A Royal Priesthood – Pastor’s Reflection (May 14, 2017)
I always write these lines on Monday morning and as I craft them I wonder what will transpire before the congregation actually reads them. On the other hand, this means that the events of the previous weekend are fresh in mind. In fact, yesterday, Sunday, is on my mind because I had the 5 pm Mass at St. Catherine’s.
We have seven Masses on our weekend schedule, and this is the one I have least often because I am on the team promoting Vespers, which takes place at nearly the same time. At this Mass, uniquely, the Cantor leads the singing a cappella, that is, without the accompaniment of the organ. This arrangement began as an experiment to see if we could have convenient and complementary Mass times in both churches, and do it with one organist. I for one have never seen an arrangement quite like this.
I came tired to an afternoon Mass on a gray and rainy Sunday, and probably so did many of the 125 people in the congregation. But by the time Josh Simka, that Mass’ regular cantor, had led us all in Kyrie eleison and Gloria in excelsis, I was totally awake and energized as the singing of the assembly filled St. Catherine’s with the beautiful sound of the Mass. Here was a “poster congregation” for the second wave of liturgical development in the wake of Vatican II. If the first concern was to get people to “sing at Mass,” the next is to enable them to “sing the Mass.” This is the vocal movement from “going to church” to mindfully undertaking one’s baptismal part in the Eucharistic worship commissioned by Jesus at the Last Supper.
If in the natural realm common singing provides emotional release and deepened connection, then in the service of God feeling and human connection attach to vocation, the common calling we have to acknowledge God. With all the others, each of us sings the Mass because at our baptism God commissioned us to be a priest of Jesus Christ, and with that, we are called before God to acknowledge the gift of our life with our whole self: body and mind.
The chants Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei (known collectively as the “Ordinary” of the Mass) give each of us a voice in this work and join our voices to others. The singing of the texts makes us aware, at a level beyond conventional speech, of the power of God as the source of amazing, blessings, the answer to constant need, and the dispenser of unimaginable healing. We acknowledge God in song, not because He needs to hear it: being complete in Himself, He is beyond need. Rather, the acknowledgement connects us to the essential truth of ourselves as both gifted and needy, successful and failed, unique and completed by others.
Singing of this kind possesses special beauty because it does not manipulate. It is not calculated to get the congregation to feel triumphant, or joyful, or ashamed, or sad. Rather, singing – and especially chanting – elicits our participation in the common work but also gives us freedom to discover what lies within us at a given time and place. Of all the singing we do at Mass, the responses, the Pater noster, and the Ordinary take pride of place because they pertain most directly to the work God has appointed for us. Put most simply, this music serves not our feelings but our worship.
I note that what is said of singing the Mass could also be said of good preaching. Both decline to exercise emotional coercion. Neither do they settle for the easy trade of giving people a “feel good” experience. Instead, preaching and singing connect each participant to the wider world to the human community and to the inner world of our soul, showing more clearly God at work in both. These evangelical tools pull the worshipper out of himself and deeper into himself. When both “systems are go,” people leave Mass more human, because they are more aware of themselves and their God.
This perspective on worship rebukes Karl Marx’s assertion that religion is the “opiate of the masses.”
The word “liturgy” captures this work of acknowledgement. When we sing the Mass we unite ourselves not only to those who carry out the liturgy in the next pew, but in the next parish, the next state, and the next country. This is why we sing the texts of the Ordinary not only in English, which is essential to our comprehension of them, but also in Latin so that we have a palpable connection to the church in every time and place.
Next week, James Wetzel will follow these comments with more detail and insight into the three Ordinaries of the Mass we now use in the parish.
This weekend I am away from the parish with our Nuns in Buffalo. These are women who spend their whole lives in the work of acknowledgement: for them liturgy and life interpenetrate. Please know that they and I will have all of you in our prayers on this Easter day.