Come Nov. 30, the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of the new church year, American Catholics will be living under a new liturgical regime. The changes are mandated by the Vatican and spelled out in a new revision to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, or GIRM.

The revised GIRM, whose English translation with special adaptations for the U.S. appeared a few months ago, was designed to promote "uniformity" in participation at Mass. The idea is to iron out inconsistencies in gestures (like where your hands go when praying) and postures (like kneeling and sitting) during Mass. If Catholics are "one body" in the Lord, shouldn't they be doing approximately the same thing at his table? But when the media began reporting that worshippers were required to embrace their fellow pew sitters before Communion, uniformity was the last thing on many Catholics' minds. Order me to hug a stranger? More like grounds for GIRM warfare. As it turned out, the hugging instructions came not from Rome but from the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio. The Rev. J-Glenn Murray, S.J., director of the diocese's liturgy office, apparently decided to use the new GIRM rules as a springboard for an overhaul of Mass gestures in Cleveland-area churches. Murray decided, for example, that worshippers should pray the Our Father before Communion with their hands raised upward and apart--a posture known as the Orans that some Catholics already use, but which is far from universal. Then there were the infamous hugs, couched as an instruction that people "embrace" those near them instead of shaking hands, the usual gesture in a pre-Communion ritual popularly known as the Kiss of Peace. The most controversial of all of Murray's directives was an instruction that those receiving Communion not kneel down in prayer right afterwards, as most do now, but instead remain standing and singing in their pews.
Murray's directives caused immediate alarm, not just in Cleveland but from coast to coast, as many people who read the news reports assumed the rules applied to all Catholics. In point of fact, the GIRM itself says nothing about standing after Communion, and states that kneeling during the Eucharistic portion of the Mass and at least part of Communion should be the U.S. norm (though the GIRM does give "the diocesan bishop" authority to determine otherwise). Amid the growing furor, Murray backtracked, posting a notice on the diocesan website stating that standing, hugging, and praying in the Orans position were only "options" that Cleveland Catholics would be encouraged but not required to adopt. The only mandatory change of gesture, Murray said, would be one specifically required by the GIRM: a reverent bow of the head before receiving Communion. So the Cleveland scare is off. But the whole area of gestures and postures at Mass is certainly in dire need of some guidelines on uniformity. Right now, a typical Sunday parish Mass is a theater of self-expression, in which the gestures and even dress of priests and laypeople alike are designed to convey subtle theological, ideological, and personal messages. As I look around, I often find myself playing Kremlinologist instead of praying. For example, the priest up at the altar might not be wearing a chasuble, the liturgically-colored outer vestment that is still at least theoretically required for the celebration of the Eucharist. That priest didn't forget to put on his chasuble. He's sending a signal about himself: either that he's a rebel who doesn't have to obey no rules, or that he's an informal kind of guy who, if he were out in the secular world, wouldn't be caught dead in a coat and tie.Down in the pews, members of the congregation are just as busy dramatizing their own views. Some people make a point of standing, not just during Communion but throughout the Mass, even the sermon, during which sitting is the rule. The standers are typically protesting something that they don't like about the Catholic Church, such as its refusal to ordain women or sanction gay marriage. They usually stand for three or four Sundays (although a famous protester in Washington, D.C. once stretched it out for two years), rile up the folks behind them who have to crane to see the altar, and then, frustrated because the Catholic Church still hasn't changed, peel off for a more relaxed denomination, such as the Unitarians or the Episcopalians. Then there are the God! people, the supersensitive feminists who have decided that it's patriarchal to refer to the deity by a masculine pronoun. Like the
!Kung people of southern Africa, the God! people have their very own exclamation point, derived from their practice of shouting "God!" in loud voices whenever a prayer at Mass calls for the laity to say "him" or "his." For most Catholics, it's "Let us give him thanks and praise." For the God! people, it's "Let us give God! thanks and praise." A church with a critical mass of God! people is often a church with a priest without a chasuble.

The Our Father is currently a three-ring circus of self-expression. Some people use the Orans position, raising their arms skyward. Others stick to the traditional folding of the hands close to the breast like a steeple, while still others dangle their arms at their sides. In areas associated with the south (the Old Confederacy, Southern California), many worshippers hold hands with family members and strangers alike to pray the Our Father, forming long human chains that wind from pew to pew.

Then comes the Kiss of Peace, named after a ceremonial air-kiss engaged in by the priest and the deacon at solemn high Masses before the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council. Most people nowadays interpret the priest's words, "Let us all exchange a sign of peace," by turning around and shaking the hands of the people in the pews nearest them. Some Mass-goers, however, pointedly keep their hands to themselves, letting you know by their body language either that: a) they're bacteria-phobes who wipe off door handles; or b) they think the liturgy went to hell in a handbasket after Vatican II, and they're having no part of it. Other traditionalists bring their old pre-Vatican II black missals to Mass and bury their noses in them while the people sitting near them press flesh.
Husbands and wives, as well as parents and children, often exchange an affectionate real kiss during the Kiss of Peace. This can set a bad example. In a former parish of mine lived a kindly old bachelor whose lack of a wife afforded him few opportunities to kiss ladies without committing a sin. My husband and I would give each other a smooch on the lips, and I'd turn around--for another smooch on the lips! I had to improvise an automatic outstretched hand in order to keep him at a polite distance. Then there's kneeling, a subject that's red meat to a lot of Catholics. Liturgy theorists and church liberals have waged a war for decades to get rid of kneeling at communion, on the theory that getting down on your knees is undemocratic, hearkening back to the medieval practice of kneeling to one's feudal lord. Traditionalists counter that Catholics have knelt at Mass for centuries, that the Gospels record that Jesus himself knelt to pray, and that remaining on one's feet in the pew after receiving the Eucharist is irreverent. Right now, depending on the parish you visit, anything goes.

Obviously the aim of the new GIRM is to replace this sort of chaos with something more orderly that will reinforce the sacred character of the Mass. As Advent approaches, dioceses will be pondering ways for their pastors to convey the news of the changes to the pew-sitters. If the Cleveland saga proves to set a pattern, however, the bishops may end up simply replacing one individualistic free-for-all for another. I say only this: Please don't make me hug, much less kiss, anyone I don't know.

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