Poorly worded: Can we have a Mass that speaks to real people?

By Father William J. O’Malley, S.J.| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Parish Life Prayer and Sacraments
The translators of the new Mass prayers have neglected one cardinal rule: Consider your audience.

As the days dwindled before their triumphal entry, the new liturgical changes had not yet risen to even an underwhelming response. “One in being” in the creed pretty much satisfied the mass of still-loyal Catholics, since they neither understood what it meant nor cared enough to Google it. And its replacement, “consubstantial,” is hollower and even less intriguing. Parishioners’ only real problem is why such stuff even matters.

When the official church has to publish a booklet explaining, step by step, why “this is good for you,” bet your bottom dollar it’s not going to be any help at all—especially not where Catholics really need it to help, in their weary and puzzled souls.

To any objective mind, the new changes to the Mass are unarguably not food for ordinary people’s souls. It would be an unusual step, but all authorities would have to do is just ask the people: “Does this bring you and God closer? Does it really make you feel part of a bigger life with the people who share this space and time today?”

On the contrary, the changes are palliatives to the specialist minds of theologians, liturgists, and church historians. In a conversation with several priests, I was dimwitted enough to ask, “But what about the audience?” And one said, pretty intensely, “The audience doesn’t matter. It’s the message that matters!”

And just what is that message? Freedom from the fear of sin and death? Or conformity and obedience? Even the liturgists’ rarefied toolbox of now-required terms springs from some transgalactic thesaurus. I doubt too many parents wonder if their college kids “have missed liturgy this week.” Epiclesis is not even in my 45-year-old dictionary, and it sounds like some eye disease. I strongly doubt that those who have taken a summer theology course and now speak of “mystagogy” also refer to a horse as an “equine quadruped.”

For some time I helped out in a parish every Sunday. But a personal quirk of mine had long conflicted with the personal quirk of whoever had the final word on the previous Mass prayers. I simply could not use the ugly phrase “our spiritual drink” in a conversation with Someone who gives me reason both to be celibate and to put up with his stubborn refusal to fulfill my expectations. So I would say, “Heavenly Father, we offer you these ordinary gifts—bits of bread and a cup of wine—and we ask you once again, by that great miracle, to infuse into these gifts—and through them into us—the living presence of Jesus Christ, our Lord and our brother.”

But a woman in the choir, a member of a pontifical prelature, took a (quite long) list of my liturgical depredations to the long-suffering pastor—among them, substituting “his friends” for “his disciples.” I spoke personally to her and said, “If you’re distracted by those finicky details, you miss the whole essence of the Mass!” She replied, “I like your homilies, but I want a liturgy not only valid but licit according to the Roman ritual.”

And there you have it. The rulebook versus the needs of the family.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan had the courage to ask our advice on how to invite the 30 percent of recently disenchanted Catholics, the fastest-growing Christian group in our country, back into community with the rest of us. Like any good executive, the archbishop is calling in his staff because the “product” has nosedived in desirability. But the staff keeps prescribing remedies without even a cursory consultation with the “buying public” about their true tastes and needs.

There’s the answer: The only place the life of the ordinary Catholic touches the life of the visible church is at weekly worship. What if we give them a Mass that speaks to their honest, confused adult souls? Mass might seem desirable again. If the American bishops could corral the best poets, dramatists, and songwriters to come up with a Mass that preserved the long-ratified structure but also moved the soul, the church might still have a chance.

Both the words “humble” and “human” are rooted in the Latin word humus, which means “dirt.” Would it be thinkable to make the words of our prayer together both humble and human—that is, down to earth—rather than riddled with stilted theological distinctions? Could the language of our prayer be dictated from the bottom up rather than from the top down?

As a simple example, in the eucharistic prayers, where we pray “for our pope and our bishop and all the clergy,” might we also pray for the poor, the lonely, the sexually confused, those who feel like losers, and those who crave some dignity, all of whom we should warmly welcome?

Years ago, because of my unease with the stiffness of the church’s official morning and evening prayer—prayers written by people with concerns other than my own—I wrote three books called Daily Prayers for Busy People. Some examples may clarify the tone suggested here:

Living God, at the Incarnation your Word took on himself what you had never felt before: vulnerability, woundedness, doubt. Welcome! Amen.

Or perhaps: Great Friend, we live hemmed in by mirrors, criticizing our lack of progress, power, popularity, security. Help us to shatter the mirrors. Amen.

Perhaps those are too “breathy” for public use, but they might be a step in the right direction.

We need not descend to the fireworks and screaming that draw 20 million viewers to American Idol or to the diametrically un-Christian Survivor. We surely don’t need to stoop to the level of personal agonies exposed in trashy morning talk shows, or even emulate the former queen of daytime TV Oprah Winfrey—although she may have been closer to understanding and touching the human heart than we are. Why not aim the prayers of the Mass at an audience savvy enough to understand Jon Stewart isn’t just kidding? Somewhere between The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

This is not merely a matter of getting our numbers back up. It is a matter of our doing precisely what we have been commissioned to do: Offer the Good News, the liberating message of forgiveness and resurrection. Beyond question, in its present state, our message does not yet appear to be desirable to those most in need of it.

Such personal, rather than punctilious, concern for souls over doctrines would also be welcome to those of us who have resolved to stay. No matter what.

This article appeared in the December 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 12, pages 37-38).

Image: Leslie A. Wood