As a liberal Catholic, I admire the progressive doctrine of Reform Judaism. Last summer, Reform Jews gave me something else to applaud. They have been open-minded enough to restore what they call the affective side of their religion: traditions like Hebrew chant. They now acknowledge that those gestures matterand always will as long as humans are the sensuously spiritual beings they are.
Liberal Catholics ought to view this as a challenge. One of the most endearing calling cards of the Catholic faith is its recognition that awakening the senses is a powerful means of awakening the soul. The Eucharist itself, like turning water to wine, is proof of Jesus’ divine awareness of that human fact. But as Reform Jews restore their age-old customs, it is time for us to ask: in our four-decade-long zeal to make the Mass modern and relevantby burying sublime Kyries under banal Kumbayashave we also lost the vital affective side of our own religion? Are liberal Catholics, who demand dialogue on doctrinal issues, open-minded enough to demand it of ourselves on liturgical issues?
How we practice our prayers, of course, matters more than how we sing them. And this is not about a return to the Latin Tridentine Mass. It is about acknowledging that the liturgical pendulum has swung too far the other way since Vatican II, that it is time to find a healthy and accommodating compromise between Palestrina and Peter, Paul and Mary. The answer might just be found in the generation of Catholics coming after those of us who were born before the Mass was plugged into a folk-guitar amplifier.
The guitar Mass that still dominates some Catholic parishes today is largely a baby-boomer creation. But Generation X’s tastes are different, somewhere between the more celebratory air of the reformed Mass and the more reflective tone of the Tridentine. While buying up REM a few years ago, music fans between the ages of 16 and 25 also bought two-thirds of the chart-busting four million Gregorian chant CD’s recorded by an obscure community of Spanish monks. A recent article in the Claretian magazine Vision pointed out that many younger Catholics are eager to latch onto older religious practices as an avenue for spiritual growthand warned baby-boomer Catholics against dismissing it.
While recently reporting for a Time magazine article on a resurgence of interest in traditional Masses, I interviewed a twentysomething biochemist who had been a lapsed Catholic since high school. He was at odds with the pope on issues like women’s ordinationbut he was drawn back to his faith in part because he had discovered the Tridentine Mass at Chicago’s conservative St. John Cantius Church. I wondered: why can’t a parish like mine, which I applaud for permitting altar girls, also offer this young man some of the same soul-arresting tradition he finds at St. John Cantius? Why must it be either/or?
But the modern Mass risks becoming something more troubling than a baby-boomer anachronism. Reform Jews conceded recently that they had over-intellectualized their worship; and a case can be made that we have over-vernacularized ours. Face it: even the hippest Catholics squirm a little every time a parish music director steps up to the altar before the Gospel reading and swivels his acoustic guitar like a dime-store Elviswhich annoys me not only as a Catholic but as an Elvis fan. They have looked at the new computerized screens on either side of the crucifixwhich often display mouse arrows opening hymn files in Windows 98and instead of imagining a repentant thief at Jesus’ side, they envision Bill Gates, an unrepentant monopolist.
I am not issuing a snobbish complaint about kitsch. (I’m from Indiana, after all.) Nor am I alone. No less progressive a Catholic than former New York Governor Mario Cuomo has expressed a preference for a more traditional Mass. But I do fear that our liturgy has become a reflection of, rather than an alternative to, the vapid secular culture that Catholics say they want to change in the worldand in themselves. In their homilies, our priests rightfully assail the spiritual emptiness of our Home Shopping Network worldbut then yield to Masses that often feel like new age infomercials set possibly in a Wal-Mart. We go to proclaim the mystery of faith at Mass, and then eradicate the very tone of mystery in gushing waves of politically correct, hand-holding perkiness. Yes, Mass should make us feel spiritually ebullient and connected in community; but, like a Gothic cathedral, it should also move us to the more shadowy corners of spiritual introspection, into the depths of ritual symbol. Sad to say, the modern Mass has lost that balance.
So how could it possibly hurt liberal Catholics to restore some transcendence in our worshipchiefly by rebuilding our own bond with two millenia of some of the most affective religious language, music and art ever inspired?
In my reporting, I discovered a number of parishes crafting beautiful mixtures of English and Latinchiefly by reserving the shorter prayers, like the Sanctus or Agnus Dei, for chant in Latin, or using a Renaissance motet as the communion hymn once in a while instead of relying wholly on the Glory and Praise book. Hard-core reformers always point out to me that Jesus did not speak Latin: if you really want a traditional Mass, they say, why not chant it in Aramaic? That is clever, but it misses the point. One group of parishioners explained that they chant the Lord I am not worthy prayer in Latin (Domine non sum dignus) because instead of Lord I am not worthy to receive you it says Lord I am not worthy for you to enter under my roofa richer and more direct allusion to Matthew. It produces in them, they say, the same timeless transport a Jew feels when she speaks the Berakot, or that a Muslim experiences when he hears Allah akhbar from the minaret.
I was reminded of that in my own parish recently when our new music director, as if defying the Kumbaya powers, had his young cantor sing a moving Ave Maria at the end of a Mass. Most of the congregation, especially the younger members, were so surprised and stirred by it that they applauded. That might not have been the appropriate response at a Massbut it pointed up a longing that I think Reform Judaism has already recognized at the start of the new century. We should, too. Catholicism owes Judaism so many cultural debts already. One more won’t hurt.