Let’s not make Mass all about the ministers
Sure, giving credit where credit is due is important, but getting over congratulatory with a select few sends the wrong message to both parish insiders and the church community.
By Gregory F. Augustine Pierce, co-publisher of ACTA Publications and a past president of the National Center for the Laity. His books include The World as It Should Be, The Mass Is Never Ended, and Spirituality at Work. He can be reached at email@example.com .
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At the end of the Christmas Eve Mass at my parish last year, the pastor said, “We’re going to have to sing one more song before we leave.” I looked at my wife, Kathy, and whispered, “Oh, no. They’re going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jesus.”
“Yes,” said the pastor, “I won’t be here next week, and I didn’t ask his permission, because I knew he’d tell me not to do this, but it’s Father Jones’ 90th birthday next week, so let’s all wish him a happy birthday.”
With that the organist and choir started up the well-known song (which is, by the way, still under copyright, but I’m sure we got permission), and the packed church rose as one and sang “Happy Birthday” to Father Jones, followed by sustained applause for all the priest’s many years of service to the church and our community.
I, however, remained seated, feeling every bit like the Grinch.
Here we were on one of the two holiest days of the year, and we had to sing “Happy Birthday” yet again to one of the parish staff, which we do with alarming regularity. Kathy, who teaches at our parish school, was turning 60 that same week. No recognition of her. There were many others in the church that night who were undoubtedly reaching similar milestones that week, perhaps including another nonagenarian or two. But at our parish, the only people who regularly get sung to on their birthday (or anniversary) are members of the parish staff.
Why can’t I just take this in the spirit that most of my fellow parishioners apparently do? They seem to feel that it is nice to sing to the priests and the deacon and the music director and the pastoral associate (but not, interestingly enough, the principal, teachers, and maintenance and office staff, never mind most “ordinary” parishioners).
All of this reminds me of the old Chevy Chase routine when he was a regular on Saturday Night Live. He would come on stage and say, “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not,” always garnering a big laugh. No one was ever sure why, but it seemed to touch a nerve about the comedian’s feigned oversized ego and disdain for everyone else. The joke, in other words, was on him.
There are many other things that parishes do that drive home the point that some among us are Chevy Chase and most are not:
- Applause for a job well done. Apparently the choir members in our parish are so insecure that they have to be thanked and applauded at least once a month. And here I thought they were singing to give glory to God and because they like to sing. At a Stations of the Cross at our parish school last year, the priest led a round of applause for the good job the children had all done. I know our children deserve to have their self-esteem built up, but is it really necessary—or even appropriate—when we have just finished recalling Christ’s passion and death?
- Mentions in the parish bulletin. My parish used to list everyone on the staff but the flower arranger on the front page of our weekly bulletin. The new pastor (the same one who led us in “Happy Birthday” on Christmas Eve) has thankfully eliminated that list most weeks, under the theory that most of us already know who is on the staff.
- Prayers of the Faithful. Yes, I think we should pray for the pope (by name), the bishop (by name), the pastor (by name), and all the other ministers of the church. But do we have to do it every week and do they always have to be first? How about a prayer for “Jane Jones, who is fighting to keep her business afloat and continue to employ seven people” or “Mark Johnson, who is balancing his job and visiting his aging mother in the nursing home every day.”
- Announcements. I once went to an Episcopal Church in New York City where they made all the announcements before their Mass began. When I mention this possibility to Catholic priests their universal reaction is a jocular “But people aren’t there yet!” The implication is that the announcements are so important that they must be done right before the dismissal, so that it is the sending forth on our mission to the world that becomes the afterthought, not the precious announcements about what is going on at the parish that week. (Here’s the way to know if an announcement is really important at my parish: the homilist mentions it, it leads off the announcements, and then the priest mentions it again before he gives the dismissal. Mostly these have to do with an important event at the parish that they really, really, really want us to attend, such as the special concert by the contemporary choir or the St. Patrick’s Day dinner.)
- The annual blessing of parish ministers. If there is ever a time when Chevy Chase would feel comfortable at our parish, it is the annual Sunday when we all thank and bless every single person involved in any sort of ministry in our parish. We (about half of those present) are all called up on stage—I mean around the altar—and the priest reads a special prayer over us. Then all those in the stands—I mean in the pews—raise their right hand and bless us, reminding themselves in so doing that we are Chevy Chase and they are not.
All of this is both bad ecclesiology and bad evangelization.
It is bad ecclesiology because it says that “the church” is really the people who work for the church, either on the staff or in a church-sponsored “ministry.” The rest become onlookers and cheerleaders and donors and “the faithful,” and it is their job to make sure that we—the ones who actually run the church—feel sufficiently loved and honored. Whatever happened to the mission of all Christians to help bring about the here-and-now kingdom of God in our daily lives on our jobs, with our family and friends, and in our community and civic affairs? Is this not worthy of praise and recognition?
It is bad evangelization because we all say we want non-churchgoers to join (or rejoin) us. But why would they do so if every time they attend Mass they are fed a steady diet of self-congratulation on our part? On Christmas Eve my wife and I had our three young adult children with us. They went along with singing “Happy Birthday” to Father Jones, but it had to take just a little edge off the solemnity and spiritual meaning of the celebration of the creative power of the universe becoming a human being and living among us. I believe that if we are inviting people to join us—young people who are searching for their first spiritual home or others who have been away from a faith community for a while—then maybe we shouldn’t be telling them constantly that we’re Chevy Chase and they’re not.
So I just sat in my pew with my head down on Christmas Eve while everyone else sang “Happy Birthday” to Father Jones. I worried that people around me might think that I was dissing the elderly priest. In my own way, however, I hoped I was honoring him by my silent protest, reminding myself that the church he has served so well and so long belongs to all of us, just as he always taught me.