I’m in Nantucket this weekend, where it’s cold and drizzly and about a hundred people are gathering for a black tie family wedding that will almost surely include lots of umbrellas and soggy paten leather shoes and drenched gowns. While I wait for the skies to clear — they won’t, and we may well be stranded here until Monday — I’ve been catching up on church-y things, notably Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s essay this week that wonders whether Sunday Mass is just too long. The subject evidently came up during Synod listening sessions in his archdiocese:
I was amazed at the high interest this generated. Apart from the predictable carping from both fringes — the far left claiming that the only way to increase Mass attendance was to drop all liturgical guidelines and go back to the “do-your-own-thing” hootenannies of the ’70’s, or the alt-right urging turning the altar around and getting the fiddlebacks out of mothballs — the largest majority replied that the top reasons people were no longer coming to Sunday Mass were — are you ready for this? — one, because they couldn’t understand the priest; two, their parish had been closed; and, three, Mass was too long!
Let’s concentrate on the third reason. At first, I was prone to dismiss this. But, after re-considering the dozens and dozens of such replies — admittedly far from a scientific survey — I concluded that maybe these folks were on to something. It was very clear from the tenor of their responses that these were women and men who loved the Eucharist, who would rarely themselves miss Sunday Mass and were the first ones back after the pandemic restrictions were mercifully lifted; who gladly welcomed the genuine liturgical renewal of the council, who were not asking for a “quickie” Sunday Mass, who knew that a reverent, participative, joyful celebration of the Sunday Eucharist demands a chunk of quality time, but who were still exhausted from “marathon Masses” which they contend are driving the folks away.
Could they be on to something? A liturgical scholar observed to me recently, “The greatest advance of liturgical renewal after the council was the restoration of the prominence and solemnity of the Easter Vigil. But the greatest negative of these last decades has been that every Sunday Mass is now as long as Holy Saturday!”
The dismal stories the people shared with me reached litany length. Now, they tell me, Mass starts with music rehearsal, then an obligatory “greeting” to those around you. By then, we’re five minutes past when Mass was supposed to start. The celebrant will usually give a lengthy introduction; the “Gloria” can exhaust the angelic choir, to say nothing of an unending sung responsorial psalm. The prayers of the faithful can go on forever, with the final petition — for the deceased — added to on the spot as some are dropping dead in front of us. Then we sit and wait awhile for the collection and offertory procession. The “Lamb of God” can reach the length of a baseball game. Often, we add a “reflection” after communion, with subsequent announcements. Don’t forget the long list of “thank you’s” for all those who had a part in Mass. God forbid we would leave before all five verses of the closing hymn are sung . . . and I have not even mentioned the biggest culprit of all — the mammoth homily from priests and deacons who ignore Pope Francis’ admonition to keep homilies at 8 -10 minutes!
I have to say: I have rarely encountered in my travels a Sunday Mass that exceeded 60 minutes. Some have been a lot shorter. (I remember a Mass from my childhood, in an un-air conditioned grade school cafeteria — this was the mid-1960’s — when the priest celebrant offered this pithy one-sentence homily: “It’s a hot day, so let’s cool it” before launching into the Creed.) But overall, I think, if a Mass has seemed too long it’s been because the music was bland, the singing was lackluster and the homily was lifeless and tedious. Things like that can make 60 minutes feel more like 60 weeks.
And from my new vantage point in Florida, I’m discovering lots of quirks and local habits that I never encountered in Brooklyn. Things like: congregational singing of “Happy Birthday,” and asking people in the pews where they are from and why they are visiting, and having members of this committee or that sharing group offer a few words — or several more than a few — on upcoming events. Since Florida’s population is growing by leaps and bounds, a lot of places are building new churches, or adding to the ones they already have, and so there are updates on these plans and the weekly recitation of a fundraising/stewardship prayer.
Now along comes Amy Welborn, who responds to Cardinal Dolan’s essay with some thoughts of her own culled from previous posts. She gets to the heart of why so many parishes keep adding STUFF to the liturgy:
I could write a few thousand words – and have, over the years – on the issues Dolan mentions.
But I think everything I would have to say comes down to the topic of this blog post: It’s not the reverence – it’s the ego.
For every one of the issues Dolan cites can be tracked back to the victory of ego – the celebrant’s, the musicians’, the liturgical planners.
That is not to say that a lengthy liturgy is necessarily the consequence of ego, and honestly a focus on length avoids the real issues.
For a lengthy liturgy in any cultural setting can certainly be an act focused on worship of God, and globally, outside the Western world, tends to be that.
The Mass I normally attend – Novus Ordo, but with lots of Latin, chant and 10-12 minute homilies – is never less than 75 minutes long, is packed, noisy with kids (“the baby choir” as one celebrant memorably and cheerfully described it) and almost everyone stays to the very end of the last verse of the final hymn, of which we do, yes, sing all the verses, sorry, Cardinal – “God forbid we would leave before all five verses of the closing hymn are sung…”
The point is – most of the particular features Dolan points out – features of our suburban Western Catholicism – are all about the centering of the self.
Further, as I also have banged on about for years, ego is what is just waiting to happen when you emphasize the spontaneous action of the Spirit over given liturgical forms or even – hate to tell you – the “needs” of the “local community” in liturgical celebrations, especially in cultures where there is, you know, no culture to speak of.
I’ll just add one more thought here (as the rain keeps falling and I wonder what the bride is thinking right now) …
We Americans can and often do take for granted that blessed freedom we enjoy to worship where we want, how we want. We are spoiled that way. When it comes to Sunday Mass, the less it interferes with our soccer schedule and brunch dates, the better.
Others around the world aren’t as fortunate. We easily forget our brothers and sisters who face frequent, sometimes bloody persecution. I worked for over a decade for a papal agency that offers pastoral and humanitarian aid to Christians who face hardships and make sacrifices we can’t even imagine. And it’s not just harrowing stories of imprisonment or terrorism. I heard stories of faithful Ethiopians who would spend all morning walking to a distant church to attend a three-hour liturgy, and then spend all afternoon walking home, full of joy, because they had been able to receive the Eucharist.
It seems to me a Mass that stretches to 70 or 80 minutes might not be such a bad thing, and a small burden to bear, if we bear in mind the astounding gift we receive in return.
Maybe we need some perspective — and a deeper sense of gratitude.
Think about that this Sunday, no matter where you worship or how long it might take. Pray for our brothers and sisters who don’t have the freedom we have — the opportunity, week after week, to sit through dull homilies and forgettable hymns, contending with annoyances and inconveniences, all while praising God and receiving the source and summit of our faith.
When you think about it, what we are able to do — what we are blessed to do — is something wonderful.
Lord, we are not worthy.
Maybe it can be better. But God knows (and many can attest), it can also be so much worse.