A dose of reality

I posted in another thread about the logistical problems involved in this year’s Easter Vigil. To anchor our feet firmly on the ground, here’s a verbatim report of a rather different Vigil that an American friend sent me:

No Service of Light, no blessing of fire or candle, nor Exsultet. The service started in the church with the Liturgy of the Word. The paschal candle was already lit and in place when I arrived.

After the Genesis creation reading, the “responsorial psalm” from the choir: He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
2nd reading is Exodus. “Responsorial psalm”: When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land (Let My People Go) (soloist accompanied by choir)
3rd reading is Ezekiel, new heart and new spirit. “Responsorial psalm”: I’ve Got That Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart….

After the epistle the choir sang the song We Fall Down But We Get Up, a gospel song by contemporary Black Gospel artist Donnie McClurkin. No sung Alleluia.

Then came a “sprinkling rite”. Using the “stainless steel baptismal stock pot with spigot at the bottom”, folks were encouraged to come up and get some holy water from the tap and make the sign of the cross. Those unable to walk forward had a small glass finger bowl of water brought to them. With a towel. A deacon and a nun stood by the spigot to distribute the water. Sister held a little bowl to catch the drips. During this altar call to “come and get you some holy water” we sang This little light of mine.

There had been no blessing of water. Father said “Let us pray” and maybe the prayer was about the water but his accent was sufficiently thick so that I could not discern. He did everything from his chair and didn’t move from it. Gospel followed the water rite.

No baptisms or confirmations, no sung Gloria or Holy, etc., but still a two-hour liturgy.

I should mention that this is a very senior congregation. About 75 in attendance because no one wants to drive in the dark (start time was 8 pm when it was still daylight). Average age over 75: probably only two people in the church under 60. Choir numbered about eight — is also primarily older and included a few singers from the Eritrean Mass community that worships there. They all used their cell phones as lights because the church lights (hanging fluorescent ballasts) were really dim.

Very low ceiling (about 10 foot) and pot of incense being swung about unintentionally by a very “senior” altar server who held the thurible in one hand and his cane in the other. Carpeted, with padded chairs, only about 30 feet from the back of the church to the altar, about six pews deep, in a fan shape. So much incense that I had a coughing fit. The nun came across to me with a handful of cough drops….

Sad, because it used to be a very vibrant, multi-generational parish with a thriving school. Like many parishes, it is a clustered parish — made of three similarly ageing assemblies in nearby churches, now shuttered. So no candle tapers, possibly because they would have incinerated themselves, but lots of shaking (Parkinson’s, arthritis, etc.).

It was definitely a spectacle! But something made me think that maybe it’s the effort of the people, not the words or rites, that matter. Those older folks made an effort to be there. They sang, they greeted each other, and they weebled and wobbled but they did sit and stand.

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23 comments

  1. I feel for these smaller and simpler communities. As I have said about the rites of Christian initiation, in the absence of a trained liturgist on staff or a pastor who is particularly interested in ritual details, these rituals are beyond the reach of many parishes. I grew up in a small parish where the Easter fire was lit in a rusty old Weber grill and we stumbled through the shortest possible version of everything to get it over with. In an ideal world every priest would be deeply imbued with liturgical spirituality and careful practice, but that just isn’t the case everywhere. I would favor a greatly simplified version of these occasional rites for those parishes who lack the resources to pull off the full ritual.

    1. @Scott Pluff:
      ” I would favor a greatly simplified version of these occasional rites for those parishes who lack the resources to pull off the full ritual.”

      Except that, in American Catholicism, the imperative of too many places is that such a thing would become the effective norm, the Prime Directive of American Catholic Liturgy being: Thou Shalt Not Add A Single Second More To The Mass Than The Law Requires.

  2. There is no indication in the description that the particular parish lacked the resources to carry out the ritual in full. Rather, from the description, every indication is that the particular community lacked the inclination to carry out the ritual properly. And that would appear to be the problem . . .

  3. It is interesting that the 1988 Circular Letter about Preparing and Celebrating the Easter Feasts (Paschale Sollemnitatis) recommends (no. 43) that smaller religious communities and parishes with one priest might consider joining with a larger church/parish in the area for the Triduum celebrations, thereby ensuring that there would be more resources for an appropriate celebration.

    1. @Dennis Smolarski SJ:

      Yes, Dennis, and this is reiterated in Roman Missal, p. 298, The Sacred Paschal Triduum, para 3.

      But in practice the question might be “Who wants to join with these Ancients of Days?”

  4. I have to ponder the chicken & the egg here. Perhaps the clustering caused a stunted Vigil, because the main celebration was being celebrated somewhere else (with the pastor and the baptisms and the resources). And then this parish got the visiting presider, and they were told (poorly/incompletely) by their local liturgy office that in a clustered parish the fire and blessing of the Easter candle only happens at that main parish celebration.

    I could be wrong…but my parents belong to a similar cluster of 3. The largest parish gets everything during the Triduum. The smallest gets nothing. And the medium-sized parish gets the elderly priest from the abbey down the road, who’s never been at this parish before, or even been a parish priest for that matter.

  5. Is it a black parish? I notice all the songs substituted for the psalms are spirituals, and another song later in the liturgy sung by the choir is too. The ad hoc choir is drawn from the Eritrean community… they may be trying to accommodate the elderly who have sung spirituals all their lives? Such songs are actually a very important anchor in the black church, and while it doesn’t conform to liturgical norms for psalms, it’s the stuff people sing even when memory fails — and it’s lived theology. I wouldn’t judge it too harshly without knowing some more about how this came to be. I also note the author says there was an “altar call” which is a borrowed term from the Protestant (often Baptist) background that many black Catholic churches include because their families span the ecumenical gamut too.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:

      If I recall correctly, my informant said that the soloist in Let My People Go was a black lady, and that the rest of the choir was white (or brown — the Eritreans). The attendance was pretty much white, and very senior.

      I posted about this because I suspect that the sort of thing described is perhaps rather more common than we realize. As others have said, it is indicative of a pastoral problem that we are not addressing, possibly because we don’t know it is there.

  6. I wonder what steps, if any, dioceses take to correct such liturgical abuses. Or do many figure that bad liturgy is better than no liturgy at all? If it is still true that “lex orandi lex credendi”, just what “faith” do these liturgies celebrate, and do they contribute to the continuing “dumbing down” of American Catholics?

  7. Would that we could affirm that every parish is led by those imbued with a deep sense of the importance of the ars celebrandi. Because there are many people present for the sake of meeting an obligation, there are many priests happy to accommodate them by following the prime directive mentioned by Karl. I can never thank God enough for the monks of St. Meinrad who celebrated seminary liturgies in such an inspiring way. It was there that I realized how able musicians of various kinds can bring to life compositions both new and old. There also I came to appreciate liturgical pacing and sacred silence as essential ingredients of liturgy that draws those present into full, active, and conscious participation. It is with a conviction I share with many others that I have come to believe that liturgy celebrated well is linked to strong faith. Sadly, the opposite can lead to a weak and faltering faith.

  8. Was it advertised as THE Easter Vigil, or as AN Easter Vigil?
    If you call it something else does it have to follow the book, or do we have to follow a book every time we gather for worship?

    1. @Alan Johnson:
      Well, actually, for Roman Catholics, *public worship* is something that partakes of what the entire Church does corporately for worship. Following corporately approved rituals is part and parcel of that. Private devotions, not so much…. The distinction is not without consequences. It’s one way to prevent Liturgies in Celebration of Our Dear Leader to be seen as having ecclesiastical approval, among myriad other Bad Ideas that are Something People Would Likely Do….

  9. It also reminded me of the situation in Spain, where in many churches in the 1970s and 80s young people imported contemporary songs into the liturgy, sweeping aside what had been there before. In the later 80s and 90s those same young people abandoned churchgoing, leaving assemblies of ancients struggling to sing music that is alien to their own tradition. (Of course this is an oversimplification, but the general trend was as stated.)

  10. Karl Liam Saur : @Alan Johnson: Well, actually, for Roman Catholics, *public worship* is something that partakes of what the entire Church does corporately for worship. Following corporately approved rituals is part and parcel of that. Private devotions, not so much…. The distinction is not without consequences. It’s one way to prevent Liturgies in Celebration of Our Dear Leader to be seen as having ecclesiastical approval, among myriad other Bad Ideas that are Something People Would Likely Do….

    Where do novenas, Taize services etc fit in? How about simplified Morning Prayer before Mass?

    1. @Alan Johnson:
      The Church has historically allowed plenty of room for private devotions. There were some not so pastoral people in recent generations who treated private devotions as undercutting public liturgy, but I think that tide has ebbed somewhat. That said, the Roman Catholic Church, as do the Orthodox Churches, has a full suite of approved ritual books for public worship: Missal, Lectionary, Breviary, the books for pontifical/episcopal rites, the various books of chant (especially the Graduale and Kyriale), and sacramental ritual books.

  11. Maybe the Church could broadcast live the Easter Vigil and other complex liturgies from parishes where they can be done rightly and completely to these smaller and more elderly parishes so they may celebrate them rightly….or perhaps allow them to sleep during the broadcast.

    As a Lutheran, our parishes are usually much smaller and as I read through this description of the Easter Vigil, I flashed back to my little parish in the barrio of Tucson when I put together our parish’s first Easter Vigil (most Lutheran parishes inexplicably don’t celebrate it, even though it is included in our Agenda) and I put together a liturgy that would be very familiar to Roman Catholics. Not including myself and the Deacon, there were 6 people present. They agreed that it should be done every year. Well, that was my last one there. I tried it again 12 years later in another parish in Phoenix and had the same result. You can’t blame a guy for getting discouraged…..

  12. Paul Inwood : @Rita Ferrone: If I recall correctly, my informant said that the soloist in Let My People Go was a black lady, and that the rest of the choir was white (or brown — the Eritreans). The attendance was pretty much white, and very senior.

    Paul–was there more to this report than what you published? It would be interesting to hear the rest, since two hours for a Paschal Vigil is a stretch since it had: no Service of Light, no Exsultet, no baptisms or receptions (an apparently very perfunctory blessing of water), only three Old Testament lessons, no renewal of baptismal promises, the ordinary of the Mass said instead of sung, and assuming that Holy Communion didn’t take long with there being only about 75 in the congregation. Maybe the sermon was very long, as the report doesn’t mention anything about it? Anyway, it looks like much planning and rehearsal had to go into this service. As opposed to being a case of laziness or expediency, it sounds like it was someone’s agenda.

  13. I presided at the Easter Vigil at a local Catholic nursing home. The families of the residents did not have candles to light and hold (obviously the residents themselves did not0, but we did have a new fire, the lighting of the Paschal candle, and I sang the Exultet. We had the minimum number of readings, but we did bless and sprinkle holy water. Responsorial psalms were not sung. Total time — 70 minutes. Necessary because of the context, but I still felt it was a decent celebration given the circumstances and the setting.

  14. “As I have said about the rites of Christian initiation, in the absence of a trained liturgist on staff or a pastor who is particularly interested in ritual details, these rituals are beyond the reach of many parishes.”

    Scott – if I may play devil’s advocate: aren’t all Catholic priests trained liturgists, at least well-trained enough to understand how to piece together the elements of an Easter Vigil?

    For that matter, I’m glancing right now at the “We Celebrate” disposable worship aid for the season, and the entire order of worship is pretty much spelled out there in order, complete with musical settings of psalms, some responses, and so on. It’s not immediately obvious which elements would be beyond the reach of any community. It doesn’t require professional musicians or an expensive paschal candle – although those are nice-to-haves. Can’t the rite just speak for itself by being done well, if simply and plainly? I guess I’m not inclined to let careless or sloppy practitioners off the hook too quickly.

  15. “aren’t all Catholic priests trained liturgists”

    Jim Pauwels – With all due respect, are you kidding me?

    1. @Carlo Argoti:
      Priests are all are liturgists, by definition, as are we all, clergy and laity, because by virtue of our Christian Initiation we all have the vocation to do the Liturgy. I think by ‘liturgists’ we mean ‘liturgiologists.’

      Whether priests/deacons are trained is another matter.

      I have been involved in clergy formation in sacred liturgy for nearly 15 years of my 42 years as a priest. I think the truth is that some seminarists ‘get it’ and others just don’t.

      If it’s of any interest to anyone, in my largely rural parish, I, a permanent Deacon and my flock (38 at the Vigil, about the same on Holy Thursday and about 60 on Good Friday) did the liturgy together. I chanted the prefaces and parts of the Canon, the Deacon chanted the Exsultet and he and I together chanted the Good Friday Intercession. We did a sung Introit for Holy Thursday and sang all the refrains to the responsorial psalms throughout the Triduum (readers spoke the verses).

      Deo gratias, I thought; not too bad for a tiny parish like this.

      AG.

  16. Were the people moved at the originally described vigil?

    That for me shows an Easter Vigil with pop.

    I look at the Cardinals and Bishops at St. Peter’s in Rome at the Easter Vigil …If there is Easter joy then please inform your face.

    Maybe this vigil described moved the congregation in a hope filled direction. Then more power to the liturgists. If it didn’t, then up your game next year.

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