The Texas Inkling


Innovation and Tradition in the Church by Jim Noble

Traveling to a different part of the country is generally a good way to learn something about our culture in America.  So I was expecting to learn something of value about a different part of society when I accepted an internship in the Greater Bay Area this summer.  I was not expecting that something to be related to religion.

My internship placed me in the Tri-Valley area (an area just east of San Francisco and Oakland).  The town in which I lived was in a beautiful area complete with vineyards, equestrian centers, and a very high cost of living.  One of the first things that I did upon arriving was to attempt to find a church of my faith.  Now, being a Catholic from a rural area, I’m fairly used to having only one choice in the matter.  I was therefore amazed to discover that there were two Catholic churches within three miles of the house in which I was renting a room.

The first, St. Michaels, was a beautiful adobe-style church which was actually along the drive to my job.  The church itself was an impressive site to behold; the front entrance had a small poticollo with an arched doorway held up but shaped pillars.  A pair of bell towers rose magnificently above the front of the church, and there were three levels of stained glass windows containing images of Jesus Christ and various saints.  A statue of St. Michael the Arch Angel stood in an alcove above the main entrance, and to the side of the building was a garden containing a statue of the Virgin Mother and the stations of the cross.  The interior was lit in part by the light from outside and in part by two rows of lamps than ran along the main aisle leading to the altar.  It was truly a sight to behold.

The second church was St. Charles Bartholomeu, housed in a less aesthetically pleasing, though decidedly more modern, church near the top of a hill.  The building itself was effectively a box-shaped single story building with large vertical windows running along its east and west sides.  Inside, there were two columns of pews facing each other, each containing three sections of about seven rows.  An aisle separating a fountain and lecturn from the altar ran between the pews.  Loudspeakers played worship music as I entered the church.
The differences between these two churches were not limited only to the buildings which housed them:  the Masses held within were also markedly different.  Just as St. Charles was housed in a more modern building, so too did it have a more “modernized” worship ceremony.

The Mass ceremony held at St. Charles began in a rather colloquial manner, with the choir leader addressing the congregation to briefly tell us about the recent Children’s Bible Camp held by the parish.  She concluded her address by explaining to the congregation that the children had learned to express awe (“wow”) about God.  This was rather friendly and built a sense of community into the service, but she moved that sense a step farther by insisting that the children express this “wow” (verbally) during the Mass at any point when the word “God” was spoken.  While this may have been fun for the children (a few actually participated, maybe as many as... half), it very quickly became distracting, occurring at all parts of the mass, including prayers and even the homily (sermon).

The next thing that I noticed was that the choir was rather sparing in numbers, with no musicians to provide instrumental support to the hymns.  While this isn’t an uncommon problem (my own parish back home has only a pianist and a choir of perhaps 8 members), the solution found was rather unusual.  Rather than working with their small choir, the parish opted to play pre-recorded music over their microphone system to lead us in our hymns or praise.  While this may seem like a clever solution, it presented a problem, namely, that the whole process seemed more artificial as a result.  This effect was magnified by the fact that a sizeable portion of the congregation did not join in the songs of prayer with more than a robotic manner, with plenty not joining in at all, and the effect was comparable to having a machine recorded message sent heavenward, rather then actually sending it in person.

A few other things stood out to me during the course of the mass.  One was that there were no “kneelers” built into the pew:  at no point during the course of the mass did the congregation kneel in prayer- everything was done either standing or sitting.  This caused a general sense of the lack of respect of the congregation before God, no longer was there a sense of offering ourselves in humility before our Lord (recall 2 Chronicles 7:14).  Further, during the gospel reading, a time usually spent standing at attention of the Word of God, we sat like so many royal officials hearing a report from one of our appointed deputies.  Also, few members of the congregation bowed (a sign of respect) at the appropriate moment during the Nicene Creed.  In short, much of the symbolism and meaning, not too mention beauty, of the Mass was lost to this “modernized” version of the mass.

This contrasted sharply with the Mass offered at St. Michael’s parish.  Granted, St. Michael’s had a few advantages over St. Charles,’ including such things as a larger choir and an accompanying set of talented musicians to provide piano, violin, guitar, and cello music for the hymns, and the building’s design and engineering placed the alter, Blessed Sacrement, and lecturn all together, thus reminding us that the three are linked together in what they symbolize.  However, the differences between the two parishes extended beyond just that.  The mass held at St. Michael’s was far more “traditional” in nature.  That is not to say that it was all in Latin, though a refreshing amount of Latin was present in parts of the mass.  But the feel was much more traditionally conservative in nature, as Masses used to be in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The majority of the congregation actually participated in the singing of the worship hymns, giving less of the feel of an audience of observers and more of a group of people whom were there to worship God.  More time was spent kneeling at various points in the Mass, showing our humility before God and serving as a reminder that He is the Lord, and we are His servants.  Also, more time was allotted for silent prayers (this in general goes together with the concept of spending more time kneeling).  

The homily was well presented (this in general is a product of the homilist), but more impressive was the manner in which the deacon gave the homily.  Rather than distractedly pacing in front of the altar or standing behind the lecturn in a manner removed from the parish, he actually stood quite still in the middle of the aisle in front of the altar and delivered his sermon.  It was direct and to the point, addressing what the (first) reading had to say and what it meant, as well as how it could be applied to our lives.
After the Liturgy of the Word concluded, the Liturgy of the Eucharist began.  This too was more traditional in manner, complete with a few prayers and verses said in Latin (then repeated in English).  Communion bells gently rang to help announce the presence of Christ in the host.  In short, the Mass offered at St. Michael’s Church had much of the inherent beauty that so many other Masses have begun to lose over the last few years.  It was sincere and had a joyful though respectful quality that was seemed filled in awe as though God was in our midst (recall Matthew 18:20).

In general, the Mass at St. Michael’s, semi-traditional as it was, retained much of the beauty that has been lost by more “progressive” parishes.  It held many of the best qualities of the Catholic church’s flavor of worship, from the respect that is shown through the more formal nature of its worship to the one-on-one aspect of quiet prayer and reflection during various parts of the Eucharist.  The more modern Mass offered at St. Charles demonstrated what 15 years of evolution in the catholic community has to offer:  a loss of the beauty, reflection, and respect that used to be so central in the Mass.  In exchange, we have an artificial environment of worship that takes much focus away from God and places it closer to the congregation.  That’s not to say that such a service has no place in Catholic worship (or general Christian worship, for that matter), only that it should not be substituted in place of the Mass.  The result of doing so is tragic, in that we lose much of the genuineness and admiration for God that has traditionally been a part of the Mass, not to mention a part of ourselves and our heritage as Catholics.

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