With Ash Wednesday upon us, my thoughts run to years past when, one time in a parish and another on a university campus, the pastor and campus ministry director, respectively, insisted that ashes be distributed only during Masses. Each scenario contributed to my growing conviction that decades of liturgical reform and renewal in the U.S. Catholic Church have realized a prioritizing of the Mass to the detriment of the wider range of the church’s rites. Readily acknowledging that my observation-cum-concern here is hardly original, I offer the following comments for the purpose of conversation.
The parish, situated near several office parks on the edge of a big city, would have hundreds of people converging on the regular weekday morning Mass and then additional special Masses at noon and early evening for Ash Wednesday. Effectively, the pastor had turned the day into some sort of solemnity (in the popular vernacular, a holy day of obligation). It seemed to me he misunderstood the ritual’s prescription that distribution of ashes take place in the context of a liturgy of the word. The pastor vigorously disagreed, saying something to the effect that the people should be willing to “make the sacrifice” of spending a full hour at Mass at the start of Lent. There was no discussing it further. For my part, assigned to the special noon Mass that day, I explained at the Introductory Rite and then the end of my homily that it was not a holy day of obligation and that people who either wished or needed to depart after the imposition of ashes and prayers of the faithful (that is, the conclusion of the liturgy of the word) should feel no shame in doing so. I can honestly say the facial and bodily expressions of relief on the part of many confirmed my pastoral concern (a concern, as a cleric, I constantly carry, namely, that I not presume the motives, let alone the personal and familial obligations, of the people).
As for the campus ministry director (also a cleric), I believe he had come to consider and practice the Mass as the nearly singular way of assembling the community in prayer. When he asked that I take a late night Ash Wednesday Mass at chapel of one of the campuses of the university, I countered that it seemed to me that the members of his staff assigned to/regularly serving that campus (a religious sister and a couple lay men and women, all but one residing in the dorms), who would be accompanying those students throughout the season would seem the better people to preside and preach at a liturgy of the word on Ash Wednesday (note: I am well aware that stricter directives about such matters have come down from the Vatican and USCCB since that time in the late 1990s). I found the priest’s response to be downright angry, ordering me to “take the Mass.” And so, I did.
Given the history of Ash Wednesday’s emergence and various morphings over the centuries as a ritual-symbol inaugurating a season of penitence, I simply do not see why, in the Roman Catholic Church, at least, the most apt liturgy would not be based on the sample penitential services (basically, liturgies of the word) found at the end of the Rite of Penance. Preaching would include reflection on whether and how one’s way of life might need reform as one prepares to renew one’s baptismal promises–and with those, share in Holy Communion–at Easter (the primary purpose of the season). The sample examinations of conscience enhance the invitation. It’s not simply a matter of “fasting from the Eucharist”–nomenclature that seems to have emerged over these years–but, rather, of celebrating a rite sensitive to those whose consciences prohibit them from participating in Holy Communion at Mass.
Has the clerical domination of (rather than service to) the church’s liturgy not, in too many cases, deprived the people who have a right (according to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) to the rites, a right that reasonably entails knowledgeable and pastoral sensitive service on the part of the clergy? I know I’m generalizing here (but isn’t that part of what this sort of blog does in eliciting discussions?). I’m dismayed at the evidence for how growing regions of the U.S. Catholic Church lacking ordained pastors see ever-diminishing participation in any and all the rites and services (which can at least in part be attributed to people’s so identifying “church” with “priest”). I’m haunted by the extent to which for now two generations of American Roman Catholics “Mass” is the singular symbol of their ritual imaginations. Over the couple decades of my priestly ministry I have repeatedly had people at the end of baptisms and marriage rites (without liturgies of the eucharist) say, “Thank you for the nice Mass, Father.” I take that as a symptom of a pastoral-liturgical poverty of knowledge and experience in at least parts of our contemporary church (while inviting observations and comments, of course, from sisters and brothers across the ecumenical spectrum).