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Everyone’s a Critic

Catholic Answers Director of Apologetics Tim Staples and I were bouncing around ideas for blog posts when he told me of two common, related questions he receives while on the road speaking for Catholic Answers. Often, Catholics he meets are extremely frustrated with the quality of the liturgy at the parishes they attend. They are on edge at Mass, wondering what novelty their priest is going to dream up next. Why can’t priests just “say the black, do the red”?—a cri de coeur promulgated by the popular priest blogger, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, referring to the priestly mandate to precisely follow the sacramentary as it is written. Catholics ask Tim these two questions:

  • How do I know when I should say something about liturgical abuses at Mass?
  • When do I know I should just give up that things will improve at my parish and start looking for a new parish?

Knowledge and scrupulosity

Soon after I became a Catholic in 1996, like many other new Catholics I wanted to learn all I could about my new faith. In my case, Catholic Answers was located in my diocese, so I started volunteering, in part so I could gain access to Catholic Answers’ resources on the Faith. I devoured back issues of This Rock, the predecessor publication to Catholic Answers Magazine. I read all of the books I could charm the staff into lending to me (and I bought many to keep for future reference).

All of this newfound knowledge was great preparation for eventually becoming a Catholic apologist. But it came at a price. To misquote Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great knowledge comes great scrupulosity.” To choose but one example of this dictum, for years I could hardly sit through a Mass without seething over and worrying about priestly variations from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. As was the case with those Catholics who approach Tim, I too wondered whether it was my responsibility to say something or find a new parish.

Then one day I read an article by Catholic Answers Senior Apologist Jimmy Akin wherein he discussed problems in the Church and how to keep your spiritual peace. I was especially struck by this story he told of ancient liturgical abuses and the folly of some reactions to them by outraged congregants:

One of Israel’s more important national festivals was (and still is) the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth). In [high priest and king] Alexander Jannaeus’s day, one of the customs for celebrating Tabernacles was for the people to bring luabs to the Temple and wave them in celebration. A luab was a bundle of branches from trees in the vicinity of Jerusalem—palm, myrtle, willow—to which a citron had been tied. A citron is a fruit similar to a large lemon.

While the people held their luabs, one of the things the high priest was supposed to do was pour out libations from two silver bowls—one of water and one of wine. According to the custom of the Sadducees, the high priest was supposed to pour out the water bowl on his feet, but the custom of the Pharisees conflicted with this.

Alexander Jannaeus, who was a Sadducee, followed the Sadducee custom in performing the ritual, but the Pharisees were so popular at the time that the people became enraged, tore the citrons off their luabs, and pelted Alexander with them in the middle of the liturgy.

Well, that’s one way to deal with perceived liturgical abuses—though I wouldn’t recommend using it today. (In fact, it didn’t work so well then, either. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Alexander took revenge by killing about 6,000 members of the citron-lobbing crowd.)

For years after reading this essay, whenever I’d see shenanigans going on during the Mass, my prayer for spiritual peace would be “Lord, please don’t let me become a spiritual fruit-chucker.” To be honest, I prayed that prayer primarily for myself. I was more concerned about keeping my own spiritual peace amid liturgical hijinks than I was about doing anything about them, mainly because of Jimmy’s conclusion to his article:

People say that they can’t stand something when they know full well that they can. They’re simply trying to rationalize a decision they want to make by telling themselves that they don’t have any choice.

You do have a choice. You have a choice how you will react to what someone else is doing. You can choose to react in a way that mourns whatever offense has been committed yet leaves your spiritual peace intact. Or you may choose to react in a way that poisons your spiritual life and robs of you of the peace God wants you to have. But it’s still your choice.

You can’t control what another person is going to do. But you can control how you choose to react.

Over time I learned that my own scrupulosity had much to do with my outraged sensibilities during the Mass. I was not always correct in my assessment of what was allowed at Mass and what was not. Today I praise God that I kept my mouth shut (for the most part) about liturgical abuses at parishes I attended because I know now that sometimes I was wrong that an abuse had occurred.

But let’s face it. Sometimes lay Catholics are not wrong. Sometimes abuses really do occur during the Mass. Once we have conquered our own desire to metaphorically pelt an erring priest with fruit, how do we know when to say something and when to just move on?

When bad things happen at a good Mass

Here are some tips:

Be humble. You should first assume that it is you who is incorrect in your understanding of what is allowed. Assume the priest, who can spend up to twelve years being trained for this gig, knows more than you do about the liturgy. Keep in mind also the danger of applying a quasi-Protestant, sola scriptura attitude to Church documents. The Church rarely speaks in absolutes, saying that such-and-so must be done a certain way. Oftentimes there is wiggle room given for local conditions, to be left to the discretion of a bishop or a priest. Not only that, but sometimes documents must be read and interpreted within a larger context and not in isolation.

Empathize. Okay, so you are pretty sure the priest has done something wrong. Now what? Well, perhaps you might ponder what it might be like to have to do your own job with untrained onlookers constantly peering over your shoulder and pointing out your mistakes. Ask yourself if it is possible that the priest did not intend to make up the Mass as he was going along, but instead made a mistake. Sometimes mistakes have to be corrected. More often than not though, they can (and should) be overlooked.

Save your bullets. Sometimes you are right that an abuse has occurred, and sometimes you know the priest is doing the liturgical version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, because he has said that he finds the way he’s doing things “more meaningful,” or “more inclusive,” or “more [fill in the blank].” Another tip Jimmy once gave that I found helpful is to “save your bullets.” Rather than complain about every little thing that goes wrong in a Mass, it can be wiser to not sweat the small stuff. If you tolerate the Kool-Aid pitchers and glass champagne flutes used to hold the Precious Blood; if you turn a blind eye to the risen Jesus over the altar instead of a crucifix; you may have more credibility later when you must protest those abuses that threaten the validity of the Eucharist. But if you are a known liturgical nitpicker, you are more likely to be ignored when you have something serious to report.

When to move on

The liturgical dancers are a-leaping around the altar; the choir is a-screaming a heavy-metal version of “Sing a New Church”; the priest is attempting to consecrate Snickerdoodles and Hawaiian Punch. Is it time to move on and find a new parish? In this case, yes, of course—and with a registered letter express-mailed to your bishop (and carbon-copied to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) informing him of the three-ring circus at one of his parishes. But, seriously, do things ever really get this bad? Or is it more likely that you are unsatisfied with a Mass not done to your specifications?

I have learned over the years that there is a tendency among some liturgically conservative Catholics to treat the Mass as if it were a Broadway play and they are the theater critics. Every small detail must align just so with their interpretation of the GIRM or they will unleash their outrage.

Now, I don’t believe anyone starts out aspiring to become the Statler and Waldorf of the church balcony. It usually begins with small things. Grimacing over an unfortunate turn of phrase in the homily. Worrying excessively about the consequences of the priest bumbling some of his lines. Unchecked, it can build over time to frustration, then anger, then rage over every little misstep at Mass.

If this is happening to you, finding a new parish for the purpose of settling your nerves before they spiral out of control might not be a bad idea. But beware of church shopping. In a blog post published not long ago, I wrote about the dangers of trying to find a parish that you consider to be a spiritual safe haven:

I have to concede that church-shopping can be justified in rare cases, such as when you need to make sure that your children are properly educated in the Catholic Faith, or when the problems in the parish completely outweigh any benefit the parish provides. But church-shopping to find a parish that you think will be heaven on Earth will end in bitterness.

Parishes are rarely static—pastors are reassigned, liturgy committees change hands, religious education teachers come and go—and a parish you think will satisfy you could shift toward laxity within a few years. If you too easily throw in the towel and move on, where will your roaming end? For a former cyber acquaintance of mine who was disturbed by abuses at the parishes he visited in his diocese, his roaming in search of heaven on earth ended in sedevacantism.

If you need a fresh start at a new parish, go for it. But treat this fresh start as a chance to silence your Inner Liturgy Expert and to just be present to Christ in the Mass. Keep reminding yourself that, so long as the Eucharist is validly consecrated, Jesus is going to attend this Mass. If he can suffer in silence, so can you.

The Mass must go on

Spiritual peace at Mass depends on deciding to accept what you can, to change what you must, and to discern wisely the difference between the two. Perhaps you recognize this advice as a paraphrase of the Serenity Prayer. The lesser-known second stanza of that prayer might make an excellent meditation for whenever you are tempted to throw some fruit at Mass:

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that you [God] will make all things right,
If I surrender to your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with you forever in the next.


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