Living through the Meltdown: An Imaginary Biography

You were born in 1938. You grew up in a parish where multiple Sunday Masses were packed with Catholics. Some of your earliest memories are of the hats and veils the ladies wore as the final touch on their Sunday best, the men’s dapper suits and polished shoes. You learned your catechism in Q&A form—and to the present you can recall whole sections of it. You fasted as best you could throughout Lent and always ate fish on Fridays. There was no question about going to communion without having gone to confession. Your time as an altar boy in the late forties taught you discipline, observation, and reverence. You felt a sense of humility mingled with pride in being able to enter the awesome sanctuary alongside the priest and watch him close up as he whispered the strange words of the Mass. You have striking memories of the quiet church early in the morning with sun streaming through the east window; you see the golden stitchwork on the chasuble, you feel the hard, smooth surface of the biretta that Father handed to you.

In 1955 your Easter week changed dramatically. Some people were attending the afternoon or evening ceremonies for the first time, but others who had once attended early in the morning before work, or who made an annual retreat at nearby monasteries, stopped going. There were some odd new features, like the priest facing the people for the blessing of palms, and everyone reciting the Our Father together on Good Friday. You figured, though, that the Church must know what she’s doing.

In 1964 everything changed even more dramatically. The priest turned around and said Mass towards the people, as if they were an audience rather than co-participants in the offering of a divine sacrifice. The music was suddenly very different: folksy, vernacular, a bit silly. The chant disappeared altogether, as if it was something to be ashamed of. Vestments, decorations, architecture, all became simplified, angular, and unattractive. You got married around this time, and you and your bride pleaded with a priest for a dignified nuptial Mass in the old style, which was none too easy to arrange. The priest had said: “The Council wants”—this was an already hackneyed opening for every other sentence and seemed like a giant blanket that covered a multitude of sins—“everyone involved in the Mass, with happy hearts and voices. You shouldn’t just be sitting there daydreaming while I do everything.” You were polite and thanked him for his willingness to go along with your unreformed ways. (This was at a time when clergy generally respected the faithful, even as the faithful generally respected the clergy. It was not long before all that went away.)

In Advent 1969, everything changed again. There was a new rite of Mass. The familiar prayers were gone. Latin was never heard. It was like a different denomination. In fact, some friends of yours said: “Doesn’t the Catholic Church know what it wants to be? This sea change every five years or so looks like a lack of confidence or a crisis of identity or something.” And it’s not as if you yourself asked for the changes; they were imposed from above as “the will of the Council” and “the will of the Pope” and “the sign that the Church is alive!” But it was odd, nonetheless, that fewer people were coming to church—you couldn’t help noticing that. When you thought of the Church being alive, you thought back to your childhood. That’s when there was vitality, conviction, something reliable to come back to week after week and rest your life on.

Society was in upheaval, and so was your Church. You had never thought of the Church as changeable; she had seemed like a solid rock in the midst of the crashing waves. But now she, too, was as unstable and unpredictable as the waves, and as ready to change shape or color depending on the weather. Droves of people walked out or drifted away. You stayed, out of a stubborn sense of loyalty. It had become clear to you by now that, no, the Church didn’t know what she was doing. She had lost her head. Or more accurately, her leaders had lost their heads and were doing a sort of timid, sheepish imitation of the secular world—wandering, drifting, stumbling, making wild guesses. You tried to give them the benefit of the doubt if you could, but when it hit you one day that priests in the Dark Ages knew more Latin than today’s priests, you finally let go of the remnant of illusion.

Decades passed. Pastors came and went. Your parish was renovated twice: the first time it was whitewashed, turned upside-down, and brutalized past belief. Familiar statues and candlesticks and pews were removed, and large chunky objects—in particular, a baptismal font that looked like a combination water-fountain and trash receptacle at a National Park—were hauled in. Felt banners were hung all around, reminding you of the Scripture verse: “may there be darkness upon the land of Egypt, so thick that it may be felt” (Ex 10:21). You and some parishioners tried to talk the pastor out of a lot of these changes, but he was adamant, with a gleam in his eye like that of a newly raised-up prophet.

About two decades later, another pastor came along who raised even more money for another renovation. This kindly fellow put the church (more or less) back to what it had been, except that it wasn’t quite as nice as it had been at first. A friend of yours on the parish council asked the pastor, with a touch of exasperation: “Why did we go to so much trouble, and spend so much money, gutting the church, when now we are trying to get it to look the way it did?” His reply was that we’ve had time to mature in our “reception of the Council” and we are correcting some of the imbalances that came in at first. Your reaction, though you didn’t say it out loud: “You new prophets ought to get on the same page. It’s disconcerting to have the Spirit contradicting Himself at regular intervals.”

Your parish today is considered a healthy one. Masses on Sundays are not exactly packed, but all the pews have people in them. The music is generally pretty schlocky, but you figure it could be worse. The homilies are thin gruel but at least they’re not outrageously bad. You pardon the preacher for his lack of education and culture, because you know the way the seminaries are. The “worship experience,” as you’ve heard people call it, leaves much to be desired. If you had to summarize it, the word “mediocre” would come to mind. It’s sort of… lukewarm. Half-believing Catholics, half-involved in a half-serious celebration of half-time religion. If you think about it too much, you get depressed. If you pay too much attention at church—to the way people dress or how they receive communion or what the songs are saying—you get really depressed. When things get tough, you pull out a small prayer book from your pocket, from about 1949, that has beloved prayers and black-and-white etchings of the mysteries of the Rosary. You put your mind on Thees and Thous, and the pain of Mass eventually stops.

You know that a minority of dioceses and parishes around the country offer the old Latin Mass, the one you grew up with and miss sorely (if you let yourself think about it, which you try not to do too often). You’ve thought more than once about making a long drive in your car to reach one, or maybe even moving to a different town, but you’ve been living where you are for so long, you don’t have the energy for a big change like that, and the drive to the nearest location is really too far for you, with the condition of your eyes. “It must be nice to have a beautiful church with a beautiful Mass,” you muse—wondering, as you do now and again, whatever happened to the confident, organized, unified, burgeoning, and even swaggering church of your youth, the church that told Hollywood where to get off, and converts where to get on.

You still trust the Lord to take you to Himself someday, because, by His grace, you have been faithful over all these years, even when the going was sheer grit and grind. Those old words you remember from your stint as an altar boy in the forties come to you from time to time: Quare tristis es anima mea, et quare conturbas me? Spera in Deo, quoniam adhuc confitebor illi: salutare vultus mei, et Deus meus. Why art thou sad, O my soul, and why dost thou disquiet me? Hope in God, for I will praise Him still: the salvation of my countenance, and my God.

Hope in God… At His throne, you want to ask Him, humbly but with determination, why He let all this happen. What good has it served, O Lord? Where is the renewal they kept yapping about incessantly? Renewal, renewal, renewal—even when the seminaries and convents were emptying out; even when the sexual abuse scandals hit the media; even now, when parish after parish is being closed down for lack of believers—this was renewal? A wry thought that’s occurred to you: “I hate to see what institutional collapse would look like.”

You read somewhere that Ratzinger once said about liturgists and their pet liturgies: “It’s the dead burying the dead, and calling it renewal.” Yep, that seems to hit the target. You know from firsthand experience that the Church’s hierarchy has yet to come to grips in any serious way with the magnitude of institutional damage, psychological harm, and spiritual malaise caused to the faithful by the liturgical changes of the 1960s and 1970s—the suffering inflicted on so many people, the confusion and dismay, disgust, anger, despair. Or, for the minority that grooved over it, the vanity, the power trips and lack of compassion, the sacrileges, the destruction of children’s innocence, the politicization. John Paul II apologized for a lot of things, sometimes things he shouldn’t have apologized for, but he barely got started on the list of things to apologize for from the 1960s and 1970s. That list goes on forever.

Back in 1980, only a little over a decade after the last remnants of the comforting old liturgy were stuffed down the memory hole and a sleek new one was imposed in its place, John Paul II made a first step towards apologizing, in a document called Dominicae Cenae. You remember it because, at the age of 42, you were having something of a mid-life crisis in your faith, and you somehow ended up with a pamphlet of this document and decided to read it. You found lines that resonated with you:

I would like to ask forgiveness—in my own name and in the name of all of you, venerable and dear brothers in the episcopate—for everything which, for whatever reason, through whatever human weakness, impatience or negligence, and also through the at times partial, one-sided and erroneous application of the directives of the Second Vatican Council, may have caused scandal and disturbance concerning the interpretation of the doctrine and the veneration due to this great sacrament. And I pray the Lord Jesus that in the future we may avoid in our manner of dealing with this sacred mystery anything which could weaken or disorient in any way the sense of reverence and love that exists in our faithful people.

Of course, this made zero difference in the way your pastor went about his secular business in the sanctuary and his sacred business on the golfcourse, but it was something, a sort of message in a bottle that reached your desert island, and reassured you that, in a faraway place at least, standards still existed, as did sympathy in a human heart.

Although you kept busy with your family, your work, and your hobbies, and put up with the shenanigans of the local parish while trying to keep a respectful distance, from time to time you tried to catch up on ecclesiastical news. The internet made that easier, once you found some sources you could trust, like “What Does the Prayer Really Say?” of Fr. Z (what would you have done without his articles over the years?). It was Fr. Z who made you aware of Summorum Pontificum and the accompanying letter Benedict XVI wrote to the world’s bishops. Daring chap, that Ratzinger, writing with logic and compassion to an episcopate that practiced neither and perhaps did not believe anymore in their existence.

You had another desert island moment when you came upon these words of Benedict XVI’s:

Many people who clearly accepted the binding character of the Second Vatican Council, and were faithful to the Pope and the Bishops, nonetheless also desired to recover the form of the sacred liturgy that was dear to them. This occurred above all because in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. I am speaking from experience, since I too lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusion. And I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.

A hint of compassionate realism, spoken aloud in the midst of the Catholic Workers’ Paradise! You felt understood, commiserated with, vindicated. With youth renewed like the eagle’s, you found a group of Catholics who agreed to sign a letter asking for the old Mass, assuming that what Benedict XVI asked to be followed would be followed: “In parishes, where a group of faithful who adhere to the earlier liturgical tradition is stably present, the pastor should willingly accept their requests to celebrate the Mass according to the rite of the Roman Missal published in 1962.”

You should have known better. The pastor gave you an impatient, unfriendly look when you brought up the topic with him at lunch one day. Thinking it would help your case, you gave him the letter with the signatures. He turned slightly purple and seemed to lose interest in his dessert. Subsequent efforts by you and others have led to exactly nothing. A sympathetic priest from a different parish told you that the bishop was no friend of this old pre-conciliar stuff and that you’d be better off not bothering him about it. This is when you realized that Summorum Pontificum was a fine document with fine language, but without teeth, and that the well-intentioned folks at Ecclesia Dei were similarly lacking firepower. Their epistolary spitballs might raise an eyebrow in a reader possessed of a conscience, but against a really durable polyester mitre, they could do no damage.

So you sigh, and you take up your Rosary beads—at least these have not been prohibited or taken away. There may not be much hope for you in your neck of the woods, but you figure that others are doing better elsewhere, and besides, you are getting old, and shouldn’t expect too much or complain. After all, the Lord has blessed you in so many other ways: your wife, your children, your grandchildren, your decent health (all things considered), your interest in other things that make sense and work properly. At your age, you can put up with anything a little longer. Then it’s goodbye to the world and its mess. Some problems only God can fix.

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