Some years ago the theologian Fr. Jonathan Robinson wrote a commentary on the modern experience of the Sacred liturgy and entitled it, The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward. It is a compelling image of so much of what is wrong with the celebration of the Liturgy in many parishes today.The first time I ever attended the old Mass was a weekday evening in a bad neighborhood. It was a Low Mass which means no music, no chant, and the priest is not speaking so as the whole congregation can hear. At first it feels like you're eavesdropping on a private conversation between the priest and God. For me it was love at first sight. It was an awesome experience. I didn't know all the ins and outs of the old Mass yet, but one thing which struck me was that it didn't appear as though the Mass depended on whoever happened to be there. The new Mass, as it is typically celebrated around here anyway, always seems very nice in the way that an office party is nice. The priest faces the people, we all smile, crack jokes, shake hands, hug, and make nice. It's all quite nice but there's little to distinguish it from other nice occasions.While Fr. Robinson certainly had the celebration of Mass “facing the people” in mind, his concerns are broader than that.Indeed, we have the strange modern concept of the “closed circle” in so many modern conceptions of the Mass. Too often we are tediously self-referential and anthropocentric. So much of modern liturgy includes long lists of congratulatory references, both done by, but also expected of the celebrant.
Instead of the Liturgy being upwardly focused to God and outwardly toward the mission of the Church (to make disciples of all the nations), we tend today to “gather” and hunker down in rather closed circles looking at each other, and speaking at great length about ourselves.This is pretty funny considering that it's us Trads who are often accused of building fortresses to keep out the unclean. Here's the thing though: a hundred years ago the Church had a much stronger missionary spirit and a much higher rate of success in that field than it does today. The missionary spirit was killed stone dead and conversions dropped precipitously almost immediately after Vatican II which focused so much on reaching out to the world and speaking to modern man in new ways. Correlation alone does not prove causation of course, but it is kind of funny in a gallows humor sort of way.
I would like to link the current “closed circle” liturgical experience to another struggle of Church life today: the crisis of leadership. Many of the lay faithful have come to decry the crisis of leadership among the clergy. And while there are excesses in way these concerns are expressed (according to me), there is surely a grave hesitancy on the part of too many clergy to lead. Too rare are clergy today who point to God and the will of God in clear and unambiguous terms. Too many of us prefer to speak in abstractions and generalities. I do concur that we have experienced so degree of a crisis in leadership. There are notable exceptions to this problem, but it remains a widespread issue. And of course the primary place that the faithful ought to experience leadership is in the sacred Liturgy, where the clergy unambiguously point to God and lead others to Him.Wimpy clergy have done much to fuel the creation of Catholic blog content - especially here. Although the Church is supposed to stand outside and above the times, the human beings who make up the Church Militant cannot completely escape their culture. The crisis of leadership in the Church is part of the more general decline of manhood and masculinity in the broader culture. If anything it's exacerbated within the Church since priests are now widely expected to be, for lack of a better term, more motherly.
To be sure, there are many reasons for the current crisis of leadership in the Church. Surely the overall crisis of manhood in our culture, along with passive or missing fathers is a central cause. Also related is the rise of feminism and the designation of normal male tendencies to competition and leadership as “pathological” and misogynist. Many normal school boys, full of spit and vinegar, and a tendency to rough-house are “diagnosed” and medicated, and told explicitly to behave more like girls.That's the problem with public schools in a nutshell: girls behavior is considered the default, and boys are punished or medicated to the extent they vary from that standard. If Father gets a little too bold in his pastoral initiatives, then parishioners start complaining to the chancery and Father will find himself banished to the diocesan equivalent of Siberia. Other priests see this and become reluctant to rock the boat too much. Bishops are then selected primarily from the ranks of priests who affirm us in our okayness. Young men see this and are repelled by their priests' terminal betatude and the crisis of leadership perpetuates itself. Boniface has a lot of good suggestions on how to change that.
All men are inclined toward competition. Even the desert hermits strove toward achievement in the spiritual life, i.e. conquering their own vices and faults. I think the life of the Church would be immensely improved if parish priests spoke more on the spiritual combat and emphasized to young men the need for struggle against our lesser selves. It quickly grows tiresome to hear the same thing week in and week out, that God loves us just the way we are and aren't we wonderful for being such a great Christian community.