A pastor friend of mine sent me this absolutely spot-on article on the banality and lack of reverence that seems to be the "style" these days in many congregations. I find myself wondering why it is that parents permit their children to show up at church dressed like they just woke up and threw on whatever they could grab. In the case of many teenagers coming looking like slobs. I know that is blunt, but it is true. Imagine if they were to attend a solemn court of law proceeding, or a funeral of a loved one, or even their High School Prom or Homecoming dances dressed in such sloppy fashion? Would they show up dressed like such bums? Perhaps they are encouraged toward such "informality" by the pastor who runs through the liturgy looking at his watch, fearful that the service will go past 60 minutes, or who drones through the words of the Lord’s Supper as if he is reading yesterday’s news. I suspect, they are not receiving the kind of parental guidance they need in such matters. Am I suggesting that they should wear dresses and coats and ties? If they are old enough, why not? If the family is financially able to afford one formal set of clothes, why not?
And consider the conduct of the liturgy in many of our congregations, or the constructions of our houses of worship. Some look more like non-denom barns, or concert halls, than holy houses where the Blessed Trinity is worshipped and where He tabernacles among His people under the bread and wine of the Holy Supper. Where is the sense of awe, reference, holiness that God intends for His people when they come before Him?
The article was written by Father Scalia, son of the Supreme Court justice, which explains the very well done courtroom analogy.
has the courtroom retained the reverence the Mass has lost?
may not have recognized Sean Combs or Marshall Bruce Mathers III as
they appeared for their court dates recently. The irony is, their fans
would not have recognized them either. Mr. Combs aka Puffy or Puff
Daddy and Mr. Mathers aka Eminem or Slim Shady are giants in the world
of rap music. They both have enormously successful careers carefully
established on a "bad boy" rebel image. In fact, Mr. Combs is CEO of
Bad Boy Entertainment.
But for court they departed from
their regular image and behavior. Gone were the baseball caps,
sunglasses, gold chains, leather jackets, t-shirts and baggy
jeans so familiar in the rap music crowd. Each of them wore a
nice new suit and a sharp tie. They did not have the defiant,
violent, in-your-face attitude that their music carries and that
they display on stage. Rather, they sat still and respectfully
in the courtroom as everyone else does.
As far as I know, courtrooms
do not have a dress code. But everyone senses the seriousness
of the business conducted there. They dress and act accordingly.
The dramatic distinction between courtroom behavior and regular
behavior calls to mind the distinction that should but does not
exist between the sacred and profane in Catholic churches.
In many ways the courtroom resembles
a church, or at least what a church should be. Its benches look
like pews. The man who presides is robed in black. He renders
judgment from a sort of sanctuary: from a large table, usually
elevated, set apart many times by what looks like an altar rail.
The bailiff functions as his acolyte and the jury could be his
choir. Proper reverence must be maintained in the courtroom:
when the judge enters, the people stand; to speak with him, you
must ask to approach the bench. People always dress respectfully
for the courtroom and, if they must speak, they do so in hushed
Alas, despite these similarities,
the courtroom clearly receives more respect and reverence than
a church. It certainly elicits a distinction from our dress-casual
culture that a church no longer does. The sanctuary of a church
is no longer set apart: people do not think twice about approaching
it and even walking through it if they want. The altar in many
cases is not elevated, not distinguished from the congregation
in any real sense. People do not dress respectfully for church.
And when was the last time they merely whispered?
The fact that the courtroom has
maintained a distinction between the casual and serious the sacred
and profane, in effect while the Mass has not, indicates that
current irreverence for the Mass is not just a product of larger
cultural decay. The courtroom shows that we can still maintain
reverence in our culture. The way people respond to the Mass
indicates something drastically wrong with the way Mass is celebrated
and the way our churches have been redesigned.
The courtroom is a place of serious business: it is where life
and death issues are decided, where a man’s future hangs in the
balance, where fortunes are won or lost, debts are settled, and
guilt is bound or loosed. Even though the "proceedings"
of church conduct a "business" infinitely more important
than any courtroom’s, people have no sense of it. They do not
realize that the Mass makes present the victory of life over
death, and gives us our inheritance as children of God. Granted,
unlike court proceedings, the Mass does not determine guilt or
innocence but instead celebrates and communicates reconciliation.
Further, at Mass we approach God not only as supplicants but
also and even more as children. Nonetheless, the Mass (and Confession,
Eucharistic Adoration, etc.) deals with forgiveness and punishment,
with innocence and guilt, with eternal salvation and damnation.
That is the most serious business.
Why then does our culture respect
and revere the courtroom, while it practically scorns churches?
Obviously there are many general causes, most obviously the loss
of the sense of sin, which obscures the seriousness of any religious
undertaking. But a comparison of the respect for the courtroom
with the irreverence for the Mass isolates two specific causes
for the latter: the priest-host and the egalitarian architecture.
First of all, no judge would ever lower his courtroom to the
level that many priests bring the sacred liturgy. "Good
morning!" Would an important trial ever begin with such
a trite greeting? Would a judge announce the birthdays or anniversaries
of people in the courtroom? Would he ease the tension of the
courtroom by beginning with a joke? It would be rare indeed for
a judge to act so flippantly during a trial. He has the power
to silence people in the courtroom and even to hold them "in
contempt of court". The judge knows that the tension in
the courtroom is healthy because it focuses everyone on the serious
business before them. If he dilutes this tension, he lessens
the importance of his role, his words, and his courtroom. The
judge understands a basic paradox: if the courtroom has the atmosphere
of everyday life, then it no longer has any relevance for everyday
The Mass has a similar tension.
The formal greetings, the reminders of sin, the call to repentance,
the invitations to prayer, etc. all these create a healthy tension
that reminds us of the importance of the Liturgy. Unfortunately,
many priests see themselves as hosts charged with the task of
entertaining and consequently do not see the benefit of this
tension. They do not understand that it elicits reverence and
respect for the Liturgy. As a result, such priests diffuse the
tension with casual greetings, jokes, and references to secular
celebrations. They intend to relax the congregation and put people
at ease. They instead produce a casual, mediocre and often meaningless
atmosphere. They do not understand the paradox: if the Mass has
the atmosphere of everyday life, then it no longer has any relevance
for everyday life.
Seating is Everything
Second, those who design courtrooms understand the importance
of the physical arrangement of the people. Not everyone is on
the same level. The gallery is normally distinguished somehow
from the lawyers. The jury has its own area, and the judge looks
down from what is obviously the most important seat in the house.
The use of rails, benches, and tables to distinguish the participants
reminds everyone of the hierarchy essential for the business
involved. Further, courtrooms rarely, if ever, look cheap. In
fact, they normally have dignified furniture of the finest wood
and dark colors that bring a solemn tone to the whole place.
All the physical furnishings communicate a dignity that no one
fails to notice.
For centuries, churches had a
similar design. The congregation occupied the nave, while the
ministers served in the sanctuary, set apart by an altar rail
and elevated by a couple of steps. The layout reflected the hierarchy
of the Church that is essential to the Liturgy. The furnishings
and building materials conveyed a dignity and seriousness.
Now, however, new churches display
a more egalitarian architecture, and old churches twist and turn
to accommodate the new thinking. The altar may be on the same
level as the congregation and even moved out to be in the midst
of the people. Chairs that can be easily moved and rearranged
have replaced the pews. Kneelers have been eliminated and the
altar rail, of course, has long since been removed. These new
designs destroy the distinction between the people and the ministers
and effectively eliminate any sense of the hierarchical structure
of the Church and of the Mass. If a courtroom were designed like
this the people would ask, "Who is in charge"? Catholics
may ask the same at many parishes.
Moreover, these new and renovated
churches tend to look quite cheap. Movable chairs, so important
for quickly changing the church into a concert hall, do not convey
seriousness, dignity or reverence. Rather, they bear a striking
resemblance to kitchen chairs. One theologian calls all this
the "domestication of transcendence". In other words,
we feel at home in the church so why should we regard it as special?
The Mass, and a church in general,
should be a refuge of reverence in the midst of a culture that
increasingly reveres nothing a glimpse of heaven as we progress
on our pilgrim way. The solution is not to make the Mass into
a court hearing or churches into courtrooms. They have more differences
than similarities. Nonetheless, the courtroom has not suffered
the same trivialization and irreverence inflicted on the Mass.
Insofar as these two are similar, then, we should learn what
elicits reverence and what we should retain of our tradition.
If in doubt, we can always ask Puff Daddy and Slim Shady.
– Vol. VII, No. 6: September 2001
Father Scalia, a priest of
the diocese of Arlington, is a frequent contributor to the Adoremus Bulletin.