Wednesday, October 29, 2003

The Liturgical Two-step
(Take one Step Forward and Two Steps Back)

Living in a liberal diocese with a liberal Bishop, one lives in constant fear of losing the few precious remnants of reverence in our liturgies. The diocesan newspaper reflects the liberal tendencies of the local clergy, so finding an article critical of liturgical abuse is a rare and pleasant surprise.

The October 26, 2002 edition of the Northwest Indiana Catholic printed a Catholic News Service (CNS) article about a speech given in San Antonio by Cardinal Francis Arinze (Prefect of the Vatican Congregation of Divine Worship and the Sacraments) in which he criticized unauthorized liturgical innovations. He addressed several of my own personal concerns about certain changes desecrating many American Catholic Churches.

One of the current fads is to rearrange the seating, bringing the altar out into the main body of the church with the pews surrounding. Cardinal Arinze is quoted as follows: "If a church is built and the seats are arranged as in an amphitheater or as in a banquet, the undeclared emphasis may be horizontal attention to one another, rather than vertical attention to God. . . . We come to Mass primarily to adore God, not to affirm one another, although this is not excluded."

Amen, Amen. So many beautiful churches have been awkwardly cobbled into an amphitheater seating arrangement in order to project some contrived sense of community. I would go one step farther than Cardinal Arinze and say this structural metamorphosis is a direct result of misplacing our vertical focus on the physical presence of Christ Himself on the altar.

Cardinal Arinze goes on to say that liturgical renewal does not mean knocking down the altar rails or positioning the altar in the middle of the sitting area of the people. "The Church has never said any such thing." The Cardinal added, "And the altar of the Blessed Sacrament should be outstanding for its beauty and honored prominence." How many churches make worshippers hunt for the tabernacle? Again, the physical presence of Christ is no longer front and center.

As I read this article, I thought how refreshing to see a high ranking Cardinal speak out in agreement with those of us who are discouraged by what is happening to our beautiful liturgies in our formerly beautiful churches and cathedrals. But, as if to let us know that the old conservative Cardinal won't rain on our liberal parade, the newspaper printed another CNS article on the very same page under the headline, "Pope's liturgist defends dance at Mass."

The article is about Archbishop Piero Marini, Pope John Paul II's "chief liturgist", defending the use of dance in papal Masses abroad and at the Vatican. Archbishop Marini has apparently been criticized by church officials because some papal liturgies are "too outlandish". According to the article, an October 5th beatification Mass in St. Peter's Square featured African dance at the offertory and Indian dance at the consecration.

Archbishop Marini defended the liturgical dance by saying, "To introduce dance at a parish Mass in Italy would be pointless. But the celebration was a missionary celebration, for the beatification of three people who evangelized Africa and Asia." The article continues to quote the Archbishop as saying, "Papal celebrations have a markedly universal character and therefore need the adaptation and inculturation foreseen by the Second Vatican Council."

Being the universal church encompassing all cultures, certain allowances probably need to be made in terms of the permitted manners of self-expression. That does not mean that dancing is a proper form of worship in all societies. In our culture, dancing is often associated with sensuality. A local Protestant church has a liturgical dance troop that performs regularly at various community events. While the dance may be very beautiful, it is difficult to think about God while watching those young women in their slinky white gowns. That is one reason liturgical dance is not permitted in our Catholic churches.

Yet, many of our priests and bishops will take Archbishop Marini's words as validation for allowing certain forms of dance at liturgical celebrations including the Mass. If you think not, turn a few pages in the same diocesan newspaper to find the following announcement: "St. Maria Goretti Parish in Dyer is hosting a Polka Mass, Sunday, Nov. 9, 10:30 a.m."

If the need for "adaptation and inculturation foreseen by the Second Vatican Council" includes celebrating Polka Masses, then why not have Hip-Hop Masses, Can-Can Masses, or Disco Masses. After all, we want to show our multicultural diversity as the universal church. How about Irish jig Masses, Russian Sabre Dance Masses, or American Line Dance Masses. Lord, have mercy on us.

Yes, the Mass is celebrated. To celebrate means to solemnize, not to turn into a dance party. Just as some Americans now demean Memorial Day by celebrating with cookouts, picnics and parties, some Catholics demean the Memorial re-presentation of Christ's one Sacrifice on Calvary by introducing liturgical diversions. The time has come to solemnly turn our attention away from the frivolous spectacle and gaze in awe upon the miracle taking place before our very eyes.