A Lent without penance

As a birthday gift my wife received a subscription to The Word Among Us, which is “a Catholic devotional magazine based on the daily Mass readings”.

As we rode to work together, she read the readings and meditation for today, Ash Wednesday. The meditation offered the analogy of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly: “If only we could enter a magical chrysalis and emerge six weeks later as a reflection of God’s beauty and grace!”

“Of course,” they caution, “we know it’s not magic. It’s a combination of God’s grace and our effort. … So here are some things we can try to do this season so that we can find our lives changed come Easter Sunday. ”

The suggestions include prayerfully considering “what you want to become”; finding a “chrysalis”, i.e. time set aside each day for prayer; and “living your new life”, which means to “[r]earrange your priorities as if you already were that butterfly”.

Notice anything about this?

How about no mention of penance or sin? That’s right, an Ash Wednesday meditation having nothing to do with repentance, fasting, or self-denial, whatsoever. Something similar happened the last time I attended Ash Wednesday Mass: The homily managed to ignore the topics of sin and repentance entirely.

At times like this I am tempted to despair; tempted to say, with Hilary White, “Welcome to NuChurch“. I try to believe that the Church hasn’t gone off the rails since Vatican II. I have reminded myself, and others, that the Church has not changed any doctrines to accommodate the demands of secular culture. But I sometimes wonder, what’s the use in having the infallible fullness of the Gospel if half of it is never preached?

In case anyone really doesn’t know what Lent is for, it is defined in the Catechism as “the primary penitential season in the Church’s liturgical year, reflecting the forty days Jesus spent in the desert in fasting and prayer.”  Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary.

Further, “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year … are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1438.


The Church: Anchor or Sail?

“As a fairly secular Jew I cannot and will not speak to the theological questions, in part because I do not want to. But mostly because I do not have to. The core problem with those who glibly invoke one cliché after another about the evils of organized religion and Catholicism is that they betray the progressive tendency to look back on the last two thousand years and see the Catholic Church — and Christianity generally — as holding back humanity from progress, reason, and enlightenment. They fault the Church for not knowing what could not have been known yet and for being too slow to accept new discoveries that only seem obvious to us with the benefit of hindsight. It’s an odd attack from people who boast of their skepticism and yet condemn the Church for being rationally skeptical about scientific breakthroughs.

“In short, they look at the tide of secularism and modernity as proof that the Church was an anchor. I put it to you that it was more of a sail. Nearly everything we revere about modernity and progress — education, the rule of law, charity, decency, the notion of the universal rights of man, and reason were advanced by the Church for most of the last two thousand years.

“Yes, compared to the ideal imagined by atheists and secularists this sounds like madness.

“But isn’t the greater madness to make a real force for good the enemy because the forces of self-anointed perfection claim to have some glorious blueprint for a flawless world sitting on a desk somewhere? It is a Whiggish and childish luxury to compare the past — or even the present — to a utopian standard. Of course there was corruption, cruelty, and hypocrisy within the Church — because the Church is a human institution. Its dark hypocrisies are the backdrop that allow us to see the luminance of the standard they have, on occasion, fallen short of. The Catholic Church was a spiritual beacon lighting the way forward compared to the world lit only by fire outside the Church doors.

Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Clichés (2012) (quoted in February 6, 2015 email “news”letter).

Help Richard go to the Abbey

Richard Sullivan of The Age of Discernment has been accepted to St. Michael’s Abbey (Norbertine) in Orange County, California.


One hurdle to be overcome is that Richard’s student loans must be paid off before he can enter the Abbey. If you’re willing and able to help, you can do so by going HERE and contributing.

From what I have seen of Richard, I can’t think of a more worthy candidate for the priesthood and religious life (and apparently the Abbey agrees!), nor do I know of a better place than St. Michael’s for Richard to live out his vocation.

God bless you, Richard!

Manners and the Mass, Part 2

If (as argued before) manners are an objective sign of respect, and if the rubrics of the Mass, especially the traditional Latin Mass, play the role of manners or courtesy towards God, then what is the meaning of the tendency to informalize the Mass?

I would argue that the tendency to informality is also a tendency to subjectivity. It’s a movement away from showing respect and reverence through outward actions, and instead showing it through inward feelings. Outward formalities (objective) are considered shallow and empty, whereas spontaneous words and gestures (subjective) are “real” and sincere.

I think of Catholicism as an objective religion. This is not to say that subjectivity plays no role, but that on the objective/subjective spectrum, it falls more on the objective side.

Protestants tend to see this as a bad thing. To them, outward actions which cause inward, spiritual realities are hocus-pocus, or in other words, works. For them the Mass, baptism of babies, and confession are acts that try to compel God to do things for us, and are therefore akin to works righteousness, trying to earn our way to heaven; whereas all that really matters is your subjective, inward experience of having “accepted” Jesus as your Lord and Savior.

I have argued before that the modern belief in subjective truth may be traced to the Reformation, by way of the Enlightenment. I can’t say for sure whether the former caused the latter, or they both had some other cause. But I submit that they both follow the same trajectory, leading up to the present day: The Reformation introducing the idea of the individual, as opposed to an authorized institution, interpreting the scriptures for himself; which, since the scriptures are held to be the sole standard of religious truth, leads ultimately to the individual determining truth for himself.

Whereas in Catholicism, truth is given to the individual from outside himself, and the individual, recognizing  it, is expected to submit himself to it. Here’s where the subjective element in Catholicism comes in: Each individual has to decide whether to accept the Chuch as the instrument or conduit of God’s revelation to humanity, whether through the scriptures, which were written by members of the Church and canonized by its authority, or through the Church’s own proclamations and definitions of the faith. But once that decision is made, from then on he possesses an objective standard of religious truth, which is the teaching authority of the Church.

I would argue that the subjectivization of courtesy, by which I refer to the informalizing tendency of modern manners, follows on this sea change in the manner of determining truth: From basing truth on submission to objective standards and authorities, to basing it on individual interpretation and subjective criteria. Rather than I submitting to reality, reality is made to submit to me.

Traditionalists have argued that the Church during and after Vatican II sought to Protestantize Catholic worship. I suspect that it wasn’t so much an effort to Protestantize, as to subjectivize it. In a sense, to subjectivize is to Protestantize, but I think subjectivization was the intended goal.

Now I would argue that to subjectivize worship is to turn it inward as opposed to outward. When you subjectivize worship, you make it conform to the desires of the worshippers: Rather than prescribing certain actions (and proscribing others), you let them do what pleases them. Thus worship becomes ad-libbed: The priest stops using the pulpit for his sermon and instead paces back and forth in the sanctuary, or wanders out among the pews. He alters the prescribed prayers, or prefixes them with an impromptu greeting. People in the congregation are invited to insert their own spontaneous prayers during the Prayer of the Faithful. The people dress in any way they please, rather than conforming to outward standards of appropriateness. The mantilla (chapel veil) is abandoned.

Further, certain practices and attitudes are introduced, which serve to stir up emotions in the people of the congregation. Loud, rhythmic music is used, and the people are encouraged to clap and dance; or very emotive music is sung in an informal, emotional style, mimicking popular love ballads. People sway back and forth, raise their hands in the air and break into tears.

Again, I contend that subjective worship is worship turned inward: It consists of actions designed to produce certain emotional reactions within the worshipper, rather than actions directed outwards towards God.

Christ gave us the Mass so that we would have an outward, corporate action to perform, which is pleasing to God. This doesn’t eliminate inward, subjective experiences of God in the privacy of prayer. But it is not designed to produce inward, subjective experiences, but to constitute worship of God which is acceptable to him and worthy of his great dignity and holiness, which on our own we could never do. Often it does result in inward, subjective experiences of God’s grace and friendship, arising from the appreciation of his great mercy in condescending to be present to us and consumed by us in the Blessed Sacrament. But such experiences do not, and should not be expected to happen all the time, since they are not its primary purpose, but a gratuitous by-product of God’s overflowing kindness to us.

It is in this light that I understand Pope Benedict’s description of the priest facing the people at Mass, as the congregation being turned in on itself, rather than outwards towards God. It is one of many signs of the subjectivization and inwardness of modern Catholic worship.

Those who prefer the TLM are often accused of having no objective reason for their preference, but of being merely nostalgic and wanting to turn back the clock, or alternatively, of wanting to play “dress-up”. I can’t speak for every TLM adherent, but personally I prefer it because I like its outward rather than inward orientation, and its formality, the way it enables me to make outward and repeated gestures of courtesy and reverence towards God the Father, Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and the priest acting in persona Christi.

Manners and the Mass

In the traditional Latin Mass, there are innumerable acts and marks of formality and reverence. When you enter the church, you cross yourself with holy water. Before sitting down, you genuflect towards our Lord in the tabernacle. Then you kneel and pray. When the altar boys and priest process into the church, following the crucifix, people kneel when the crucifix passes, and many bow their heads towards the priest. At one point in the Mass, an altar boy bows to the congregation and they bow back, upon which he proceeds to incense the congregation. Virtually every movement of the priest is choreographed by the rubrics, sometimes down to the position of the fingers on each of his hands.

These things put me in mind of courtesy and manners. Because what are manners but rubrics which apply to everyday life? Opening doors for women, taking off your hat when you go indoors (back when most everyone wore hats), shaking hands and saying “Pleased to meet you” when being introduced to someone, keeping your elbows off the table, saying “please” and “thank you”, and so forth. Manners are ways of showing respect, which is why people feel disrespected when you act rude, “rude” being pretty much defined as acting with bad manners.

I suppose this explains the many formal gestures at Mass. They comprise an elaborate system of courtesy. Of course the most elaborate and deferential acts of courtesy are reserved for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, before whom nobody passes without bowing or genuflecting. And you could say that the whole thing is an elaborate act of courtesy towards God the Father, to whom it is offered as an act of worship.

Perhaps this is one facet of Christ’s role in salvation: Without Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, we would not have the Mass. And without the Mass our worship would be pathetic, in the same way that an elaborate act of courtesy towards a monarch might be ridiculous when performed by a pauper in rags. But Christ’s sacrifice of himself to the Father, and our incorporation into Christ’s Body by virtue of our baptism, cause us to be clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27). Christ is King and Priest, and we are members of the Kingdom and priests (Rev. 1:6). Thus by being incorporated with Christ, we can make the elaborate gestures of courtesy to our Father and God, in a fitting manner, without looking ridiculous in dirty rags.

The modern tendency is to erode manners. Everything we do is less formal. We can wear hats indoors; kids call adults by their first names rather than Mr. or Miss; doors often are held open for women (and they generally appreciate it), but you’re no longer considered rude if you don’t.

I see this trend reflected in modern liturgies. An informal atmosphere often prevails. People feel no need to dress up for Mass. They talk at full voice in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and and often don’t genuflect. Priests begin Mass with a hearty “Good morning!”, and leave the sanctuary to give their homilies and shake hands during the Sign of Peace.

Music may be the most obvious area where the casual atmosphere prevails in modern liturgies. Perhaps this reaches its extreme in so-called “teen Masses”, in which kids dress in clothes that they would wear to the beach or the park, and the music is basically a rock concert, which the congregation accompanies not only with singing but also clapping and dancing.

My theory is that the general eroding of formality and manners in the present day is a result of the leveling out of class distinctions in general. Manners imply that people deserve respect and deference, some more than others. Whereas lack of manners says, “Hey, we’re all the same; man or woman, rich or poor, high or low rank in the corporate hierarchy, doesn’t matter. I don’t call anybody ‘sir’.”

If that is the case in everyday life, then what does the erosion of formality say about attitudes towards the liturgy? If priests are now Fr. Bob instead of Fr. Smith, laymen may dispense Holy Communion and roam about the sanctuary at will, Communion is received standing and in the hand rather than kneeling and on the tongue — does this not reflect a desire and tendency to blur the distinction between clerical and lay?

If the Mass is an act of courtesy towards God the Father, then what is the meaning of the erosion of manners at Mass, and what is likely to be its effect? Does it imply that in our view, even God himself deserves no more respect and courtesy than we ourselves?

[Edit:] Right after posting I came across this post, part of which concerns Lutheran worship, including this paragraph:

“We strive to make every message and every service relevant and applicable to real life, as well as excellent in quality. At the same time, you can come to church in your jeans, or your shorts (or even in your jean shorts) and feel perfectly comfortable in one of our services. Grab a cup of coffee and a bagel on your way in and settle in for a high-octane hour of power-learning about God.”

The message seems to be, “We’ll do whatever you want. Make yourself comfortable. We strive to make worship relevant to you.”

Is this the direction the Mass is heading? I would say clearly it is, and has been for a long time. The only question (in my view) is how far we will take it.

I winned!


The rules are as follows:

  1. Show the award on your blog.
  2. Thank the person who nominated you.
  3. Share 7 facts about yourself.
  4. Nominate 15 blogs.
  5. Link to your nominees’ blogs.

I was nominated by Richard Sullivan at the excellent blog The Age of Discernment. I’ve never heard of this award, but being chosen by Richard is honor enough for me. Thanks Richard!

Plus, it gives me an excuse to talk about myself. In no particular order but that in which they popped into my head:

Fact 1: I’m married with two sons in college.

Fact 2: I’m a product of the public school system. I left high school a semester early by passing the California High School Proficiency Exam. I have completed about the equivalent of a year of college, by attending 4 or 5 different community colleges a semester at a time. In short, I don’t know what I’m talking about most of the time.

Fact 3: I was baptized as a baby but hardly ever went to church and received no religious training to speak of. I reverted to the Catholic faith in my mid-20s, after investigating Mormonism and Protestantism.

Fact 4: I blog anonymously partly because I work at a liberal-owned company, and if they knew who I was I would feel inhibited in expressing my views on this and other blogs, and then what would be the point?

Fact 5: I was raised in a family that was very liberal, verging on radical. My conversion to Christianity did not immediately make me a conservative. But my conversion slowly resulted in changing my mind on abortion, which eventually led to finding myself unable to vote for Bill Clinton when he ran for his second term. But I couldn’t stand voting for Bob Dole either, who was just too, well, Republican. So my first Republican vote was for Alan Keyes, which allowed me to feel like I was still a little bit of a radical.

Fact 6: I’ve started smoking a pipe in the past couple of years, not habitually but on special occasions when my close family and friends are over and we’re doing a fair bit of drinking. After re-watching “Lord of the Rings” recently, I ordered myself a long-stem, “churchwarden”-style pipe because they looked so darn cool in the movie. I’m not sure if I will look as cool as they do, lacking the long hair and beard, flowing garments, etc.

Fact 7: I do my own repair and maintenance work on my car and house, as long as it doesn’t require rare and expensive tools and can be done by one person. I’m rather proud of this, but frankly, it’s due mainly to economic necessity. If I could easily afford it, I would hire people to do these things most of the time.

Is that all? Shoot, I still have a lot more to say about myself!

I won’t nominate 15 blogs, first because I don’t even follow 15 blogs, so nominating that many would mean simply naming all the blogs that I read. So I will just name a few of my favorites:

Junior Ganymede: A Mormon group blog that is one of the few blogs that I check pretty much daily. Well written and often funny observations on religion, politics and culture.

Yard Sale of the Mind: Catholic father of a large family, wise ruminations on religion, family and Science!.

Sola Nobilitas Virtus: Politics, economics, religion and music.

Saintly Sages: Daily excerpts from great spiritual writers.

And of course, The Age of Discernment. (Hey, it doesn’t say you can’t nominate the one who nominated you!) Richard is (apparently) a young, single Catholic who writes about his faith, family, job and spiritual insights. Sometimes serious and often funny, always pithy and enjoyable to read.

My son’s blog, The Classical Technopunk, is also very well written, but I’m not nominating it because he posts so seldom (largely because of being so careful and detail-oriented).