A Sad Narrative of Midnight Mass

I know how to be Catholic everywhere but in the parish. I wish I knew how to connect, but everything seems to conspire to make it at least difficult, and possibly impossible. I suspect the issue isn’t (entirely) me, as it is simple to connect in Anglican parishes. Midnight mass was a continuation of the usual sad state of affairs.

It seems clear that the average Catholic in the pews in my diocese usually fails to connect with leadership for many of the same reasons. The bishop is activist in orientation (right-wing on social issues, left-wing on peace and justice issues) and very top-down in terms of managerial style. He rotates priests throughout the diocese often enough to make it impossible for people to find ideologically “safe” confessors and homilists who will not soon be replaced; this encourages a culture of passivity and of putting up with whomever you get, hoping to outlast the offensive priest. The bishop purged LGBTQ faculty from the local Catholic high school over massive student and donor protest, and shut down a transgender-outreach program at my alma mater’s Newman Center, prompting the majority of Catholic faculty/staff to leave the Newman Center for new faith communities (some two-thirds of the Newman Center’s core congregation left). Most of the educated Catholics I know from my school days can’t find a decent parish in town, and attend Protestant services instead. The bishop seems to cultivate a deliberately antagonistic relationship with average Catholics in the pews as well, frequently taking recourse to unpopular pastoral statements read from the pulpits. Everyone seems angry, sometimes stridently so. Recent priest appointments in my parish have seemed calculated to break the liturgically-traditional, ideologically-quietist character of the congregation, as we’ve been assigned a sequence of aggressive culture warriors as priests. It may not be a terrible loss, as after regular attendance for a couple of years not a single member of the parish has ever interacted with me socially or even knows my name, but I am in search of a new parish and will miss the place. It seemed like a relatively safe haven to practice Catholicism without constant ideological distractions. Mileage varied, but you’d receive usually inoffensive homilies, decent liturgy, and relatively safe and prudent confessors who do not stoke scrupulosity unnecessarily. You could do worse, and in this diocese, very much worse indeed. I’ve been verbally insulted within earshot and physically threatened on more than one occasion at various parishes in the diocese, but this would have been basically unthinkable in my home parish.

I’ve been trying out our local minor basilica, which is in a diverse, multi-ethnic, inner-city neighborhood near my alma mater. Since it is also a beautiful liturgical space, it would be the obvious choice for Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, depending of course upon leadership and worship style. (I would probably prefer Latin mass at the working class Italian Catholic parish in the riverbottoms – the only indult mass in the diocese – but I’ve been threatened with physical violence over my gender appearance there, and it seems far too risky. Nothing in my immediate neighborhood – a rolling sequence of old 1940s and 1950s suburban developments with a church aesthetic running in the direction of the ugliest postwar modernism – has anything to commend itself in terms of reverence or beauty, despite offering me nearly a dozen parishes to choose from within 2 miles of home). The basilica would be the obvious choice but it’s problematic. I’ve been threatened there – a working class man and his son were unhappy to see a Jewish man and an androgynous character in a necktie kiss during the passing of the peace during one midnight mass. I visit the place for the highest liturgical occasions because it is lovely, only to be routinely disappointed by the cantillation skills of the parish priest, who is not simply bad but offensively so if you are cursed with any ear at all for liturgical music. The priest is also prone to conservative, moralistic hectoring, although with less macho and aggressive an edge than some of the other conservative priests in town. To me he seems more sad and and sullen and lonely and isolated than threatening, and tends to evoke compassion more often than anger. It would not be a place one could go if one could find a better, but this is not a diocese that offers much better.

I’ve been trying the place throughout Advent, and might have been willing to give it a go in the long-term had Midnight Mass turned out well. It didn’t, of course. I’m no longer looking for a “good” parish. I am looking for any parish that would be tolerable to attend every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation where I would not feel certain that the priest would handle me poorly in the confessional, and unfortunately, the basilica falls short of meeting even those chastened expectations.

The place seemed to be worth reconsidering because the liturgy is much improved – perhaps the priest has invested extra time and effort in training his voice, or been sent to a liturgical bootcamp by the Benedictine Order – and because he hasn’t seemed quite as cranky as I remember him being, presently appearing significantly less offensive than the new priest at my home parish. The liturgical improvement is genuine, but the net effect on my spiritual health and Catholic morale from an Advent of his preaching has been negative. I don’t think I can keep having the same kinds of experience and still bother to connect with local parish life at all. There’s got to be something better, even if it is staying home.

At his worst, you will get a homily something like this:

Generally, priests in this diocese will be at their very best behavior on Christmas and Easter, there seeming to be a custom of truce between ideological priests and their estranged congregations during these times of the year. The parish priest was not at his worst, but he definitely broke the truce, and the result was pretty demoralizing. The nun administering the chalice snarled at me and seemed hesitant to let me partake, before relenting. I suppose that this must somehow be related to gender/sexual orientation stereotypes, as there was no other likely explanation for her behavior.

The Advent series has been enervating, slightly demoralizing. The basilica is gearing up for the Year of Mercy and the plenary indulgence attached to visiting selected places of worship (of which the basilica is one) during that period of time. The main thrust of Father’s preaching has been how even though there is this plenary indulgence, no one is really going to end up getting it, because of all of the numerous conditions he outlines and the basic impossibility of any individual meeting them. So one must not read Pope Francis’ edict of a Year of Mercy or his public statements as creating new conditions in which the practice of Catholicism has become easier. The only true path of Catholicism, then and now, is the hard work of continual repentance and moral transformation to meet the objective stipulated demands of a particularly rigorous, traditionalist examen of conscience in which most sins are mortal rather than venial in nature and the only help is regular sacramental confession. Nothing is getting easier. Pope Francis hasn’t changed anything. This was slightly muted, less overt, until Father’s Midnight Mass homily tonight. The Year of Mercy doesn’t mean anything is easier, or any standard of belief/practice has been relaxed. Everything is as hard as it was before, but now you have the opportunity to go to confession. If you haven’t gone to confession in a long time, you need to go, because you are almost certainly in a state of mortal sin and sacramental confession is the only sacrament which remits sins that will allow you to receive any grace. If you don’t go to mass each and every week and attend each Holy Day of Obligation, you need to start doing so and are in a state of mortal sin and need to go to confession. The only road to mercy is the road of truth, which means that Catholics must speak all the hard, confrontational truths of Catholic belief and practice without compromise, even when society would say that this makes us bigoted. The Church is not bigoted in saying no to objectively disordered behaviors permitted by our society. We would be negligently sinful were we not to confront society and let it know. The only redeeming part of this sad performance is that perhaps he saw how the nun and some members of the congregation treated me, or (being a sad and lonely person with the instinct for bonding with other sad and lonely people so many of us possess) instinctively knew to make a special effort to connect with me at a personal level after mass. He is not a bad man, but he demoralizes me, and makes me think that my scrupulosity (which is wild and out of control) is a legitimate thing that should be encouraged rather than an affliction likely to drag me into the depths if I let it steer me away from my conscience. And he sells the Year of Mercy as if Mercy really meant Obligation. It’s sort of a moot point whether or not he speaks authentically for the tradition, although I know few theologians would think so, because even if he does it would mean I could not possibly be saved, because my conscience is too strongly formed to be converted and some aspects of the way of life he recommends are far too alien to implement.

He made me slightly angry, because it seems like a deliberate attempt to undermine the direction of Pope Francis’ leadership. It’s as if the American hierarchy loves the way things were, and doesn’t want anything Pope Francis suggests to filter down into the actual life of the parish. I just can’t see how relaxing the conditions for the reception of communion by the divorced and remarried, telling confessors and penitents to view eucharistic participation as a field hospital for the wounded rather than a reward for the perfect, declaring a Year of Mercy with a plenary indulgence, etc. was not in fact an attempt to communicate that usual parish is too strict and legalistic and in need of a change to reach out to the people who would otherwise be excluded. Yet here we have many members of the American hierarchy, even at the level of parish priest, trying to convince the laity that in fact nothing at all has changed for the better, and everything pastoral must be done in the same way that is failing. It’s not that there is any great distance in doctrine between myself and this priest. It’s all about the pastoral significance accorded to certain doctrines we share, and whether or not we will follow Pope Francis in reaching out in new ways.

He made his parish even angrier than he did me. His next move after the homily was to remind everyone that the Church requires them to kneel for the creed during Christmas. Maybe a quarter of the congregation kneeled. Nearly everyone else remained standing, some with looks of defiance. When the people who were standing knelt for the incarnatus and then got back up again, everyone who had started out kneeling got up. Maybe one or two people in the entire congregation continued kneeling – everyone else had joined the gesture of overt defiance. The priest may have been eager to shake my hand because I was the least unsympathetic parishioner.

And this might well be the best and most functional parish in town.

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