Sunday, November 25, 2007

"Jenga" Mass, part two: My letter to the priest

[Update: As of Thanksgiving weekend, Fr. X has received the letter. I received confirmation from a mutual friend. "I did see Fr. X and I know he received your letter. I am not sure what he intends to do with it."]

What follows is the letter I sent to Father "Bill" about the "Jenga" Mass (although I most certainly did not use that term in this letter):

Dear Father X,

Greetings to you in Christ Jesus. I am writing this letter to you in an effort to explain my attitude (which I would describe as uneasy or anxious) at the Mass you celebrated for our group. I do thank you for taking the time to celebrate Mass at our request, but I have some real concerns about the manner in which Mass was said: certain parts (including gestures and postures) of the Mass were omitted, certain actions were added, and certain roles proper to an ordained minister were relegated (in whole or in part) to laymen. While I have no desire to present a list of “offenses”, I do think it is important to explain why I think that particular celebration of the Mass was detrimental to the individual spiritual growth of the members of the group and how it actually served against your purpose of seeking to make the Mass “open” to us by answering questions and explaining the elements of the liturgy. I hope that a dialog can follow this letter (if you wish it).

Let me first explain my background. Yes, I was an altar boy when I was growing up; I probably served for around 7 years or so, and my training is still with me. My oldest brother is a priest and pastor. When I moved to Plainsboro two-and-a-half years ago, it was after a spiritual wasteland of sorts: I was not a practicing Catholic at college. I was determined to find a parish (Queenship of Mary), get involved, and get back to being Catholic: now I am a reader (a non-instituted lector) and I serve on the Parish Pastoral Council. During Lent of 2007, I attended a series of lectures on Deus Caritas Est at a nearby parish. This got me interested in the writings coming out of the Church, so I read the encyclical, then I read Sacramentum Caritatis, and then I spent a lot of time searching out and reading the Church’s documents and teachings on the Holy Eucharist as well as the Mass. I own a copy of the General Instruction for the Roman Missal, a chapel-sized copy of the Sacramentary, and I printed out a booklet version of Redemptionis Sacramentum. I’m not formally trained in the liturgy nor a seminarian, but I love the Mass and wish to see it celebrated with the reverence and solemnity it is owed, regardless of the right which every Catholic has “that the Liturgy, and in particular the celebration of Holy Mass, should truly be as the Church wishes, according to her stipulations as prescribed in the liturgical books and in the other laws and norms”.[1] With my knowledge about the liturgy, though, I have found that I grow increasingly uneasy when I notice incorrect practices – even abuses – during the celebration of Mass. I want you to know, before I continue, that I do not attend any Mass seeking out liturgical abuses, but because I pay attention to the Mass and have knowledge of the order of the liturgy, I recognize abuses when I see them. I am sure some things that happen are mistakes, but some things are deliberate and calculated.

Before you began Mass on Thursday, you stated that you would welcome any questions about what was being said and done, and provide explanations. This is truly a noble task, because “there is a pressing need for the biblical and liturgical formation of the people of God, both pastors and faithful”.[2] I do not know the level of liturgical formation of the other members of our group, but I expect we all would have welcomed explanations of certain parts of the Mass (especially those parts which are said silently or in a low voice by the priest). However, I believe you worked against that purpose by not celebrating the Mass as we would expect to see it celebrated under other circumstances; the changes served to hinder a more complete understanding of the Mass. As a result, the questions I wanted to ask (but held back due to charity) had to do with why we weren’t doing things properly. I do not know entirely what your intentions that evening were.

Because we started Mass sitting down together, I don’t think you ever approached the altar and kissed it; and since we were sitting, we did not stand for prayer or the Gospel. There was no Act of Penitence – the Kyrie, yes, but nothing before it. You had Chris read the Gospel (and invited laity to comment on or add to the Homily) – which, according to Redemptionis Sacramentum, is a “grave matter”.[3] Because you did not read it, I do not know if the sign of the cross was traced on it, nor if the prayers before and after its proclamation were prayed. If you had done these things (specifically, had you prayed the silent prayers in a low voice which we would hear), it may have evoked a question from the group; but many things were omitted which would have done well to be explained!

When you invited us to gather around the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer,[4] you gave us the opportunity to hold the paten and pray over the bread, asking God to make us part of the Sacrament we were about to receive. Here I think a prime opportunity for explaining the “actual participation” of the assembly of the faithful in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was lost; it was replaced with an illicit addition to the liturgy designed to give us more “active participation” which we will simply not find outside the small-group Mass we attended. You could have spoken about how the faithful of Christ offer themselves up as the priest (in persona Christi) offers the Body and Blood of God the Son to God the Father; Pope Pius XII wrote beautifully about this joining of ourselves to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass:

[T]here is also a more profound reason why all Christians, especially those who are present at Mass, are said to offer the sacrifice. … Now the faithful participate in the oblation, understood in this limited sense, after their own fashion and in a twofold manner, namely, because they not only offer the sacrifice by the hands of the priest, but also, to a certain extent, in union with him. … [T]he conclusion that the people offer the sacrifice with the priest himself is not based on the fact that, being members of the Church no less than the priest himself, they perform a visible liturgical rite; … rather it is based on the fact that the people unite their hearts in praise, impetration, expiation and thanksgiving with prayers or intention of the priest, even of the High Priest himself, so that in the one and same offering of the victim and according to a visible sacerdotal rite, they may be presented to God the Father. … In order that the oblation by which the faithful offer the divine Victim in this sacrifice to the heavenly Father may have its full effect, it is necessary that the people add something else, namely, the offering of themselves as a victim. … But at that time especially when the faithful take part in the liturgical service with such piety and recollection that it can truly be said of them: “whose faith and devotion is known to Thee,” it is then, with the High Priest and through Him they offer themselves as a spiritual sacrifice, that each one's faith ought to become more ready to work through charity, his piety more real and fervent, and each one should consecrate himself to the furthering of the divine glory, desiring to become as like as possible to Christ in His most grievous sufferings.[5]

Instead of making up a “visible liturgical rite” for us to perform, you could have explained the sense in which we join our prayers with yours (the Eucharistic Prayer) to the Father, and join ourselves with the oblation on the altar as “a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God”.[6] The other problem encountered by having us around the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer is that kneeling there is quite uncomfortable – I know that from experience now – although kneeling is the prescribed universal posture for the consecration.

Among the changes to the words of the Mass, the one that caused me the most grief was “Let us proclaim our faith”, spoken immediately before the Memorial Acclamation. Now, I am not a fan of the current ICEL translation of “mysterium fidei” (“Let us proclaim the mystery of faith”), but at least it retains the words “mystery of faith” which are the direct translation of the Latin words in the official Missal. While I expect the Eucharistic Prayer you prayed was one with the approval of the Holy See, I cannot believe it would have rendered “mysterium fidei” as “Let us proclaim our faith” and have received that same approval! The Eucharistic Prayer is the climax of the celebration of the Mass, and so to alter the words is wholly inappropriate.[7] At least one prayer after the Our Father was truncated somewhat; to what end, I do not know.

Your remark after Mass had concluded – “Do you know what we forgot?” – made me wonder what might have been omitted that I had failed to notice. That was the state of mind I was in by the time you gave us the blessing, and it upset me to be so on edge during the Mass. However, I cannot help but feel your answer – “A collection. I’ll have to check the book to see if this was a valid Mass.” – was directed particularly at me. Father X, I take the Mass seriously. Not without joy or elation, but seriously, without frivolity and recklessness. What you may have intended as a jest, I took as an implicit admission to altering the Mass just enough so as not to render it invalid. The Mass we attended is not one we should expect (or hope) to see often, and I hope it does not make people lose interest in “normal” Mass (e.g. “Why don’t I get to hold and pray over the bread all the time?”). Furthermore, if we see this kind of care-free attitude – which in the end can be described as “disobedience” – from a priest, how long will it be before priests start seeing the same care-free, disobedient attitude from the faithful (if they haven’t already)? If we must accept disorder from the celebrant of the Mass, will the celebrants accept such disorder from the congregation?

I sincerely hope you take this letter to heart. I am praying for you, and I ask that you pray for me as well. The Lord be with you.

In Him,

Jeffrey Pinyan

[1] Redemptionis Sacramentum [RS], n. 12

[2] Ibid., n. 170

[3] Ibid., n. 173, cf. n. 153

[4] “During the liturgy of the eucharist, only the presiding celebrant remains at the altar. The assembly of the faithful take their place in the Church outside the ‘presbyterium,’ which is reserved for the celebrant or concelebrants and altar ministers.” (Notitiae 17 (1981) 61)

[5] Mediator Dei, nn. 91-99

[6] Ibid., n. 99; cf. Romans 12:1

[7] “Only those Eucharistic Prayers are to be used which are found in the Roman Missal or are legitimately approved by the Apostolic See, and according to the manner and the terms set forth by it. ‘It is not to be tolerated that some Priests take upon themselves the right to compose their own Eucharistic Prayers’ or to change the same texts approved by the Church, or to introduce others composed by private individuals.” (RS, n. 51)


Tiber Jumper said...

I admire your boldness!
You are amazing. Would the bishop like a copy of this letter?
God bless

japhy said...

I will contact the bishop about the matter only if the priest ignores the letter entirely. I included my mailing address, email address, and phone number at the end, if he wanted to reply to me in some way.

Tiber Jumper said...

I hope and pray he responds.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was obnoxious. What exactly did you expect from the priest - a humble apology and a promise never to change the Mass again? As we see from his response, that's not what happened. Instead, he's firmed up his position as a result of having responded to you. I hope you learn from this that it rarely helps to lecture your elders, especially when they have advanced degrees and ordination on their side and you have read a few documents and feel passionately about the subject.

japhy said...

anonymous: I may not have any advanced degrees nor the indelible mark of the ministerial priesthood, but as a run-of-the-mill Catholic I have the following four rights:

the right "to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church’s life in accordance with her tradition and discipline" (RS 11)

the right "that the Liturgy, and in particular the celebration of Holy Mass, should truly be as the Church wishes, according to her stipulations as prescribed in the liturgical books and in the other laws and norms" (RS 12)

the right "that the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass should be celebrated for them in an integral manner, according to the entire doctrine of the Church’s Magisterium" (RS 12)

and the right "that the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist should be carried out for it in such a manner that it truly stands out as a sacrament of unity, to the exclusion of all blemishes and actions that might engender divisions and factions in the Church" (RS 12)

Would you mind sharing what you thought about my letter to him was obnoxious?

I don't know what I expected, to be honest. I didn't think the priest was going to come out and say, "You're right, I was wrong, I'm sorry, it'll never happen again." But I wasn't expecting the priest to contradict himself in his response/defense.

Anonymous said...

"Would you mind sharing what you thought about my letter to him was obnoxious?"

The fact that a letter was written at all is obnoxious. The whole thing has an accusatory tone, and, despite the validity of your rights, you have not discovered an appropriate way to assert them. In this situation, there may not actually be an appropriate way for you to assert your rights.

What could you have done instead? Two responses occur to me. The first is to make a mental note that this group is not for you if it has regular Masses celebrated by this priest, or that this priest should not be asked again to celebrate Mass if you are a part of the group and he was a guest. Then, realizing that this kind of reasoning and style are part of his generation, and that this, too, shall pass, you pray for him and move on.

The other possible response is to bite the bullet and continue to attend his Masses and make friends with him. As he gets to know you, he may learn that not all people your age respond well to his liturgical antics. It's a little late for this to work on THIS priest, but in case there's a next time, you might consider it.

japhy said...

Anonymous: I wrote him a letter because I was following CUF's "Effective Lay Witness Protocol". I didn't want to get into a verbal argument with him, so I waited until I cooled off to write a letter to him. (There's quite a contrast between my rant on my blog and the content of my letter.)

As for the group and our monthly Mass, this priest is not being asked to say Mass for us anymore; there are other priests at the chapel who have been doing so.

I don't know how often he's actually at the chapel (and the letter he sent to me had a return address on Long Island, so the seminary where the chapel is located might not even be his normal residence) so I don't have much of an opportunity to see him on a regular basis.

The other priests who say Mass are considerably more liturgically sound. They have daily Mass there, and apart from the occasional reworded Ordinary and the stole-over-chasuble look (do priests say vesting prayers anymore?), there's nothing to cause alarm. The monthly Mass for our small group included standing around the altar again and an "invitation" to hold hands for the Our Father, but I've decided I'm going to silently obey for now. Eventually, I will talk to another priest there about the matter.