Losing her religion

Mary DeTurris relates in a two-part post (here and here) her growing disillusionment with the Catholic Church’s liturgy and her increasingly inability to put up with its foibles. There’s a lot to sympathize with and a little to criticize in Ms. DeTurris’ posts. She is bored by bad homilies (a complaint shared by a few Orthosphere writers), for instance, but it’s not the average parish priest’s fault that the Pauline lectionary stinks and has the effect of reducing the proclamation of the Word from a theophanic encounter with the Word incarnate to a dry undergraduate exegesis lecture. (Compare crummy diocesan parish homilies to the truly exceptional ones given by Traditionalist priests, who are not tied to the mast of a purely and exclusively didactic lectionary).* And she is alienated by the near-absent community life of her parish, but evidently doesn’t feel the need to take any steps to ameliorate it, as if community life is something that can only be handed down ex cathedra by the hierarchy, as if the laity are not itself members of the body of Christ. (EDIT: And one absolutely must not take seriously her suggestion to withhold support from the Church, i.e., to neglect our duties in a grave matter).

Still, she’s on to something, especially when she writes:

When I go to church and nothing – from the six-verse processional dirge to the poor sound system to the inane homilies to the complete lack of community – seems to feed me, well, I tend to ask myself one question, “If I were coming to this church for the very first time, if I were a non-Catholic thinking about becoming a Catholic, would I ever come back?” And nine times out of ten, the answer is a resounding NO!

She’s right, and I know, because I’ve been in that position. A year or so before my conversion I attended my first Mass at an awful, ugly, white marble, fish-shaped church in exurban West Virginia and walked away so annoyed and alienated by its sickeningly self-referential character that I never would have believed I would soon convert. My more emotive friends sometimes marvel that my conversion was so intellectually and academically motivated but, really, what else would there be to appeal to me? To anyone? Who is converted by a guitar-strumming Elvis impersonator wailing “Gather Us In” or a 25-minute lecture in broken Spanglish about how God wants you to feel good about yourself? There’s very little that’s superficially or obviously good, interesting, or engaging in the postconciliar liturgy to recommend Catholicism to someone not born into it.

I was especially moved when she wrote the following:

Some who don’t know me very well — or at all — assumed (wrongly) that one or two bad homilies had sent me running. All that matters is the Eucharist, they said. And, I’ll give you this, the only reason I stayed seated in that church this weekend is because of the Eucharist. I would have been out the door before the homily was even close to over if not for that, but are we really going to pretend that the Word doesn’t matter?

I’ve heard this counter-objection before, “why isn’t the Eucharist enough for you?”, and even been on the receiving end of it. There is a glimmer of truth in it, and plenty, too, of that species of mincing minimalism common to the present age that sees the approaching of the essence of a thing as entailing the cutting-away of extraneous appendages rather than a gradual perfecting and integrating. A man who loves his wife is not content to say that his interior love suffices; love, when it is real love, naturally seeks expression — he longs to give her good things, at a minimum safety and security and children, and accounts himself a failure when he can’t. Likewise, yes, the Eucharist is what matters at Mass: that’s what we’re there for, what it’s all about, that encounter with the risen Christ come down again from Heaven to nourish the faithful. But if we truly believed what we say about the Eucharist and what we say we feel about Christ, we would not dare to treat him as shabbily as we do — greeting him with abysmal and tediously self-obsessed “sacred music,” mocking him and his doctrines and his beloved Church with homilies that alternately veer between stand-up comedy routines and freshman orientation nondiscrimination seminars, disposing of the sacred vessels that carry his precious body and blood with carelessness and frivolity, dishing him out like a handful of M&Ms even to unrepentant and manifest sinners who gobble him out of cupped hands raised to the mouth, and then eyeing with suspicion all who object to and are deeply wounded by the impiety of the arrangement, blisteringly speculating “why isn’t the Eucharist enough for you?”, which translates into “why aren’t you a saint?”, which rhymes with “why aren’t you as great as me?”

Such, sadly, is the reality of life in the postconciliar Church, where the message from parish priests and spiritual directors and canon lawyers and airport bishops is a near-unanimous shut up and get with the program, where every day is a trial and every Mass a penance.

* I’ve thought about writing a post detailing at length the numerous defects of the 1970 lectionary, but I wonder if this would be too remote for our readers.

28 thoughts on “Losing her religion

  1. In the modern world, the Logos is everywhere debased, no less so in political discourse or classroom lectures than in homilies from the pulpit. Among the ways in which the contemporary West is committing suicide is that it is boring itself to death.

  2. Coming from a Calvinist background, I attended Mass recently. Predictably, the homily was terrible, but what disturbed me was how undistinctive the whole service was. One could sit through the service and come away with the impression that the church was Episcopalian.

    Seriously, I don’t know how you Catholics do it. I’d go insane if I had to listen to a homily about tolerance or the “sin of homophobia” every other week.

    • In fairness to us, the Episcopalians aped our reform after the fact. But yes, that is a sign of its generally indistinct character, that it could be so readily appropriated practically without amendment by those outside our communion.

      Also in fairness, not all homilists are *that* breed of bad. Most are simply uninspiring. Some few are outright heretical, unduly concerned with worldly things, irreverent in their approach (even when they discuss orthodox things), etc.

    • “I’d go insane if I had to listen to a homily about tolerance or the “sin of homophobia” every other week.”
      That’s why I don’t attend a local parish but drive for half an hour to get to a good mass. I could have sat through an occasional mass devoted to a liberal political message, but it grew to be more than 50 per cent. I now attend mass in a beautiful, traditional church building; the music is sung/chanted very well; and the homilies (so far) have been intelligent and insightful.

      • Exactly. At my Reformed church, some families drive from over an hour away to hear the Gospel preached, rather than the all-too-common “social gospel” that passes for a sermon these days at many churches.

    • “Seriously, I don’t know how you Catholics do it. I’d go insane if I had to listen to a homily about tolerance or the “sin of homophobia” every other week.”

      Wow, there really are Catholic priests that do sermons on the “sin of homophobia”? For me it would not take hearing such a disgusting thing once a week, I’d leave immediately on the first time to never go back.

      For me it is impressive the level of liberalism in USA/Western Europe. In Brazil I’d expect the priests to do sermons supporting wealth redistribution, since the Catholic church there is very Marxist (liberation theology), though even that wouldn’t make me care much, since I’m more of a social conservative, but “sin of homophobia” … that I’ve never heard such a thing and it would greatly surprise me.

      I’m Calvinist, but occasionally attend mass with my Catholic wife, and in Poland the Catholic sermons (sermon is the same as homily?) are most decidedly conservative. Including bashing the government for attempting to ban conservative Catholic media, warning of the increasing intolerance and aggressiveness of liberalism, etc. Not to mention that the Catholic media in the country is *very* conservative, and politically engaged. Of course it receives shelling from everywhere from the center to the extreme-left, but it remains resilient.

      That’s why I was so sad about the recent Pope statements … I’m scared it could severely damage the Catholic church in Poland and make the country go in the same hell spiral as France, for example, …

  3. If you think things are bad now, Proph, you and I weren’t around in the 70s and 80s. Perspective is needed. Wait it out, I say. The baby boomer generation’s end is fast approaching. The Vetus Ordo and the Anglican Use is being propagated, which in turn will affect the solemnity of the Novus Ordo. The “Spirit of Vat II” will soon be completely exorcised. Be hopeful.

      • Well, there’s a lot that could be said in answer to your question, but see for yourself:

        Vetus Ordo

        Anglican Use

        The Vetus Ordo (also called the Tridentine Mass or the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) is in Latin. All Roman Catholics worshiped according to this rite between 1570 and 1962.

        The Anglican Use is basically the service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer with a strengthened Canon of the Mass (to fix Cranmer’s truncated form with its Zwinglianizing tendencies). Think of it as the Vetus Ordo but in Elizabethan English, plus Prot hymns.

        We have Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to thank for both.

        I am blessed to go to an Anglican Use parish.

    • If you think things are bad now, Proph, you and I weren’t around in the 70s and 80s.

      Hah… I’ve told this story before, but the, uh, song we sang at our confirmation Mass was “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkle. We – that is, my class of parochial school students – wanted to sing “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, which I am sure would have been easy for an ensemble of 8th graders to produce. The reason our plan was nixed is because — wait for it – “Stairway” was a “drug song”, unlike “Bridge”.

      Sail on, Silver Girl.

      So perhaps some of us are fortunate enough to have a homeopathic appreciation for the “nothing matters but the Eucharist” approach.

      These days, at my NO parish there are (for example) reasonably regular denunciations of abortion, gay ‘marriage’, etc in the homily. I find it kind of hard to complain from my position on the ground, despite my awareness of the 30 thousand foot view.

      • Yikes. People like you suffered through the worst of it, no doubt.

        I’m a relatively new Catholic, so what do I know, but I don’t share the same pessimism as Proph and Bonald. In fact, I’ve got a cool story to tell from the trenches.

        I’m in a grad level history program at a secular university. I’m currently taking an intensive readings course in Early Modern European history. My professor is in some ways a typical leftist academic in her mid to late fifties—never been married, feminist, yada yada. According to another student who’s had her before as a professor, she teaches a Reformation class as well in which she begins on the first day by stating that she doesn’t have a dog in the fight because she’s a pagan (despite being raised Catholic).

        But—and here’s the good news—I think she’s beginning to have a change of mind. The stuff she says in class about Catholicism and Christianity in general is positive. Nothing of what you’d expect from an ex-Catholic turned pagan leftist. She made a reference to “my [her] parish” two weeks ago, and just last night she said “we Christians” in response to something a student had brought up.

        She also has us reading Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, which is in essence a Christian, specifically Catholic, critique of modernity. She’s been raving about this book all semester.

        There’s also another student in class who is a devout (and vocal) Catholic—probably in his mid to late twenties.

        Anyway, I guess I try to see the positive instead of the negative.

      • I wouldn’t say I’m pessimistic. I don’t have any particular thoughts about the forward direction of the Church and I’ve learned the hard way the perils of playing prophet. Maybe we’ll wind up with the “smaller, purer Church” falsely attributed to Pope Benedict, with a steady winnowing over the course of my lifetime. Anyway, I’m not projecting the future, just kvetching about the present.

      • Proph, how was the attribution false? Do you mean he did not say these exact words? Or that he said words with this meaning only as Cardinal and not as Pope? Or that he never said words with this meaning? If the latter, I think you are mistaken.

        As Cardinal Ratzinger, he seemed to predict a smaller, purer Church in interviews, and as Pope he explicitly rejected the Church seeking popularity. Here is a quote from an interview with Raymond Arroyo of EWTN (my bold):

        Cardinal: . . . And my idea is that really the springtime of the Church will not say that we will have in a near time buses of conversions, that all peoples of the world will be converted to Catholicism. This is not the way of God. The essential things in history begin always with the small, more convinced communities. . . . This is springtime — a new life in very convinced persons with joy of the faith.

        Raymond: But, smaller numbers? In the macro?

        Cardinal: Smaller numbers, I think. But from these small numbers we will have a radiation of joy in the world. And so, it’s an attraction, as it was in the old Church. Even when Constantine made Christianity the public religion, there were a small number of percentage at this time; but it was clear, this is the future. So we can live in the future, just give us a way in a different future. And so, I would say, if we have young people really with the joy of the faith and this radiation of this joy of the faith, this will show to the world, “Even if I cannot share it, even if I cannot convert it at this moment, here is the way to live for tomorrow.”

        Characterizing his prediction here as “smaller and purer” seems fair to me, though he did not use those exact words. This is not the only interview roughly like this, though it is the clearest example I know of.

      • I specifically meant the exact wording but I had assumed the sentiment in general was falsely attributed to him. I guess I was wrong — not the first time!

  4. There was a comment left at the Mary DeTurris site which I found interesting:

    “Another thing that I don’t think has helped priests preach good homilies is going from sermons, where one was expected to preach on the Catholic faith itself, to homilies, where the priest is expected to stick to, and preach, on the scriptures. Now, there are priests who can preach a good homily, but so often when one is expected to preach on scripture it’s like going to a Bible study where people make comments about the scripture passage and most of the comments are, quite frankly, trite and forgettable.

    “It seems with most homilies, it’s as if I could get the exact same thing down the street at the local Episcopal church. In other words, there’s nothing distinctly Catholic about it and you usually learn absolutely nothing about the Catholic faith itself (which is probably one reason why most Catholics know next to nothing about the Faith).

    “So it would be nice if we could go back to preaching sermons instead of homilies. That way, even if a priest isn’t a particularly good speaker, you could still actually learn something about the Catholic faith. God bless.”

    Is this true? Are priests not meant to explain the Catholic faith itself in the mass except through scriptural commentary?

    • Per the GIRM, the homily “should” focus on unpacking the Scripture reading for that day. So I guess it’s not strictly speaking a requirement but it is certainly an expectation. And it is certainly a demand of the lectionary itself if there is to be any integrity to the Liturgy of the Word, which is yet another of the lectionary’s defects.

  5. I’ve often thought that the life of the Church would be immensely improved if, once in a while, the priests blew off the scriptural exegesis all together and gave a good old fashioned doctrinal sermon. One of the best homilies I’ve ever heard in my eight years as a Catholic had virtually nothing to do with the readings: “How about that parable eh? Our God is an awesome God indeed. But this morning I wish to instruct you on indulgences…”

  6. When I get the “Well the Eucharist is the most important thing” I reply that yes it is. The Sacrament is Our Lord’s gift that tells us exactly what He thinks of us. But then everything surrounding the Eucharist: the liturgy, the music, the architecture, etc. all tell everyone watching exactly what we think of Him. Sadly, what most Amchurch liturgy says is, “not much”.

  7. So, on the original topic, the answer is pretty clear/simple of how to solve the coldness of Catholic churches:

    1> The priest should go talk to everyone that goes to Mass for the first time, and then in subsequent times too
    2> Organize lunch together Sunday after the mass and invite new people, for example once a month at least, ideally every Sunday.
    3> Visit the parishioners at home at the very least once a year (this they do in Poland)

    I know that the original complaint was about the homilies, but IMHO a good community is more important than the sermon, and works better as a people magnet.

    • Yes, these are all “best practices.”

      At my Reformed church (Orthodox Presbyterian Church), the pastors and elders, as well as many of the congregation, warmly greet newcomers, and we notice when they come back, too. We have a “coffee break” after Sunday School (divided by age, including adult) and services, and a potluck fellowship meal between the morning and afternoon services. The OPC also has a tradition of home visitation, and the pastor and one of the elders visit each congregant’s home once a year (I understand this is also the Dutch Reformed practice). That home visitations are Biblical is shown in Acts 20:17–38, where Paul meets with the elders of Ephesus and mentions his own home visitations.

      My church is blessed to have had the problem of outgrowing its space. Thanks to God, we have found a newer, larger space, and now can better accommodate the larger congregation. While I’m certain that part of our growth has to do with the warmth of the congregation and our social functions, I’d like to think it has more to do with the power that comes from preaching the Gospel truth, rather than the “social gospel” that afflicts too many churches, Protestant and Catholic alike.

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