h/t to Fr. Powell
OK, so your pastor, Fr. Hollywood, has decided to co-opt your parish’s Sunday Masses as his time to show all of your pew-sitting mouth-breathers what a hip guy he is. He changes the wording of the prayers to fit his political agenda. He writes the prayer intentions to reflect his pet-peeves and social projects. He uses the homily to berate you for not recycling, for opposing illegal immigration, and for standing outside the abortion clinic praying the rosary. Then, just to rub a little salt in the wound, he ends each Mass with the exclamation, “Go be Church!”
Any sensible Catholic would have exploded by now. Unfortunately, most Catholics are either shell-shocked by the inanity of these DIY liturgies or comfortably numb with the monotonous hum of Father’s self-serving political haranguing.
Let’s say you decide “to do something about it.” What do you do?
First, here’s what NOT to do: do not fire off an angry letter to the bishop demanding that this heretic be removed from the parish or else. Unless Father is doing something horribly illegal (molesting children, stealing money, selling drugs out of the rectory, etc.), there’s almost no chance he’s going to be replaced. There’s simply not enough priests to go around. Also, firing off an angry letter to the pastor himself will likely end with him filing the letter for further reference in the trash can.* Angry doesn’t work.
The next thing to do is to honestly examine your conscience about your motivations for wanting these abuses to stop. Do these abuses cause me serious spiritual problems? Am I wanting to be a cultural warrior and take sides in the battle? Am I being scrupulous about rule-following, or wantonly careless about following the rubrics? Do the abuses seriously damage my understanding of the faith? Am I just being a liturgy Nazi just b/c I can be? Am I pushing my personal political agenda? Am I thinking with the Church on these issues? Keep in mind: you cannot speak for anyone but yourself. You cannot complain that the inclusive pronouns or the exclusive pronouns are hurting other people’s faith. It might be true that Father’s liturgical goofiness is hurting other people, but you can’t know that; therefore, you can’t report it. And even if half the parish tells you it’s hurting them, you can’t speak for them. You can speak for you alone. I am not trying to discourage you from talking to Father about these issues. I’m encouraging you to know your motivations for wanting to do so. Be clear about those motivations lest you are tempted to pride.
Here’s what you need to know before you speak up. . .everyday (probably several times a day), Father is besieged by parishioners who know how to run the parish better than he does. They are all self-appointed experts in liturgy, finance, personnel, scripture, theology, canon law, and politics. And all of them together are pulling the pastor in a hundred different directions, all making contradictory or contrasting demands for action. While you loathe the use of inclusive pronouns that reduce God to a Platonic Parent, there are three people in the parish complaining b/c he doesn’t throw out the USCCB-approved lectionary for being sexist. While you’re outraged that he uses homily time to bark at you about the evils of carbon emissions, five people are complaining b/c his last homily canonizing Al Gore forgot to elevate The One to sainthood as well. If he makes you happy, he adds eight more complaints to his calendar. Also, keep in mind that Father might actually have justifibly good reasons for what he is doing. I have very bad knees from working for five years in a violent adolescent mental hospital. It is very difficult for me to genuflect. A U.D. student respectfully asked me why I didn’t genuflect at the consecration. I explained my weird situation, and she was satisfied. Case closed.
Now, if Father thinks it’s his job to make everyone happy, well, that’s his problem. He’s taken on an impossible task and caused himself nothing but misery. If he choses to bow before the loudest voices in the parish and do as he is told, again, his problem. My hope would be that the pastor would lead. Stand up front and follow the Church with his parish supporting him along the way. That happens quite frequently but nearly often enough. Regardless, we are all responsible to one another in this Body, so if you are clear on your motives and well-aware that you might be the lone oppositional voice. . .speak up!
Having persuaded you that Father is haggarded with competing demands and unlikely to be moved by an angry letter, what do you do to persuade him to change his goofy liturgical ways?
Talk to him. Make an appointment and charitably express your concerns. Tell him why his goofiness upsets you. Do so respectfully with every fiber of humility you can muster. Approach him with what you see as abuses by asking open-ended questions. For example, “Father, I’ve noticed you avoid using male pronouns when speaking about God. Can you tell me why this is important for you to do?” Listen to his answer without judgment. Actually hear his answer over the clamour of your need to correct his interpretation of canon law. When he finishes, see if you can repeat to him what he has said. Then, move on to the next question. Save your objections for a later appointment. If he asks you what you think, tell him that you just want to know why he does the things he does b/c you are unsure of his reasons for making the changes. You will be tempted here to launch into a broadside against liturgical innovation. Resist it!
When you go to Mass next take notice of his “abuses.” Is he still doing them? Are you still upset? If so, ask for another appointment. This time go back through your questions and tell him how each abuse upsets you. Again, do so respectfully and without accusation. Just report your feelings and thoughts, leaving canon law and papal documents out of it for now. If he’s a good pastor he will pull more out of you than you would imagine there is to pull.
Go back to Mass and take note. The abuses are still happening. Ask for another appointment. This time note your disappointment that the abuses are still going on and ask him what you should do about it. Remind him of your objections and how he responded to them. But honestly ask, “I understand now why you think your changes are necessary, but they are disrupting my prayer in Mass. I find them very distracting. What do I do?” Listen carefully to how he answers and ask appropriate questions. He may tell you to get over it. He may apologize and keep on doing what he’s doing. He may suggest some reading to “enlighten” you. Or, he may shrug and say, “I dunno. What do you want to do?” Tell him.
Tell him whatever it is you think you need to do. But don’t think for a moment that threatening to leave or withhold donations is going to change his mind. He’s got three folks in the outer office waiting to push him even further along the road of liturgical experimentation. Or maybe, you are expressing what dozens have express to him already and the pressure to change is mounting. The one thing that will dissipate all that pressure most effectively is anger. If you get mad and spout off, you’re credibility is gone. No one wants to listen to a madman, so the ravings of a madman are ignored. Don’t threaten. Don’t quote canon law. Or liturgical documents. Don’t wave Ratziner’s Spirit of the Liturgy in his face. Chances are he knows that what he is doing goes against prevailing law and custom. I’ve never seen the legalistic approach work. Never. There’s simply no way to tell someone that they are violating the rules without sounding like you are accusing them of a crime. In fact, that’s exactly what you would be doing. “Father, here are the 37 canonical crimes you have commited in a month of Masses. . .”
At this point, sit down and write a very charitable letter detailing what you see as abuse in the Mass. Whatever you do: NOT NOT QUOTE canon law or papal documents. Pastors who tend to be goofy in the liturgy are constitutionally allergic to rules, so quoting rules to them only reinforces their sense of being “hip” and “edgy.” They will simply respond my invoking “pastoral considerations” and keep on truckin’. What these guys will respond to favorably is an honest, personal assessment of what you believe their abuses are doing to your prayer life. If you are sincerely adversely affected by the abuses, say so. And be specific about it. For all their calavier attitude about The Rules, most pastors loathe the idea that anything they would do could hurt someone. You could be the first, the tenth, or the one-hundredth person to tell him that his goofiness is detrimental to your fruitful experience of the Mass.
Tell him in this letter that you feel compelled to write a similar letter to the bishop. As the Pastor of the Diocese, your spiritual health is his responsibility. You are not tattling or going over Father’s head. If your letter is motivated by genuine angst, written from a personal experience, and doesn’t pretend to teach the bishop his business, you will be heard.
Last but not least, prepare for nothing to be done. Prepare for the fact that no changes will occur. Prepare for hearing nothing back from the bishop. Why? Becasue if Father has 800 people pulling at him about this and that, the bishop has 80,000. Not hearing back from the bishop doesn’t mean that nothing was done. All it means is that no one told you that something was done. If your pastor has a history of liturgical abuse, the bishop has a file. Your letter will join others and eventually the weight will tilt the bishop into action. But don’t expect the bishop to drop everything he’s doing, drive to your parish, and blast the pastor in front of the congregation before Sunday Mass. If that’s what you want to happen, then you need to do some seriously soul-searching.
So, let’s say that you have done all that I have suggested and you arrive at Mass on Sunday morning confident that Fr. Hollywood has been straightened out. He processes in and begins, “In the Name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifer. . .” What do you do?
Like the shampoo bottle says, “Rinse, lather, repeat.” If you tell me that you don’t have time for this sort of protracted conversation, I am tempted to say that you aren’t serious about the abuses hurting your spiritual life. If Father’s goofiness is damaging you spiritually, nothing should stop you from addressing the abuse. It might take years to convince him to change. How important is it to you to have the Mass celebrated with the universal Church?
*When I was a deacon at Holy Rosary Church in Houston, I was unexpectedly recruited by one of my elderly brothers to help him distribute communion. Unfortunately, I was dressed to go on a work project with my U.H. students. We were there for the Mass b/c our project supervisor was running late. I was wearing shorts, a tee-shirts, and sandals. When I objected to the priest that I was not properly dressed, he insisted I help him with the unusually large crowd. He didn’t even give me a chance to put on an alb! So, there I was at the very traditional Holy Rosary Church giving communion in shorts and a tee-shirt. A few weeks later the pastor got a thick envelope that he passed on to me. Inside were about thirty pages of copies of canon law, papal and conciliar documents going back to the ninth century! All yellow highlighted and decorated with exclamation points and underlines. The point of the letter: clergy should not participate in the liturgy dressed in anything but proper vestments. Duh? Really? I didn’t know that. The author of the package was furious with me for my disrespect, etc. and demanded that I be fired. Had he taken 30 seconds after Mass to talk to me personally, he would have discovered that I agreed with him! Instead, he chose to go home fuming and spend hours collecting and copying documents that fit rather nicely in my trash can.