, because this aspect is so powerful and intense?) The priest's point was that he was trying to help the students avoid that pitfall; and he said they hated to admit that he had a point.

Well, I would apply a similar lesson to how we encounter the Mass.

Likewise, we experience the Divine, at Mass, on so many levels. But one that is so attractive, at least to so many of us, is the cognitive--the level of grasping intellectual content, words, ideas, and analyzing and digesting them. But a similar caveat applies here: should we not be wary of collapsing all the different levels together? Because this one very powerful dimension may overwhelm the others, and we miss out of them.

Of course, I'm not saying I don't care if the gentleman, with whom I had a pleasant lunch, hears and understands at Mass; I care very much. Rather, all this is an extended consideration of precisely what that "understanding"--"hearing" really is. What are we "hearing"? Is it simply a cognitive word--a word spoken to be grasped intellectually? Or, is it a sound? A melody? A poem, a rhythm--things that are heard and understood in other ways?

Obviously this all connects to the hot-button discussions we have around liturgy: whether we like or don't like the style or mood of the music; whether we understand what we're hearing, or even saying, because of the style of English, or even more, because it's Latin.

Again, it's not a matter of not caring if people like their experience of Mass, or understand what they hear or speak; but rather, what sort of understanding is called for, and ultimately, what sort of "response" is called for from us. On one level, we care if we and others "like" the Mass; but on another level, doesn't that seem inane? Or put it another way: what sort of "liking" are we talking about. Do I "like" the Paschal Mystery (God became man with the Cross and resurrection in view, that he might transform us by the Spirit to be one with the Trinity in a new form of divine-human life)? Well, I think we'd all feel rather awkward saying we "liked" the Crucifixion; and in other ways, we feel odd even asking the question, "do I like this"--isn't that the wrong question? But, if we must put it that way, well then, a thundering yes: "I like it!"

I'm not sure how to conclude this, these are merely reflections. But I have to confess, as I thought about all this, I was challenged as a preacher. Insofar as the Mass is essentially offering, then the Liturgy of the Word can only make sense as a movement toward that, rather than an end in itself; the same would be true of every spoken word in the Mass--including the homily.


It is far easier, as a preacher, to give a homily that focuses on the Scriptures, or our lives, or the Faith, or on God, etc., but ends up being a kind of "terminal" event, as opposed to what it must be, a transition. We are not at Mass primarily to hear a homily; the homily is important, but it must be a bridge; or, perhaps, an invitation to cross the bridge. The image that came to mind was from Ezekiel 37: the prophet among dry bones, commanded by YHWH "to speak a word that will rouse them."

I say that, as I prepare momentarily to head over to church, first for confessions, then for Mass; and my homily is all prepared: I will be explaining how SCRIP works, as a way to raise money for the school and parish. This is driven by practical necessities. We need a SCRIP program, and I need to get people on board, and that requires explaining it at a time everyone will hear...but what will I say that will rouse people to enter into the heart of the Mass? How do I do both? Sometimes homilies seem very earth-bound, but then so are we.

Well, time to go. Discuss amongst yourselves.


Amy Welborn said...

How do you talk about SCRIP and also lead into the heart of the liturgy?

Easy! SCRIP is about buying food (mostly) - nourishing ourselves, and, as a fruit of our involvement in the program, nourishing others (the students in the Catholic school, those whom they will touch with their faith on down the line, etc).

So it is with the Eucharist, we pay a price, we offer ourselves up with Christ, and we are nourished with him in this essential way, called to go and love in his name.

Or something like that.

Well, maybe not easy!

Great thoughts, as usual!

BTW, I read a little bit of Walter Burghardt when I was younger (who knows why) and that was always his big point - that the homily should point to the Eucharist, every, single, time.

The Bass player said...

i enjoyed reading this post...but when you mentioned co-ed dorms, i really perked up!! my oldest is off to college in the fall and it is darn near impossible to find ANY school without co-ed's so sad.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Spot on, Father! I wish more parish "liturgists" would grasp the simple concept that the Mass is essentially an offering. (And why do we think we need special laypersons to plan the liturgy, anyway?) Oops! Shouldn't be grumbling on a Sunday.

TerryC said...

It is all so simple and clearly explained, it is such a shame that so many reject it all.
As soon as a someone starts talking about community instead of a offering, a sacrifice, you know that they don't get it, and they don't even understand how you know they don't get it.
I've seen this erroneous understanding of the Mass from priests as well as liturgists. It's so sad, because these individuals are not trying to follow bad theology, most have been taught in error, some even at seminary.
I try to get them to read Papa Ratzinger's The Spirit of the Liturgy and pray they'll finally understand.

Anonymous said...

To show my ignorance -- I didn't even know what a SCRIP program was until I Googled it. We were reminded today about the ASA and what it does. I guess everyone who reads this knows that means annual stewardship appeal.

As a convert from a Protestant denomination where unless it was Communion Sunday, there was only the sermon (and usually a long one), I understand this completely. My favorite homilies are those at the daily Mass which are short and to the point and thus easy to remember. I must say that both last week and this week, Fr. has said things in his Sunday homily that I felt I really needed to hear and that helped me.

BTW, will you be going in Columbus for NCYC next weekend? We have a vibrant youth program in our parish and Fr., Deacon, and quite a few youth will be participating.

Dad29 said...

You are on the same track as another blogger who stated that "sacred music is not [principally] didactic." Nor is the Mass principally "didactic."

It's not all that different from Paul's (?) analogy to the body--there are feet, hands, head, but all are part of a whole.

By nature, musicians think more highly of music than of homilies (sorry about that...) just as priests think more highly of homilies than of music.

And by the way, you're right about building design serving the un-aided voice. That's putting the priorities where they belong.

Priests should be trained to project their voices and speak slowly for clarity, just as singers have to learn the same things.

And in the old stone-and-plaster 'shoebox'-dimensioned church design, there was no need for a microphone at all.

Anonymous said...

the lord is coming. these are the end times.

Anonymous said...

Hi Father -

Some good thoughts here. Thank you for posting them. They trigger thoughts here too.


It seems that there are three sacrifices going on during the Mass. Obviously we are offering the sacrifice of wine and bread. It's a small thing, but it is the work of human hands and represents our offering to God.

At the same time there is the sacrifice of Christ, the Paschal Lamb. Not many folks know it, but "host" comes from the Latin "hostia" which means "victim". So what begins as our offering of bread is returned to us as Christ's offering of Himself as a victim.

Not to be forgotten is the sacrifice of God the Father who does give up His only begotten Son. In its own way that is as great a sacrifice as Christ's own.

The priest stands as the focal point for all three sacrifices - to God and from God - all in the same Mass.


You bring up the issue of our hot-button discussions on liturgy, music, churches, vestments, etc. Has anybody ever spoken with a deaf or blind parishioner? What is their experience in the Mass when we separate out all of the things we experience sensually?

Smell has been reputed to be the strongest trigger for memory. Have we lost anything by the reduction in the use of beeswax candles and incense in our Mass? What of feeling and taste? Do they still affect our participation in the Mass?

I don't have answers, but the questions have me puzzled.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great post and how interesting to see a priest that cares enough to give this that much thought. I think this is also why the music at mass is so critical. Nothing disturbs the flow so essential to the mass as hearing bongo drums and tambarines break out with the wrong type of music at the wrong time. The mass is so important and for many, the only time they have an opportunity to get close to God during the week. A sermon on fund raising, while important, seems like it should come after the mass, not during the homily. I know how important it is to reach people and how hard it is to do so outside of the homily, but somehow, I think Christ would expect something different. In the past, we had parishes built with huge churches and wonderful huge stained glass windows. However, I do not remember the homily on fund raising.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder if the concept of offering was lost when liturgy began to be referred to as a "celebration". Most folks think of celebrations as wedding receptions, birthday parties, winning the lottery bashes, et al. All of that makes the individual the focus of attention and control.

Liturgy is not intended to be a big party we plan in order to have a great time and enjoy some entertainment. Liturgy is about worship, not self-gratification.


Dad29 said...

See Bill Mahrt's editorial in the upcoming Sacred Music:

...which makes your point.

Anonymous said...

So much emphasis has been placed on trying to elevate the laity to the level of the priesthood in the last 40 years. It is true that the laity have sacrifices to offer, but they are only acceptable because of the Priest acting on behalf of them. Christ works through the Priest to offer Himself to God the Father. The one Sacrifice that makes all other sacrifices acceptable (Calvary)is re-presented on the altar at the hands of the Priest. This needs to be realized by all Catholics because only thinking about the Mass as a meal or a celebration is not very sustaining. If I didn't believe in the real presence of Christ on that altar I wouldn't be there because it is pretty lame entertainment. I can think of a lot more fun things to do. Anyone who would go to Mass to be entertained is not participating in worship. Well, maybe self worship.