Pedophile Priests and Guitar Masses — the Future of Polytheism?
I went to church earlier this week – long story but I was doing a favor for an elderly friend who cannot drive. I ended up sitting through a Catholic mass for the first time since I was twelve. (Actually no, when my biological mother died in 2012, I attended the funeral mass and gave the eulogy). I noticed a few things that really appalled me in the ritual. I’m going somewhere with this relevant to polytheism so stay with me while I trash the post-Vatican II mass.
Let me just say that Catholics well and truly fucked themselves with Vatican II. Ritually I think it was one of the worst things they’ve done since the Council of Trent. In a bow to Protestants everywhere, the Church attempted to cull it’s more interesting (read mystical) elements: Marian veneration, cultus of saints, Latin mass, a liturgical focus on veneration and adoration of their God rather than on con-celebrating with the people, etc. They traded the solemnity and dignity of high ritual for guitar masses and one of the most boring liturgies I’ve ever sat through (and that includes typical Heathen blots, which Gods know, are boring). No, with Vatican II, the Church happily caved to the lowest common denominator in their midst, all with a claim of making the liturgy of the mass accessible to everyone. I suppose it was the theological version of ‘no child left behind.’ We know how well that worked.
I grew up Catholic and left the Church at twelve. Until then I was forced to go to mass at least once a week and sometimes more. I do not remember it being as devoid of any sense of holiness or mystery as what I experienced this past week. It’s changed, even from what I recall, and not for the better. There’s an evangelical thread in the service now (the actual physical bible is almost fetishized by priest and congregation alike and during certain prayers, congregants hold up their hands like fundy teenagers at a Christian concert. I’ve never seen anything like it in a Catholic Church). The mass was recently re-translated from the Latin and all the poetry of the responsorials has been taken out, and people saw nothing wrong with chattering up until the moment that the priest entered. It was in no way redolent of holy space.
One of the things that most stood out to me was the impact of the priest facing the congregation. Now I grew up with this. I’m way too young to have experienced the Latin (or Tridentine) Mass as the norm. Until recently though, I never thought about this twist in liturgical structure. It was, I’ve come to believe, a crucial change. Years ago, when I was teaching at seminary, I and two of the teachers were celebrating a ritual, in part to show the students how to manage interfaith rituals with all their diametrically opposed moving parts. I was there with a Catholic priest, and an Orthodox Catholic priest (part of a break away order, the OCCA). I set up the altar table, and moved it so that I could stand in front of it, facing toward the altar (away from the congregation). I turned my back to get candles and matches and my Catholic colleagues, thinking they were being helpful moved the altar so that we could stand behind it facing away from the shrines and toward the people. I didn’t notice until right as we began the rite and there was no chance to change it. I used this as a teachable moment, pointing out the mistake to my students and emphasizing that nothing in a ritual is so small that it shouldn’t be considered. This difference in spatial positioning pointed to a huge difference in liturgical focus. I believe the same thing is true about the Catholic mass.
Facing the audience sends an implicit message that the people are more important than the act of adoration of one’s God or Gods. It says that the whole purpose of gathering is for the people, not veneration. It makes the people the most important component of the rite and adds to the role of the priest an element of performance. Having the priest face the shrine along with the congregation sends a clear message that the Gods (or in the case of Catholics, their God) is the most important reason for everyone being together at that place and time. It makes veneration the priority and the priest isn’t performing in front of the people, but helping to lead them in group veneration. It’s an expression of Mystery and that is a huge liturgical shift.
If you make something accessible to everyone, you sacrifice Mystery. If you sacrifice Mystery than you no longer have a religion, you have a social club. Instead of lowering our sacred things down, stripping them of their sacredness, bringing them to our level, we should be focused on making ourselves acceptable to that which is sacred, preparing ourselves to be in its presence, entering into the proper headspace to engage in veneration.
Now obviously as polytheists, we’re not Catholics but I think we do wrestle with this tension between accessibility and Mystery, between the social and the sacred. Often, the sacred loses out. Watering down that which is holy to make it palatable and accessible to the masses is never something that actually serves the holy. It only serves our own spiritual laziness. I think we can learn a lot from the degeneration of Catholic ritual since Vatican II. The Catholic Church once had a liturgical tradition stretching back centuries, a beautiful and sublime liturgy that inspired not just religious but also musicians and artists for generations. What do they have now? Pedophile priests and guitar masses. I hope the future of our traditions will be brighter.