Rorate Caeli

Op-Ed: How the Dignity of a Protestant memorial service highlights the banality of the ordinary Catholic mass

Reflections on the Memorial Service for John McCain at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Fr. Richard Cipolla

That the Memorial Service for John McCain was held at the church in Washington, D.C. that is known as the National Cathedral, which is Protestant Episcopal, is significant.  That magnificent church, built in fine imitation of the Gothic cathedrals of England and of Europe, with its wonderful rood and rood screen, with its high altar dressed appropriately with a lovely frontal, with its superb choir, its organ played by someone who has heard of Widor and can play his music, its crucifer and torch bearers who had been trained in how to carry the processional cross and candles.  All this and more.
Whatever we may think of women who claim to be bishops and women who claim to be priests:  there was a dignity that imbued that service, a dignity that made impossible the terrible sentimentality that marks the contemporary Catholic funeral.  The words of the funeral service—no Mass, just the funeral service—were declaimed well, in well versed English, without comment, just the words of Christian faith. 

Now this service was a Memorial Service, although in a Christian building, nevertheless was in a real way a secular event.  This is not to disparage the faith of John McCain or his family.  But looking at the crowd present and their interaction before the service, there was little evidence of understanding that they were in a place where one should be reverent. The way they were speaking to each other before the service began showed their disregard or cluelessness that they were in a special space.  But when the service began, they all behaved as if this were something important, even if they believed nothing, they understood that this was a solemn occasion.  There were of course examples of sentimentalized Christianity, most notably Renee Fleming singing “Danny Boy”.  Those who spoke about McCain, the eulogists, understood that they were nreaching a sermon. The service ended with a final commendation and the singing of “America the beautiful.” Perfect for what that was.  A remembrance in a religious setting of a special man, an imperfect man who understood both virility and love and acted out both of those virtues as best he could.

The contrast between this service and what would have happened if John McCain were Catholic is significant.  Allowing for some recognition that such a national occasional would demand some sense of decorum and formality, the Catholic version of the McCain service, even if it were a Mass, would be quite different in that it would reflect that liturgical sentimentality that has been the mark of Catholic worship ever since the imposition of the Novus Ordo of Mass by Pope Paul VI.  Catholics have lost the objectivity of the worship of God, that in the Mass they are in the presence of the Wholly Other who is incomprehensible and yet pure Love.  At a Catholic funeral Mass, Renee Fleming would not only have sung “Danny Boy” but also the obligatory “Amazing Grace”, the text of which is bad Catholic theology, to say the least.  The eulogies, never part of the funeral Mass and yet now the highlight for most people, would focus on anecdotes about the deceased, often hoping to evoke laughter and forgetting about what death is really all about in the Christian faith.  One could say that the eulogies at McCain’s service were not specifically Christian or religious.  That is true. But this was not a funeral Mass. It was an act of remembrance of a fine man, remembrance in the purely secular sense, and at least the eulogies had intellectual content and were thought out.  

At a Catholic funeral there would have been applause.  Applause for “Danny Boy”, as if it were a performance like at a concert.  Applause for things said in the eulogies that people liked to hear.  Applause any time that the speaker was on the verge of making the reality of the solemnity of the occasion too real and then pulled back and said something funny.  At a Catholic funeral celebrated by a bishop, the latter would have presented some silly image about the deceased now dancing a jig in heaven, again denying the sure hope, not certainty, but the sure hope of eternal life in Christ that St. Paul talks about, working one’s salvation out in fear and trembling. At a Catholic funeral in an ordinary parish church the funeral Mass would be marked by egregiously sentimental music, the wearing of white vestments as if the Mass were a celebration of the deceased’s entrance into heaven, and the priest’s best effort to make everyone forget what Christian faith means in the face of death and to substitute that faith with a banal affirmation that everyone goes to heaven.  And no one would believe it down deep.

The terrible sexual scandals of the past twenty years within the clergy and the reprehensible behavior of the clergy that has still not come fully to light are but a reflection of the lack of virility in our priests and bishops. Virility is one of the marks of the person of Jesus Christ, of the saints, and is the virtue to which all Catholics should aspire.  The word “virility” comes from the Latin word “vir” that means the man-hero and which is the same root for the English word “virtue”. Not only men are called to virility, for some of the greatest of the women saints of the Church were virile and showed great courage in the face of adversity, especially when the clergy of the Church were the adversaries.  Some years ago, I wrote an essay on the “Devirilization of the Liturgy”. I am ever more convinced that the deeply effeminate—not feminine—the deeply effeminate nature of the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI lies at the very heart of the current severe problems within the Church.  I certainly wish that John McCain had been Catholic and had the graceful blessing of a Requiem Mass.  But I suspect that this virile man, at a typical Novus Ordo funeral Mass, would have rapped from the coffin in protest at the denial of his own sinfulness in the name of a sentimental understanding of the mercy of God.