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by Thomas DeFreitas

The March 2001 issue of First Things, a monthly journal of religion and public life known for its profound respect for Catholicism and the Holy See, carries a symposium that is, in large part, a tribute to the achievements of the current pontiff, John Paul II. Many writers of many faiths praise John Paul for his fearless promulgation of what has been called "the splendour of truth."

But not all the praise is unqualified. A writer of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Professor David B. Hart, joins in the chorus celebrating this pope's enormous accomplishments as "the great, indefatigable voice of Christian conviction in a faithless age." However, while he praises the pontiff for his courage, his moral vision, his clarity and his evangelical energy, Hart finds himself unable to praise the Church of which John Paul is the visible head. He takes Roman Catholic Christianity to task, because in its post-conciliar form, the Mass is "disfigured by rebarbative banality, by hymnody both insipid and heterodox, and by a style of worship that looks flippant if not blasphemous."

An impressively forceful criticism. And elegantly phrased! The word "rebarbative" sent me to the dictionary; it means "repellent, annoying, off-putting, intolerable." And if we don't know what banality is, we can start going to church more often, because, dear friends, Professor Hart is exactly right.

To the hasty observer, the Catholic Mass is no longer praise of God's illimitable mercy, his awesome justice, the paradox of his infinite transcendence and his omnipresent immanence. The Mass often seems not to be a "Divine Liturgy," as it unmistakably still is, in the precincts of holy Orthodoxy. The Mass at your local parish is an uncomely ruin of what it once was: a noisy and (yes) rebarbative affair where the soul who wishes to pray has to contend with Stuart Smalley and the Nattering Fishwives.

Walk into St. Euphemia's on any given Sunday (allow us to use a nickname for the parish where I received First Communion and was confirmed -- the names have been changed to protect the clueless), and you find a crowd that is as reverent and prayerful as the jostling passengers plowing their way onto a train at Downtown Crossing during the evening rush. No one (but no one) is praying; everyone is socializing. The stained glass, the tabernacle, the pews and the altar would seem to indicate the interior of a church, and not the Cafe Pamplona or Mickey D's or the living-room sofa. And this may surprise you: the major culprits are the oldsters. The codgerettes catching up on the juiciest bits of gossip. A few younger Edie Falco clones discussing, viva voce, the latest episode of "Providence" or "General Hospital." The kids? Mostly well-behaved. Not so much afraid of violating holy silence as embarrassing their parents, who are themselves the embarrassment. Adolescents can be excused for fidgets and whispers, but what gets us going are the allegedly mature folk. I know an Oblate of the Virgin Mary who refers to these types as "the Tall Twelves": they've got a few gray hairs, but psychically and temperamentally, they're worse than any adolescent.

Then comes ten o'clock, and a little tyke saunters up to the microphone near the church-organ and announces that the opening hymn will be "Safari with the Lord," and instructs the congregation, "Please stand and welcome our celebrant, Fr. Stuart." And Father Stuart, a nice guy -- who in Lenten purple reminds us, against our will, of Barney the Dinosaur -- saunters down the aisle to the shouted strains of an anthem that is the most utterly blasphemous piece of dreck we've ever had the misfortune to hear.

"It's a sa-FAAAAAHH-RI!! A kingdom PAAAAAHH-TY!! Making joyful noises for the Lord." Noise? Yes. Joyful? Well. Let us ask ourselves. Is this ditty the aptest bit of hymnody to initiate what used to be called the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? The bloodless re-presentation of the paschal mystery, which involved -- we might remember -- the crucifixion of the Incarnate Lord? A safari? A "kingdom party"? Where's Father Portinari when you really need him?

Ah, yes. Father Portinari. Diminutive chap in a hairpiece. Vigorously traditional. I'm not yet thirty-two, and I'm old enough to remember a growl of a sermon, circa 1976, in which Father P thundered against the latest insolence to afflict the Church: the wearing of "DUNGAREES!" to Sunday Mass. Father P's customary penance for the venial sins of an eight-year-old? Fifteen Our Fathers and fifteen Hail Marys. Never thought I'd miss the guy.

After the safari song, Father Stuart begins with the usual inane banter about the weather (what? only 55 degrees? and it's April? where are the 80s and 90s?) -- and guess what? The nattering fishwives are still at it! Talking about who's pregnant on their favorite soap, or who's possessed by the devil, or whose cousin is gay ... Well, can you blame them? Some of them are actually old enough to remember when the Mass was a religious service and not a coffee-klatsch (without the Cinzano umbrellas).

This week, Father Stuart remembers to make the Sign of the Cross before launching into the opening prayers: "God our Creator, make us nice to one another. Fill our hearts with tolerance and sensitivity."

Oy! Is it time to go yet? No! We have to endure Scripture readings where "Consider the lilies of the field" is rendered "Learn a lesson from the way the wild flowers grow; where Peter denies Jesus by saying to his questioner, "I don't know what you're getting at"; where the Book of Proverbs is made to say, "The father of a numbskull has no joy."

I know how the numbskull's dad feels. Rebarbative banality, indeed.

* * *

On Sunday, the 12th of last November, I thought: Let's visit an Orthodox church. The Catholic Catechism acknowledges the apostolic succession of Orthodox bishops (and therefore the validity of Orthodox holy orders), and maintains that a Eucharist consecrated in an Orthodox church is every bit as much the Body of Christ as a Catholic Eucharist. It runs counter to Orthodox law for a Catholic to receive an Orthodox Eucharist, but that's incidental to this tale.

I walked into the vestibule of Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in the Fenway about five minutes after the Divine Liturgy had begun. I saw a well-dressed congregation standing like Christian soldiers at attention, fearsomely upright. I didn't hear or see any nattering fishwives. A five-year-old in a suit and tie wrinkled his nose at me -- the wordless analogue to Father Portinari's memorable snarl, "DUNGAREES!" I was not only wearing blue denim but, to make matters worse, a Reebok windbreaker and sneakers.

I stood timidly by the entrance, not venturing too far in. Timid and awestruck. The Divine Liturgy was sung: every prayer, every word, by an adult choir of evident proficiency. The hymns were Scriptural in their beauty and their consciousness of the Mysterium Tremendum that is our God. The altar was behind an iconostasis -- a wall or panel of holy icons depicting Our Lord and Our Lady, the saints and the angels, the history of the Christian faith. It was more beauty than one could endure.

I felt somewhat oafish. Imagine Madonna in a Carmelite monastery: the place was far too holy, an almost palpable presence of the Divine -- "the weight of glory" as someone once called it -- and I didn't feel as if I quite belonged. So, after three minutes of lingering by the front door, I genuflected to the icon of the Holy Trinity, kissed it as is the Orthodox custom, made the sign of the cross in the Eastern fashion, and left.

As I ramped across the brown grass of a November Fenway, I reprimanded myself for my gauche intrusion into this holy church. I doubt anyone has ever left Saint Euphemia's Parish with a similar sensation of unworthiness. When we leave St E's before the end of the "celebration," it's usually because our patience has been exhausted and our disgust is impossible to conceal.


2001, All rights reserved. Tom DeFreitas.

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