Sunday, February 5, 2012
Are Some Masses Better than Others?
Last weekend, I wrote about going to Mass at a church in Sarasota, Florida, and of the sense I had of being an old dog learning new tricks. I wrote:
“I have settled comfortably into the Old World ambiance, liturgical rhythm, traditional music, and strict but caring pastorship and preaching of our parish church north of Boston, and I enjoy the fellowship of my kindly but not always demonstrative fellow parishioners. Everything, seemingly, about the Sarasota church, parish community, and liturgy is strikingly different.”
Despite many surface differences from my home-parish experience, I came down on the side of “liking” last week’s Sarasota Mass, largely because of the powerful presence of the celebrant. But should I even be talking about “liking” a Mass? And is it presumptuous to rate priests on scales of power, presence, or some other quality? Holiness? What’s holiness?
Last night, Katie and I attended a vigil Mass at another church here in Florida. We agreed over dinner afterward that the experience was distinctly different than the previous week’s and in some ways more satisfying. Why was that?
I think there is a simple answer. Everything at a Catholic Mass should serve to focus one’s attention on the liturgy and the Eucharist. Anything that distracts one’s attention is counterproductive. The most distracting occurrence during Sunday Mass at my home parish typically is the cry of a baby, and you know what Jesus said about little children. At last weekend’s Mass, I realize now, there were several distractions:
First, the church (I almost wrote theatre) is designed “in the round.” The altar is centrally located, raised on a three-step dais. The congregation sits on three-sides-plus, spilling into the area “behind the altar” where the priest’s chair is located beneath a crucifix.
To me this is a violation of sacred space. When the priest becomes one of the crowd, he is somehow diminished.
This layout is doubly distracting because, in a church with such an interior design, congregants become part of the show for each other (another theatre reference). A woman on one side of the altar may notice that a woman on the other side is wearing a similar dress, and I gather that vanity is a vice not restricted to women: I wrote last week, maybe I even snarked, about several men wearing white pants.
By contrast, at this weekend’s Mass, the church had a relatively traditional floorplan. There are smaller seating areas on either side of the transept, as in many cathedrals even, but these areas do not cross over into or surround the sanctuary.
Second, last week’s Mass featured an exceptionally talented music director, a pianist and organist who jumped from one keyboard to another, sometimes in the middle of a piece. The placement of piano and organ virtually at the edge of the dais, however, and closer to the altar than the seated priest himself, was exceptionally distracting, and as a result, and really through no fault of his own, the musician’s talent and energy served as further distraction.
By contrast, as we entered before Mass last evening, a harpist was playing a Celtic tune. Then she moved to the piano and taught us the psalm response. Then she led us through the hymns and readings, prompting us gently where necessary. Positioned to the right of sanctuary, she may have been a distraction for that smaller number seated in the right transept. But for the majority in the apse, where Katie and I sat, she was a non-event—exactly what I wanted her to be.
Third and finally, last weekend’s Mass ended with a lengthy calendar of social events. Last night’s Mass ended with a letter from Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, Florida, about the recent HHS healthcare mandate. While this was a one-time occurrence, and while liberal Catholics may object to this injection of a “conservative” point of view into the Mass, my experience listening to the letter last night told me something else.
My attention was riveted and so, it seemed, was everyone else’s. You could hear a pin drop and, I imagined, with many angels on it.
Can a priest be distracting? Sure, particularly to the extent that he himself is distracted. But as a relatively new convert, I try to remind myself that a priest is a priest, and the Mass is the Mass. It’s the stuff around them that makes it more or less difficult paying attention.
Posted by Webster Bull at 6:00 AM