1 August 2015

Can we work a revolution?

Some years ago, a cousin who lived in another diocese called my mother on the phone.  She, the cousin, mom's niece, was in tears.  A new priest had been assigned to her parish, and he was destroying the church.  He removed all the statues that had been acquired over the course of  a century, save only the sacred heart statue, and that he whitewashed.  He whitewashed all the murals and frescoes, as well as the stations of the cross.  If the high altar still stood in the Sanctuary when he arrived, it was soon torn out.  Lastly, he removed all the pews, and replaced them with folding chairs.  If anyone on the parish council opposed these moves, they were replaced.  Mother listened patiently, and gently reminded her niece that, if it hurt her so badly seeing this done to her beloved parish, she could switch to another.  And so, she switched.  A few years later, mother received another tearful phone call:  That priest had been transferred to her new parish, and he was doing it again.

I thought of this the other day when I read Anthony Esolen's latest article over at Crisis magazine. The article is a clarion call for the lay people to roll up their sleeves and get to work at renewing the Church.  It is typical Esolen- powerfully written, passionate, strident, intelligent.  But I found myself pulled short with this paragraph:

Restore your parish church and bring reverence back to the liturgy.

Was your church denuded during the Decade that Taste Forgot? Bring art back in. Is there an ugly sculpture of Jesus the Helicopter, or a pseudo-primitive stained glass window of the Baptist dropping a rock on Jesus’ head? Replace them. Are you using hymnals filled with bad poetry expressing hippy-dippy theology to treacly or unsingable tunes? Why? If you know a little about sacred music, learn more. It’s never been easier to do that. Become more familiar with O Salutaris Hostia than with Table of Plenty. You don’t have to be allergic to the great Christian hymns arranged by Bach or written by the Wesleys. Accustom yourself to real poetry, to melodies that can be sung by a congregation, and to thoughtful meditation upon Scripture. Learn Gregorian chant. Will it take a while? It will take longer if you complain about how long it takes. Begin.

When I read this, I immediately thought of my cousin and that priest.  I also remembered how, back in the early eighties, my mother went to parish meetings about a renovation to my old church in order to unsuccessfully fight to keep the tabernacle at the centre of the sanctuary, only to be shouted down by a committee member she had never seen before or since, an expert from the archdiocese who answered her every point with a question:  "Don't you know what Vatican Two says?". I think of the recent case of the removal of icons, purchased at the cost of a hundred thousand dollars, being removed within weeks of the arrival of a new priest.  I think of how my old choir was stopped in its tracks by a new member of the parish council who, with the support of the priest, reduced our repertoire to a handful of hymns- her favourites, not ours.

There are a few cases where the people organized to stop the destruction of their church, but they are few and far between compared to those that went the other way.  Absolutely anything we and those who came before us do or have done can be torn apart by the priest for no other reason than because he feels like it.  They are under no obligation to listen to us.  That statue your grandparents donated?  It doesn't match his preferred colour scheme.  Gone.  The stained glass window raised in honour of the men of the parish who fought and died in the wars?  The priest prefers random tessellated colour patterns for stained glass windows. Besides, who wants to be reminded about war anyway? Gone.  The high altar, where the sacrifice of Calvary was re-enacted for a century?  Take a sledgehammer to it, and use the marble fragments as gravel for the parking lot.  Gone.  The organ is big and expensive and needs fifty grand in repairs.  Let's just use guitars. Gone.

And yet, for all this, Esolen is correct:  we must try.  But it will be even harder than Esolen seems to think.  It is always an uphill battle.  Everything you worked and strove for may be undone at the next personnel change.   The priest will always have the final word, and all our good work can be overturned with a snap of the fingers by the one whose help we most desperately need,  the one who should be our strongest supporter, but is all too often our nemesis.