Amidst the sorrow and tragedy that dominates the news these days, the Vatican weighs in on a matter that may seem trivial to some:
The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) has urged the church’s bishops to crack down on boisterous exchanges of peace during the Eucharist service. In a letter dated 8 June 2014 and approved by Pope Francis the previous day, the CDW asked bishops guide their priests in the proper celebration of the Roman rite and to discourage “familiar and worldly gestures of greeting” which should be substituted with “other, more appropriate gestures.”
First, with due respect (and congrats on his new parish appointment) to my fellow Palm Beacher George Conger, the title of his piece is a little misleading. “Happy-clappy” implies what they do in Charismatic churches with the praise and worship time that is de rigeur these days. Thanks to OCP, there’s not much of that in Roman Catholicism. Their job (in the U.S. at least) is to insure that music to accompany the sacred mysteries is banal and uninspiring, and they’re good at it too.
And a lot of praise and worship music isn’t as happy as you’d like to think. If you want to see where it’s going, just visit a youth group service now and you’ll see what it will be like ten years from now. The system is set up so that what’s in youth group today becomes “from the throne room” in a few years. And a lot of that sound has been baleful, minor key stuff, sounding like a buffalo that has been ineptly shot and waiting for the hapless hunter to finish him off.
But I digress. The issue of happiness, however, is a big one. There is a surprisingly large body of Christians who, while aspiring to the summum bonum that’s around the real throne room, push back at the idea that happiness is what we’re really aiming for, the success of the entertainment and leisure industry notwithstanding.
One major exception to that is the Catholic bishop Jaques-Benigne Bossuet, who made happiness a leitmotif in an age where it was decidedly scarce. At the start of his Meditations on the Gospel he flatly stated that “Man’s chief aim in life is to be happy”. Elsewhere he says that God himself is happy, an idea well supported (if not well noted) in the New Testament. But I guess that’s one reason Mother Church never canonised him and has largely forgotten him.
So what does that have to do with the sign of peace? The Church can whine about “effusive” expressions of the sign of peace all it wants, but if they’re genuine they state two things: the congregants are happy and in fellowship with each other. Penitential needs considered, both of these should characterise Christian gatherings as opposed to, say, those that happen in a mosque. Bossuet is clear that the greatest happiness if found in Jesus Christ; if people can’t find their joy in his church, they’ll find it somewhere else.
That was certainly the case in the years I was at Texas A&M in our Newman Association, where the sign of peace was a highlight at our masses. Growing up with “God’s frozen chosen”, the warm greetings at our Masses (with a more ethnically diverse group, I might add) were a special treat. In those days Roman Catholicism was a pleasure in a way that no form of Christianity has been for me before or since.
But that brings me to the second issue: community. I’ve said many times that Roman Catholicism leans too heavily on the sacramental system to bond its people to God and itself. Today many in the Church wonder how to get parishes past the box-checker mentality. Vatican II was concerned with this issue too. Although there’s a lot to this, discouraging effusive signs of peace at Mass isn’t a very good way to address this issue.
And while we’re thinking about sacraments, the emphasis on formality these days, while seeming to underscore the authority of the church and the validity of the sacraments, actually may undermine both. As I noted years ago:
Anglo-Catholicism always liked a “frillier” form of Christianity, presumably because it looked and felt good and because it helped to drive home the sacredness of what they were doing. Roman Catholicism can certainly do the ceremonial when the occasion calls for it, but the efficacy of the sacraments is driven by the nature of the church, not because of how elaborately the sacred mysteries are celebrated.
I think that the Church needs to think a few things through before they create another institution full of “God’s chosen frozen”.