About two weeks ago, my family parked in a small town in Iowa. We chose this town because the church is within walking distance of the RV park.
The first time I entered St. M’s church, I noticed that the Tabernacle was off to the side, entirely hidden behind the ambo. There was no crucifix in sight, only a cross with the risen Christ not nailed to it. In the center of the sanctuary, in the place where the tabernacle ought to be, was a large, dead tree.
This is a bit disturbing if one thinks about it. People come into the church and genuflect—you know the way you sometimes accidentally genuflect at a movie theater—reflexively. When the tabernacle is replaced with a tree, you’re genuflecting to a tree, ignoring the tabernacle ten feet to one side. Most people don’t think about turning towards the tabernacle; they expect it to be in the center. I’ve observed this in many churches.
While we were in this Iowa town, we went to Mass several times. We also went to Stations and to Triduum liturgies. Before and after each liturgical event, the priest thanked the congregation heartily and he appeared surprised that there was a good turnout. We recognized that the parish was not particularly traditional. Unfortunately, there is no Trip Advisor® available for Mass. So we opted to grin and bear it until the Easter Vigil.
My family has been to all sorts of Easter Vigils. One year we ended up at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham, Alabama, which was a feast for the senses: from a messenger running into the church with the first Alleluia on a scroll to Handel’s Alleluia to the altar boys spinning -incense-procession around the Church. Three and a half hours of Catholic awesomeness. Another year we were in Texas where the priest, noticing that we were visitors, asked us if we were aware that the Easter Vigil tends to run a little longer than Mass ordinarily does. We assured him we could handle it.
This year, Easter Vigil was unlike anything we had experienced before.
Father began with a fire that St. Patrick would have been proud of. We processed into the semi-lighted church. There was a song about adoring the fire of love to replace the Light of Christ chant. The Exultet was replaced with “The Light of Christ” by Marty Haugen. I don’t remember most of it, but the refrain (which was the part that the congregation was supposed to sing) was something about “The light of Christ surrounds us, the love of Christ enfolds us, the power of Christ protects us…” Leave it to Mr. Haugen to improve on the Exultet. Right.
The Mass continued fairly calmly with the readings, psalms, and prayers. Except that the version the lectors and priest were using was not the version in the missalettes. The changes were just a few words replaced with their synonyms, but that does make a difference.
On to the initiation of the new Catholics, which is a singularly joyful occasion. The Baptisms and Confirmations were joyful. But I have never been so confused during Mass—even at my first Tridentine Mass. Seriously, if people in the church cannot even figure out what is going on during the Litany of the Saints, something is desperately wrong. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that during the entire litany, the word “saint” was not used at all—not even once.
The priest ad-libbed so much during Mass that I was reminded of a man at a Gregorian Chant/Polyphony workshop I attended several years ago. He joked that it was better to have Mass in Latin simply because not that many priests could ad-lib in a dead language. The congregation stumbled through the New Translation responses, and once or twice, even the choir reverted to the Old Ways.
We walked away from Mass satisfied that this was the most unique Easter Vigil we had ever attended. In a church that is universal, there is no reason for a parish to be that “unique.” We have rubrics. We have the GIRM. The New Translation was implemented months ago. Follow these and add a little beautiful music and you have a feast of Catholic awesomeness.
In George Weigel’s book “Letters to a Young Catholic” he writes about what it was like to grow up in Baltimore in a very Catholic culture:
“We didn’t divide the world into ‘Baltimore Catholicism’ and ‘Milwaukee Catholicism’…We quite naturally and unself-consciously divided the world into ‘Catholics’—people we recognized by a kind of instinct—and ‘non-Catholics.’ That instinct wasn’t a matter of prejudice. It was the product of a unique experience, and you instinctively recognized people who’d been formed by the same experience.”
Being Catholic means being connected to a billion people around the world through the shared experiences of the Mass, the Sacraments, the Traditions and traditions and the language of the church. If those things are laid by the wayside or altered to meet individual tastes, then we, as Catholics, lose that shared experience. We will no longer recognize each other by instinct because we no longer share the same experiences. There are Traditional Catholics and Lifeteen Catholics and Progressive Catholics and Cafeteria Catholics and Homeschool Catholics—the list could go on—and members of each group have their own experiences. Looking at the state of the Catholic Church at the moment, it would seem that “divide and conquer” has never been truer.
This does not mean that I believe the Catholic Church is doomed, or that there is nothing but bleakness ahead. Who knows? Perhaps Pope Francis, with his confounding mixture of orthodoxy and non-traditionalism, is exactly what the Church needs to pull Her people back together. But I do think that it is absolutely necessary to recognize that replacing traditions like the Easter Proclamation with paraphrases results in a subversion of a portion of the Catholic culture, and maybe this is the sort of time where we need that culture the most.