Anyone thinking about becoming Catholic is forewarned. Must reading is a little book by Thomas Day, a modern classic, Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste. It is both comic and sad. Cradle Catholics read it laughing through their tears. Converts brace themselves. Day sends up chatty priests who emcee the Mass as though it were their own live talk show, song leaders who challenge anyone else to sing, and happy-clappy ditties that might embarrass preschoolers. There is, to cite but one of hundreds, “To Be Alive”:
To be alive and feeling free
And to have everyone in your family
To be alive in every way
Oh how great it is
To be alive.

Be forewarned. “Convert stories” have been a major genre in Catholic popular literature. That has been less so in recent years because, as we have seen, some Catholics assume there is a tension, even a contradiction, between ecumenism and conversion. “Why,” it is asked, “would you want to become a Catholic when we Catholics have only now learned how wonderful Lutheranism is?” There are compelling theological reasons for becoming Catholic. Not so long ago, convert stories typically stressed the compelling aesthetic attractions of Catholicism. People such as Thomas Merton were drawn to the Church by the beauty, the solemnity, the ceremony, the dignity of the worship. The word commonly used was “mystery.”

It is an austere warmth, the warmth of Gregorian chant. It is deep beyond ordinary emotion, and that is one reason why you never get tired of it. It never wears you out by making a lot of cheap demands on your sensibilities. Instead of drawing you out into the open field of feelings where your enemies, the devil and your own imagination and the inherent vulgarity of your own corrupted nature, can get at your with their blades and cut you to pieces, it draws you within, where you are lulled in peace and recollection and where you find God.
“Cheap demands on your sensibilities” nicely describes the experience of much contemporary liturgy and music. One now more commonly encounters people who, instead of being attracted by the beauty of it all, entered the Church despite the aesthetic shambles of liturgy and music in many parishes. For the “high church” Lutheran or Episcopalian, contemporary Catholicism can be a liturgical and musical move downmarket, and sometimes way down. When over lunch I told my editor friend Norman Podhoretz, with whom I share musical passions, that I was becoming a Catholic, there was at first a long pause. Then, with a deeply baffled expression, “But, Richard, what about Bach?” What about Bach indeed.

As I say, anyone thinking about becoming Catholic should brace himself by reading Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing. That having been said, I do believe the silliest of the silly season is past or now passing. And I am impressed by Lutherans and Anglicans who, upon entering into full communion, say they are pleasantly surprised to find that the horror stories of Catholic worship are greatly exaggerated. You can still find, here and there, priests who pin balloons to their vestments, ad lib the words of the Mass as though it were their personal performance, and never rise homiletically above “Have a nice day.” There are still the ditties of doggerel set to vapid tunes that would make even Andrew Lloyd Webber wince; ditties that are typically much more about Wonderful, Wonderful Us than about the glory of the Lord. But all that is now passing. Its passing is hastened by the complaints of lay people who go to Mass not to celebrate their wonderful selves but to surrender themselves in the worship of the Mystery who is Christ in his Real Presence. Avery Cardinal Dulles tells of saying Mass in a parish that had a big banner by the altar emblazoned with the message, “God is Other People.” He says he very much wished that he had had a magic market with which to put a big comma after “Other.” But that, he notes, was more than twenty years ago.

Stories of liturgical and musical malpractice abound. Where Catholics gather to lament the state of the Church, the game of choice is “Can you top this?” It can be very funny, in a sad sort of way. The malpractice is evident not only in liturgical and musical antics hut also in the bare ruined choirs of churches stripped to the austere specifications of “worship spaces” designed to facilitate the community’s encounter with itself. Encounter with the Other is a decidedly secondary consideration, if it is considered at all. The tabernacle of the Real Presence is moved either somewhere off to the side or into a closet-sized space down a side corridor, as though to pose a challenge to those really determined to engage in eucharistic adoration. Not for nothing are the church renovations of recent decades sometimes referred to as wreckovations. All this is painfully true, and there will no doubt be cause for legitimate complaint far into the future. However...

There is real and present danger of idealizing the state of liturgy and music prior to the destabilizations following the Council. Today’s reformers rightly remind us that the pre-conciliar twenty-minute “quickie Mass” hurriedly mumbled in butchered Latin to get people in and out with minimum delay was not marked by the aesthetic care or reverence that so many say they miss today. The Council called for full, active, and conscious participation by the faithful. “Active” was sometimes interpreted as a mandate for keeping the people busy.

A liturgist recently reported that he observed a Mass with stopwatch in hand and discovered that 80 percent of the time the people were not doing anything. I expect some of them were just praying, or pondering the mystery of what God was doing at and on the altar. After the Council, liturgical experts obsessed with change imposed novelty upon novelty, the result being the radical destabilization of the sacramental and devotional order. But again, that season is passing. Today, the new thing is the recovery of the traditional. It is commonly called “the reform of the reform,” and it is making headway, albeit too slowly. Balloons, pests in clown outfits, and the guitar—strumming monotony of “Kumbaya my Lord” are period pieces; they are embarrassingly remembered by aging baby boomers, and utterly baffling to their children and grandchildren.

Then, too, and despite the banality and sentimentality of the English texts that were rushed into use for the New Order Mass (Novus Ordo Missae), it is a rite that can be done, and often is done, with dignity, reverence, and more than a touch of the majesty that befits the worship of God. And, let it be admitted, the banality and the sentimentality chiefly offend those of us who were reared in the elegantly virile liturgical English of The Book of Common Prayer: That was also the language adopted by Lutherans in this country when they switched from their immigrant tongues. After the Council, the general Catholic experience was very different. They went from the linguistic obscurity of the Latin to the linguistic barbarism of the New Order without passing through civilized English. Most Catholics, the former Episcopalian Father Rutler tells me, simply don’t know what he is talking about when he says he misses the liturgy in English.

And yet there is this: the attentive reverence of Catholics at the eucharistic prayer, and most notably at the consecration and elevation of the elements. At least that is, with notable exceptions, my experience. It is so intense that you can, so to speak, cut it with a knife. Despite all the chatter about the Mass as a celebration of the wonderful people that we are, there is this almost electric intensity of devotion toward what God is doing, toward the reality that Christ is keeping his promise once again when we “do this” in remembrance of him. Or so I have found it to be in parishes around the country, in corrugated huts in the slums of Mexico City, in the basilicas of Rome, in a bombed-out schoolhouse in Nigeria, in a Polish priory, in a village church of northern Quebec. Such palpable intensity of devotion, such manifest evidence of being caught up into the Mystery, I did not see in all my years as a Lutheran. It is quiet, undemonstratively earnest, a palpable yearning for a gift desired, a sigh of gratitude for a gift received. “It” is happening again. It is the Mass that holds together the maddeningly ragtag and variegated thing that is the Catholic Church. Which is to say it is the Presence. Which is to say it is Christ, doing it again, just as he promised.

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