Mass Confusion

Creatures of habit and ritual do not generally react well to change. Oh, you should be with me when I cantor Sunday mass these days.

For those of you who aren’t Catholic (or are, but haven’t been to church in a length of time not to be judged or even discussed herein): there is a very set ritual of prayers we say during mass. Recently, the Church changed the words to some of those prayers. The whole Church. Every Catholic who goes to mass now has to say different words, no matter what country they’re in (presumably). It’s because Pope John Paul II years ago ordered a re-translation from the original language into all the languages of the world, because things strayed a bit too far from home and now not everyone was really saying the same thing. He spoke seven languages, so I guess he would know. And we’re all supposed to be saying the exact same thing. It’s about unity. One Church.

So anyway. The answer to a priest’s “The Lord be with you” used to be “And also with you.” Now it’s “And with your spirit.” We’ve been saying “And also with you” since 1963 when the Church ixnayed Atin-Lay, but now, holy hell, the words are different. We say “And with your spirit” no fewer than five times during a mass. For the first several weeks of the new translation, we took special care to remind people of this before mass started. It got to a point when sometimes we were practically yelling it.

~”The Lord be with you.”
~”AND WITH YOUR SPIRIT! I got it that time!”

I was incensed (haha, Catholic joke – get it? Incense?) when the most pious of our priests decided to sing a high mass a couple of weeks ago. No, high mass does not refer to too much incense. It’s when a bunch of the prayers are chanted. I actually gave him a dirty look when he started in. People weren’t comfortable with those chants before we changed all the words. Now, there’s absolutely no musical precedent for them. I don’t know what to sing. The people are all, “Uh, hey cantor, what do we do?” and I’m all, “Uhhh, just… wiggle your voice around a little.” I hope you’re happy, Father.

My music director wisely changed some of the prayers we sing to the new translation weeks ahead of time. The idea was that people would be comfortable with them by the time we got to the mandatory switch-over, and they’d sing them confidently.

False.

We’ve been doing the new music for three months now, and I still see all these people with their faces buried in the prayer cheat sheets. Where the music, which they know, is not written.

I don’t know why, but for a Church based entirely on believing what cannot be seen, these people have some serious trust issues.

I’m not even going to start on the Nicene Creed or how everyone panics every week because “maybe they changed the Lord’s Prayer, too.” (They didn’t.)

Catholics are accustomed not only to ritual but also to a certain rhythm. We have a way we say things, you know? A cadence. When they changed the words, the cadence got all screwed up and now nothing is said together. Which is ironic, given the purpose of changing the words. Now everything’s scattered all to hell, and it comes out sounding like, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive my roof under you, but only say the word and I shall heal my own soul or …something. *Cough.* And with your spirit?”

That bit gets said at the most important moment of the mass: the consecration. It’s the moment when the bread and wine is turned into the body and blood of Christ. This is a very holy moment. Which makes it an excellent time for Patrick, the deeply baritone and hard-of-hearing usher/sacristan, to hock up a crapload of phlegm on the other side of the altar wall, very loudly, out of sight, like the Voice of God has been stricken by post-nasal drip. He does it at the exact same time every week.

Priest: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father,–“

Patrick (off): “Aaachhhuugggllll!”

Priest: “–almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord. For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation–“

Patrick (off): “AAAYYYYAACHHHHUUUGGGGLLLLL. Uh-gull-accchhhh.”

Priest: “–that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.”

(I don’t have that memorized. I looked it up. I had the old prayer there memorized. But that’s gone the way of the backward-facing celebrant.)

Sadly, another fairly regular ritual at my church is the Fainting of the Faithful. The vast majority of attendees are seniors. And, God love them, sometimes they don’t have breakfast, or they forget to take a pill, or whatever, and boom. Down goes Mrs. Frazier. It’s happened so frequently that the parish has had to mark off a little connecting road between two parking lots with orange cones so that nobody (read: me) parks along the side of it because, if they do, the ambulance can’t get through.

I almost parked there yesterday, in defiance, because I was late and I really hate having to drive to the lower lot and hoof it up the hill to get to the church, out of breath just in time to sing the entrance hymn. Good thing I didn’t park there, though, because all of a sudden, right at the very beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the part leading up to that all-important moment of the consecration)… down went poor old Mr. McKinley.

I made that up, I don’t know his name.

Father saw it happen, and, when he finished the prayer he was on, he discreetly asked for any medical professionals present to attend to this parishioner. Apparently I worship at a very medical church. About six people rushed over. Had the choir been there, three more would have joined them. My church is, for reasons both spiritually and practically obvious, a pretty good place to lose consciousness.

This is always a very awkward thing for the celebrant. He has to continue with the mass. But he kind of doesn’t want to. He feels like he’s plainly ignoring the fact that one of his parishioners may or may not be dying about 20 feet away. Yesterday, because Mr. McKinley’s episode went on for so long, he calmly told the server girls as they prepared the altar for the consecration to go and get the other priest over in the rectory.

I remained prone, remembering I’m supposed to be an example up here in my lay ministry, kneeling as Saint Peter or whomever told us to do, but wondering what was taking the ambulance so long. They’re right across the street. Naturally, half the church was basically staring at the spot where Mr. McKinley had keeled over instead of paying much attention to that most holy of liturgical ceremonies, and I have to say that, as I watched the priest, he was a little distracted, too. It’s good, though, kind of, because it distracted everyone from Patrick’s lung evacuations.  And then, of course, the medics arrived exactly when the bread and wine were elevated for the big moment. (Former Catholics: think “ringing bells.”) You cannot pick a worse time to be disruptive.

(left): “Sir, are you having trouble breathing?”
(from altar): “Through Him, with Him, in Him…”
(off): “Ayyyucchhhhgggllll!”
(left): “Any chest pain?”
(from altar): “In the unity of the Holy Spirit…”
(off): “Bllluuugrrrghhuhgglll…”

Adding to all of this? The words to the hymn we sang at closing. “Let All Things Now Living.” Really? Oh, this is awkward. “Let all things now living (I hope) a song of thanksgiving to God our creator triumphantly raise! Whose passion has made us, protected and stayed us by guiding us on to the end of our days! (Which is hopefully not today)… Til shadows have vanished and darkness is banished as onward we travel from light into light!” (Go toward the light!)

I don’t know what happened to Mr. McKinley. The medics carted him off just before it was time to line up for Communion, with Father Pious High Mass tagging along.

I wonder if the prayers for the Anointing of the Sick changed, too.

Half-Assed Holy Days

I’m not Pat Robertson’s daughter or anything, but Easter has always been a joyous day for me. It’s not that I go overboard celebrating; I keep a pretty low candy profile (though I have been known to have brownies for breakfast on this festive day of our eternal salvation, because eternal salvation food has no calories). But I’m always in a good mood on Easter Sunday morning, despite invariably being up late the night before and up early on the holiday to sing. I’m a cantor at my church, and I often get the 9am mass on Easter. Aside from the challenge of getting the vocal chords to flap properly at that hour, I’m happy to do it. But from the second I get up there in front of the rest of the church, I can tell: Easter is not joyous for everyone.

It’s the dead faces that give it away.

Yo. Jesus died… and then rose from the dead. You think you could at least look alive?

Leading people in song (allegedly), I figure, is a lot like teaching. You look out and see some animated faces and a lot of completely dispassionate ones. And you spend the next hour trying to drag people along. Anyone who sings, dances, acts or speaks to groups knows this feeling. You draw from the energy the audience or congregation gives you. When you get nothing, you feel like you’re falling flat.

I was gettin’ nothin’. No joy. I was Bettye LaVette, lookin’ for my joy. Except white and not nearly as distinct-sounding.

It’s interesting, because the parishioners all certainly seemed chatty before the mass started, while our newest priest was futzing around in the sacristy and running really quite late.

(You know you totally love that I just used a Yiddish word in the middle of an Easter blog.)

Now, this whole phenomenon is not new to me. We have a very musically-oriented parish, but there is always that lot what refuses to sing, and the cantors can sense it as soon as the entrance hymn starts: “Oh, it’s gonna be that kind of mass, is it? Okay, dig deep.” I could get on my soapbox here about how everybody in the pews will probably sing in their cars to Bruce Springsteen or Olivia Newton-John or Justin Bieber, but they just won’t do it in church…

Yup!


       Yup!


 Yup! (Own it)


                            Nope.

…and about how if you listen to live recordings of pop star concerts and hear everyone sing, they sound pretty darned good, so I don’t want to hear the “my voice is terrible” excuse. But I won’t get on my soapbox.

(Sorry I lied on Easter about getting on my soapbox, Jesus. Just tryin’ to do You a solid, here.)

(Did you know Jesus reads my blog? See? You’re in good company.)

My point is, I’m not up here singing for the sake of performance art. This is not a concert. You’re supposed to sing with me. You won’t sing at all without me. I know because if I cough, you have no idea what to do. You know the words, and you know the tunes, because we’re Catholic and this is Easter and it’s not, like, you know, new. So what’s your excuse?

I guarantee you, if I asked that question and waded through the “my voice is terrible” and “I don’t like to sing” excuses, what I’d really find is… “I’m half-assing the holy day.”

Let’s face it: you’re at the 9am mass because you want to get this thing over with so you can go get the kids to the Easter Egg Hunt and then go have brunch at your parents’ house before you get home to change back into your sweats to watch golf/hockey/baseball. It’s called a Holy Day of Obligation for a reason, right?

Don’t lie. It’s Easter.

Look. I’m never going to tell you you’re a bad person for coming to church and not really participating. You’re here, and I don’t know how the Jesus Jackpot really works, so who am I to say? We’re all just hoping for the best, here. But I am the head singer in charge, and I would really appreciate it if you would help me out. Every Catholic knows: the things that distinguish one parish from the other are A) the caliber of the priests’ homilies, and 2) the music. You will totally complain if you don’t like either one. We’re here to enrich your worship experience. So if we’re making the music good for you, please consider returning the favor. It really does matter to us. It’s not that we take it personally; it’s that hearing voices joined together makes us happy. If you sing, you make my day more joyful.

Happy Easter!