"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On the Idiosyncracies of Parishes (and Priests)

Ah, well, there's nothing like a move to another parish to help one reflect on the idiosyncracies of parishes. Because I am the petty, spiritually immature type who needs to grow in holiness when it comes to concentrating during Mass, I've spent a fair amount of time over the past few weeks thinking about the differences in parishes - in particular the one I came from and the one I have arrived at, both of which are named for Marian dogmas. We went from Immaculate Conception to Assumption.

It seems to me that there are basically two types of parish idiosyncracies - ones that matter and ones that don't. Or perhaps I should say there is a spectrum, on which idiosyncracies are more or less theologically problematic. As the saying goes, lex orandi, lex credendi. How we pray indicates what we believe.

My last parish had an idiosyncracy I've never encountered elsewhere. The communion line always starts from the back. In other words, it is the last pewfull of people that are the first to receive the Eucharist. My first time at Mass there, I found this quite confusing, maybe even distracting (because, like I said, I'm the petty, spiritually immature type). But it only took a few Masses before I no longer thought about it. And, if we had to put this on a spectrum, I'd say it's not theologically problematic. We could even theologize it to say that it represents the last shall be first gospel message. Another idiosyncracy was that the parish sings the gospel acclamation both before and after the gospel reading. Visitors to the parish often sat down immediately following the gospel because they didn't expect another round of alleluia. But again, this seems not to be really theologically problematic (and it happens to match the parish's liturgical motion).

I find that many times, parish idiosyncracies can be directly tied to the idiosyncracies of the pastor. It oftentimes occurs that priests instruct their congregation to do things that are not in keeping with the GIRM. I can remember one incident of this at my parish in California where, on the occasion of Pentecost, we were made to hold a red tissue-streamer during the Our Father. It was supposed to be a visible symbol of our unity and the Holy Spirit's presence. For some reason, I just prefer receiving the Eucharist to holding a long red streamer across the pews. Much worse, even, was when an American flag processed down the aisle following September 11th during the entrance procession. But let me not digress with memories of the California parish. I don't want this post to be book-length.

Anyway, as I was saying, the idiosyncracies of parishes are often tied to the pastor. In fact, it may even be unfair to call them idiosyncracies of the parish as such. Our new pastor, who is a fine, friendly man who has already recruited us to help out at the parish, has more than a few difficulties when it comes to following the GIRM. The biggest distraction I've had is in his decision to replace the word "disciples" with "friends" wherever it occurs in the Mass. So, on the night he was betrayed, he took the bread, broke it, gave it to his friends and said...

I've already spent a couple of Masses mostly musing over why "disciples" and "friends" are not equivocal. Even aside from the issue of following the Mass guidelines, I think there are theological reasons (and biblical) that make his little practice problematic.

I usually find that after a few months of being at a new parish, the idiosyncracies start to fade from sight, and it seems normal to clap at the end of Mass (which it's not) or to have a priest roaming the pews during the homily (also not normal) or to hold hands during the Our Father (should not seem as normal as it does).

I have met many wonderful priests, and I'm close to several. I have a high respect for the priesthood. And that's precisely why I wish that priests could stick to the script. Usually an anomolous practice comes from good intentions, some of which are to "be more inclusive to the laity." But ironically, by changing words or motions, priests often make the Mass more priest-centered than lay-focused (or Christ-focused!!!). One priest at my last university chapel liked to sit with the congregation instead of in the sanctuary. It was highly effective for drawing attention to himself and away from the Liturgy of the Word, but I assume that his intention was actually the opposite.

For now, my spiritual director has assigned me the task of praying daily for my pastor. I hope this will help me to be charitable toward the idiosyncracies of my parish that come from his many good intentions.

1 comment:

Clara said...

Funny... I saw the "back to front" procession thing for the first time this last Sunday when I went to a Cornell Mass (for only the third time ever. The Cornell Chaplaincy is notorious, and rather than get embroiled in all its controversies and issues, I just found other places to go to Mass.) The priest made a big deal about how the back to front thing made it a "liturgical procession" instead of just people filing up individually to Receive, and gave this whole long talk about how this made it so much more of a *community* event.

My feeling: I can't see that it matters much whether the line goes back-to-front or front-to-back. I doubt it substantially changes the experience for anyone. But there are real dangers to putting too much stress on the "community" aspect of receiving Communion, greatest of all, naturally, that it discourages people from taking seriously the need for them personally to be in a state of grace. (Not surprising coming from the Cornell Catholic Community, which has been known even to actively discourage people from going to Confession regularly.)

But as you know, there are different schools of thought on this, and ours has always been that the most important thing is to find a parish with solid liturgical practices if at all possible. Which means that we've never before been members of our territorial parish, and we sometimes end up "parish shopping" for a suitable one. There are, I realize, negatives to that as well. It would certainly be ideal if we could all just go to our territorial parishes and trust that we'd find both orthodoxy and orthopraxy in abundance. But I guess in our minds the downsides of the "shopping" mentality are outweighed by the downsides of being regularly exposed to unhealthy liturgical practices. At first they annoy so much that it's all but impossible to concentrate properly on the Mass. Then after awhile they *don't* annoy so much... precisely because your sensibilities have been trained to accept them as normal. For some things that doesn't really matter... but for others, that's when you really should be worried!