I suspect that by now many Pray Tell readers have seen the video of the monstrance being flown in by drone that has been making the internet rounds. This has, predictably, produced howls of outrage, not simply from those who believe (to quote one website reporting on this story) “The Vatican II Sect is from the deepest pits of hell, and we must pray fervently that Almighty God may soon rid the world of this apostate institution once and for all,” but also from fairly sober quarters who, rightly, have a hard time seeing how this is an appropriate expression of worship of our eucharistic Lord.
At the same time, however, I want to say, “get a grip people.” Yes, this is at least materially bordering on sacrilege (I hesitate to guess at the motivation behind it, but I suspect it was not a desire to mock the Holy Eucharist). I mainly want people to get a grip because it would be a grave mistake to think that things such as this, though they draw a lot of attention, are a good indication of what is wrong with liturgical worship in the Church today.
In looking at reactions to this, I was put in mind of a column by David Ropeik, a statistician at Harvard, written in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland Florida. In it, he notes that if we take the total number of deaths from such shootings since the Columbine killings, we see that a student has a 1 in 614,000,000 chance of being killed in a mass shooting at school. This, he is quick to note, is not nothing, but it is a far, far lower risk than a child has of being killed “traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports.” Further, even if we are looking only at gun deaths, children are far more likely to be killed at home with a handgun than at school with an assault-style weapon. But that doesn’t seem to make any difference in terms of our fear-level. The sheer wrongness of cases of children being killed at school, he notes, “trigger powerful emotions that swamp the odds” He goes on to note,
As a result of what the cognitive sciences call “the awareness heuristic” — a mental shortcut we use to quickly assess the likely frequency of things we don’t know much about — the more readily an event leaps to mind from our memory, or the more persistently it’s in the news, the more emotionally powerful and probable it feels…. [One] effect of this disproportionate fear is to direct attention to the risks we’re most afraid of and away from those that actually pose the greatest threat…. Fear also leads us to do things in pursuit of safety that may do more harm than what we’re afraid of in the first place.
As they say, “hard cases make bad law,” not least because hard cases are exceedingly rare, and their emotional power might lead us to pose solutions that will actually make things worse in the vast majority of not-so-hard-cases. And the attention that we pay to school shootings must not lead us to ignore all the other ways in which young people are victims of gun violence
All of which is to say that flying monstrances are the school shootings of the liturgy. Yes, they are bad—so bad, in fact, that they can transfix our gaze and making us both ignore more pressing questions and propose solutions that might have a cascade of unintended, and negative, consequences.
Flying monstrances are a threat to the faith. But so is bad preaching, amateurish music, poor proclamation of the scriptures, bored celebrants, inattention to symbols, childish catechesis, and so forth. And these things are, I dare say, far more common than flying monstrances. So let us by all means, say “no” to flying monstrances. But let us not let this distract us from the pervasive threat of mediocrity (whatever you might say about flying monstrances, mediocre they are not!) nor lead us to propose solutions that would harm the liturgy more than help it, such as a return to overly rigid rubricism (I’m all in favor of moderately rigid rubricism) or the elimination of all attempts at local inculturation.