Oh? Is that good?
Just the other day I saw an article that came over the “internets” (as George W. Bush used to say) concerning a priest in another diocese. He is 72 years old, the pastor of a small parish, whose letter of resignation was just accepted by his Bishop.
The reason for his resignation is his inability/unwillingness to offer the Mass according to the new English translation of the Roman Missalrecently implemented. It wasn’t just a case of not being able to “teach an old dog to do new tricks” however; but it seems that Father X has never celebrated the Mass according to any official liturgical texts, even the now superseded Sacramentary of 1975. Father X has grown used to consistently substituting his own creations or paraphrases in place of the approved prayers of the Liturgy all though the Mass and refuses to change his practice. He’s been doing this for decades, it was reported.
Now what struck me was not so much the fact that Father X “wings it”. I’ve been through enough Masses (I hope they were at least valid) celebrated by priests who just couldn’t seem to do without their own embellishments and “commentaries” to last a lifetime. In fact, this phenomenon is not unknown to either end of the ideological/theological spectrum in our often divided Church. I’ve seen priests alter every single masculine personal pronoun in the Mass to a “politically correct” feminist neuter gender. On the other hand I’ve seen “pious” and “conservative” priests interrupting the Eucharistic Prayer ( the most sacred part of the Mass) to recite the Angelus because the bell for it was ringing outside.
What struck me was that Father X was well known for doing “his own thing” for decades, and got away with it. The report mentioned that his prior Bishop warned him about “pushing the envelope”. Well, if the reports are true however, Father X wasn’t just pushing the envelope; he just tore the “envelope” up and threw it away! It seems Father X didn’t understand what the word “Liturgy” means: the public worship of the Church, not the public worship of Father X.
Or is it? Who is being worshipped after all?
You see, the inevitable end result of this ( let us assume well-intentioned) disobedience to Church authority was also in the report: Father X’s parishioners are now up in arms that the new Bishop would dare to call Father X to a practice of obedience he abandoned years ago. A parish is now divided, fragmented, bitter, and all because good old Father X thought he could do better “for his people” than the Church. If the usual trajectory continues some will undoubtedly leave the actual Catholic Church altogether and or follow Father X off into to some sort of “X-ish “ parish. Pity the next pastor in that place!
The question that heads this article is a line from the first pastor of a priest friend of mine. Both of us were ordained in 1978; a year often full of all kinds of experiments and attempts to make the Church’s Liturgy, practice, teachings “meaningful and relevant.” Like my first pastor, my friend’s would be bombarded with all kinds of requests, or complaints, that he was too “old fashioned” or that famous label: “pre Vatican 2”. We all know how it would go: “Oh, Monsignor, over at Saint Zeitgeist’s they….(fill in the blank)…let red balloons go at Palm Sunday… shine shoes on Holy Thursday and not wash feet…let the children write their own First Communion Mass….the young priest doesn’t wear shoes and does magic tricks at Mass…” etc..etc. And the old priest would pause; and gently, but clearly, say “Oh? Is that good?”
Is it good that Father X for 30 years hasn’t used an official liturgical book at “his” Masses (even when the official texts often tended to be banal and plain enough)? Is it good that some other pastor, or indeed, his Bishop didn’t call Father X in on the first occasion when he winged it at the 10 o’clock Mass and say something like “Look, Bill…I know you mean well…but you can’t keep doing that. It will only confuse the altar boys and make the people wonder what the heck you’re gonna’ say next…”? Maybe they did, or maybe they didn’t; but the result is now division, anger, and scandal.
What happened with Father X; and all the other Father X’s with their own ideas and practices at variance with the Church’s practice is never good.
Popular for a while maybe… entertaining maybe… but GOOD? A ministry that becomes “my” ministry as a cult of personality good?
As the Lord once said A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
If all the well-meaning efforts of all the Father X’s in the world were good, where is the fruit? Are the parishes full? Are our schools, seminaries, novitiates full? Are all those young people for whom so much of what Father X did was probably done today vibrant and faithful Catholics handing on the Faith to their children?
You see, it’s the fruit that endures that counts.
I know what it’s like to feel like a Father X. In the past in my own way, I did a little “Father X’ing” too. A prayer “improved” there, a blatant mistranslation “corrected” here; and so on. However, it was me that was doing it, not the Church. There is no doubt that an interesting phenomenon of the 1970’s Liturgy was how it seemed to take hold almost nowhere. Both “left” and “right” found it dreary, rarely inspiring, too lacking in color and ritual. However, it did leave some room for “improv” but not as much as the Father X’s would have liked. For the most part, I grit my teeth and plowed on with it.
Now the Church clearly intends her priests to be what Catholic priests have always been: celebrants, servants of the Liturgy, not its master or impresario.
Whether or not better fruit will come of it, we’ll see. The Church is more than “just ritual”: but we are firmly and fundamentally a Sacramental Church. And if the Church cannot regulate her own Sacraments then we are all adrift.
February 7, 2012.