April 6th, 2020
Karin and I watched the Palm Sunday Mass on Sunday, as it flowed online from the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Milwaukee. It was for me an odd experience. I sat on the couch and watched the show only because it meant so much for Karin. It really was a “show”. I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense. It is just that Karin and I were, for the most part, simply spectators, as opposed to active participants in the Mass. As Catholics, we are supposed to be engaged participants, but it was impossible for us to do that.
If a person lives long enough, they remember things. I am not going to argue whether or not these memories are in any way accurate. I’m just saying that current events often trigger thoughts of long ago. Sunday’s Mass online brought up a number of memories for me. I remembered my grandma.
When I was young (I’m not even sure when it was), my Grandma Pestotnik lived in a tiny apartment near the corner of 76th Street and Beloit in West Allis. She cared for my grandfather who dying of Parkinson’s disease. Both Grandma and Grandpa were Slavs. Grandma came from a Polish farm family, and Grandpa was a Slovene. Grandpa wasn’t terribly religious, but Grandma was. She was an old school, pre-Vatican II Catholic. Her home was chock full of holy pictures, statues of the Blessed Virgin, rosaries, and crucifixes. Oddly enough, our house looks like that too. The only real difference is that we also have a statue of the Buddha.
Grandma couldn’t go to church, because she needed to be home with her husband. So, on Sundays she would watch the liturgy on television, “The Mass for Shut-ins”. Now, Karin and I are doing the same thing, albeit for different reasons. The only difference that I notice is that, when Grandma watched the program, the church service being filmed was in a room that was packed with people. The service that Karin and I watched was celebrated by only a few people. There was a bishop or two, a priest, a lector, and a cantor. The laity was conspicuously absent. During the liturgy on Sunday, I could hear the words of the archbishop echoing in a nearly empty cathedral. It was eerie, like listening to somebody speak in a mausoleum.
In my grandmother’s day, before Vatican II, it was accepted that the laity played no active role in the Mass. Part of the reason for that was that the Mass was entirely celebrated in Latin, and most Catholics had only a minimal understanding of the language. This being the case, parishioners sometimes sat in their pews, and prayed their private devotions or said their beads. An acolyte would ring bells during the Eucharistic Prayer to alert a distracted congregation to wake up and pay attention. Catholics were (and are) required by Church law to attend Mass, at least physically. Mentally and spiritually, they were (and are) often somewhere else.
All that changed after 1965. Suddenly, Catholics were supposed be an integral part of the liturgy. The Mass was said in the vernacular, with only a minimum of residual Latin in the prayers. Changes take time. Often an entire generation has to die off before new rituals are accepted (think about the forty years that the Israelites spent in the desert). The laity became part of the liturgy, and the laity expected to be active in the process. Catholics do not worship like they did fifty years ago. The change was not just some tinkering with the ritual. The change involved a whole new perspective of it means to be Catholic.
I don’t know this, but I suspect that it was easier for my grandmother to watch the Mass on television than it is for me to do so. She was used to being part of an audience. She was used to being an observer of sacred events. I am not. I am used to being part of the action, so it is hard for me to a religious couch potato.
Here is another memory. I remember going to Mass the Sunday after 9/11. The building was packed; standing room only. It was a time of deep fear and uncertainty, so people came together for solace and comfort. They took refuge in the sangha, or the shul, or the mosque, or the church.
Now we can’t do that.