Yesterday, on the road again, my actress and I attended a Vigil Mass somewhere in America. It was definitely America, though it may not have been a Mass.
The priest was a 70-something soft-spoken slow moving effeminate fellow, and the music was all the Bad Stuff, about a dozen of the worst "hymns" played over and over again on piano before Mass even started, kind of like an episode of The Twilight Zone where you're trapped in an elevator with horrible "muzak" and nobody else trapped with you seems to mind or even notice.
The priest assured us in the homily that when Moses lifted his arms and God's staff before the Israelites battling Amalek (Ex. 17:8-13), he was "giving them instructions on the battle," showing them where to attack and where to draw back, and so forth. Far from being miraculous (which the text implies, the strength of Israel growing when the staff of God was raised and faltering when it was lowered), this was merely a natural event. Moses' arms being held up in a cruciform manner by Aaron and Hur was not a foreshadowing of Christ (as I've heard) but just an example of people helping people, which is why we're all here at Mass. Oh, and don't forget to pray.
He talked a lot about prayer, eviscerating the rather shocking parable of the Importunate Widow and domesticating it so that we all understood the message: "Pray. And come to Mass to be with one another."
Then, when the Liturgy of the Eucharist began, he not only improvised the "Pray, brothers and sisters" part (#29 here), but made up something that was wildly and strangely unrelated to anything I'd ever heard from the altar. No mention of "sacrifice" of course, but a totally ad-libbed thing that made no sense. So I figured I'd better follow along in the missal. And here's what I noticed.
His liturgical abuse was not accidental and merely an expression of a kind of misplaced enthusiasm, but it was, like the sexual abuse scandal in the Church, very deliberate, specific and precise.
For despite his homily's mundane emphasis on the need for prayer, every time the words "we pray" came up in the text, he deliberately skipped them. Every time Jesus was called the Son, he refused to say "son" and either skipped the words or made up something of his own. There were other patterns I noticed, and each was the result of a kind of careful forethought and deliberate planning: for he skipped only certain words and said only certain others. This man was no simple fool, carried away with a kind of "Spirit of Vatican II" sense of innovation. Soft spoken, harmless and dull as this priest seemed to be, he had an agenda and was exercising it.
Then we came to the words of consecration, almost nothing that came from his lips matched what was printed on the page.
He did manage to say "This is my body", and he said "This is the cup of my blood" (given up for all) - so I suppose this was indeed a Mass, but he improvised more surrounding the consecration than at any other point in the Mass. And it was all "feel good" stuff, but again I was left wondering, "Why skip we pray or similar phrases? Why object to the Son?"
Here James Kalb writes that we should be hopeful, realizing that our descent into cultural nihilism cannot last forever. He notes (rightly) that
Man isn’t the measure, and ultimate reality comes first.
He encourages us to return to great writers and thinkers and to attain personal sanctity, and of course all of that is right.
But if a priest in a small town in rural America has been celebrating the Mass this way for forty years or more, without restraint or correction from his parishioners or from his bishops, and if a priest unopposed blithely but quite deliberately asserts his own queer but indefinable theology against the Church that sustains him, then what are we to think except
Man is the measure, and ultimate reality comes last.
There is an intent behind the things that are wrong in our Church and in our culture, and we are fools if we don't realize the deliberate and focused nature of what we are faced with.