Rorate Caeli

An Experience of Horror: "My car broke down, and I went to the nearest Novus Ordo..."

The following is a cri de coeur from Bill Riccio, a man who has been so instrumental in keeping alive the Traditional Roman Mass since the Indult granted by Pope John Paul II and then within the freedom of Pope Benedict XVI's Summorum Pontificum. Bill has taught so very many priests, including myself, especially in the Northeast states of the U.S., the Traditional Roman Mass. He has traveled to all parts of the United States to teach priests the Traditional Mass. Bill's car broke down this morning, and he could not get to St. Mary's in Norwalk, Connecticut, where he functions as MC at the Solemn Mass. And so he went to his local parish church. And the following is what he experienced. It is a most sobering and realistic experience of the state of Catholic worship today.

It’s been said that, “God has a great sense of humor.” That, I hope was the reason a series of events happened this past Sunday morning. That way, I could have some semblance of understanding. You see, I had to attend my local parish church and it made me realize the liturgical bubble I’m in. It also made me realize, I want my bubble, and I like my bubble.

St. Lawrence Church in West Haven is a 1903 brick structure built by a poor congregation, and has ersatz Gothic-y ornamentation. The organ – still extant though reworked in the 1990s (not to its credit) -- is a Hall Bros. opus that was split from the BPOE hall of the time. Four ranks, not much else. It sits now, gathering dust, up in the loft.

Now, when my car died and was towed to the local repair shop, I knew I was going to have to find a Mass to attend. Sinner though I am, I do try to keep the Lord’s Day holy. There is a part of me that wished I’d, in the words of Fr. Richard Cipolla, “stayed home and had a bagel.” The bagel would have been a lot more satisfying.

Walking into the old church – a shell of itself since the wreck-ovation of 1973 and two others, which just pared down the monstrosity of the first – I knew “beauty” was going to be lacking. There’s not much beauty in beige. As soon as I walked through the door, I wanted to leave. I found a choir of four or five, led by a lady on a piano (or keyboard made to sound like one) and a guitar. The “choir” a collection of older men in shorts and older women, with the exception of one, was practicing 15 minutes before Mass.

It is very hard to recollect one’s self and get ready for the “Sacred Mysteries” while listening to mostly off-key choristers going through their rehearsal. But that was the least of it, what they were singing – the usual – made it all the worse. One strangely reminded me of a Dorothy Provine ditty from the film, “The Great Race,” “"He Shouldn't-A, Hadn't-A, Oughtn't-A Swang on Me.” But the genre was the same -- a kind of Andrew Lloyd Webber meets the Lemonlighters, circa 1964. There no memorable verses, but a mirthful chorus – just like a toothpaste commercial (“You’ll wonder where the yellow’s went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent”). And like commercials it’s all about “me,” “I,” “us.” God was mentioned, even Jesus, but only insofar as either could do something for “me,” “I,” “us.” And, there was no note of sacrifice; it was all “meal,” “bread” and “wine.” Say what you want about the Victorian hymns like “Bring Flowers of the Fairest.” It may sound like it belongs with a genre more akin to “Just a Song at Twilight,” but there are few personal pronouns, except to say how sinful one is. And then there was the Mass of Creation, which I thought was put to pasture long ago with those head-splitting beats.

The Mass began, and it attempted to be a formal expression of the Church’s teaches on the Mass. The two celebrants (pastor and a visiting domestic prelate) and the deacon did try to make things real, everything around them, however, bespoke informality. That’s the real problem with the Novus Ordo Missae, it is formal informality. Maybe it’s not supposed to be like that. Lord knows, this writer has done his bit in the last several decades to show some residue of ritual propriety.

Celebrated as it is in the London Oratory, or St. Agnes in St. Paul, or even the Church Music Association of America’s annual Colloquium (something I’ve been associated with for eight seasons) one could make the case for it sustaining the faith in practice. But it has to be said, in all three instances – or even St. Mary’s Norwalk (CT), the Grotto in Detroit, or anywhere else, the ethos of the celebration is drawn upon the past ritual. In some of those cases as much of the Old Rite is shoe-horned into the new as much as possible.

Ritual – the way we do things – is important. It’s important in our secular lives, whether it is national or military or just the local Elks Lodge down the street, the rites associated with those are important and show a connection with the work and life.

In 1965, for some reason, some grace, but not just disliking change, a part of me saw the elimination of something important when the changes first came about and replaced by formal informality. That informal formality keeps coming back. One of the biggest problems of the NOM is the fact it is celebrated 99.9 percent of the time “facing the people.” If it were still Latin, there would be some barrier to the informal, but once the vernacular became the norm, facing one’s audience forces informality.

Informality breeds music that is different in outlook than Gregorian Chant, and informality breeds an attitude of laxity by the people in the pews – most of whom were wearing shorts and such even though the place was air conditioned. If it’s a family meal, why worry about the way one is dressed? And it breeds a laxity in receiving the Sacrament. Kneeling to receive Our Lord comes from understanding who you are and who He is. Standing bespeaks a fuzzy (at best) understanding of What we are receiving, and Whom we are meeting in that reception.

“Mass,” as I like to say, “is not supposed to be a near-occasion of sin.” This had all the earmarks. For the first time in my life, I prayed for Eucharistic Prayer II (and it was granted). I didn’t receive. Though I went to confession the day before, I was truly anguished by what I was experiencing – a true degradation of what is supposed to be the “source and summit” of our lives.

Some will read this and see it as being Pharisaical, I’m worrying about forms and formulae. I lived through the liturgical Hell that was 1965-70, and then the jettisoning of those forms with the Missal of 1970. People began leaving – the pews, the priesthood and consecrated life – the year after the changes came about. Newer changes didn’t stem the tide, they increased the outflow. We changed what we did, which explained who we are. If the Church could change that, it could change anything, official proclamations to the otherwise notwithstanding.

It is, in fact, the people promoting the changes with the fervor of the Red Guard that were and are being Pharisaical. They are holding onto their diktats telling everyone all is OK. It is not. Don’t believe your lying eyes. Cranmer, Luther and Calvin had the force of the state to impose their will. Modern-day reformers rely on misplaced Ultramontane obedience.

Many will say the upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s were part and parcel of the Church’s decline. I think they have it backwards. It was the Church’s surrender of its identity and forms that helped bring about those upheavals. Mother Church, whether one believed in her claims or not, was the foundation of Western thought, culture and civilization.

Once that was gone, all Hell broke loose. Someday, someone, brighter than I, will figure the Church’s role in the West’s demise. I suggest they start with the First Sunday of Advent, 1965. Yes, things led up to it, but that was the date it came apart for good.

Meanwhile, the Church is imploding and for some reason, leaders aren’t looking at first causes. Denying our forms, tradition and devotions that grew up over 1,500 years caused a rupture. That rupture was prompted by reform in the liturgy. It couldn’t happen until then. Yet, here we are. If our Churchmen were running the Ford Motor Co. they’d still be making Edsels, and telling Mr. Ford it was because the people don’t know what a great car it is. They only have to be catechized.

I had thoughts of leaving at Communion, but thought wryly, “Jesus was called down here, and he can’t be too happy about it.” I stayed – as a penance.

God has a sense of humor, but my walking into St. Lawrence Church on the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (8th Sunday after Pentecost), was a watershed moment for me. I honestly wonder if the NOM can be saved from itself. The liturgy’s culture of formal informality has metastasized to the point it is inextricable with it, no matter what the words on the page say.

I wondered if the NOM is so far beyond redemption it can ever be reined in. It can’t. The deficiencies in the rite, what it doesn’t say, coupled with the forced informality mix a lethal brew. The future is the past. The NOM can’t survive, it must not. Only true Catholic liturgy evoking true Catholic piety, and explaining true Catholic doctrine (with no apologies) can survive. The NOM fails on all counts.

In a recent Pew Poll, 48 percent of Catholics believed what the Church teaches on the Eucharist. I will bet most of those 48 percent could not explain how. What about the rest? Where was that springtime that the new liturgy was supposed to foster?

I walked out of that church glad it was over, but angry and sad at what I’d just experienced. It was mind-numbing. Then I had a really chilling thought. That’s the standard fare of most parishes in my archdiocese, and in most dioceses in the world. That is truly a cause for weeping.