Pedophile Priests and Guitar Masses — the Future of Polytheism?

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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.

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Posted on November 5, 2015, in Polytheism, theology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Thinking about this, I agree about the undesirability of the priest facing the congregants for the worship portions. We should face our divinities. In our Pagan ceremonies, the priest/esses are either in the center, facing the altar which is in the center, or the altar is to a specific side, and the priest/esses face that altar when invoking or performing the holier stages of ritual.

    Latin, though? I remember the pre-Vatican lituragy, and being dragged out more than once by my mother because I couldn’t understand why the priest was allowed to speak “gibberish” and I couldn’t do the same… mind you, I was NEVER dragged out of any restaurant or any other function in my childhood. And mother would have!

    I haven’t been to a Catholic mass in well over ten years for any reason. (No deaths or weddings to attend in the RC church of late.) I am sorry to learn that they’ve re-re-written the English version to be less poetic and more mundane than the earlier English version. And that the whole experience is getting evangelical…

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    • i’m very much for bringing back Latin as a liturgical language. it’s not gibberish, it’s latin. as far as i’m concerned, if your primary ritual is in latin, well, maybe that’s good motivation to LEARN Latin (of course, I’m a Latin teacher). i’m never for lowering standards down to the lowest common denominator. Plus, i’ve seen mass books: english on one side, Latin on the other –easy to follow. of course I tend to think Latin should be required in elementary and high school anyway. lol

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      • Understood…. And I’d be in favor, too but I do admit that when one is five or six years old the conversational immersion methods that favor childhood bilingual-ity don’t really exist for Latin. (Hence, for a youngun, it does come off as gibberish, which is why I put the word in quotes in my initial post.) On the other hand, it is a root language for nearly all the southern European languages (and even for some of English) that budded off from those.

        What really did give me pause for thought here were the comments about facing the congregation or facing the Divine — My folks never did really discuss the pros or cons of Vatican II (that I know about). Dad was essentially an agnostic/atheist going through the motions because he thought it “expected” of him, anyway. But I’ve given good thought about the Pagan practices of generally facing the altar, or the quarters, rather than the congregants — we’d ALL be facing what we were invoking, together, Priestess, Priest, or any one of us. There is a whole different direction ritual takes, it focuses on whatever God, Goddess, or plurality of these that we are honoring and worshiping. Otherwise, focus automatically goes to the officiants.

        I also appreciate sacred spaces that look sacred.. community centers, not so much. (Sometimes you have no choice as most Pagans don’t own their own dedicated buildings, but then there is usually the out of doors.) But I have been in a lot of Protestant (and other) churches that are built on the “community center” no-aesthetic standpoint, which I find disappointing.

        I’d left the RC church early in grad school, but I still felt a sense of “something” powerful when I entered the local cathedral which was truly a cathedral in the full sense of the word. I’d just go there during non-service hours and quietly reflect and Absorb.

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  2. Wonderfully insightful! (Perhaps because I agree wholeheartedly about the liturgy.)

    Anthony Burgess in “Earthly Powers” writes about the issue–among others.

    Thank you!

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  3. Well, yes and no. While some have tried to make the argument that versus populum had destroyed the focus of devotion from the mystery of the sacrament to that of the congregation, it does have a very strong liturgical tradition equal to that of ad orientam and may, in fact, be representative of the original worship of the early Christian churches, which is something Vatican II had sought to go back to as part of the theology of liturgical continuum. There’s also the reality that prior to the dominance of the Roman Rite in the Western Church, there had always been a lot of variance in worship. Some of this was largely due to local tradition, some theological, and some due to simple architecture. I would like to likewise note that basilica worship had historically also been versus populum, this continues to this day even at Saint Peter’s. Where there are shifts, it really only has to do with the discretion of the priest or bishop performing the liturgy and doesn’t have any less pietistic intention nor affect the effication of the mystery (Ex opere operato) due to the variance.

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  4. Somewhat side question:

    Do you have any preferred recommendations of learning materials for an adult wanting to learn Latin?

    Regards,

    J

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    • i usually work from “Wheelock’s Latin”. It’s a pretty straight forward text that I find good for adult learners. Some teachers also recommend “Latin for the New Millennia” but i haven’t used it.

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  5. One thing that I’ve noticed since moving from North Carolina to Minneapolis this year is the difference in types of Christian churches around me. North Carolina, of course, is deep in Protestantland. But here in Minneapolis I happened to have moved to a part of the city that had lots of immigrants from places like Eastern Europe, so I’m surrounded by a plethora of Catholic and Orthodox churches (in astounding variety too: Catholic churches that do the Latin service, Ukrainian Catholic, Marionite Catholic church from Lebanon, there’s even a Catholic church that does their service in Polish).
    I’ve been to a nearby Orthodox church a few times since I’ve moved here out of curiousity, since Karelian folk religion was Orthodox. It seems very different from the Catholic custom you describe regarding where the priests face. In an Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the priests and deacons seem to spend most of their time behind the iconostasis, at the altar. At some points they process out and do things, like cense the icons. They only seemed to face the congregation if blessing them with the sign of the cross or incense. I liked how when pious people first come into the church, they go to the front and bow at, and kiss, the icons.
    Some signs of Americanization that I didn’t like were the addition of pews–traditionally there are none in Orthodox churches, where people stand for the service and often bow or even prostrate, which pews interfere with–the music was of a very Western choral type, not the kind of ancient chanting I’ve heard in the past, and the service was in English–I like non-English religious activities.

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  6. I remember a similar disappointment when I went to my grandparents anniversary ceremony where they renewed their vows, which included a mass at a Catholic Church. For one thing, the church itself looked like a community center at best, nothing beautiful, nothing to indicate it was a holy space. The ritual was extremely dull and perfunctory, with no understanding of either religious or psychological elements to make it a holy experience. I mean, they were, according to their beliefs, eating the actual body and blood of their god, how can you make that dull?!

    Also, that thing about facing the god(s) or facing the congregation is one of those subtle but extremely significant details. It’s funny, it didn’t even occur to me, for instance, that we were doing that in our Dionysos ritual at MGW, that each person who stepped up to sing or pray or make offerings stood facing the deities, with the other worshippers at their back. But had we done it in the reverse, it would have been a performance, a play, for the benefit of the group rather than the gods.

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    • Yes. When my parents told me about the change in priestly orientation, I immediately grasped that the congregants were transformed by it into an audience. But for Vatican II, I might have remained Catholic.

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  7. I am a bit older than you, so I did experience 4 years (1958-62) of the Latin Tridentine Mass at the parochial school I attended in North Carolina. Even though I was also being brought up very high church German Lutheran, the service in our old church on Connecticut was led by a minister who came from Germany. I believe we even had incense. Luther really did not make that many changes ;-). However, like with the Roman church, things have become much too “modernized” in my opinion all in “ahem” the never ending process of seeking “relevancy,” whatever that is. {Pardon me while I get sick for awhile.}
    What has actually happened is what you have pointed out — a loss of mystery, a loss of devotion. If people want Puritan/Methodistic religious ritual, there are plenty of churches that provide it. Keep the High Churches as they were! People run in and out of them all the time because they are shallow.
    Anyway, I’ve been an Hellenic polytheist since the time I was a small child (around 6); however, I can still appreciate a truly venerational service and I can feel the energy filling the structure, feeding his/her people. Low Churches do not do this no matter how loud they shout.

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  8. I was too young to have regularly attended any Latin masses or mass where the priest faced away from the congregation, but I heard my family grumble about it for 2 generations. I left the church myself at about 14, though attended for many years, and even after, while it wasn’t my faith, I appreciated going to church, watching the ceremonies..there’s something to be said for watching rituals take place that have been happening in some form or another for 2000 years…but its lost its magic. In NY, the only place I attend church (I go for funerals and weddings), they have changed all the old churches in the diocese, making them all look the same. Its like a restaurant chain instead of a religion!

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  9. the thing that gets me about american churches, and someone else commented on it here too, is the absolute lack of beauty. everything is utilitarian. When I go into a church in europe, even a small one, there is a sense of culture and history and it’s usually quite beautiful and there has been care and love devoted to the adornment of the sacred space. here….not so much and maybe it’s that american culture is largely a protestant one, maybe it’s the lack of history, maybe it’s that we were largely settled first and foremost by protestants but it saddens me. holy spaces should be beautiful if it is within our ability to make them so.

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  10. “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.”

    My question is, how -do- we reclaim sacredness? How do focus on making ourselves acceptable to that which is sacred and enter the properheadspece.

    When I was a kid, I was told this was supposed to be the goal of Protestantism (and perhaps in the beginning it was) that -everyone- had a right to be a Priest of God, to stand before God and the sacred without the need of an intermediary like the Catholic Priesthood who seems to hold a monopoly on sacredness and lorded it over everyone else.

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