Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Scenes From a Mass (How Edward Egan Saved Christmas)

This is a couple days late, but we're still in the Octave. I'm dedicating this post to those for whom the sight of camauros and cappa magnas can somehow reflect a God born poor and the true meaning of Christmas -- however counterintuitive that is.

Enjoy, liebchins.

So, for the first time ever in my life, I spent Christmas Eve and morn outside the boundaries of the city of Philadelphia...

Next year in Rome? Probably not -- but somewhere down the line, that'll probably be the case. Doing Christmas at the Vatican: so hot right now. But I digress.

Due to my grandmother's continued stay in hospital, our traditional knock-down, drag-out Festival of the Seven Fishes at her place, featuring 80 people eating on the couches, sitting on the washer and dryer, in the bathrooms, on the steps, radiators, etc. was cancelled, the venue transferred across the Delaware River to one of the family homes in suburban South Jersey.

Once the surrealism of it passed, it was nice, more quiet than usual, etc.

The (erroneous) common wisdom among many rank-and-file Catholics -- most of my family included -- is that Midnight Mass lasts five hours and you're better off going in the morning if you want to get your Christmas business taken care of in a space of time which isn't comparable to Chinese Water Torture.

This is one of many reasons we should be grateful that the church isn't a democracy.

Then again, it's not wise either for a parish to announce a 5.15 Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve (one of the two times a year when people actually show up), then proceed not to hold it without telling anybody, so the faithful have to stand outside and look at locked doors for 10 minutes, wondering what the hell is going on until they just give up and leave. (And -- surprise, surprise -- they won't be back next year.) This happened at a parish in Philadelphia on the Eve, and we should all be grateful for such brilliant work because, as if abuse scandals and quotidian ineptitude isn't enough, this is the "all politics is local" stupidity that actually hits people where they live.

And you wonder why the faithful have given up in great numbers? Not rocket science.

So, as I was spending the night out of town, I decided to make a jaunt (with one of my aunts) to her local parish for Midnight. There were two options -- a parish somewhat nearby where a friend is the pastor and would do it right beyond a doubt (his organist is an uber-gay former seminarian known around the church circuit as "Bonkers" -- say what you will, but the boy can play), or the local church which I had been to a couple times before and saw no major disasters; the other parish of this sprawling suburban community had been ruled out due to potential, er, security risks. The local parish was chosen as time was running short and the aunts didn't finish their post-dinner cleanup til ten minutes before 12.

Pulling up to a side door and skipping to the church door, I breathed a sigh of relief to be there in time.... And then we walked in to hear:

"GLORIA! *CLAP CLAP* GLORIA! *CLAP CLAP* IN EXCELSIS DEO!" (Repeat... if you can stomach it. I didn't have a choice.)

I wanted to die. I wanted to die -- but not before beating up whoever was responsible for this badly-timed, badly-placed hootenanny with a golf club.

Six hippies in sweaters playing guitars (and a violinist, cellist and percussionists) were the music for the Mass. And this is a pretty sensible, suburban, nice-sized place -- not LifeTeen or Sophia's House by any stretch.

But how heartbreaking it was: The organ console was closed, drums were going off like firecrackers....

Just thinking about it makes my head hurt.

Suffice it to say, this wasn't registering as Christmas in my liturgical mind. And at this moment, having entered into what seemed like a jarringly parallel universe, the most deep-seated, camauro-worshipping, crying-at-the-consecration triumphalist Tridentine lace guruess on the Planet Earth could've done a better job than what was unfolding before my eyes.

Did I tell you it was bad at first sight?

So the horrific Gloria ends, I resign myself to not hearing any organ music -- or, for that matter, anything quiet or serene that would make one feel present at the crib of Bethlehem (which is only supposed to be the whole context of Midnight Mass, after all) -- and then I catch a glimpse of the celebrant, in a white chasuble with a big BLUE oprhrey running down the front of it....

Yuck. Did these people not get the memo that blue is NOT a liturgical color? Or am I just too liturgically anal-retentive?

Sitting down for the first reading, one of my favorite texts of the liturgical calendar ("The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light....") being disrupted by the guitar hippies flipping their hair (I'm not kidding, much as I wish I was...), I started thinking, wondering, whether this was just my own little internal outburst that my own gustibus wasn't being fulfilled, that I was being rude in whatever way to the sensibilities of my host parish, that my judgements were inconsiderate of the time and effort that went into the preparation of the music and liturgy, etc.

Then the lector for the second reading got up and introduced the "reading from the Letter of St. Paul to Titius."

For the uninitiated, it's "Titus," no second "i."

I'll admit, this was all terribly counterproductive and selfish of me. But when you're all pumped up for a good, smooth, well-prepared Mass and then, without any warning, you feel like you've been dropped on your ass into the midst of liturgical Flub City -- unprepped lectors; the homily beginning with the words, "When I was young, I really wasn't too big on Santa Claus"; the "and became man" genuflection at the Creed being followed by 30 seconds of dead silence and a "please stand" as if it was the reading of the Passion; "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!" (which is not a Communion hymn) as the Communion hymn with tribal-esque drumming (not conducive to reflection nor solemnity), leading one to expect a cameo appearance from Pope Shenouda from out the sacristy door or something along those lines -- it's more than a little unsettling.

And that's just what I can recall off the top of my head.

I was trained as an MC -- not for nothing do I have a Gammarelli-Sorgenti set at my disposal -- so I don't miss a trick when it comes to keeping eyes on the sanctuary. And I would've understood and not said a thing if all this was actually engaging the congregation and contributing to their full, active and conscious participation.

But it wasn't. All I could see, with precious few exceptions, were dulled suburban faces who looked as if they were enduring a ritual for its own sake. And that was enough to suck the life and the joy out of it all.

I hate saying it, but I couldn't wait to just get outta there and head back to my aunt's place to meet up with the gathered cousins and friends for late-night drinks and a lengthy first lap of celebrating the festival day. But we were asked to stop at CVS (the pharmacy-grocery shop, for those unfamiliar) to pick up some things....

On the way there, as I had the satellite radio with me and knew that Sirius was broadcasting Midnight Mass from St. Pat's, New York, I plugged it in and turned it on to catch the Post-Communion Hymn of Praise: a tenor's solo of "O Holy Night," backed up by choir and a small ensemble of brass and strings. My aunt asked me, "Is this what they have in New York? This is so wonderful!"

I almost wanted to say, "You know, they don't just have this kind of thing in New York..." as it's basically what I've been used to for all my Christmases (and missed terribly on this night), but didn't want to disturb her parish pride. (Not that there was much there, but oh well.)

She went inside the shop and I got to sit in my car and listen to the Vincent Price-esque voice I can frighteningly mimic so well sing the closing prayer and then launch into a boatload of thank-yous. And then, "The Lord be with you..." leading into my favorite moment of suspense, happily capped with the magic words of the pontifical blessing (which, unfortunately, isn't delivered in English as often as it should be):

"Blessed be the name of the Lord."

At first, I burst out laughing, remembering the senior American prelate who almost choked on his lunch as I offered my interpretation of the formula in Eganese.

But in the strangest way, hearing an old familiar voice carry it out as it is to be done was so comforting (like Rom -- er, Egyptian cotton), in a way which the liturgy I actually attended had left me desperately wanting. So I was grateful for the reminder from an unexpected sourse that there is still hope out there, even if it's in one big church in my old stomping grounds 102 miles north of the city of my birth where, it seems that John Ferry is, indeed, now the rector. (SVILUPPO: Er... not so much.)

And I can't help but wonder if this is how it is out there. In "Salt of the Earth" Cardinal Ratzinger writes about the dangers of aquiring that which he calls "the arrogance of the specialist," which sees belief as being something for one's self-perceived inferiors and is instead consumed with minutiae of custom, law and perception. Still, that said, is fluff of the kind I witnessed at the most sacred hour (and biggest show) of the year the "richness" that's supposed to sustain a Catholic community, with no tangible fruits except the jollies of the performers onstage?

I pray not. Because if it is, then we're all in big, big trouble.

Malcolm Ranjith, call your office. The new one.