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My First Easter

May 31, 2013 by  
Filed under Liturgy, Paul McCusker

Life, As I Find It  by Paul McCusker

God can redeem our worst efforts, but we shouldn’t keep putting Him in a position where He has to. These are the words I often hear myself saying at writers’ conferences or in conversation about the arts. I determined, as an Evangelical Protestant and most certainly as a Catholic, that there’s no excuse for poor artistry or craftsmanship just because it’s Christian as if being children of the Creator gives us an excuse to be substandard.

As an Episcopalian, I attended a church that made every Sunday an artistic feast. The aesthetic environment of the church itself, with its stained-glass windows and gothic columns and wooden pews, the ornate altar, the statues of the saints behind it, was breathtaking. Then there was the music, with the excellent organist on the pipe organ and the robed choir hitting every note perfectly. And the priest and various attendants moved with precision and dignity. We even knelt at a rail to receive the bread and wine. Every detail of the service spoke of excellence. Who could complain?

Dan Burke warned me – as I drew closer to becoming Catholic – that it was unlikely I’d find that kind of experience in our parish. He cautioned me about my expectations. It became clear that I shouldn’t become Catholic if I was doing it for the beauty of how the liturgy would be expressed. I would be disappointed.

I took Dan’s words to heart. Yet, in spite of his warnings, I wasn’t really prepared for my first Easter experience as a Catholic. I wanted it to be wonderful, marvelous, joyous – a punctuation mark to my life-changing decision. Why not? It’s Easter. It’s the Catholic Church. It’s the perfect combination.

I can’t begin to explain how everything went wrong, mostly in ways that were remarkably petty. To begin with, in spite of our best intentions, we were late for Mass.  I don’t mean “late” for the appointed time, but “late” in the sense that we got there twenty minutes before Mass started instead of an hour. So we wound up at the edge of the baby section, in the folded chairs with no kneelers. For some reason, our priest didn’t do the homily but left that for another priest to handle – a foreign speaker I simply couldn’t understand. I also learned that day that Catholics, unlike Episcopalians, don’t know the exclamation of “Christ is risen!” with the response “He is risen indeed!” I think the general response I got that morning to “Christ is risen!” was “Uh. Yeah. Good luck with that.”

I may be wrong.

The choir, God love them, often sounded as if they weren’t actually singing the same songs as we were. Not that the songs were particularly good anyway. The selection was foreign to me – and forgettable –and I thought surely the Catholic Church can do better than this after 2000 years of effort. I mean, it’s one thing to do good music badly and another to do bad music badly. I think I’d rather have no music at all than either of those choices. But that’s just me being a snob. I ached for a Christ The Lord Is Risen Today or All Hail The Power of Jesus Name. Instead I wound up with leftovers from a failed draft of Godspell.

The worst part of my experience, though, was what happened around the altar. The priest and everyone around him looked as if they’d never experienced an Easter Sunday Mass in their lives – as if it had been suddenly sprung on them without warning. They were like the lead character in The Actor’s Nightmare, stepping on stage without knowing what play they were performing, or what their characters were, or what lines they were supposed to say. I thought I might be turned away from the Eucharist as they nearly ran out of the wafers and did run out of the wine.

My first Easter in the Catholic Church and I was ready to join in the chorus of crying with the babies around me. My wife, who is not Catholic, could only look at me with a certain expression of accusation. I didn’t blame her.

I know, I know. I shouldn’t be so uncharitable when talking about well-intentioned people who volunteer their time and energies every Sunday. And I kept reminding myself that there are parts of the world where people meet in mud shacks (if that isn’t a luxury for them) and have no choirs or priests or any of the things I take for granted. I get that. But, if you’ll forgive my petulance, I don’t live in that part of the world. I live in a part of the world that ought to have better aesthetics and music and artistry and beauty and… well, that kind of stuff.

I’m sure I’m wrong for even bringing this up. It’ll anger some people. I’ll get lectured for being so immature. I wrote to Father John Bartunek about it, telling him in detail about my first Easter as a Catholic. Shall I tell you how he responded? He laughed. It tickled him to no end that Paul “Mr. Aesthetic” McCusker would celebrate his first Easter in the Catholic Church in that way. I’m sure he thought it was purgative for me. And I’m not even sure I know what purgative is.

I wish I could say that I have a smashing conclusion for this little blog. An epiphany. A revelation. An enlightened perspective. Sadly, I don’t. I struggle constantly between charity and exasperation. In every Mass, wherever I’m celebrating it, a part of me is intensely aware of the collision of my expectations. Part of me wants to simply smile and nod at the wrong notes, the fumbled words, the missed sound cues, the bad acoustics or the well-intentioned-but-amateurish efforts.  Another part of me wants to cry out in lamentation over the lost artistry, the lack of best practices, the higher standard that ought to be the hallmark of the Catholic liturgical experience.

And still those words come back to me: God can redeem our worst efforts, but we shouldn’t keep putting Him in a position where He has to.

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About Paul McCusker

Paul McCusker is an author. He converted from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in 2007. He still works for an Evangelical organization. Paul has over 40 published works, including novels, plays, scripts, and lyrics.

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  • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

    Brother Paul – This is a very sad post. Yet I understand that it reflects life in the outpost you find yourself in. I wish you could travel around the country with me. Though I often find the near horrific sensibilities to be as stomach turning as you do, I believe this phase will pass in the Church. It is just too banal, bland, lifeless, and plain silly to be tolerated. This sad state is and will set the stage for those who stay in the fight. Beauty and Truth will win the day (as with this priest http://youtu.be/p-9g_G9fnK8). In the mean time we need to fight hard to support those priests who have a real relationship with Christ and translate that reality into transcendent liturgy. In my 2-3% Catholic population in Birmingham I happen to attend a parish (our Cathedral) where Christ is clearly alive in the priest and it flows into the liturgy. Every Sunday is a time of rest and worship that is truly beautiful. Hang in and don’t forget the most important thing.

    Finally, knowing you, some of the problem begins in your own soul. You long for heaven. The only place you will find it here on earth is in the depths of your own heart where heaven already exists – with God – in prayer.

    Blessings on you brother man.

    • LizEst

      Thanks for putting that so charitably. The only thing I would add is that what was given at Communion was the Body and Blood of Christ, not wafers and wine. Yes, there are many places where the liturgy is beautiful …and then there are also those places where it’s not what it could be. Isn’t it wonderful that God can still work with our meager efforts?

      • woodyjones

        The only thing I would add here is that there comes a point in these banal liturgies where the connotation is so mundane that it amounts to tempting God to make Himself present despite the irreverence of the assembly; if I recall correctly this is one of the classic manifestations of sacrilege. Note that I am not saying this is always the case with the kumbaya Masses, but it could degenerate into that. Also along the same line, there is the famous accidents versus substance distinction, right, but as I read it, there comes a point when the accidents may “overwhelm” the substance, as in the classic question of how big does a ship have to be before it becomes an island.

        • LizEst

          Yes, these things get out of hand. But, it is always the case that Christ is present if the priest uses the proper form and matter according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) rubrics. If these are missing, then there is no Eucharist.

          • woodyjones

            Thanks, Liz for this very good reminder. I think I will not pursue this line any further, for various reasons, but I cannot help recalling that I heard an otherwise very affable priest, giving us a retreat at a location not far from New York City, say the same thing, with a tone of barely disguised contempt for those of us who fret about this kind of thing, in fact I believe he added at the end “so get over it” or words to that effect. I did not think then, nor do I think now, that this is the end of right thinking on this subject.

          • LizEst

            God bless you, woodyjones! Happy Corpus Christi Sunday, tomorrow!

          • woodyjones

            Thanks, Liz, we will be united in prayer. All the best, Woody

      • Paul McCusker

        Thanks, LizEst. I actually struggled over how to write the line about the wafers and wine, because it struck me as odd to say “They ran out of the blood.” I knew someone would spot that, as you did, but couldn’t figure out how to write it so it made sense :)

        • LizEst

          ; ) How about, “They ran out of the Precious Blood”? We’ve used that in liturgy committee meetings in the past. God bless you, Paul…and Happy Corpus Christi Solemnity tomorrow.

          • RobinJeanne

            That’s exactly what I was going to say….” Precious Blood”

    • LizEst

      Beautiful link. Thank you Dan. It’s inspiring!

    • Paul McCusker

      Thanks, Dan. I would never want this blog to give the impression that that experience was representative of all churches everywhere. And i’m not really in despair. My great hope and desire remains that we in the Catholic Church will reclaim the “best practices” of artistry that have been a key distinctive of the Church in the past.

  • Wretched Sinner

    Your petulance is forgiven! :-) A few years ago I had just received the Eucharist and knelt to pray. I was deep in prayer when the noise of loud clanging drums start beating, I think my soul went out and back from my body in a matter of a split second. If it wasn’t for the remnant effect of that wonderful prayer I think I would have walked over to the drummer guy to throw the sticks out the window. ARGH! Can’t you see we’re trying to pray over here?!

    Perhaps our Lord has allowed this so we may purify our intentions. Hey, I’m trying to look at the half glass full here… You know what I mean. To be able to rest assured that we attend mass not for the “outward” beauty and enjoyment but the gloriously veiled mystery that the Eucharist truly is.

    Here, let me try to cheer you up. What does one profit to have the most ornate, gorgeous, wonderfully sung ceremony when at the end what you receive is just a spec of baked flour. But what does one profit by attending a less-than-perfect-mass (I know I know this is an understatement) within which we receive the sublime Body Soul and Divinity of the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the very life that sustains the universe; the very source of all light and being; and Who infuses us with all sweetness and ardor? He’s a hidden God and I think He likes it that way.

  • Becky Ward

    Hey, Paul….did you ever ask yourself what brings people back to those sad Masses each Sunday?

    I love a beautiful Mass too, and I can relate to what you’re saying. And yet……I have had a conversation from several years ago in my head for a week or so now; this is why. I was talking with a friend who’s daughter had a friend from a non-Catholic church when she was in high school, and was invited to a youth rally or something. They had some difficulty because the daughter wanted to join the other church. Most of what they do is to get the emotions worked up.

    Who else does that? High pressure sales people who use emotions to take money from people!! TV Evangelists? Car salesmen?

    Do you want an emotional high, or do you want JESUS? Do you want to be part of a theatrical performance, or the Mass? I don’t recall reading in the gospels about choirs and robes and all the rest being present on Calvary, and that’s where the Mass takes us.

    Part of the beauty of the Catholic Church is that Jesus shows up regardless of the trappings of the Mass.

    What kind of faith does one have if an emotional high is a requirement?

    Food for thought……….

    • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Paul can answer for himself but knowing him well… like you, he is also repulsed by any kind of purely human generated emotional high. He could care less about that. I believe his heart truly longs for the transcendent. He has a holy desire for the mass to reflect the reality he knows in his heart and the heaven that he longs for. Those of us who properly love the liturgy (as opposed to those who make the liturgy their god ) do so because of our love for Christ. We have a desperate desire to to be fully absorbed into Him. Though it is not the case with me, for some, the Mass is the only place on earth where the hope of this reality is even remotely reasonable or possible.

    • Paul McCusker

      Thank you, Becky. I think Dan has hit the key points in his post. Though I want to clarify that I’m not equating beauty and artistry – a pursuit of excellence – as “entertainment.” I believe God-glorifying beauty and artistry go far beyond mere entertainment and overt emotionalism and can take us to a much deeper place in our worship. As I mentioned elsewhere here, God gave very specific instructions about worship and the design of the Temple. I don’t remember where He ever asked, “Is this good for you? Does it make you feel okay? Are you entertained?” Yet there were reasons why God gave the instructions He gave. Beauty and artistry – excellence – were certainly part of it. Otherwise,Solomon wouldn’t have brought in the greatest artisans and craftsmen he could find.

  • Rebecca Duncan

    I can relate big time! When I went to my first Mass in around 2003 I was expecting it to be like the beautiful thing I’d read about and seen on TV in old movies and such. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I even went looking to the Eastern Orthodox parish up the highway for a brief time. At least they acted like they were WORSHIPING GOD and not like they were waiting until they could leave or having a sing a long at a community center. But, I got it together and stuck with my parish. Just because I’m at a lackluster parish doesn’t make the Catholic Church any less the fullness of Truth. These days I don’t really focus on that stuff anymore. I just try to be as reverent as I can and leave everyone else’s reverence or lack of it in God’s hands.

  • Cheri Lerner

    Thank you for your honesty. I have experienced this
    sadness.

    I brought this to prayer and was reminded that Jesus has to
    endure our collective lukewarm-ness, mediocrity and shared attention also.

    My resolve is to love Him -even more fervently- in His
    Eucharistic presence and thereby maybe comfort Him as He again goes unnoticed. It is my prayer that in focusing only on Him
    and adoring Him, I may comfort Him.

    Adoramus te, Christe!

  • MarytheDefender

    My family usually attends the Easter Vigil at our university Church because they really have a beautiful celebration! From the candle ceremony until the Recessional song, I can’t leave without brimming over with joy!
    But we also attend Mass on Easter Sunday itself. I remember one year when my dad commented about the disparity between last night’s Vigil Mass and Easter Sunday Mass. Easter Sunday Mass felt like any other Sunday Mass. I felt sad, but it was true. The Easter Vigil Mass was special, something to look forward to every year. It would be great if every Mass were as wonderful as the Easter Vigil or Christmas Eve Masses!
    But then I see the countless blessing and graces God has gives me during daily Mass. Sometimes without a choir, the homilies quick and concise… I strive to be reverent but am often distracted. Yet in His great mercy, these haven’t prevented Him from giving me joy during Holy Communion. Neither has it prevented Him from giving me the graces I so desperately need for the day ahead. I may not always feel it, but when the cross or temptation arises, I know He is there for me.

  • disqus_JUfq8bsFsd

    Paul,
    A wonderful post. Having been raised Catholic myself, I didn’t have the same “culture shock” that you describe, but still I can relate (as many of us obviously can. That said – in my case I discovered the beauty you describe at our local EF parish mass.

    I went initially because I had remembered (vaguely) the Latin mass from when I was a young boy. I had even learned the Latin to serve mass…but then they changed to English before I got a chance to use it.. :-( My experience at the EF was something quite “out of this world”…the reverence before and during mass, an excellent choir, a beautifully appointed 150 year old Church, receiving communion at the communion rail…I loved every aspect of it. My wife and I went every week for several months until her health made it impossible. I still miss it and hope to return one day.

    Now – don’t get me wrong – I love the OF!!! I make no negative comment on either the mass in the vernacular or on the many volunteers who serve in various capacities at Sunday and weekday masses. God bless them all.

    I only write this to suggest that, for those who do seek this sort of ancient and uplifting beauty, you might look into the EF – if it is celebrated in your area…Or if not, maybe look into trying to get one started.

    My personal opinion is that – the more people are exposed to the reverent way in which the EF is celebrated, the more they will want to bring that same reverence into their EF masses.

    But then I’m an eternal optimist….

    James

  • Roberta Lambert

    Please do not apologize for your righteous intolerance of mediocrity during the most important practice of of our Catholic Faith. Dare I repeat the obvious that the Holy Mass, the Eucharistic celebration, is the ‘Source and Summit’ of our Faith, therefore the Source and Summit of our life on this earth. I believe that even you have not articulated the very needed complaints adequately. Our tolerance of such un-Godliness among the Faithful would not be approved by any saint that I have ever read. Slip-shod, good-enough, mediocrity should not be condoned but should be corrected, as in the admonishment and instruction required by the formal list of Spiritual Works of Mercy. ‘Doing your best’ has been perverted in most areas of our culture to mean ‘Anything I do is good enough.’ What I call “militant incompetence” is the universal acceptance of this erroneous idea that half-hearted, sloppy and downright poor efforts, let alone poor results, have become some sort of a human rights issue that must enjoy special protection to maintain. Talk about ‘enabling.’ Just because someone offers to sing does not mean they are capable of the quality necessary to preserve the excellence of the Holy Mass. In some parishes it seems that the only singers who volunteer are the ones who cannot hit the notes.
    The banal practices and de-sacredlization of Mass, and I am definitely not a Latin Mass promoter, are clearly forbidden by the repeated authoritative documents that clarify the liturgical standards that are not optional. Simply following the Roman Missal and Redemptionis Sacramentum would be a good start to correcting the garbage that is put forth at our ‘Sacred’ Liturgies. This bare minimum of correctly celebrating the Mass is the barest minimum. Picking good readers, good singers, musicians who play sacred instruments rather than drums and banjos is another ‘bare minimum’ duty for those in charge of the Liturgy. It is not being nice to allow a bottom-rung celebration of the Eucharist. God is the ultimate Beauty so I take exception to the reference that desire for aesthetics is some sort of personality preference, or quirk, of the author. It is not nice to tolerate the uncorrected and unrepentant sub par offerings that we have now sanctioned as ‘good enough’ to offer to our God in this highest form of worship. All of this can be applied to behavior, dress, irreverence and obliviousness that goes on during Mass, Adoration and other activities within parishes throughout the country.

    Say it without apologizing. Say it because it is an act of Mercy to those who don’t know that applying yourself as PERFECTLY AS POSSIBLE to the worship of God, as well as to the duties of your state, IS THE ONLY WAY THE SAINTS HAVE ACTED THROUGHOUT THE AGES. Doing all with 100% gusto in every present moment is what we have been told to do in the Gospel and the only way the saints did anything, mundane or sacred, for the purpose of holiness in each of their lives.

    • JoFlemings

      I would add here that while everything you say here is true, there are people in our churches whose effort and intention are beyond heroic, but who will never meet the expectations you have implied here and attributed to the saints. This situation requires leadership governed by charity with delicacy- that is unfortunately even more rare than a grasp of the excellence due to God.

  • Sharon Brandt

    Yes, it is very sad. But I remember my sister, after coming back from
    England, telling me that while seeing all those old churches, she had
    the feeling that something was missing. She realized it was the Real
    Presence.

    Even though the Mass should not be about us being
    entertained, I believe it is good that we feel uplifted and “fed”,
    especially in the Homily and Communion. Probably this is the reason
    many Catholics “church hop”. I’m sure most pastors don’t have enough
    support to make the changes they wish to implement. And probably do not
    have enough time to spend in prayer to be able to write inspiring
    homilies. We need to support our seminarians and especially our parish
    priests with our prayer and time and talents.

    To get a foot in
    the door, look to see what parish ministries are available and join one
    such as the ushers, Holy Name Society, Bible Study, Divine Mercy
    Cenacle. Get your face recognized in the parish, perhaps eventually get
    on the parish board, then offer help and make some suggestions. To
    paraphrase a famous quote, we can “be the change we wish to see in the
    Church”.

    • Paul McCusker

      True, Sharon. Beauty and Artistry are never meant to be a cover for a Spiritual coldness. (Jesus referred to the hypocrites as “white washed tombs” – beautiful on the outside, but filled with dead men’s bones.) And I don’t meant to suggest that every church should be Gothic or Cathedral-like. My hope is that new churches utilize an understanding of timeless architectural practices to create an environment where God is glorified in the beauty and artistry, along with everything else that takes place there.

  • Jeanette

    I am a member in a very good chorale choir in St. Mark’s Church in Stouffville, Ontario, Canada and we are known for our excellence. Parishioners compliment us often as we help the parishioners to attain to a higher degree of prayer to God. BUT, as much as I like serving in this way, I particularly enjoy when I can go to a daily Mass where there is no music and no singing…no pomp and ceremony…just participating in a beautiful, simple Mass. It’s then that I can concentrate on the beauty of the words of Mass and the reality of Jesus present to us in the Eucharist. It’s then that I can concentrate on my prayers to the Blessed Trinity without interruption. The Holy Spirit can feed me with something, a word or a phrase from even the worst effort of any homilist so I never go away from Mass untaught. So, I love both the beauty of an Easter Vigil Mass but also a very simple Mass because of what it represents: Jesus giving Himself to us as spiritual food…His Love, His Grace, His Healing, His Joy…that’s what it’s all about anyway! It’s all about Jesus! God bless you!

    • LizEst

      Beautiful! Thank you for this, Jeanette…and keep a song in your heart! May God continue to bless you!

      • JoFlemings

        This really is a two sided coin. It’s a very legitimate issue- base or degraded aspects of the liturgy, juxtaposed with the rightly ordered discipline of not allowing ourselves to be driven by our preferences and tastes in doing Gods will or in living charity in our midst.

    • Alexandra Arias

      Amen! It always disturbs me when the people at the end of Mass clap for the choir. We are not here to be entertained. We are there to witness an awesome mystery. If we only truly knew, we would be flat on our face in awe and adoration — I read somewhere that are guarding angels are prostrate during the Mass! I too enjoy the silence of the weekday Masses, it’s more conducive to silent prayer.

  • RobinJeanne

    Our church is one of those modern ones with no character. I was blessed to be able to use the talents God gave me, to make banners for the Altar & tabernacle; the lectern & cantor stand; and two 18′ banners on the back wall on either side of the crucifix… also all the for the chapel too. I have receive comments of how it makes the atmosphere of being there more sacred. As I create the design and sew them, it’s always… how can I make this beautiful, how can it bring God to the people’s mind. We are physical beings and the need for sigh, smell, hearing, tasting, feeling are all important (hence Jesus giving us the 7 sacraments, formula and matter) Our world is fast and full of bad imagery. We need help in going from that world to a place of reverence and worship.
    We are so blessed that we have something(Someone) so beautiful in our churches that no other religion has and that is the real presence of Jesus Christ Himself. Nothing hanging on the walls can measure up to that but not everyone “is there” spiritually, many of us are still spiritually immature and need help in connecting with the Lord.
    I’m one of those for; lets make church a little touch of heaven, lets work together with the gifts God gave us and make worship the best of who and what we are, Children of the King, heirs to the kingdom!!!

    • Paul McCusker

      I believe that people intuitively notice beauty, or the absence of it, when they walk into any environment. You can be sure that the bosses at Starbucks or Barnes & Noble or most of the big corporations have spent a lot of money determining what kind of aesthetic environment they’re creating for their customers. They wouldn’t bother if it didn’t matter. But they know it does. To bring beauty and artistry back into the Church, as best as we can, contributes to people’s perception of what Church is. Of course, what we yearn to do is create the best environment for us to truly encounter God. God Himself recognized that when He gave very meticulous instructions about the design of the Temple.

      • RobinJeanne

        Amen!!! Brother

  • woodyjones

    I feel your pain, Paul, and would only say here that in my own experience, one can usually find a parish where Holy Mass is offered reverently and at least in conformity with the established norms, if one does some looking around. Of course, you, as a former Anglican, will want to go to http://www.usordinariate.org to see if there is a community of the Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter near enough for you to go there, where you will feel right a home, I guarantee it, as the ordinariate was established for folks like you — although I hasten to add that canon 1248 of the Code of Canon Law states that any Catholic may fulfill fheir obligation to attend Mass by attending Mass of any Catholic rite, which certainly includes Ordinariate parishes, so come one, come all.

    On the broader front, I have come to believe that the general culture of the Church in the English speaking regions is so debased that even priests of good will who would like to celebrate Mass in a more dignified manner often feel that to do so might drive off the very lukewarm souls they are trying to reach, because it might seem too unfamiliar (since the kumbaya stuff has been going on now for a generation) or “old fashioned” (and think about what that connotes–too much in continuity with the Church’s two thousand year tradition, and not enough hermeneutic of rupture). I disagree with the strategy but concede the good will of those who adopt it.

    • Paul McCusker

      Thanks, woodyjones. Not all Episcopal Churches were anything like the one I described. I visited many that had moved into the seeker-sensitive-do-whatever-it-takes to get people through the door sensibility. In fact, there is an entirely separate discussion to be had about that sensibility. I know that, for many churches, they want the service to draw people to Christ.

  • zelmo1954

    Father, because Jesus, your servant, became obedient even unto death, his sacrifice was greater than all holocausts of old. Accept the sacrifice of praise we offer you through him and may we show the effects of it in our lives by striving to do your will until our whole life becomes adoration in Spirit and truth.
    Suffering is transformed into sacrifice through perfect love. We en-mass(e) our very selves in the patten on the altar. Praise God for your transubstantiation in the Holy Sacrament.
    Peace

  • JKA

    Imagine being graciously invited to a feast with social/intellectual giants, and making a negative remark at dinner about the tenor who is sinning. You are told by the other guests that the tenor is a dear friend of the host and always performs at the host’s functions, because the host values friendship over merit. You may be chided with “If you came for entertainment, you have come to the wrong place. Our gracious host invited you, even though you don’t really deserve to be here, because he wanted to feed and visit with you!” The upside of the “hit and miss” Catholic mass experience is that it discourages conditioning one’s spiritual practice upon changeable external qualities, or attending mass for the purpose of finding some sort of worldly satisfaction.

    • LizEst

      Bravo! God bless you, JKA!

    • Paul McCusker

      Thanks, JKA. I hope to reach a point of maturity where aesthetics are not so important. I want to be gracious – and what I wrote isn’t the mood with which I attend Mass. (Though, it took me a long time as a Protestant to realize that aesthetics and artistry serve an important place in pointing our attention to the Glory of God. I believe it was Barbara Nicolosi who said that the great Cathedrals, with all their beauty, didn’t designate a corner for Hank and Martha to put up their crude paintings just because they’re nice people and “mean well.”) My hope remains that Catholics will reclaim the Arts as they once did.

      By the way, didn’t Jesus tell a parable about a man who was thrown out of a banquet for not being properly dressed? :)

  • MaryofSharon

    Paul, I share you disappointment and frustration and struggle regularly with similar sentiments. A young Anglican friend of mine plans to become Catholic soon. He is a gifted musician, and he longs to become Catholic because he sees in our faith that which is Good, True, and Beautiful to the fullest degree. I worry that his reaction will be like yours or even that he might opt not to become Catholic. My daughter, blessed to be a gifted singer herself, finds attending some Masses as difficult as sitting through fingernails being scraped on a chalkboard. Sigh!!!

    Here’s a quote from JRR Tolkien that I go back to when I am frustrated by the mediocrity and even what appears to be deliberate choices for self-centered music, architecture, and art: “I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your Communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved childrenfrom those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawnopen-necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to Communion with them (and pray for them)….It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people.”

    I’ve discussed my frustrations with a priest I go to for occasional spiritual direction and he advised that I stay rooted in the parish in which our family has been involved, as commitment to a parish community is part of not only our growth in faith, but also gives us a place to serve. Yet he also said that once a month I allow myself to attend a truly sacred and beautiful Mass. So that’s what I try to do.

    Another priest, one who loves and promotes the sacred arts encouraged me to gently and diplomatically do what I can to make a difference. For one thing, I always thank the organist and musicians when they sing a particularly beautiful sacred hymn. (More often than not they sing dated and simplistic 60′s and 70′s hymns.)

    • Paul McCusker

      Thank you, Mary. Tolkien’s sentiments are a better articulation than my own. And I don’t really despair as much as the blog might suggest. But I also agree with the suggestion to seek out and attend a church that truly is sacred and beautiful at least once every few weeks.

  • LizEst

    Thanks for that quote from JRR Tolkien. Loved it! Obviously, you are getting good counsel from your sometimes spiritual director. I encourage you to make spiritual direction a regular practice in your life. God bless you, Mary. And, Happy Corpus Christi Sunday tomorrow!

  • Tammy

    Find a parish that embraces the Latin Mass, Paul. You’ll find that 2,000 year old faith celebrated with reverence and beauty in an atmosphere that allows for interiority and prayer, even with crying babies. You’ll find many children at Latin Mass parishes, but overall they’re well-instructed in the faith and a joy to be around because even when they’re toddlers, they seem to know that Mass is a special event happening in a special place. If the parish offers High Mass, they’ll likely have a schola made up primarily of elderly men, but what they lack in numbers is made up for in their deep love for the Mass. I converted to Catholicism back in 1978 at the age of 18, and I can relate to your concerns. My own struggle deepened and eventually came to a head at my former parish after years of liturgical abuses were foisted upon us (ever been to a clown mass with a rock band and dancing? –believe me, it’s worse than you can imagine). I found my current parish in 2007 and I haven’t looked back since.

    • JoFlemings

      Sometimes in spite of artistry in the liturgy you will find a type of arrogance and mercilessness in a Latin Mass parishes that tarnishes even the most stellar aspects. The EF is not always a silver bullet in this dilemma.

      • Tammy

        Arrogance and mercilessness can be found in any parish, Jo, and among those who see the Latin Mass and its adherents as some kind of threat to the norm. Artistry in liturgy is not what most of us are after, but rather liturgy and worship that we find conducive to a life of faith. There are some in our diocese that still find it difficult to allow room for the Latin Mass, for reasons known only to them. I think what you might see as arrogance on the part of Latin Mass parishes is probably more a defensive stance developed after years of being told that our concerns have no place in the Church.

        • JoFlemings

          That is very true, that one will find many defects within any parish in any form. And rectifying the abuses in the liturgy- (which you will NEVER find in an EF parish- I attended one for years, there are no abuses in these parishes, this is completely true-) and this can’t help but improve everything. I sympathize with EF adherents and I am sure their fidelity and perseverance has won for all of us a much more reverent and beautiful present and future in worship in the Church; and I hope that Benedict’s Motu Propio was as vindicating as it may have been hard won. But the arrogance and mercilessness I experienced were not a defensive stance they were human weakness in the sin of pride, something we are all probably all too familiar with in ourselves in a variety of contexts.
          It is not the form of the Mass that saves us, Latin or otherwise, it is Christ; and if we have this treasure and no charity we fail. If we trade the substance for the wrapper, we will have a lovely empty shell. For all its power in transmitting grace, without the lifeflow of humble hearts coursing in the riverbed of piety, the drought remains. My warning is that just because we trade the ‘blech’ we currently have in many parishes for the glitz and glory of St. Stephen’s in Vienna, some things will improve, but those things might not be the ones most important to God, and we all have to recognize that Jesus expects ALL of this from us- humility, obedience to the Church, love, mercy and hope for one another, AND proper reverence and worship toward Him. Restoration in our practice in the liturgy is necessary, and thanks to those who have held fast to the Tridentine Rite we have the worthy example before us in that, but I am not sure this alone will cure what ultimately ails the Catholic Church in the west- I’m not even sure it is the first wound we need to attend-

  • J Barry

    Great article. I had the same experience having come from a large Methodist church with all the “bells and whistles”, literally. I cringe when my husband goes with me as i know he is comparing his experiences as a Methodist with my new Catholic faith. One cannot compare the music in most settings. I do remember reading something by Marcus Grodi and how when he first began attending the Catholic church he would look with a critical “pastor’s” eye and think of how he would do it if he were on the altar. Of course he soon realized it was not about him but the one we go to worship. And eventually we, as former Protestants, begin to embrace and become part of a wonderful worship experience unlike anything in our former Protestant churches. Going with my husband now to his church is a penance for me because it seems so empty and void of any real meaningful liturgy and I wonder how I stayed as long as I did. A good Protestant worship service can last a few hours on Sunday. A Catholic Mass will stay with me for days. Thanks for your article. Perhaps you might want to put together a book of humorous antidotes as a new Catholic. These articles affirm my reason for returning to the church after 45 years.

  • Jocelyn

    May I suggest, Paul, that you volunteer in your parish to be involved in Mass as a Eucharistic Minister, Lector, Altar Server, or Choir member. This will give you the opportunity to make a difference in a small or big way whichever way the Lord opens up for you toward improving the way Mass is celebrated. This could also help move you from exasperation to charity.

    • Paul McCusker

      Thanks, Jocelyn – though I’m not sure how my volunteering will raise the quality of anything :)

      • LizEst

        Are you kidding me, Paul? Look at how much passion you have stirred up here! If you don’t sing or aren’t musically inclined, you still be might be useful to the choir in small ways by doing their administrative paperwork…or writing new songs for them. Your bio above says you have published lyrics…so, I think God has given you some talent there. How about volunteering for the Art and Environment Committee? Even if you don’t sing, you could assist in planning for and working on the worship space. I think you are selling yourself short…or is there another reason you’ve downplayed Jocelyn’s comment?

        • roberdine

          I don’t think your suggestion would help–necessarily. I have tried that approach over and over, but “Spirit of VII” enclaves do not permit any other participation, in my experience. I finally found a parish where beauty and love of God in general are meant to come first, and intend to stay there. It is far from perfect, but the other was a soul killer for me.

          • LizEst

            Ah! But, Paul does have music writing skills. He could write a Mass or some liturgical songs and get these published which would help counterbalance what he is experiencing and give him joy in offering up what he suffers through.

            “SoVII” parishes can change. I’ve seen it. But, if all the people who know better leave, it takes a long time for that to happen. I understand why you left, I’ve seen that, too… and I don’t blame you. But, do pray that your faith becomes strong enough to withstand such. If we can’t deal with difficulties within the Church, how are we ever going to face the difficulties that the world, the flesh and the devil throw at us? God bless you, roberdine…and Happy Solemnity of Corpus Christi today!

      • Joan

        Paul, your description of your Episcopalian church, choir, and homilies remind me of my old Catholic church in my childhood Polish neighborhood. I too miss the beauty of the church & quality of our old choir, not to mention our pastor’s great sermons. I’m not sure why Vatican II seemed to be a change to “plainness”. But I have missed the beauty.
        However, take heart. My new pastor brought back some of the old beauty to our present church. He’s only 40 years old, so maybe the new priests are seeing the benefit of giving glory to God through artistic beauty & enthusiastic singing.
        Karen mentioned the church “dumbing herself down” & I understand what she means. I wonder if that has anything to do
        with the dwindling attendance.

        • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

          Joan – it is important to distinguish between the directives and perspective of Vatican II and the implementation. Pope Emeritus Benedict made the distinction between the council of the media and the real council. So, the idea that “Vatican II seemed to be a change to plainness” is really not one rooted in what actually happened. The false council of the media and dissenters has wreaked great havoc on the Church and has damaged many souls…

          • LizEst

            My sentiments exactly. Thanks, Dan.

          • Joan

            Thanks Dan, and LizEst, for your responses. I was teaching, in a Catholic school in the sixties, when the Mass changed from Latin to English, and the statues & alter railings started to disappear. I eventually liked the English, but did miss the statues, railing, bells, & pulpit. The church just seemed so bare. Now I am able to get to Mass almost daily, & our new priest has brought back some of the old beauty. Of course, the reason I love the Mass is because of the Holy Eucharist, & not how “pretty” the church looks, but I do understand Paul’s missing the BEAUTIFUL LOOK of his old Episcopal church. I did not mean that the documents & directives of Vatican II were plain, but the appearance of the interior of the church. It is much easier to participate in the Mass now.

        • LizEst

          Joan – I second Dan’s words below. Vatican II did not “dumb down” the Church. Rather, the documents of Vatican II highlighted what the Church has been teaching for years and brought it into clearer focus. They are beautifully rich in what they have to say. They have been compiled together for easy reading and reference and I recommend them to you for your study. You will see that what they state and affirm has been greatly distorted by the media and by those in the Church who want to follow themselves rather than the Gospel and the Magisterium under the common ruse of “the spirit of Vatican II.”

  • Becky Ward

    Good points! My intent was not to bash you or your reflections; I apologize if it came out otherwise. I enjoy your contributions to the site! The issue of ‘what do I get out of Mass?’, and people leaving for places with catchy music and more polish than our poor little country parish (70 families who we see with any regularity) can afford has been hitting me in the face a lot of late….I may be overly sensitive.

    In all sincerity, and I’m answering both you can Dan here.

    I am absolutely not a scripture scholar…but didn’t Jesus do away with all of that Old Testament design of the temple? Our ‘temple’ is the body of Christ…our own souls are temples of the Holy Spirit. I know that our churches and the Mass contain elements that remind us of those OT instructions, and that it is important to remember where we came from.

    Isn’t it more important to discern where we need to go. What does it mean to worship in ‘Spirit and Truth’? Many of the most holy moments (in my life) have occurred in a small group setting (outside of Mass) as we took a risk and opened our hearts to one another.

    I think it is a key element in the spiritual life that we look for the transcendent (God) inside ourselves – not for it to come from the outside. (Naturally I cannot find the SD book I got upon Dan’s recommendation that had a statement similar to that very early on.) Is that not our struggle…..getting to that place where we can find God within?

    If nobody ever tells us to look inside….and means it, and lives it, and can show us what to do, how do we know what is possible?

    • Paul McCusker

      I’m sorry to hear that some families are bailing on the liturgy for “entertainment” elsewhere. For some, it’s the only honey that draws them in at all. We can only pray that God will use it to draw them closer to Him.

      I won’t speculate on the Catholics in Uganda, since their sensibilities are different from my very Western sensibilities. To my mind, the “trappings” are necessary because we are sensual creatures using our full faculties to engage in the reality of worship. God knows that, which is one reason I used the example of His instructions for worship in the Old Testament. We glory in Him with our minds, bodies, hearts and souls. So I wouldn’t call Beauty and Art “trappings” as if they’re superfluous decorations. Done well, they’re so much more than that. Does that mean we can’t worship without them? Not at all. But the richness of worship can and should be enhanced. When done badly, though, it could actually distract.

  • Karen Willcox

    Thanks for this, Paul. I’m glad to know I’m not the only convert to feel this way. It’s as if the Church decided to dumb herself down, fearing that ordinary people might be put off by art or good music. Why must truth and beauty be separated in our parishes? I’m glad to be Catholic, but it’s wearing.

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  • MarytheDefender

    My family just returned from a trip visiting old stone Churches in Bohol, a rural province. It was Flores de Mayo for Mother Mary. Reflecting on the past week I just wanted add something more here.
    Every afternoon there would be little girls and boys, mother and grandmothers dressed in their best. They’d carry flowers and the words “Ave Maria” to the altar. We joined them in praying the rosary. I was surprised to hear them sing old Marian hymns in Spanish and Latin. The altars, chiaroscuros on the ceilings, stained glass windows were better than anything I have ever seen in modern city Churches. The domes were glimpses into heaven!
    What struck me the most was that, depsite their poverty, they raised money to preserve the beauty of their Churches. And despite their poor education, they had greater reverence for the Lord than many lukewarm people here.
    Perhaps the beauty of their Churches helped keep the fires of their love for God burning. Or perhaps their zeal inspired them to give God only the best. You are right Paul that beauty and artistry are essential to our faith. But even when we can’t have that, maybe doing our best for God can inspire others. :)

  • LizEst

    Unfortunately, Karen, for a number of years, some used the phrase “the spirit of Vatican II” to justify whatever they wanted to do with our worship space in terms of art and the environment around it. This is just plain wrong.

    The Church has a number of documents which stipulate that the buildings must reflect what takes place inside and point us to God. One of these documents is called “Built of Living Stones.” Regarding the church building itself, it says, “Churches, therefore, must be places ‘suited to sacred celebrations,’ ‘dignified,’ and beautiful.17 Their suitability for worship is determined by their ability through the architectural design of space and the application of artistic gifts to embody God’s initiative and the community’s faithful response. Church buildings and the religious artworks that beautify them are forms of worship themselves and both inspire and reflect the prayer of the community as well as the inner life of grace.18 Conversely, church buildings and religious artifacts that are trivial, contrived, or lack beauty can detract from the community’s liturgy. Architecture and art become the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the local community, that of preparing human hearts to receive God’s word and to enter more fully into communion with God.19″ (“The Liturgy Documents, Volume One”, “Built of Living Stones” para 18; footnote 17 – from International Committee on English in the Liturgy, footnote 18 from Pope JPII’s “Letter to Artists”, footnote 19 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church). There are also a number of documents which prescribe what the music is supposed to be, among them: “Liturgical music today” and “Music in Catholic Worship.”

    So, you see, it’s not as if the Church hasn’t been addressing this. She is working to specify and rectify that which, years ago, no one had to delineate because it was just taken for granted. Let us never take our Lord and His Church, our Church, His Bride, for granted. God bless you, Karen… and Happy Solemnity of the Corpus Christi today!

  • JoFlemings

    I hope in my response here, Paul, I will take my cues from Father John. Anyone who knows him knows that of all men, he has a particular and profound appreciation for all that is highest, most commendable, most beautiful and artistically and aesthetically reflective of the glory of Our God within the Church. So, if he was chuckling at your exasperation it makes me think of how Jesus might have responded in a similar (maybe?) situation. It makes me think He must have reached around his apostles shoulders with a wide grin right after they approached with all the seriousness of an executive board having rendered an unpleasant report about the state of starving crowd with a grave recommendation to send them away. Having absorbed all their consternation, I have no doubt He smiled with a bit of surprise and cheerfully and confidently exclaimed “You feed them!”
    Sooooo, here we are- starving for glory in the middle of a banquet hall, where someone has thrown now dusty sheets over the most sumptuous fare known to man. How will we lead our brothers and sisters to a higher, let alone more tasteful plain(plane) so we can all experience and offer our best to Our Father in worship? I really think we can take our concern first to Jesus in prayer, and ask Him pointedly and specifically about our five loaves and two fish– but with every intention of doing whatever He tells us. I think the first rule of faith in the household of God is if I see a problem, to ask, “Where Lord, am I supposed to bring about the solution?” The infinitely creative King of All Perfection has an answer- and all He needs is one willing and attentive heart…mine, yours, ours… ;0)
    We can fix this, and yes there is a problem. We start in our own hearts, then in our homes, then in our parishes, as The Lord and our pastors lead and allow, elevating our standards and tastes, our language and our leisure- with intention. If we want high and noble worship, we need to become high and noble people. I don’t think it works in reverse, but perhaps concurrently.

  • JoFlemings

    I think you might be wrong about the Hank and Martha comer- there are some painfully ugly modern art pieces prominently figuring in major cathedrals in Europe. (Yuck, to me anyway.) The whole western world needs to get a grip seriously.

    • LizEst

      Jo – where did your picture go? Are you preparing a new one for us to treasure? You have had many good ones on. God bless you! Happy Corpus Christi Solemnity today!

  • JoFlemings

    Paul, I think getting involved in this conversation regularly is definitely a way to catalyze improvement. This topic/ frustration is VERY common among devout Catholics, and many priests and pastors in their early forties and younger will very likely bring their parishes back to more dignified worship in this decade.

    • LizEst

      Yes, the younger priests are very much into right liturgy. God bless them…your son, too, Jo!

      • JoFlemings

        Br. Jonathan has a LONG way to go yet in his formation before ordination, but thank you! :o)

        • LizEst

          ; ) Well, he has had a good first teacher in you, Jo!
          ps. I love your new picture! Thanks!

  • Jen S

    Why weren’t you at the Easter Vigil? And dont feel bad for being disappointed, rather shop around for a better place while praying that you’ll find one. I am very blessed to belong to a faith community served by the conventual Franciscans. This combined with an Italian Renaissance style architecture and a talented music director, makes for a beautiful encounter with our Lord. Some of the older city churches may be a better choice though perhaps that’s not an option for you.

    • Paul McCusker

      Dear Jen S,
      Actually, I went to the various services at that same church during Holy Week – and it was a foreshadowing of what happened Easter Sunday morning. So I shouldn’t have been surprised. Though, at the time, I guess I thought those were somehow the “lesser” events leading up to the big one- and that the big one would be done with great care.

  • JoFlemings

    I have a question about this and everyone who has commented here so far, I covet your opinions. How much emphasis do we put, in our own spiritual lives, on the value of our experience of a liturgy that is actually helpful to our development? (I mean, alot of us here have had to make the difficult choice to drive long distances to join parishes we can’t be as active in for a decent expression of the Mass.) Ok, and we have a right to a Mass that is liturgically correct- but where are the boundaries on how much I am free to expect and pursue for my own good, versus where I am perhaps called to offer this all up and receive in abandonment to Christ and poverty of spirit whatever He has provided, whether it feeds me pleasantly or by a just gutting-it-out act of my will? Is there a place for saying, “I will just endure this even if it is more of a sacrifice than anything else because it is what God has provided, even if it kills me, (or my family and kids).” Or, do we have a responsibility to set limits, pursue other courses, and make preservation and protection a chief priority – bending everything else around that priority? And where is the code book on how to figure all this out? Is this a highly individual question one can only deal with in SD or are there general guidelines for all?

  • Renee Costello

    This is hilarious Paul! Thank you for posting this. I feel your pain as
    a Catholic convert myself. I had enjoyed many a beautiful and moving service at a local Lutheran church before I entered the Catholic Church
    when I was 23. I believe deeply and passionately that it is the original
    church of Christ and that He is truly present in the Eucharist and for that reason alone I will stay with the church forever. Also I love the rich history and mystery of Catholicism. What helped me adjust to the difference between the mass and
    Protestant services was to see the mass as less of a performance and more about ordinary people coming together to witness the real miracle of the Eucharist. Sure our lecterns stumble. If I tried to do the readings I would probably just look at the gathered and pass out. The priests don’t always have time to rehearse things, they have extremely large parishes to manage and many say masses every day so they can’t just pour all their effort into focusing on one Sunday service the way Protestant ministers do. Most choirs are made of lay people who are busy moms and dads or retired folks who may not hear all that well and haven’t had much time to rehearse. I have been in a few choirs and made some blunders of my own. All this can make for a less than stellar intellectual, spiritual experience as you have pointed out. Despite that I have never gone back to a Protestant church. Protestant churches are all about
    performance and presentation, they have to do that well because it’s all they have, they do not have the living presence of Christ at the heart of their church nor do they have the history or the catechism. I was introduced to the Catholic Church by a friend. We would go to mass and once he accompanied me to one
    of the Lutheran services at the church I had been attending. I was particularly delighted with the sermon and after it was over I asked him how he liked the service. He thought for a minute and said “Well…it was very nice…but something was missing.” His simple comment has stayed with me for all these years and he was right because every time I take part in the mass I feel that I’m reaching back 2000 years to the beginning of Christ’s reign and at any Protestant service there is just “something missing.” Thanks again for your post and I hope that my response helps you in some way. I apologize if I have repeated or ignored another poster’s comment, I didn’t have time to read all 70 responses before I posted my own response and I really just wanted to share how I felt.

  • Bernadette

    I feel your pain. I moved several times until I found a church that felt comfortable. I knew I was in the right parish, because we all laugh at the mistakes. Our choir is good, but they are the first one to laugh at themselves and then invite us to share the fun with a self deprecating joke. The priests will throw out a joke about an ‘oops’ they made. This is the first parish that is serious at the most important parts and doesn’t take themselves seriously at the others.This was the first parish that seemed to say, ‘Ah, I’m human, not perfect. Let’s enjoy this time together with God.’ As I read the comments to your article, I was really surprised at the criticisms of some people. They criticized the Latin, English, West, East, European, Vatican II, High mass, plain, and others while promoting their own favorites. Then bring in a verse or text to support their choice. I never understood the need to criticize a person or their choice in order to promote your self. We don’t need to defend ourselves from the secular world. It seems we also need to defend ourselves from each other. Sigh…..

  • ThirstforTruth

    Paul…I understand where you are coming from and the huge disappointment you
    must have felt at your first Easter as a Catholic. I am a cradle Catholic approaching my 80′s. Believe me disappointment in the liturgical practices today have at times been overwhelming. I recall the great pomp and circumstance with which we celebrated the Lord’s Sacrificial meal years ago and for quite some time, mourned its passing following the introduction of the Norvus Ordo and all the changes it brought. Then a very wise person reminded me of the fact that there were Catholics suffering the world over because they had no mass, no priest and not even a place to worship together. How blessed I am that the Lord is present to me every day of the week in the Holy Sacrifice of the mass. I can receive Him any given day of the week. It is what He is doing for me, not what the congregation is doing however poorly in my mind, that matters. With that simple yet profound thought in mind, I can overlook almost anything, short of abuse, at any Mass I am fortunate enough to be present.

    • LizEst

      …and you are wise, too. God bless you, ThirstforTruth!