Pater Noster: The Very Ordinary of the Mass

In the spirit of liturgical upgrade, I offer the Dad Prayer (“Hey Dad”) to mark the forty-fifth anniversary of the adjournment of Vatican II (December 8, 1965).

Hey Dad!

You’re there and I’m here.
It seems to turn out this way,
I guess,
You being so far away,
and me so, well,

I love you dad.
I think you’re the greatest
Dad ever.
Wish you’d come home.
Because I’ve only heard the stories,
And I wish you were

For one thing,
we can’t afford groceries,
Not even bread.
We owe everybody money.
The phone rings all the time,
Those 800-PayMe numbers
But we’ll be ok
for a day or two.

Mom jokes that
she could do tricks
And I could hustle, brick mainly,
But Mom says No,
your father wouldn’t approve
If he were

What can anyone say about the Council that Tom Lehrer didn’t say then? Its effects now extend from liturgical catastrophe, membership drift, doctrinal torpor, the end of ecumenism, to, metaphorically speaking “Belgium.” If it’s Tuesday, it must be pedophilia.

Occasionally the Vatican tries to get real again about the question of renewal, as it (hilariously but inadvertently) did in 2008 when it decided to “modernize” the Seven Deadly Sins. A few years earlier, the no doubt ill-advised John Paul II, proving the Church did not sit still, had added a few mysteries to the Rosary–perhaps the most numbing devotion ever created in the name of religion–and pasted a superfluous “fifteenth station” to the stations of the cross thereby corrupting the drama of the whole exercise. (I don’t like devotions mind you, but I like my metaphors unmixed and tragic endings unmachinated).

Old Mass

The “New Deadlies” were flat and pedestrian, fixed in the greasy nebula between things no one can disagree are “evil” (like poverty) and things that many people think are beneficial–like genetic research: To jog your memory:

1. genetic modification

2. carrying out experiments on humans

3. polluting the environment

4. causing social injustice

5. causing poverty

6. becoming obscenely wealthy

7. taking drugs

So far, no Dante has arisen to do them justice.

These were then followed by a forgettable (bet you already have) list of “Driver’s Commandments” of which the top five were:

1. You shall not kill.

2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.

3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.

4. Be charitable and help your neighbor in need, especially victims of accidents.

5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.

Never mind the lack of parallelism, the change of what grammarians call “voice,” and the fact that the “commandments” sound as though they were pulled from a fortune cookie. The real question is what level of authority this putrid prose is claiming–since it looks, for all the world, like the nakkie-doodles of Dominican nuns at coffee rather than an amendment to the Sinai code. Presumably, Moses could not fire his writer, but the pope could have sacked this one.

One of the reasons I quit the Church was because its custodians had lost all sense of beauty and what used to be called the lex orandi–the parallelism between what was prayed (as in the Latin mass, which language was Latin because it conveyed, it was thought, the timelessness of its object) and what was believed (lex credendi). The expression could be summarized just as easily by saying, If you believe what you say, say it as well as you can.

My theological crisis was real enough as an intellectual event, but was driven by yawpish liturgy, priests in a hurry to get to lunch, infantalized nuns who grew into postmenopausal monsters, catechism quizzes over meaningless propositions, and doctrinal lassitude enforced by officiants who were (as we now know) seeking other outlets for their spiritual energy. Of course they preyed on the young. What did an altar boy know? His spiritual dissolution and religious disappointment was years away–an appetizing certainty for a randy man in a cassock who’d already concluded his life is a masquerade.

The life of a bad priest is a life lived in the hypocrisy of unacknowledged gracelessness disguised under starched surplices. But this not-being-what-you-seem, we learned as kids, is how the devil behaved. Real evil comes as an angel of light. The specifics of the problem, even its extent,were not surprising: the symbolism was profound and somehow natural.

We are now being told by the crisis managers that measures are afoot to repay, pay and atone for the “moral transgressions,” though the matter of the suicides in Belgium is harder to put right (and transgression is such a paltry word for rape, isn’t it?).

But the Church seems determined to squander the whole treasury and the remaining good will before it says goodbye. It does this in the deflective way religions have of pointing to the church as a river of truth, a pure and certain stream that a few sick souls have polluted over the years. Implicitly they raise the question of why the whole river isn’t streaming sewage, and expect the answer, Because the source is basically good, and it is a magic river–it has the means to purify itself.

The image goes back to the earliest days of Christianity when the heretics were the offenders and it was their pissing in the stream the bishops worried about. They invented “orthodoxy” (theological truth) as their standard of purity, and the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church as the means of purification. This theological conceit–the essential purity of Holy Mother Church–makes it possible for bishops to talk about child abuse and advocates for women priests and contraception in the same document, as though the issues were simply different streams of pollution. It makes the Church itself the victim of impurity, not its source and thereby locates the problem outside the institution–an ogre that afflicts men (and women) as men, not because they are priests.

And maybe that is how it has to be: The Church will end a victim of bad ideas and bad expression, the mansion emptied of all goods and chattel, including plumbing, before the estate can be settled against an age that considers its moral witness hypocritical, its ethical positions medieval, and its liturgical compensations ludicrous and ugly.

An institution that has preached itself as the solution to the Fall should be the first to know about its contaminating effects–that’s what original sin was supposed to be all about. Instead, it seems to want to perpetuate its errors in re-worded doctrines, parsed definitions, and liturgy that instead of soaring skits shakily along the ground like a wounded bird.

When the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley reviewed the aesthetic effects of the Second Vatican Council in 1970, he decreed that a proof of God’s goodness is that he would be in his casket the next time he set foot inside the Latin-starved Catholic Church of Sharon, Connecticut. To bide the time he spied out (what were then) traditional Latin parishes in hard to find places. He dithered with the title of a never-quite-published book, Why I am a Catholic after deciding Why I am Still a Catholic was a bit too aggressive. There were a few attempts at resistance early on–Garry Wills Bare Ruined Choirs (1974) and Thomas Day’s (superb, under-read) Why Catholics Can’t Sing (1992), which targeted “church-wide narcissism [as] a serious threat to individuals as well as to the institution.” It was Garry Wills, in 2003 who finally wrote Why I am a Catholic, which after reading raises the question all over again.

Some people have said that the great tragedy of Church renewal, especially liturgical renewal at the time of Vatican II–was that it was done by committees, translated by accountants, implemented by guitar-stroking seminarians at Maryknoll and Weston, and passed off as authentic to a generation of illiterati before anyone knew the harm was done. There was no Cranmer, as there had been for the Anglicans. No Luther, as there had been for the Germans. There was a Babel of languages, not only one to do justice to. These were the seventies, man. Lift up your hearts. And up yours, too.

A Church that used to talk about its musical treasures, from Gregorian chant to Palestrina to Mozart, now had to admit that they had been packed in trunks and sent to the crypt until further notice.

There were no poets or great prosodists. In fact, the underlying and horrific assumption of the most radical reformers was that the age of poetry had passed and that the future of the Church was in paraphrase and simplification. Vatican II would produce no Boethius, no Aquinas (not a bad poet), nor any Dante to bring the two together in an poetic liaison. “Catholic” poetry after V-II got us the Berrigans with trenchant feel like this

So I pray, under
the sign of the world’s murder, the ruined son;
why are you silent?
feverish as lions
hear us in the world,
caged, devoid of hope

At the risk of diagnosing what went wrong, it is that when Vatican II happened the issue was really no longer “renewal” anyway. It was belief. What was not fully grasped, at least not very vocally, was the “reality of distance”: that the translation of tenth- century ideas into sixteenth-century language at the Council of Trent was a piece of sponge cake compared to translating tenth-century beliefs into a twentieth century dominated by sex, drugs and rock and roll. The new project was seen to be re-wording faith for an age of skepticism, relativism, and doubt, but doubt is hard to paraphrase and the lexicon had not yet been developed. It still hasn’t. The era of soft truth had arrived.

It was the notion, held by some of the younger theologians and consultants, that if you squeezed the core ideas out of their old clothes, tarted them up a bit, made the people talk out loud instead of “following” the mass in their prayer books, and teach them a few tuneful protestant hymns, the pews would be bursting with new and returning mass-goers. It didn’t happen.

JFK funeral mass 1963

When John Kennedy died in 1963, his Latin Requiem Mass televised nationally to a curious country, pews were full all across America. When Robert Kennedy died in 1968, his funeral mass was conducted almost entirely in English, and the pews across America were emptying out. No one was singing. (Just like today). Perhaps it’s a tribute to the natural stoicism of Catholics–the folks that gave us purgatory because earthly pain isn’t enough–that they have tolerated the New Order of Mass while refusing to conform to its demand that they actively participate in it.

The revisers and reformers were silly enough to think that by playing with words and gestures, by letting Catholics hold hands at the Our Father, by scrapping Latin (“Let the angels have it,” I remember a youngish priest saying to me one day when I lamented its passing out loud), and getting a pop-rainbow of sexes and colours around a squared altar table–belief would follow.

Where's Father Waldo?

All would be renewed. (Hands up all you Catholics who remember the “Renew” banners rustling in the April breeze when Catholics went briefly charismatic in the 1980’s? “The vibrant singing,” the brochure said, “radical surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all parts of life, a strong adherence to the Gospel and the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the pursuit of strong friendships centered on Christ.”

I was startled recently to hear a younger (and still-observant) friend of mine, when I mentioned the “old church,” begin to describe how great she had felt at the Renew meetings of her teenage years: For her, that is the “old church.” Post-Vatican II experimentation is now Catholic nostalgia. Totally, I said, so as not to appear out of touch with developments of only twenty-five years ago.

The post-ecumenical saga of post-Vatican II Catholicism is a sad story of other denominations, less encumbered by tradition and canon law, rushing across the apses to embrace each other, smooth over theological differences, change polity, admit women and gays to their ordained ranks, while Catholicism remains stuck using the already dated references from 1963 to “our separated brethren” and excoriating changes in doctrine and ministry as things Jesus wouldn’t have wanted.

The mainline liberal protestant churches that had presented the best opportunity for dialogue in 1969 were blending with the one philosophy that Catholicism could not bargain with: secularism and humanism. Rebuffed as a crooked dealer, when the Church turned to find other dance partners, there were (of all people) the evangelicals, the Pentecostals, the charismatics: theologically unformed, liturgically and often personally offensive, but morally as fixed in place as the rock of ages. This was Catholicism at its weakest and most pleading and it is no accident that the moral-political alliance on questions like abortion, genetic research and divorce was forged between these theologically hostile groups after it became clear that the liberal among the separated brethren wanted nothing to do with Rome.

[Part One of III]

6 thoughts on “Pater Noster: The Very Ordinary of the Mass

  1. Incredibly elegant and funny article (it gives me the impression of agility), but appallingly true. Silly liturgical boards – “Hey Dad” is far more realistic and really, perhaps all prayers should end in ‘really’. I’m glad that Tom Lehrer got so significant a mention for his unforgettable and astute Vatican Rag. I wonder if Moses had sacked his writer if we might all be Buddhist. Or Taoist or Jain. Of all the irrelevantly modernised seven deadly sins, I quite like the designation “financial gluttony” which naturally I despise. William F Buckley looks terrifyingly formidable and terribly profound, or maybe just profound if you’re not concerned about his conservative influence. And Father Waldo would provide a good facelift if he changed his affiliation, and he’s musical too. The church might be more human and probably a little bit safer for small children if both the priests and nuns were free to marry. I’m looking forward very much to Part II.


  2. A general cmment.
    The Quest for the historical Jesus beginning with Riemarus’ challenge “Search the Scriptures and see if Christianity is not based on a mistake.” Today, given our historical methods and knowledge, one is faced with the fact that the writings of the NT can no longer be assumed to constitute a proper canon. i.e. none of the writings of the NT is apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church understood apostolicity – thus they are not reliable sources for HJ reconstruction.
    Thus for the historian the Quest is a tight rope walk subject to the habitual limitations of consciousness. At each step the historian must avoid the powerful tendencies of the determinative effects of the enormous counterweight Christianity to overbalance on the one side of being over critical while on the other side of being too credulous. on both extremes, we experience the habits of cosciousness to develop biasies, on the first side to become fixed on the notion that there is no reliable Scritural source for witness to Jesus, while on the other side one cannot let go the possibility of yet finding sufficient evidence within the writings of the NT. Thus for both extremes, it becmes impossible to recognize an alternative Scriptural apostolic witness.

    I cite one example to illustrate the effects of being over critical. The article: Milestones on the Quest for the Historical Jesus by Robert Funk. The section headed: Distinguishing the Histroical Jesus from the first Disciples, has the following: “Riemarus was the firt to draw the absolute distinction between what the HJ did and taught and the teachings and aims of Jesus’ disciples – – the distinctin he drew between the figure of Jesus and the view of his followers as reflected in the gospels stands as a lighthouse warning aginst the shoals of harmonization – – he accuses the gospel writers of conscious fraud, fanaticism and nmumerus contradictions.” Riemarus was witing under traditions mistaken belief that the gospels were authored by disciples or those closely associated with disciples. Thus in denigrating the gospel authors he denigrates the first disciples. So Fumk with his over critical conviction of the relative insignificance of the HJ, naively literally reads Riemarus. I believe that this goes far toward explaining the JS’s fateful conclusion that there is no reliable Scriptural witnes to the HJ.

    Schubert Ogden (once Joe’s ‘intellectural hero’) writes: ” – – all appropriate Christian faith and witness are and must be apostolic – – one believes and bears witness with the apostles, solely on the basis of their prior faith and witness. But this is to say there is nothing in the least wrong with the early church’s criterion of apostolicity, however mistaken its historical judgment in applying this criterion. On the contary, the witness of the apostles is still rightly taken to be the real Christian norm, even if we today have to locate this norm not in the writings of the New Testament but in the earliest stratum of Christian witness accessible to us – – “. Should there be interest, I will be pelased to discuss this apostolic witness further.

    • With no interest I will say no more about apostolic witness. My understanding that we experience habits of consciousness forming biases resulting from states of being overr critical applies as well to one’s ability to recognize NT apostolic witness.

      • To say, all of this secular critical fun over the NT may be no more than oggling ove an historical mistake, blinded by its comsequemt biases making it impossible to recognize the Scriptural alternative, the real source of apostolic witness.

  3. You know the joke about Coca Cola and the Lord’s Prayer?

    Coca Cola gets the idea that changing the Lord’s Prayer to “Give us this day our daily Coca Cola” would be great publicity. So they send their sales manager to the local bishop who offers the Church one million dollars to change it. The bishop becomes indignant: how do you dare to profane a prayer that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ!

    Ok. So Coca Cola nows sends their executive vice president to talk to the Cardenal and he offers 50 million dollars. The Cardenals pauses and explains that unfortunately, the prayer is a very old tradition of the Church and that it cannot be modified, but in any case, he blesses Coca Cola.

    So the Coca Cola CEO goes directly to the Pope. Holy Father, he says, here are 500 million dollars in unmarked bills if you change the damned prayer.

    The Pope picks on a phone, dials a number and asks: what was the bakers’ last offer?

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