I recently received a couple of apologetics inquiries that may not seem related on the surface, but that I believe are suggestive of a common problematic approach to the Mass. The first was about the propriety of Christmas pageants in church. The inquirer was very obviously put off by the common custom of small children acting out the Christmas story for the benefit of parishioners, and wanted to know if this kind of spectacle was appropriate in a church dedicated to the worship of God:
Could you please inform me as to whether or not plays should be performed in church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? That is, Christmas pageants by children. Jesus said, "My house is a house of prayer." Why then should we have plays in his Church? Where is the reverence for our Lord? Cutesy, warm-and-fuzzy feelings are not what it is about.
I am not a fan of Christmas pageants that take place during the liturgy itself. In my opinion, a Christmas pageant should either precede or follow the liturgy. Aside from that single caveat, I do not believe there is a problem with parish Christmas pageants per se.
As for the charge that Christmas pageants risk turning our houses of prayer into cutesy, warm-fuzzy preschool sing-alongs, perhaps we should remember that the modern custom of erecting Nativity scenes in church at Christmas came from St. Francis of Assisi, who once re-created the Christmas story with live actors and animals.
St. Francis was not trying to create a Hallmark moment, but to assist Christians in better entering into meditation on the meaning of Christmas. While it's true that many people tend to treat Christmas pageants as a photo-op, they could also be used as an opportunity to think about what it means that God chose to enter human history as a baby, and that the redemption of the world began with a birth announcement.
My second inquirer was someone who was responding to a previous inquirer's concern that there was way too much interaction with fellow congregants during the Mass being commanded by parishes in his area:
I hope people are aware that you not obligated to exchange the sign of peace with others if you are not comfortable with doing that. I normally bow my head, close my eyes, and offer an Our Father in silence. I do not hold hands during the Our Father since it is not an action that is contained in the rubrics for the Mass and, again, I am not comfortable with it.
Many of these actions have gotten out of hand, however, as the poster commented. I too prefer to keep it between "me and God," where I can put myself in the presence of God. The Latin Mass does that for me. Just my two cents on the subject.
While this person undoubtedly means well, and is obviously concerned about the proper celebration of the liturgy (which is a good thing in itself), I think there are a number of problematic issues bundled together here. Mass is not simply about "me and God," and we do not put ourselves into the presence of God. God draws us to himself, and he usually does so through the mystical body of Christ—in other words, through his Church. That means that there is a communal aspect to the Mass.
That communal aspect to the Mass may be over-emphasized in some parishes, and congregants do have the latitude to adjust their participation accordingly. For example, it is perfectly fine to smile and nod during the sign of peace instead of handshaking and backslapping. But completely ignoring fellow congregants altogether cannot only be construed to be rude, but may also be theologically problematic (cf. Matt. 5:23-24, 1 John 4:20-21).
A sacramentary is not a cookbook
So, what is the common bond between these two questions? I believe the problem is that many Catholics seem to think that the eucharistic liturgy must be presented perfectly, as if it was a Broadway show, or even as if it was a military drill. Anything that appears to deviate in the slightest from the rubrics of the Mass is considered schmaltzy at best, and sinful at worst.
The common cry becomes "Why can't priests just say the black and do the red?" (Meaning, pray the prayers of the liturgy printed in the black type, and perform the actions of the liturgy printed in red type.) But the sacramentary is not and was never intended to be a cookbook.
Think about it. With a cookbook, you look up a recipe, assemble your ingredients, prepare them according to the instructions, and an hour or so later, you may have an edible meal. If you do not follow the instructions given, then more likely than not your meal will be inedible.
The Mass, on the other hand, is an act of public worship. The sacramentary prescribes the prayers and actions of the liturgy and gives the order in which they are to occur. But the intent is not to create a personal masterpiece. The intent is to allow a community to enter into the common worship of the universal Church. Deviation from the rubrics is not so much forbidden because the Mass might "break"; it is forbidden because significant deviation from the prescribed ritual means that the community is not celebrating the Mass. They may be worshipping God, but they are not worshipping God along with the universal Church.
So, the rubrics are indeed important and serve a necessary purpose. But they are not an end in themselves. The rubrics of the Mass were made for man, not man for the rubrics.
The dangers of rubricism
What can happen when the rubrics of the Mass are turned into an end, instead of as a means to worship? Here are a few of the dangers:
Judgmentalism. When we attend Mass and see that others are not acting according to our expectations, there is a danger that we can judge them unfairly. For example, if the parish decides to host a Christmas pageant (whether or not a eucharistic liturgy will also occur as part of the planned program) there is a temptation to dismiss it as "cutesy" and "warm and fuzzy." That, in turn, can blind us to centuries-old precedents that were not created merely out of sentiment but for serious religious purposes.
Isolation. Then there is the problem of assuming that any interaction among congregants during the Mass is to be frowned upon, and assuming instead that congregants should not acknowledge each other at all during public worship. Taken to an extreme, this creates a bunch of individuals who happen to be in the same building at the same time, rather than a community worshipping God together as one body in Christ. In fact, it is a common motif to complaints about the liturgy that there is altogether too much congregational involvement in the liturgy, which brings us to the next danger.
Passivity. In reaction to what can sometimes be an over-emphasis on communal participation in the Mass, some Catholics claim that "active participation" has been misunderstood. Rather than considering "active participation" to mean laity involved in speaking or singing the prayers of the liturgy, in union with the priest, we are told that "active participation" instead means to be silent and unite ourselves with the liturgy "in our hearts." Sometimes this admonition is glazed with pious assurances that this is how the Virgin Mary prayed at the foot of the cross.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with praying silently at Mass, and while there is much to commend interior offerings of oneself in union with Christ on the cross, the fact is that the Church provides for the laity to do more during Mass. This is yet another facet of Catholic life that is not either/or but both/and. We can pray silently and give the congregational responses the Church asks us to give. We can offer ourselves in union with Christ on the cross, and serve at Mass as a lector or extraordinary minister of holy Communion.
Making a mess
At World Youth Day last year, Pope Francis is reported to have told a group of pilgrims that he wanted them to go out and make a mess:
I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio [de Janeiro] there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses! . . . I want to see the Church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools, or structures. Because these need to get out!
The Pope did not exactly define what kind of mess he wanted to see, but I have been thinking about his words lately when looking around at Mass at the parish I attend.
A typical American Catholic parish
The parish I attend is probably pretty standard for a parish church in the United States that was renovated sometime in the late-'70s or early-'80s. The architecture is not aesthetically appealing—which is a polite way of saying that it is ugly, no question. The church looks like a concrete rotunda from the outside. From the parking lot, the building looks like it would be better suited to a public library than to a place for public worship.
On the inside though, effort has been made to make the sanctuary look more traditional. For example, statues are scattered throughout, and in such a way that parishioners can pause to pray before them on the way into or out of Mass. This past Sunday I was both touched and somewhat amused to see that the statue of Our Lady of Grace had dollar bills tucked between her fingers, undoubtedly symbolizing someone's prayer for financial solvency.
The pastor has been busy with making the altar area look a bit more traditional as well. The free-floating crucifix was moved so that it was positioned directly over the altar. Lighting was added to make it easier for both those on the altar area to serve and for congregants to observe. It is still no one's idea of a truly traditional Catholic altar configuration, but the results are both attractive and more in line with the rubrics for sacred space. And yet there are still more than a dozen EMHCs who troop up into the altar area to collect Communion for distribution during each Sunday Mass.
I have also noticed interesting habits of parishioners during the liturgy. More women are wearing veils and other headcoverings—with slacks, even sometimes with jeans, and while serving as lectors or EMHCs. Some parishioners kneel down to receive the host—and then receive the precious blood from the chalice while standing. There is a lot of chatter that goes on after Mass, but some congregants will gather for a rosary in front of the statue of the Virgin and others will make "pilgrimages" from statue to statue to visit with their favorite saints.
In other words, there is genuine concern for a proper celebration of the Mass, there is desire to return to ancient customs of the faith—but without any expectation that all must conform to an ironclad vision of how everyone "must" conduct themselves at Mass. There is a certain amount of "mess," with old customs and modern practices side by side, but I can honestly say that I have not seen a single incident of true irreverence.
Churches are not museums
In his book, God Is Near Us, Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI made this observation about the danger of turning the liturgy into an artifact, instead of a living expression of the worship of God by the faithful:
There is a great danger today of our churches becoming museums and suffering the fate of museums: If they are not locked, they are looted. They are no longer alive. The measure of life in the Church, the measure of her inner openness, will be seen in that she will be able to keep her doors open, because she is a praying Church. I ask you therefore from the heart, let us make a new start at this. Let us again recollect that the Church is always alive, that within her evermore the Lord comes to meet us (p. 90).