"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, March 05, 2007

Turning toward the Lord

The Latin conversio, whence comes the English "conversion," is a translation of the Greek metanoia, meaning a change of mind or heart. Metanoia is the New Testament word for conversion, meaning repentance and turning toward the Lord for one's very life. It is a repudiation of the old, doomed self in favor of the self one will become in eternity if we let Christ truly live within us. Lent is a time for renewed conversion in that sense. And liturgy is meant to facilitate that. Unfortunately, that's exactly what liturgy in many quarters of the Catholic Church today fails to do.

Last night I attended a Sunday Mass at an average-sized parish in Charlotte. That was unusual for me. Having worked third shift Saturday night/Sunday morning, I could not get up for the liturgy I usually attend, the 11:00 am Mass at Belmont Abbey. I must say that I was appalled. The music by the teenaged choir was, without interruption or mixture, the worst of the saccharine, 70s Jesuit stuff I thought I had left behind for good after abandoning the Catholic campus ministry in college three decades ago. The priest—whom nobody would mistake for an intellectual, or even for an NPR listener—practically tied himself in knots with solecisms. His five-minute homily, which relied on The Lone Ranger as an extended metaphor, preceded a long presentation by a portly, middle-aged woman about the Diocesan Support Appeal. The chief feature of that was exhaustive number-crunching done dialogically with the congregation in the format of a quiz show. (Don't ask any more, please.) That lasted fifteen minutes; they ought to give partial indulgences for having to sit through such a thing. Toward the end of it I began reading the classifieds in my search for an affordable apartment. Catholic Social Services in the diocese, I had recently discovered, doesn't "do housing."

The announcements that immediately followed the usual drab Liturgy of the Eucharist took another ten minutes. In good Catholic fashion, I left after five of those minutes so as to beat the crowd out of the parking lot; there are, after all, few places on earth more dangerous than the parking lot of a Catholic church after Mass. All I could do as I sped forth was grit my teeth, offer it up to the Lord inside me, and make my way to my favorite pub for an oatmeal stout.

What can one say? In the Catholic Church, it is time to "reform the reform" of the liturgy so that Mass once again becomes a place where the eternal can be perceived as penetrating and elevating the temporal. One gets the sense that many Catholics, including clergy, don't even know what that means anymore. Yet as I've also observed, enough do to make such a reform doable.

A good place to start is to, um, turn toward the Lord physically. Let's bring back celebration of the Mass ad orientem, which means that both priest and people symbolically face the Lord together by facing east during those parts of the Mass when the priest addresses God on the people's behalf. For more on that topic, I recommend Fr. Scott Newman's recent post and the book he himself recommends.

Pope John Paul II's private chapel did Mass that way. There's no reason why it can't even be offered as an option for the mass of laity. I'd bet the bishops would be surprised at how well received the option would be.
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