Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Why do priests sing Mass?

Why do some priests sing so many Mass prayers, when other times, they don’t? Singing the prayers of Mass is not a new thing. But before the Mass was reformed in 1970, after Vatican II, it was very unusual for people to experience Mass that way. Since Vatican II, there are very few rules about singing.

First, a little history. In the Traditional Latin Mass, for centuries there have been three distinct ways the Mass is celebrated. And, important to explain, the priest is not free to “mix and match.”

The “highest” is the solemn high Mass, which in practice involved several priests, plus several well-trained altar servers, plus a choir. Because of the complexities of this, most Catholics never experienced this. Then there was what was called a “sung” Mass, which required only a priest, but it still required a good number of experienced altar servers and a choir. And it also meant that the priest had to sing a lot of the Mass. So this, too, was not so common; although many parishes would have one such Mass each Sunday. Finally was the “low” Mass, in which there is one priest and one altar server; but no choir. None of the prayers are sung; and with no choir, it resulted in a lot of silence. This was the Mass most people experienced for a long time, with the possible addition, in some places, of the people singing some hymns.

While the low Mass, just described, was the most common experience for many centuries, it was never the “ideal” way. It was an adaptation, given the realities in many places, where all the things needed for a full, “high” Mass weren’t available. Over the course of the 20th century, there was a movement to try to renew the Church’s worship. This led to reforms under Pope Pius X, Pope Pius XII, and of course, in association with Vatican II.

When Pope Paul VI presented a “new” Mass to the Church, there was a largely new approach to when and how the Mass could be sung. First, there was more emphasis on the people singing parts of the Mass, such as the Gloria, the Creed, the Sanctus, the Our Father, the Lamb of God, etc. (Not that the people couldn’t sing these before.) Second, the priest has many more options about singing his prayers. Before it was an all-or-nothing approach. Today the priest is basically free to chant some parts, but not others. One guideline is known as “progressive solemnity”; meaning that where an occasion is more solemn, the Mass should be celebrated in a “higher” fashion, and singing the prayers can help convey that.

If you wonder why some priests sing more and others less, it’s not hard to figure out. Some of this is how we were taught; and also, some of us feel more at ease doing so. Many priests will flat-out tell you, they don’t sing very well, so they want to spare you! Yet it is still the case that the Church treats singing the Mass as its fullest, ideal form; and it is a fact that every single prayer of the Mass, even the readings, can be sung.

The art of seduction

There is a movie out -- called Call Me By Your Name -- that I probably wouldn’t mention, except that it has been nominated for “Best Picture,” and given the circumstances, it will get LOTS of media buzz. Expect to hear more about it. As we all know, the entertainment and “news” media are always grinding away at various agendas, and they are often not subtle about it. There is not a lot we can do, but we can at least call what it is. This film depicts an adult man and a teenage boy in an improper relationship. I haven’t seen the film and don’t intend to. I rely on what others have written, both favorably and unfavorably. One Catholic critic exposes what’s going on: it’s a beautifully filmed seduction, aimed both at normalizing something, as well as spinning a wish-fulfilling fantasy.

Lots of people in our society let feelings and desire govern everything, setting aside the moral law when it is inconvenient. This is celebrated in our culture, while too many voices, including Catholic ones, are apologetic and defensive. What we don’t say enough is that God’s laws are a lot like seatbelts: yes, they pinch and keep us from doing everything we might like; but their purpose is to protect us from destroying ourselves.

Right now, our culture brazenly lies about sex and relationships and life; like the film I referred to, it’s all seduction. What gets left out is how much terrible sadness lies down that road. This is particularly true for those who accept the culture’s message that same-sex behavior is just another flavor, and is normal and happy. A lot of what is going on in our society right now is all about making people feel good about behaviors that are sinful and destructive. So many cowardly voices say, do what you like; but they are nowhere to be found when it’s time to bind up the wounds. It is up to you and me to be speak the truth with courage – and always with love and compassion – especially when it is unwelcome.  Like much of what passes for entertainment, this film looks to be beautiful evil.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Who the Mass is 'for': sinners being saved, i.e., us (Sunday homily)

This is not me. I cribbed this from here. You can see all the vestments
(save the cincture) I describe in my homily, below.
I’m giving my homily over here [at the chair]
because I want to do a little show-and-tell, and this will make it easier. 
Unfortunately, it means I can’t hide my notes! Oh well.

As I mentioned last week, 
During Lent I will try to explain the Mass in each Sunday homily. 
So today, I want to talk about the beginning of Mass.
But I’ll start even before the beginning.
I know people wonder about the vestments,
so let me give a little information about that.

The first thing that goes on is the alb.
It recalls the white robe we receive in baptism.
If needed, I might tie a cloth around my shoulders, called the amice, 
in order to cover up my street clothes.
The point is, everything earthly-minded is left behind.

Then I tie a cincture around my waist – that holds the alb close.
The prayer that goes with that emphasizes self-control and chastity.

This, on my left arm, is called a maniple.
It used to be required in the older Mass, but now it’s optional; 
most priests don’t wear it in the new Mass.
It represents embracing the sweat and toil of following Christ.

Next is the stole. It hangs around the neck. 
Over that goes the Chasuble, which is this top garment. 

For more solemn Masses, I might also wear a biretta. 
Again, this was mandatory in the old Mass, now it’s optional.
So, where do these things come from?
Most of this derives from what was considered formal dress
in Roman society, about 1,800 years ago.

Regardless of where it came from, there is a very good reason 
for the priest to put on special clothes:
It makes clear that when the priest offers Holy Mass, 
it’s not about him. 

The priest sets aside his own person.
Martin Fox doesn’t bring anything special to Mass.
But the priest does. Christ acts through a priest in a unique way.

After the Mass was reformed in 1970, there was a big shift.
And one of the things I’m sure you’ve noticed, is that in many places, 
the personality of the priest moves front and center.

I’m sure a lot of you have seen it: 
For example, right before the Superbowl, 
there was a Philadelphia parish 
where they sang the fight song for the Eagles.

To be fair, for a while, priests were encouraged to do this; 
and most of the time, people eat it up. 
But it’s the wrong thing to do. 
Cheer for our Russia Raiders, go Buckeyes, go Reds –
But they aren’t what Mass is about.

My job isn’t to amuse you! It’s not about me at all.
It’s about turning to Christ.
So: now we’re at the beginning of Mass, what happens?

The priest kisses the altar – again, that’s about Christ.

Then the priest says to everyone: “Let us acknowledge our sins, 
and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”

This moment is like about what we just heard in the readings:
It’s about a fresh start.
Noah and his family started over. 
Saint Peter talks about baptism.
Jesus comes out of the desert, and he says, “This is the time…repent!” A fresh start.

Now, let me clear something up. The prayer we say:
“I confess to Almighty God…” – 
that isn’t a substitute for the sacrament of penance.
Some people have that idea: 
that this moment at the beginning of Mass 
means they don’t have to go tell their sins in confession!

Sorry, but, no! The point of this prayer at the beginning of Mass 
is to acknowledge that we are people who need salvation. 
That we are sinners. That’s who the Mass is for.

Moreover, the Mass presupposes that we are, in fact, 
going to confession on a regular basis. 

It is the prayer of people who have answered 
Jesus’ invitation to convert, and are now on the path of conversion.
It’s kind of like Alcoholics Anonymous. 
When you go to a meeting, everyone takes a turn and says, 
“Hi, I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” 
If you’re not an alcoholic, why are you there?
And if you and I aren’t sinners, why are we here?

After this, we sing “Kyrie Eleison,” 
which is Greek for, “Lord, have mercy.” 
Outside of Lent, we would sing the “Gloria,” 
which includes what the Christmas angels said when Jesus was born.

So, in rapid succession, we admitted we are sinners; 
we asked for mercy, and we praise and thank God for his salvation.
These prayers identify who we are. 
The Mass isn’t about us as individuals. 
It’s about us as one People of God, with the priest leading us.

You and I are carrying out our vocation
to pray for the salvation of the world.
The Holy Mass is a priestly act. That’s why it requires a priest;
And it calls on each of us to carry out our share in Christ’s priesthood, 
which became ours when we were baptized.

So then the priest, speaking for the entire Body of Christ – 
not just those of us present here, mind you, 
but I mean the whole Body of Christ – then says, “Let us pray.”

Stop and think about that. This Mass, or any Mass, anywhere, 
is not really separate from any, or all other Masses.
It’s all one Mass!
All other people taking part in Mass elsewhere, are present with us.
All those who can’t be at Mass, are with us.
All the souls in purgatory; all the redeemed in heaven!
It is all one Mass!

So if you wonder why we do this with dignity and reverence, 
and seriousness, and not messing around, this is why.

We are all together; one voice, one priestly act; 
At the beginning the great prayer, the greatest possible prayer, 
the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass of Jesus Christ.

As I said before: the Mass is like Lent.
Lent leads us to the Upper Room, to the Cross, and to Resurrection.
As we proceed through the Mass, we are led to the altar, 
where what Jesus did for us once, he makes real for us here and now.
It looks back to Jerusalem, so long ago;
And it looks forward to heaven, where our hope will be realized.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Why do we use incense at Mass?

I’m continuing to answer questions that I know many parishioners have, so let's tackle this one, which I know comes up. And because I don’t like to reinvent the wheel, I’m going to borrow from Father William Saunders, who wrote on this for EWTN’s website.

Father Saunders points out that God “instructed Moses to build a golden altar for the burning of incense (Exodus 30:1-10), which was placed in front of the veil to the entrance of the meeting tent where the ark of the covenant was kept.”

Christians have used incense in worship for a very long time; we use it not only in Mass, but also for exposition of the Holy Eucharist and solemn Morning and Evening Prayer. To quote Father Saunders again: “The purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of purification and sanctification.” Incense also “symbolizes the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven: the Psalmist prays, "Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice" (Psalm 141).

Above all, “incense also creates the ambiance of heaven.” Father quotes the Book of Revelation: "Another angel came in holding a censer of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God's holy ones. From the angel's hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God's people."

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

We start with the Sign of the Cross (Ash Wednesday homily)

As I mentioned on Sunday, all my Sunday homilies 
will try to shed light on the Mass. 
This is especially appropriate because the Mass is, simply put, 
the most important thing we do as Catholics. 
The Mass is the most important thing that will happen today, 
anywhere in the world. 

Mass and Lent have a lot in common. 
Lent is a journey to Good Friday, 
when we remember that Jesus died for us, and to Easter, 
when we remember that he rose from the dead, 
and to the Ascension, when he returned to his throne. 

Holy Mass is all these things too; except that in the Mass, 
what we “remember” is truly and really present to us.

Since Ash Wednesday is when we start Lent, 
Let’s start our deeper look at the Holy Mass;
And let’s start with the simple prayer that began Mass: 
the Sign of the Cross.

Let’s do it right now: “In the name of…Amen.” Notice what we just did.

We marked ourselves with the Cross. 
When we were baptized, the priest makes the sign of the cross on us, 
claiming us for Christ for the first time. 
To be marked by the Cross is to be a Christian. 
The sign of the Cross summarizes our Faith: 
Jesus came, Jesus died, Jesus rose; and he is our only hope!

Notice we surround ourselves with the Holy Trinity. 
This is what Jesus died to give us: life in God. 
His Cross puts us “in” the midst of the Trinity.

Also notice that the Cross is what Lent is about. 
That’s why we fast today, and make sacrifices.
That’s why we have the Way of the Cross on Thursdays. 

In a word, the Mass IS the Cross. If you get nothing else, get that: 
when we are at Mass, we are at the Cross. 
No Cross, no Mass. No Cross, no hope. 
No Cross, no point to any of this.

For all the emotion we might feel about the Cross,
there is no escaping the hard reality of the Cross.
It is about pain. It is about cost. It is about work. 

And so is Lent. I don’t actually “enjoy” Lent. 
I get up earlier, I work harder, and I give up things I like. 
No, I don’t enjoy Lent, but I need it. I am glad for it.

The Mass is exactly the same way. Sometimes we complain: 
Mass is boring. It takes too long. I don’t understand parts. 
It is an interruption of my day. Why can’t it be easier?

Why should it be easy? Compared to the reality of the Cross,
Lent doesn’t sound so bad, and Mass isn’t really all that hard. 

The journey is challenging. Christ helps us, and we help each other. 
Our destination is Heaven. We start today.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

What does 'IHS' stand for?

If you look around a lot of churches, or look at a lot of Christian artwork, you’ll see some variation of “IHS” keep showing up. The origin of this is the name of Jesus, written in Greek letters. To help explain things, here is our Lord’s name – which is Greek – written first with Greek letters; then with the Latin alphabet, then as a Latin name, and then as we call him in English:


In ancient times, and a long time after, lots of words were frequently abbreviated, which was very helpful before the printing press, and everything was written out by hand. It was common, therefore, to abbreviate Jesus by using the first three letters. In Greek, that gives you: IHS. But over time, this became Latinized into IHS. Sometimes you’ll also see Ihs, which is just a further development. You might even see IHC, which reflects the fact that a Greek Sigma (S) was sometimes written like a C.

But why did Jesus have a Greek name if he was Jewish? Another great question! The answer is that in the 300 years before Jesus was born, Greek culture became dominant in a large area stretching from Greece all the way to present-day Afghanistan. This was the empire created by Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BC (i.e., Before Christ!). Although Alexander’s lands were divided among his military commanders, Greek culture and language continued to exert great influence all through the region for a long time.

As a result, the New Testament as we have it was written entirely in Greek, as was some of the Old Testament – most of which was written in Hebrew. Even then, in Jesus’ time, the entire Old Testament had been translated into Greek. Even so, many Jews, very likely including Jesus, his mother, Joseph, and many (if not all) of his apostles, would have spoken Aramaic, which was a language derived from Hebrew, which was no longer widely spoken. This shows just how widespread the Greek language was.

One way we know this is by looking at the names of people in the New Testament. Some names are Greek: Andrew and Phillip, for example; others are very Hebrew: Simon and Jude; and still others are Hebrew names that have been rendered in Greek: James (from Jacob), John (from Yochanan). And this is the case with Jesus: it is a Greek rendering of Joshua or Yeshua.

We speak four languages at every Mass! By the way, while you may think the Mass as we are accustomed to it is all in English, that’s not quite right. A small part of it is Greek: Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison; a small part is Hebrew: Amen, Alleluia; and sometimes we use Latin, too: Gloria in excelsis Deo, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The earliest Christians likewise would have dealt with Aramaic, Greek and Latin. They might have spoken only one, but they would have encountered some of the others as well.

(This is adapted from a recent article in St. Remy Parish Bulletin.)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

'This is something we do together' (Sunday homily)

Skin diseases might be an odd thing to talk about at Mass. 
But the point is that illnesses like these do more than make us sick. 
They separate us from others.

Being a leper meant a profound separation from others.
And even if you were able to be with other lepers, 
you still weren’t able to worship with the community.
Can you imagine how that must have felt?

We experience this now.
On the one hand, you have people with a cold, or the flu, or pneumonia, 
so they stay away because they are sick.
But then you have people who are taking chemo for cancer, 
and they stay away, because they can’t afford to get sick.
And there are so many others who, for various reasons, 
can’t get out, can’t do what they used to. 
It can all be very discouraging.

That’s why Jesus told the man to go show himself to the priests, 
so that he could come back to the temple.

Ash Wednesday is in a few days, and we of course begin Lent.
This gives us a chance to set the tone for our Lent.

I’m going to tell you something you may not believe, but’s it’s true. 
Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation.
It really isn’t! And yet, our churches will be filled. Why?

Ash Wednesday – and Lent as well – 
is one of those times when we realize 
our spiritual journey isn’t solitary. We are part of a family.

If you wanted to, you could put ashes on your head at home.
But that’s what we want to do.
We do this in a public way, and we do it together.
Not just the ashes, but the whole journey, 
the whole spiritual campaign of Lent.

Notice, we all do certain penances together:
Fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday,
and abstaining from meat on the Fridays of Lent.
Many of the school students will come to daily Mass together.
We will come to pray the Stations of the Cross together.
There is power in that “together,” isn’t there?

As we go into Lent, I want to highlight 
some of the opportunities we have – together – 
to grow closer to Christ. That’s what it’s all for.

There are still forms in the pews for the Catholic Ministries Appeal, 
if you want to contribute.

In your bulletins, you will find a bright pink handout that looks like this, 
with lots of opportunities for growing in holiness in Lent.
We have some Bible studies; we have some prayer groups.
We have materials for you to use at home. 
You’ll see some free materials on the tables at the doors of church.

Most important, you’ll see times for the sacrament of confession; 
both here, and at nearby churches.

When we go to confession, we do that individually; 
and yet, even there, we’re together in a way.
I’m in that line; you are; your parents, your children, 
Archbishop Schnurr, Bishop Binzer, Pope Francis – all of us.

There’s another part of this. Lent is not only about holiness; 
it is also about reconciliation.  
Remember, we call confession the sacrament of reconciliation.
The leper, being cleansed, 
was also able to be reconciled with the community.

When we go to confession, as hard as it can be to tell our sins, 
that is still, really, the easier part.
The really hard part is what we do next – 
after we are absolved, after we do our penance.

The really hard work comes next. 

How about going and finding people at home or work or school,  
and apologizing? 
How about taking concrete steps 
so that we will be different toward others?
Seeking out someone to be reconciled with?

People say, “Oh, that’s just me, I can’t help it.”
Oh…let’s just say, hogwash.
Being Irish or German or Scottish or whatever is not an excuse.
And yes, change is hard; but we can do it, if we really want it, 
with God’s help. It’ll still be hard, but we can make it happen.

If you want a powerful conversion experience, 
ask the Holy Spirit to awaken you 
to how your sins affect other people.

If you are making fun of other kids, or bullying them, at school?
If you are drinking too much, too often? 
Cheating? Not doing a full day’s work? 
Those pictures on the Internet? They are real, flesh-and-blood people.

Even our most private sins – we think they affect no one else, 
but it’s not true. Eventually they always affect others. They always do.

So as we go into Lent, be mindful of the people around you.
Ash Wednesday can be a great time to bring someone along.

When I was in my 20s, I was away from the Catholic Faith. 
And I remember a co-worker saying to me, it’s Ash Wednesday, 
why not come along and get ashes?
And it was that same Lent when I went to confession 
for the first time in ten years. And then, to Holy Communion! 

That is something I will never forget.
Anyone and everyone, without exception, can get ashes.
Anyone can come to the Stations of the Cross.
Anyone can come and adore Jesus in the Eucharist.
Anyone can take part in Lent.
This is something we do together.