Saturday, November 25, 2006

Facial Expressions and Matters of Life and Death

Saturdays are normally my day to relax, watch a game or two on television, and maybe get a little yard work done, but last week was an exception. An afternoon wedding, a birthday party, vigil Mass, and the out-of-town wedding reception had been on the calendar for some time. Added rather unexpectedly was a funeral in the morning. A friend from our parish lost her elderly mother and I wanted to pay my respects.

Since my wife and son were providing the music for the wedding and would be attending the rehearsal Friday evening, I stopped at the Burger King drive-up on my way home from work to pick up a fish sandwich before attending the wake. The cashier who was a friend of my daughter, asked me about the death of a relative of mine. This was news to me. I knew he had been in poor health, but despite the fact he lived only a few blocks from me, I was unaware of his passing. Add to the weekend another wake.

Saturday also proved to be busy for my son, the organist. He came home from college to play for the wedding so he also played for the morning funeral. The deceased came from a large Catholic family. One of the daughters picked the music for the Mass. My son is rather particular (read orthodox) about the music he plays. While there are many beautiful Catholic hymns appropriate for funerals, most families typically request Amazing Grace, and Precious Lord, Take My Hand. He respects the family's wishes, but puckers at the Protestant flavor of some of the selections. Wedding music is another matter. More about that later.

The funeral went well. A nephew of the deceased is a priest in the Boston Archdiocese. He concelebrated the Mass with our parish priest. I did notice a new liturgical wrinkle creeping into the liturgy. Our parish is pretty much evenly divided among those who during the Our Father assume no particular posture, those who assume the Orans Position, and those who hold hands. At the funeral Mass, some of the visitors took the hand-holding to a new extreme. They held hands, not only from one end of the pew to the other, but formed a snake going from pew to pew, punctuated with the standard half-orans termination pose. At the response to the doxology, they all raised their hands high the in air, still joined, in what I would describe as a modified ring-around-the-rosie move. (At what point does a Protestant pucker become a frown?)

For those who say, "So, what's wrong with holding hands during the Our Father", I really don't want to pontificate on the dangers of adding innovations to the liturgy here. Suffice to say, the Church does not prescribe a posture for the laity during the Our Father. When we invent one, we create a distraction that disrupts our unity and risks evolving into something of a spectacle that may lead to conflicting meanings not intended by the Church. As for singing Amazing Grace during the Mass, some consider it to contain a heretical lyric. I have covered that before. (See Selecting Liturgical Music, 11-28-03)

Before I wander too far off topic, let's go on to the wedding. My cousin's daughter, raised Catholic, was marrying a young non-Catholic she met at work. I do not know his faith background. The wedding vows were exchanged before our parish priest in the Catholic Church, but there was no celebration of the Mass. Music was not a major issue as the bride had little preference for what my son played. She only requested something similar to what her sister had at here wedding a number of years ago. The wedding was nice, but not without its quirky moments.

My niece was one of the bridesmaids. Having no fashion sense myself, I won't try to describe their gowns other than to say the upper half of their torsos were exposed in the back. My niece has tattoos, among which is a black cat sitting between her shoulder blades. At least, I THINK it was a black cat. The quality is so poor, it could easily be mistaken for large birthmark, which would be much less unsightly than the tattoo. I'll never understand what thought process causes a beautiful young girl to mutilate her body that way. (When does a frown become a grimace?)

After the bridal procession, the priest opened the ceremony by announcing that he forgot to have chairs set up in the front of the sanctuary for the wedding party. The bride and groom, best man and maid of honor, were made to stand through the entire ceremony including the homily. It was awkward, but everyone muddled through without fainting.

Sandwiched between the wedding and the reception, we briefly attended a birthday party for the one-year-old son of some parish friends, and then returned to church a third time for the Sunday vigil Mass for which my son also played. The wedding reception was being held about one hour's drive from the church, and we were hoping to make a quick exit after Mass as to not be too late for the festivities. We had forgotten that a baptism was taking place during Mass, and that my son had promised to meet another prospective bride and groom after Mass to pick out music for their wedding. I believe I may hold a record for witnessing a baptism, birthday party, wedding and funeral all in one day!

Knowing that we had to drop our son off at his college after the wedding reception and our schedule was now tighter than ever, we decided to run home to load his belongings for him while he met with the future bride and groom and their vocalist. When we got back to the church, he was still meeting with them in the choir loft. As we were now ten minutes late for the reception, and the reception was an hour away, I went upstairs to try to hurry them up. When I got there, I could tell from my son's facial expression that things were not going well. The vocalist, supposedly a Catholic, had suggested show tunes from the Sound of Music for the wedding. My son had informed them that wasn't going to happen here. She had also picked one of the contemporary pieces of music for the Mass, and was explaining to the bride and groom that "they don't do music in this parish that is done in almost every other parish around." (When does a grimace become a sneer?) With that, I told them we had to leave and they would have to finish picking out music themselves. We actually locked them in the church after telling them a complicated route they could follow to exit the church in the dark.

On the way to the reception, the car directly in front of us hit a deer. Had we left a few seconds earlier, we could have been the lead vehicle in the deer slaughter. No one was hurt, except for the deer, and we proceeded to the reception, getting there just in time to miss the obligatory full length epic video biographies of the bride and groom set to country music. The bride's sister and her husband got up to read a poem they had written about the bride and groom. Included in the prose was the story about how the bride and groom cohabitated before they were married. When it was over, everyone, including the priest who presided at the wedding, applauded politely. (When does a sneer become a glare?)

The experience of that day makes me realize how far we have strayed from our catholicity. The faith that makes us Catholics has been obscured by the secular traditions that have crept into the most important events of our lives. The sacramental nature of Matrimony has been cast aside. The marriage has become a production, complete with planners, directors, writers, designers, makeup artists, and videographers. The music is the wedding score, much like a movie soundtrack selected to set the mood and reflect the personality of the couple. No longer is it a melodious prayer praising God and asking him to bless the union. What spiritual preparation occurs is treated like a procedural requirement, much like getting the license. Couples go through it because the parish requires it, not because they are seeking spiritual growth together.

Those considering marriage should thoroughly understand what it means to enter into a covenant before God. Being in a covenantal relationship implies a complete commitment to one's partner. It carries certain responsibilities in the way couples lives their lives within the context of their Catholic faith. They must realize the difficulty they will encounter in their spiritual growth if they are not on the same path. Our parish has Marriage Preparation classes, but I cannot help but wonder about what is taught. What are they told about the Church's teaching on birth control? Do they study Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul's encyclical on Human Life?

Of course, the brief time spent by the couple in front of the priest in preparation for marriage will mean little if proper faith formation did not take place from an early age. When one of them was never grounded in the faith or comes from a non-catholic background, the chance of a solid faith-based union becomes even less likely. Then, what are chances that children coming from such a union will be properly catechized?

There are no easy answers. We are all called to holiness, but few seem to heed that call these days. We must pray and lead by example. Pray for vocations, for good priests who are not reluctant or unwilling to teach the fullness of the faith from the pulpit. Pray for families, for good parents who raise their children in homes upholding solid Christian values. Nurture the love of Christ and His Church in our children and all those around us. Living lives that are more Christ-centered than self-centered will give us many reasons to smile.