In 1979 I left America to study and live in England. I stayed there for twenty five years. When people asked why I did such a thing I used to joke that I saw a bumper sticker that said, “America: Love It or Leave It”. So I did. Then in 2006 the Lord called me back to serve as a priest in the USA.
I do love my home country and I’m glad to be back. However, there is a certain aspect to America that I still find difficult. It is a vague and uncertain quality; something I have never heard defined before, but I think I can give it a name: literal-ness. America the Literal. The other day I posted a quote that “The English use language as a poem even when they’re being practical and the Americans use language as a tool even when they’re being poetical.” This is what I mean about the literal-ness of Americans.
What I mean is that Americans are a practical people. They’re down to earth. They’re utilitarian. They’re bottom line. They want lots of stuff. They want it cheap and they want it fast. They don’t like fol-de-rol and fancy stuff that’s hifalutin. They want results. They like targets and deadline and competition and coming out on top. They’re often suspicious of the arts. They might shoot the piano player, or if they don’t shoot him they just won’t pay him.
I have discovered from my blog that Americans have trouble with subtlety and satire. They don’t get it. They’re often discombooberated by beauty and flummoxed by paradox. They might appreciate beauty, but they don’t want to pay for it. “The money should be spent on something practical–like more computers.”
If I am correct, where did this literal-ness come from? If you want to understand the present, look at the past, because that is where the present came from. America was founded by all types of Protestants–a literally minded and practical people–a down to earth people who associated all forms of fol de rol and fancy stuff with Catholicism–decadence and corruption. America was also made great by waves of immigrants–mostly working class people who knew how to work hard, save and valued the bottom line, efficiency and simplicity. All these different ethnic groups came together and learned a common language, but that language they shared was a second language, and whenever you use a second language you have to use it simply and practically and literally. It takes a long time to develop nuance and subtlety and sub text within a second language. It takes forever to understand allusions and cultural references and inside jokes and historical references that make a first language rich and symbolical and multi textured. Finally, those who peopled America were those who had get up and go, so they got up and went–to America. These types of Alpha achievers are often more absorbed in the external world of physical phenomena and achievement in the external world where language needs to be practical and hard working, and where poetry and subtlety and sub text is a waste of time and money.
Furthermore, this Protestant practicality was woven into the political soul of America. The government was to be composed of ordinary people. The common man was ennobled. If you want to be president portray yourself as an ordinary rancher from Texas–not a Yale boy from a top end East coast family. The aristocrat and everything hifalutin was suspected. Government was to be practical, efficient and most of all to be “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
So, for all these reasons (and probably more I haven’t thought of), America is a literal country. What does this mean for liturgy and theology in the Catholic Church? It means that American Catholics have a practical approach to their religion. They want it to be relevant. They want it to be practical and hard working. They want it to be down to earth and ordinary and they want it to be “of the people, by the people and for the people” So, when the windows were opened to the modern world after the second Vatican Council the true Americanized version of the Catholic faith, which was waiting in the wings, suddenly sprang into life. Almost instantly a new verson of Catholicism burst on to the scene.
It was a version of Catholicism which is literal. It is bottom line. It is practical. So modern American churches are not beautifully transcendent temples where God himself dwells in the Holy of Holies. They are utilitarian auditoria with padded seats, a good sound system, a cry room, a bride’s room and toilets that are clean and comfortable. In an attempt to make the liturgy understood and relevant everything had to be explained. Liturgists and homilists now talk and explain everything. Before Mass–a long explanation of what is going to happen. Before the readings a little summary. During the Prayers of the Faithful another explanation of what they are about. After Mass more announcements and explanations. The music became people centered–lots of songs that were ‘accessible’ about God comforting us, and how we are going to gather together to change the world. Homilies became homely fireside chats about social relevance, self esteem and political action. The way priests celebrated the liturgy focussed on the people gathered around the table.
The literal people were suspicious of ‘mystery’ and ‘transcendence’ and ‘hierarchy’ and ‘beauty’. These things were somehow hifalutin, irrelevant, impractical and most of all–expensive. The money should be spent on other more practical things like schools and hospitals and soup kitchens. Ideas about ‘sacrifice’ were quietly dropped as ‘difficult’ or ‘unnecessarily archaic’ or ‘primitive’. Concepts like ‘the precious blood’ or ‘Jesus dying to save your from your sins’ were deemed ‘inaccessible’ or ‘impossible for modern people to understand’. The sacrifice of the Mass was replaced with the ‘sacrifice of our time, treasure and talents.’ I could go on.
My words will be read as a condemnation of all this. In fact, I am not condemning it. I’m simply recognizing it and analyzing it for what it is. I actually think that what transpired in America in the wake of the second Vatican Council was, in many ways, a good thing. It really was an attempt to help many Catholics relate to their faith and understand their faith more. It really did accomplish this goal in many ways.
However, it was imbalanced. Too much that was good in the sacred tradition was thrown out. Too much of the effort to modernize was iconoclastic and revolutionary. This is why I am in favor of what is called ‘the reform of the reform’. I am not a traditionalist–if a traditionalist is one who wants to turn back the clock. I don’t think the pre-Vatican II church is what we want to return to. I do, however, feel that we must re-learn our traditions, re-discover the transcendent, the symbolical, the sacrificial and the sacramental. We must do this because religion is more than relevance, and liturgy is more than the literal.
Whether American Catholics can learn how to re-enchant their church is another question. I think it may be going against the grain. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of surprises, and progress is pendular. When things have swung all the way to one extreme…
…They must eventually swing back in the other direction.