Sunday, February 05, 2006

Thoughts Inspired by Father Capuano's Article

I've received a few e-mails asking my opinion on the recent article by Fr. Vincent Capuano, S.J. which appeared in the Adoremus Bulletin.

This is more a response than a critique. I'd like to keep my remarks mainly positive, but you ought to know a little bit about where I'm coming from. I'm a fan of good liturgy celebrated according to the established norms. However, I rarely see a Mass that is "perfect" in this regard. I'm OK with that to a certain extent. It's clear from the Letters of Saint Paul that this has been the case to one degree or another from the very earliest days of the Church. However, I also agree with one of the mantras of Fr. John Baldovin, S.J. who teaches presiding here at Weston. He tells the seminarians that rubrics are meant to protect the people of God from their idiosyncracies. One of his primary rules for presiders: "Thou shalt not distract the people of God." Liturgy is not a matter of personal style.

That said, I am not a fan of liturgical watchdog groups. I think they do more harm than good, causing disunity in the name of unity. Fr. Capuano's dilemma is one that I have faced as well: “Living in a religious community, when genuinely good men do not respect liturgical norms, what is a religious to do?” But I have found that the best answer in this situation is not to write an inciendary article or establish some kind of liturgical "police-state," but simply to talk to them.

I think it’s interesting where Fr. Capuano's article begins, reflecting on his ministry in Argentina. I think it illustrates something that I have long thought as a result of my experiences in the Third World. To a certain extent, the arguments we have in the United States about liturgy are a First World luxury. Frequently, in places all around the world (indeed, I wonder, are we the exception and they the norm?), circumstances do not allow one to celebrate the Eucharist in accord with all the established norms. People are often lucky to get Mass at all, even if on the tailgate of a pick-up truck. But, as I think Fr. Capuano would agree, offering the Eucharist to the community is more important in this case than the ability to follow all the norms to the letter. Is this an excuse for not doing so in our context? Of course not. But I think it would be helpful to reflect on this while we’re fiercely fighting our battles over what we see to be right and what we see to be wrong. I fear that many of our arguments do not convey the charity or express the pastoral concern reflected in the attitude of Fr. Capuano’s archbishop in Argentina who “promotes this type of flexibility, but at the same time encourages that the sacred liturgy be well-planned, thought out and done with solemn simplicity according to the norms of the Roman Church.” Amen.

I admit to being puzzled when things are omitted from the Mass or extraordinary things added for no apparent reason. But this is not merely a Jesuit thing (and the case with only a minority of Jesuits), I see this often in the different parishes where I attend Mass as well. It’s hard not to get the impression sometimes that the priest saying Mass almost feels obliged to do so for reasons that just aren’t apparent to me. Some, I think, believe that this makes the Mass more special somehow. I just find it distracting. But just because the reasons aren’t apparent, in charity I find it helpful (even if not totally consoling) to try to put the best interpretation on it. Some priests are no doubt being prideful in doing such things, but I presume most have good intentions. Fr. Capuano is correct in saying: “It is too simple to put all those who abuse the liturgy in the same barrel and condemn them.” He is also correct in suggesting that priests should not “impose [their] liturgical will on the Holy People of God.”

I think the idea of religious communities establishing liturgical norms for community Masses is a good one. Having Mass with those you live with is typically more relaxed and informal, and in formation communities it is also a good venue for seminarians to get some practice preaching. It is not the same as “High Mass” on Sunday.

I also like his idea of more “cross-pollination” among religious orders and more interaction with diocesan priests. Religious can have a tendency to be somewhat insular, and our community life encourages that. But I often regret the fact that I don’t have as much opportunity to work and interact with diocesan priests or priests of other religious orders. The fact that the Capuchins are now studying with us here at Weston I count as a blessing.

From a Jesuit perspective I'll admit that I view much of his article as "speaking out of school." Most of us choose to address such matters internally, within our community, and I think that is the more appropriate way. Yes, some of the things he speaks of do happen, but some I have never seen. Perhaps it's because it has been some years since he has lived in a formation community (or even in the United States), but his article gives the impression that certain practices are more widespread than they actually are. Just in my last nine years of formation, many of these things have changed as a result of concerns expressed by Jesuits in formation like myself. Our superiors are open and our fellow community members are receptive, even if we don't always agree on what the outcome of our discussion should be.

Finally, when it comes to issues of liturgical practice, I have to say I'm a fan of taking the harder way in addressing them. Writing letters to the Bishop, printing newsletters highlighting "abuses," or writing exposes is the easy way out, and, ultimately, like I said, promotes disunity in the name of unity. Some, I fear, would prefer that liturgy remain a battleground. But we need to talk. I know that some priests can be arrogant and dismissive about such things, but most aren't. But often when they are it's because those that approach them about such matters are just as arrogant and dismissive. It's a challenge to talk about something like this that people get so passionate about, and take personally. It's hard not to think the worst of the other. But it's possible, and it's worth it. If we don't take the time to risk getting to know where the other is coming from and to strive be more united when we worship together, then isn't that too an abuse of the liturgy? Rubrics and norms are important, but at times we get so caught up in them that we can forget what they are in the service of--the worship, as Church, of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in Thanksgiving for the fact that he offered up himself in order to save us all, sharing in the Eucharist, and sharing in our common mission to love one another as Christ loves us.

I'd be interested in hearing people's thoughts about how we can address such things constructively. I'd especially be interested in hearing "success stories." Do you belong to a parish or faith community that was able to talk about and come to unity on such issues?


Anonymous "omis" said...

I'm certainly no liturgical expert, but I appreciate a liturgy done well. My experience in the Episcopal Church was that even small Episcopal communities gave a lot of attention to liturgical practice, and that many Catholic Churches certainly do take some liberties in liturgy.

I think there is a place for the discussion the writer is trying to promote, both within communities and in the wider Church. Having reformed the liturgy in the 60's and 70's, perhaps now is a good time to review that, to see what's been working well, and what has been inappropriate.

That said, I wonder wonder if some of his examples of "liturgical abuse" really constitute abuse or affect liceity. It's one thing to promote a uniform practice which promotes the proper respect of the diving liturgy, but I think one can cross the line into nitpicking, which distracts from the focus on the Eucharist.

9:02 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

I'm pretty liturgically flexible and it doesn't bother me if things aren't exactly by the rules. Jesus is there and I'm there and that's what matters.

One day, however, something happened at Mass that really upset me. So much that I didn't receive communion that day since I wasn't in the right frame of mind.

I debated about whether I should say anything or not and finally decided that I had to speak up. I waited until the next day when I was calm and made an appointment with the priest. I felt terrible about meeting with him to criticize something, but I explained what was bothering me, he completely understood and said it wouldn't happen again. It hasn't happened again.

Being direct is hard. But I think it's a better approach than writing an article or going directly to the bishop. That smacks of tattling rather than addressing the problem.

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Mossa,

"In charity [you] find it helpful" to put the best interpretation on things?

Does this include your uncharitable assumption that Fr. Capuano did not talk with anyone in his community about these matters or get permission from his superior before publishing his article?

1:47 PM  
Blogger Mark Mossa, SJ said...


Actually, I did not make that presumption.

Indeed, I am quite conscious that he may have done so, though there is no indication one way or another in his article. The article may very well be a response to having been frustrated in speaking to others. You could just as easily read that presumption into what I wrote (and there you'd be closer to the truth).

I offer the dilemma as he posed it, which is ambiguous as to what steps he himself has taken.

But thanks for keeping me on my toes!

5:04 PM  

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