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Anthony Esolen & David Mills on Restoring Primitive Jocularity to the Liturgy
September 25, 2008 (Christian Liturgical Associates Press)—Last year’s discovery of an ancient formula governing the worship of the earliest Christians has spurred the Catholic bishops of the English-speaking world to revise the Mass, both in language and in ritual gesture. A scrap of paper reading Lex orandi, lex ridendi, found among kitchen refuse excavated on Crete, suggests to scholars that solemnity and reverence were hardly the sole aims of ancient Christian worship.
The discovery highlights the need “to chuck the old chicken bones” of Christian liturgy, the remnants of the gloom and pessimism of the Middle Ages, says Bishop Wilberthorpe Minnow of Lake Minnehaha. “We need to show that we are a Laughter People, a Happiness People, a Welcoming of All People People.”
To that end, Bishop Minnow and his colleagues at the International Commission on English Transfiguration (ICE-T) have suggested modifying the new Mass in order to meet the jocular needs of the average person, while remaining sensitive to the traditions of various minorities within the church, including women, children, the differently abled, people allergic to wax, incense, wine, and wheat gluten, and the liturgically challenged (those who just don’t see the relevance of the liturgy as it stands).
“The Novus Ordo model has been out for forty years,” says the bishop, standing over a green baize mat in his office and eyeing his crozier for the putt. “ Forty years! We don’t want to become the Studebakers of the Christian world.”
Liturgical experts agree that the updated Mass, which the conference calls the Novus Improvatus Ordo, will take many of the faithful by surprise, but caution that this has always been true of liturgical advances.
The commission has given the CLAP advance notice of just a few of the changes in the offing.
Instead of the old greeting and response at the beginning of Mass, for example, which many find formulaic and impersonal, the priest and congregation will trade a pleasant salutation such as one might hear in a grocery store or in the waiting room of an unemployment office.
Celebrant: Hey there!
People: Hey yourself!
C: Be happy!
P: That’s cool!
C: Be thankful!
P: Can’t complain!
The purpose of the new opening, Bishop Minnow explains, is to draw the people into the “life happiness” of the gathered community. The liturgy needs to begin with “the universal call to happiness proclaimed in the spirit of Vatican II,” he adds.
Some of the more traditional bishops had objected to the removal of words such as Lord and God, but as Bishop Minnow shrewdly notes, many of the changes in Catholic worship have already blurred that category, reflecting our deepening understanding of the meaning of the Incarnation. “All that Dominical stuff was well and good for an age of lords and ladies and knights and serfs,” he says, sliding the crozier back into its leather case, “but every age needs its own Christ, and we are the Age of Aquarius.” He smiles mischievously. “I meant Equality, of course.”
“Why object to removing hierarchical, distancing words like Lord from the liturgy,” he continues, “when you have already dismantled the communion rail? And when you use the word Father only under duress? And when you already sing the words of the deity in the first person? We need to let our liturgy lead our theology here.”
“Besides, I believe that Jesus was all about breaking down walls,” says Rosemary Ratched, a sister of the new order of Our Lady of Empowerment who, as Roger Ratched, was a founding member of the ICE-T. “He was a great performance artist who played all the big hills and lakesides in Galilee. Quite the man, too,” she laughs softly. “He showed us that we were already divine. He certainly was!”
Jesus spent most of his time on earth laughing and carrying on, agrees Elaine Pagans, a scholar of the Neo-Testament, but the messenger Paul perverted the original message to fit his racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia. “Paul was not a barrel of laughs,” she notes. She claims, however, to have discovered a more “ridulous” Paul, to use the technical term, the author of a delightful Letter to the Philistines, scraps of which have been deciphered by the old and venerable technique of extrapolation ex nihilo.
But the bishops aren’t ready to do away with sin entirely. “We prefer to call it an awkward moment,” says Bishop Minnow. “That’s what’s really so sad about sin,” he says with a sigh. “It just wipes the smile right off the face of the day.”
People who are, so to speak, awkward on the stage of life are not reaching their full “joy potential,” Professor Pagans agrees. “You can’t remove this deep realism about the human condition and still call yourself Christian.”
Thus the ancient prayer the Confiteor, said at the beginning of the Mass, will be retained, though with modest revision:
You know, I have to admit it, sometimes I goof up.
But I know you understand this and affirm me in my imperfection.
An expanded version, with more formal language, is suggested for Lent:
You know, I have to admit it, sometimes I do goof up.
But no one is harder on me than myself am.
I know you understand thisand affirm me in my imperfection.
It is your desire that I should cease on myself to beat up.
Parishes preferring a more traditional form will be allowed to use the following instead:
I confess to almighty God,
and to you, my sisters and brothers,
that sometimes I’m not all I should be.
You know, I have to admit it, sometimes I goof up.
My bad, my bad, my really bad [penitent strikes him/herself upside the head, thrice].
But Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, that’s all right.
Similarly, the people will prepare for Communion by emphasizing what makes them feel happy:
C: Come on down! You’re worthy to receive!
P: You got that right!
An alternative version emphasizes hope:
C: Come on down and work out those last imperfections!
P: Hey, I can always get better!
The drive behind the new Mass is a missiological one, stresses Bishop Minnow. It is crucially important that people understand the language of worship. “We’ve been too formal! How can we expect the laity, who don’t have the years of theological training we have, to understand one in being with the Father and all that? Why, I hardly understand it myself. And why should I understand it? These are historically conditioned terms that we must contextualize for our own time.”
So, in a radical innovation, ICE-T has proposed alternative, inculturated expressions for various groups: the opening of the traditional Hail Mary will be “Yo, Mary” for those using the SPV (South Philadelphia Version) and “You go, girl” for young African American women, for example, while older, more traditional Catholics can use “Hey, sweetheart.”
Some changes are small. In the south, for example, the celebrant will say “The Redeemer be with y’all,” while in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, “And also with you” will be replaced by “A-yah.” People in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Green Bay will be able to replace “and give us this day our daily bread” with “and give us a Super Bowl victory in January.”
But others will be more radical expressions of God’s inclusive love for God’s people. Those in alternative familial structures will be able to pray the “Our Legal Guardian” and say that “your affirmation of our different giftedness become universal” in place of the stiflingly hierarchical “your kingdom come, your will be done.”
Even the devotees of Prince Gautama, prominent in the churches of southern California, have been remembered in the revisions: they will hear the Mass end with “Boddhi-boddhi-boddhi—That’s All, Folks!”
Finally, certain Jesuit seminaries have procured permission to employ liturgical responses that reflect the special charism of their order:
C: “The Lord be with you.”
C: “The Word of the Lord.”
C: “The Mass is ended; go in peace.”
Liturgical dancing and holding hands will also be encouraged, but not every congregation will practice the same form of dancing. Liturgical dancing must be properly contextualized, Bishop Minnow insists. “We are not ecclesiastical leotards. One size does not fit all. The kick-lines and can-cans that work in Arizona would feel out of place and irreverent in Maine.”
Finally, ICE-T, concerned that the Novus Improvatus Ordo would be rejected by younger members of the congregation, has recommended that at the entry to the church all teenage boys be provided with video games or iPods loaded with games making the faith alive and relevant. “It will keep their attention off the sermon,” says one of the conservative members of the commission, “and that is probably just as well.”
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.