Liturgical Doggerel?: Pope Francis’ Mass Appeal

“In Latin America,” so the joke goes, “a mass is not valid if a dog is not present.”

Pope-Francis-raises-the-host

Traditionalist websites are abuzz with doomsday scenarios because it seems the new Pope’s liturgical style is, well, too simple, too minimalist.  There is outrage and concern being expressed, and not without a bit of arrogance.  A Washington Post article quotes a canon law professor at Catholic University, who points out that “even small changes to the visible, symbolic parts of Catholic worship are noticeable to traditional Catholics, who treasure them.”  Point well taken, but he continues by saying of himself and other of said “traditional Catholics” (in charity, I hope that he was misquoted): “This is the group that is the most faithful.”

I have no problem with people having misgivings about the new Pope’s liturgies.  I, too, prefer a more elaborate liturgy, but, let’s face it, that’s not what most people get.  And I would never presume that my preferences with regard to liturgy somehow count me among “the most faithful.”

Indeed, some of the most faithful people I know have never experienced a high liturgy, and some perhaps never a mass in which a dog was not present!  The poor of Latin America, at least in my experience there, take what they can get as far as liturgy is concerned.  They don’t have the luxury of driving to the nearby parish where the liturgy is celebrated just the way they like it.  And, indeed, they probably would never think to do it, because for them the mass is as much about the people there to celebrate it as it is about the visible symbols, and whether they are precisely right.  In fact, in Latin America I rarely experienced what I would consider great liturgy, and I can count on one hand the number of masses I’ve attended there that I would consider “high mass.”  Masses there generally are more simple, especially where the poor live, and this, it seems to me, is what is reflected in Pope Francis’ liturgical style.  Maybe he’ll have to step it up a bit, now that he’s on the world stage.  But might we consider that the more simple kind of mass we’re seeing from Pope Francis is the more common experience for the majority of Catholics in the world?  And let me be the first to admit that a lot—if not most—of them are far more faithful than I, despite my liturgical taste.

In fact, I may hate the liturgical experience, but I’ll take a mass with God’s faithful poor—and even a dog thrown in—over a high mass with smells and bells and great music celebrated with people who think that because their liturgy is more beautiful, more symbolic, in a word, better, that means that they are more faithful.

Like I said, I hope that person was misquoted.  But perhaps our misgivings about Pope Francis’ brand of liturgy is an invitation to ask whether we do indeed think that our higher liturgical preferences somehow make us more Catholic than those who prefer it more simple, or simply don’t have the luxury of the choice.

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SyFy Sacramentals: Warehouse 13

At first it seemed like a weird premise and, I thought, this show’s going nowhere.  How are they going to maintain interest in a show in which covert Secret Service agents wander the country in search for powerful artifacts wreaking havoc in the real world, instead of being safely locked up in a warehouse in the middle of South Dakota?  You know the place.  It’s kind of like that warehouse in which the supposed ark of the covenant is shelved at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the infamous “Area 51” where the government hides all evidence of alien visitations and technology on earth.

But what do I know?  The show in question—Warehouse 13—has not only been successful, but now carries the distinction of being the Syfy channel’s most popular show ever.  I would argue that there have been better shows on Syfy—the recent reboot of Battlestar Galactica, for example—but for some reason Warehouse 13 seems to have a broader appeal.

Sitting waiting for penitents to come for confession recently (no, I do not have holy and pious thoughts every moment, even then), it occurred to meet that as a Catholic I should have realized sooner the appeal of the show.  The idea behind the show is not unlike the Catholic belief in “sacramentals.”  Sacramentals are material objects which, because of their special connection to someone or something sacred or holy, thus possess special qualities or are able to mediate God’s power or blessings in some way.  Thus, we invest religious medals, sacred art or relics connected with a particular saint with greater power or significance than just any other ordinary object.  They possess this power or significance not in and of themselves, but because of their connection to a significant or powerful person or moment in time.  Some see Catholics’ devotion and enthusiasm for such objects as strange and even superstitious.

But we Catholics, though we might appreciate it more, don’t have the corner on the sacramental market.  Just attend the latest Comic-con, or go to the Apple store, and you’ll see that the tendency to endow certain material things with special qualities because of their connection to something extraordinary—in this case, superheroes, a favorite TV show or the church of Apple—reveals itself as not something particularly Catholic, but peculiarly human.  One of the main differences is that “secular sacramentals,” the autograph of a famous person, for example, are often sold at a high price.  People profit monetarily from them.  Catholic sacramentals, on the other hand, are not meant to be sold for profit (though, still, they sometimes are).  People are meant to profit spiritually from them.  Sacramentals are meant to be used for good, not evil.

This is the mission of the Warehouse 13 agents.  They are on the front lines, trying to ensure that the errant “artifacts,” material objects often associated with a famous historical person or event (Lizzie Borden’s axe, for example) are not misused for the power they possess.  And, because the temptation to do so is so great, better that they be kept at the warehouse rather than become an occasion of sin.  Sometimes this means that the agents have to police each other.  Some in the past have gone rogue.  And, in the most recent episode, one agent draws his weapon on one the warehouse superiors, because she is using an artifact as a means of torture.  It will be interesting to see how the consequences of that decision are treated in future episodes.  The woman in charge of the warehouse now stands guilty of the very type of crime that the warehouse agents are out to stop.

The show is successful I think because most of us believe (or want to believe) that many material objects, like our own bodies, are more than just ordinary matter, floating in the soup of life.  Whether it be symbolically or even more substantially, certain special items hold a power which many people recognize.  There are a number of ways in which we memorialize significant historical persons, places or things.  And some hold power that only a given community or family might acknowledge.  In any case, we imagine that they all should be treated with respect, and that their power should not be used to harm others.  They are meant to fascinate and inspire, not to oppress or injure.  The good guys and gals at Warehouse 13 try to maintain that balance while taking care of each other, and having some fun in the process.  That’s why we like them so much, because they take seriously their duty to safeguard those things that we hold dear, without getting too uptight.