Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Alternative or Sacred Worship and The Red White and Blue

Father John J. Lombardi 

You've heard people say: "Get with the times!" And, perhaps, sometimes, you've probably succumbed to the "pressure to conform" to the world. You know, "keeping up with the Joneses" or "Being with it". Well, today, that may include how some churches worship God on Sunday. Have we gone from altar worship to alternative worship? As Catholic devotees of the Living Lord, we are called to worship the Timeless One--God, in and with the times we live in. Yes, temporal things can help us realize (read: with real eyes -cf. Eph 1: 18) eternal things, if we choose them with great discretion. But, some ask today: In our worship, have we lost a sense of the Sacred? Sometimes it takes foreigners to remind us of our roots ("In God we trust"): A recent pilgrim-archbishop from Slovakia, said upon seeing the beautiful Grotto itself, "You Americans are, really, religious." Yes, padre, we are still a nation under God!

There was, once in the cult of Catholicism, ornate churches and the Latin Mass with its august mystery and majesty; today we may have cardboard churches and communion services. In today's zeitgeist-world, many Christians are shaping their liturgies to encircle people with entertainment. Their mantra: "Enough of the sterile sacredness. We can generate dynamic, spirit-filled love of the Lord, by pushing new buttons of innovation and experimentation." Ergo: High masses are out and "Alt worship" is in. What's up? An article in The New York Times (5-16/2004) profiled how many evangelical Protestant congregations are "changing with the times" to attract young and old alike thru dynamic, "alt-worship". This includes: accommodating worshipers with sofas instead of pews (a hang-out mentality reigns); stylistic multi-media presentations (gimmicky-flair-filled sermons are a norm); "informal worship" services; coffee bars and Christian rock bands. Pop culture movie presentations and small-group discussions are prevalent. This is not your dad's religion. It is "Alt Worship."

Some of these styles have affected Catholic practices today-experimentation and innovation in liturgical practice still prevail in some communities. This is the way seminarians (and other leaders today) were taught in the sixties and seventies: change is good and you can do it: "Blast the past, the new is true," might be a mantra. The results have come to roost now in today's always-new and improved, sensate-gratifying culture and church. And so, reverence is out and rock-rap religion seems to be in. Is the Church conforming to the world? We Americans show the constant addiction--and ability-to re-invent, re-package things, including the Gospel and Worship of God. But: sometimes in that desire to change-to be "with the times," or to change the world, the Church can subtly mimic the culture it is supposedly challenging, and thereby lose its force. Some Catholics today, (falsely interpreting Vatican II, as Pope John Paul has observed), emphasize the Mass as a "meal gathering;" wherein handshaking and stand-up comedy homilies reign; and sacred silence and piety have become frowned-upon practices. Look: some Catholics (like this chaplain) have searched for, and found these age-old, wise practices in other religions, such as Zen Buddhism and countries (India-Asia), because they did not find them in their parish churches. And, note: these ancient eastern practices have not changed much. But, in the secularizing-materializing West, Catholicism and forms of Protestantism have changed. Why the difference between East and West? As good as the Renaissance and Enlightenment were, they became foundations for modernism, secularism, agnosticism (that has not occurred as dramatically in the East). Therefore, mystery and majesty have been somewhat excised from the Catholic rituals.

Perhaps, today's "reverent-relevance-worship search" is a desire for a reverberating experience of God- that is, by eschewing past traditions for present style-godly fear for gristly grunge. An extreme form of this may be called emotionalism: we are what we feel. Emotions dictate worship. Feelings are ultimate. Thus, the seeming spiritual equation: if there is no emotional charge, then there is no worship and, (for today's pastors) possibly, no worshippers. Perhaps one of the most common sayings about worship today is: "I don't get anything out of it." Kind of like identifying worship with a wrestling match or a NASCAR event. Translation: I didn't get a fix. No gratification. But liturgical engineers-Catholic and Protestant--are adapting thousands of years of past Tradition, under the rubric of a kind of "mystical marketing," pushing buttons to stimulate the spirit with spiritual smoke and mirrors. Sensational emotion to keep 'em going, if you will. Underlying the current of this mushy mystification technique is a modernist misnomer mindset: As Christ left some old legalisms behind, so contemporary worshippers may nix tradition for new, "enlightened worship".

So today, some Catholic priests change approved prayers of humility and sacrifice, replacing these with grass-roots prayers expressing a kind of bland goodness of humankind not in need of redemption. Others replace the vertical nature of the Mass with exclusively horizontalizing fellowship, coffee and doughnuts, and social action: the dynamic "liturgical action" of the community is promoted over the seeming static worship of Christ in the Tabernacle. (In one church, the Eucharistic Christ is relegated to a side closet.) Therefore: Benediction is out and Eucharistic para-liturgies are in, wherein the ordained priest may be assisted by a liturgical presider (a nun or layperson) and a "sacrificial atmosphere" is avoided at all costs. Liturgical directors tell priests "how things are done here, in the local community." In one Maryland parish a pastor will not allow people to recite the Creed or Gloria because it is "distracting and unnecessary"…What should Catholics think of all this?

Tradition: we are linked to a sacred past and we cannot change it merely because of our own supposed thinking or needs. Pope John Paul and Vatican II emphasize organic renewal of authentic spirituality and worship, as grounded in consistent, insistent and persistent forms of worship. Just as Jesus Himself used forms of Hebraic worship for the Last Supper, so we must root ourselves in the past forms of Catholic cultic tradition to be linked to Jesus today. We go to Mass for a Divine sacrifice. Gathering, fellowship, greeting and social action are all part of Mass, but not the essential part. The saints understood this perfectly: you can have it both ways-love God first, and then neighbor, too.

Catholic Worship Today-The first paragraph of the first document of Vatican II (1962-1965, "Sacrosanctum Concilium-The Sacred Liturgy") emphasized the nature of the Mass as a sacrifice, to redeem mankind. The (new) Catechism of the Catholic Church re-states the same thought. Jesus actually re-presents Himself as Sacrificial Offering to the Father. Today, believe it or not, we need Mass as Sacrifice for sins, and atonement for the world, to counter-balance the evil in the universe with the Blood of the Lamb. The language, tone and atmosphere of worship should impress this attitude of gratitude. And, yes: we can be sacred and serene without being stuffy. Communion with Him leads to communication with others-fellowship-in that order. People will let you down; God won't.

Restoration of the Sacred: We can be reverent without being rigid, by restoring beauty and the sacred in Catholic worship today. From vestments to incense, thru prayerful language to sonorous worship and Latin chant, we can recover this as part of authentic worship. These facets of Catholic worship lift up the heart and impel disciples (as the saints exemplify) to re-create this beauty in others-thru good deeds and fellowship. One leads to the other. But the other (the human element) doesn't necessarily lead to the One. Today, we Americans especially, are in a danger of worshipping ourselves. After all, the Jews after being emancipated from Pharaoh began worshipping a Golden Calf which was a projection of the cult of self-worship. When we restore the sacred we restore our proper relationship with God. Saintliness and sacredness are not sterile; they are stimulating. Rudolph Otto, famous German intellectual, coined a descriptor-phrase of the disciple's godly religious experience, employed to this day: Mysterium tremendum et fascinans: the mysterious and tremendous mystery. Does this describe our worship?

Supplication: Remember this vital aspect of Religion- herein we are asking God, begging and pleading to Him (as people did to Jesus: cf. Mt 15:21 ff) for grace, favor and forgiveness. This is expressed and embedded thru the language of Mass, such as: "We beseech thee, O Lord," "Bless and approve this offering, make it acceptable to you," "Accept and bless these gifts we offer to you…" Today's "alt worship" emphasizes more how good we are and, reversing reverence, sometimes tells God what to do. There is a reason -and wisdom-why we pray on our knees. This should begin, though, in the heart and then end on the lips.

Sacred Mysteries: You may want to recall, and say, as one man recently said to me upon going to Mass: "I am going to the Sacred Mysteries." This will cultivate the right mindset. St Ignatius struggled for a year to celebrate his first Mass because of his respect for Jesus' Gift... Highpoint: Vatican II called the Mass the source and summit of the spiritual life. Is it for you-really?... Reverence not Rigidity: By your posture at Mass you can lead others to godly worship-and help train your own soul. Piety can make your body and soul pliant…Re-Learning Latin: This is the official language of Church. So, one can introduce the Agnus Dei, Kyriae, and Gloria-into the Mass. They are not really that hard to learn -laypersons have been leading the way in many communities and so can you in your parish and choir!...Pray-Memorize and interiorize this prayer: "May He (Jesus) take us up into His own perfect sacrifice that we may offer You (Father) fitting worship…" Concentrate on the essence of the Mass instead of focusing on external gratifications … One pilgrim recently said to this chaplain: "Do people really see just what the Mass is? If they truly did they wouldn't be changing things and staying away." Amen. May we be free of sin to truly worship Him! God bless America!

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi