Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Smells and Bells - Engaging Kids (and Adults) in the Mass

Dear Theophilous,

As a kid visiting the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, I never really understood the artistic value of the white-on-white canvas. If anything, the minimalist art display left me bored, stir crazy, and (much to my parents’ embarrassment) acting out. There was just nothing there to hold my interest. Now, the paintings full of vibrant colour, animated scenes and unconventional characters; even the modernist splotches of paint chaotically splattered – those busy works of art; they held the interest of a pre-adolescent child.

Fast-forward 30 some-odd years later, as a parent myself; I have gone through the embarrassingly frustrating chore of keeping a lid on a bored child. From looking around at Mass, and hearing the pleas of both bored children and exacerbated parents, I know that I am not alone. (Now that my son is an adolescent, things have gotten way better, but for a while I wondered if either one of us was getting anything out of the Mass).

This has gotten me to wondering if the post-conciliar stripped-down version of the Mass is the liturgical equivalent of the white-on-white canvass.

The Vatican II document, Sancrosanctom Concillium (Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy) stipulates that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. … and … this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit… (SC 14).

 Yet, this full and active participation in the liturgy seems to be the furthest from the truth for the youngest parishioners in the pews, not to mention the adults who are not. How many times do parents need to hear a whiny “I’m bored!”?  Or how many times in our conversations with fallen away Catholics do can we listen to the arguments “I’m not being fed in the Catholic Mass.” or “I don’t get anything out of going to Mass.” Unfortunately, as a direct fall-out of our pop-culture society, many of the people who are saying this (children and adults alike) are really saying, “I’m not being entertained.” or “There’s nothing here to hold my technologically shortened attention span.

The thing is, if these people understood what was truly going on at the Mass, if we all truly understood and saw what was going on at the Mass, we would be both amazed and afraid. Our attention would be more than held. We would be rapt in concentration, to the point that it would take our breath away. Not only would we be so focused on what was going on around us (visible and invisible), we would joyously participate with our whole mind, heart and soul.

Unfortunately, we’ve forgotten how to see the Mass with liturgical eyes.

Smells & Bells is the colloquial phrase most often used to describe Catholic liturgical tradition. It refers to the smell of votive candles and incense that used to permeate every Catholic church and chapel (even hours after Mass had finished), along with the bells that are rung a at the most sacred moments of the Mass or that used to sound from the belfry to mark the prayerful passage of the day (think of the Angelus bell that would ring 3 times a day, or the tolling of the funeral bell that announced the death of a fellow villager).

As a kid, I would look forward to the Easter Vigil every year, because these Smells & Bells fascinated me. Yet in the past generation, much of this has disappeared from the Catholic liturgy.

Kids love action, and I have friends who purposefully sit in the front row so that their kids can see what limited action is going on during the Mass. Imagine how much easier it would be to maintain children’s attention (and adults as well) if there were sacred action happening throughout the Mass. This would also allow for teachable catechesis moments where parents can quietly whisper why the smelly smoke is being used, the priest is making those silly gestures or it sounds like Nana’s old-fashioned wall telephone is ringing.

The traditional architectural beauty of Catholicism is also another way that young and old alike can be captivated by the faith and drawn into a more full and active participation in the liturgy.

Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we make a family pilgrimage to St.Michael’s Cathedral in the Archdiocese of Toronto. We’ve been doing this since my son was about 5 years old, and from the very first time he walked through the doors, he’s been mesmerized by the story told by the buildings beauty. From the Cardinal’s hat dangling high above the main altar, to biblical images illustrated in the stain glass windows, to the paintings and statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints; he has had so much to learn from the church around him and how it ties into the Mass that after many yearly visits, he is still captivated by it all, and growing in his wonder of sacred liturgy. Having just re-opened after a multi-million dollar renovation, St. Michael’s Cathedral offers an even more awe-inspiring celebration of the Mass.

Sadly, much like the Smells & Bells of the Mass, the ornate beauty of Catholic architecture has also disappeared over the past generation. Even with a so-called revival of Catholic art in churches, newly built buildings are very much a stripped-down version of their stately predecessors. They have become a white-on-white canvas.

Gone is the ornate and warm woodwork that would decorate the walls. Along with the devotional paintings, they are replaced by whitewashed, barren walls. Any statuary that is left in the building is simple, and often colourless; or so much artistic liberty has been taken that much of the Mass is spent on trying to figure out what it represents as opposed to having it point our attention towards the Paschal Mystery.

The same can be said of the stained glass windows in many churches built in the last 30 years. Gone are depictions of scenes from the Bible. We can no longer be inspired by the lives of the saints. Instead, we are left with either a collage of a multi-coloured mosaic or a symbolism that is impossible to decipher or too simple to hold our attention. Originally, stained glass windows were meant to instruct the illiterate who could not read Sacred Scripture for themselves, in many ways they need to make a revival for a lost generation that hasn’t had the opportunity to get to know our wonderful heritage.

For kids and adults to be engaged in the Mass, there needs to be something to engage them with. For generations, the Smells & Bells of the liturgy and the ornate beauty of Catholic architecture enthralled Catholics into a greater love and participation in the sacred liturgy (even if they didn’t understand the language). A return to the glory of our Catholic heritage will help us all to see the Mass with newly opened liturgical eyes. Not only with the faithful be drawn more into the Mass, but it will help those who feel there is nothing to hold their attention for an hour every Sunday fulfill Vatican II’s call for a more full and active participation in the liturgy.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Turning Wait Time into Prayer Time

Dear Theophilous,

The biggest complaint seems to always be about the walk-in clinic… The wait can seem endless! Not only are you not usually feeling your best, and when you add in the crying child (sometimes your own), it can take what feels like forever to be invited into the blessed silence of the examination room. The excitement of hearing your name called is short-lived, however, as you soon realize the second stage of the long wait has only just begun.

Unfortunately, the long wait is not solely the domain of the doctor’s office. In our consumer driven society, where every experience is supposed to be geared to customer convenience, we tend to spend more and more time waiting… at the bank, in the drive-thru, at the supermarket, at the restaurant… even for the bathroom in our own home.

We cannot choose whether or not we find ourselves with this unexpected downtime, but what we can choose is what we do with it. Of course, some waits happening are more predictable than others. We know when we head to the doctor’s office that we will more than likely be in for a lengthy wait. However, when we’re only behind one other car at the drive-thru, we don’t expect to be sitting there for up to 10 minutes (yes, this has happened on occasion). Either way, the question remains – what to do with the (un)expected downtime?

A quick glance around the waiting room at the doctor’s office tells me that most people have come to the realization that they will have to hunker down for an extended period of time. Most adults have either a novel or the newspaper in hand, while their children are mercifully plugged into an electronic device watching cartoons or playing a game (Thanks be to God for earphones). I’ll often do this as well, bringing my current spiritual reading to take advantage of the forced quiet.

Venerable Fulton J. Sheen gives us another option… we should turn our wait time into prayer time:

All the idle moments of one’s life can be sanctified, thanks to the Rosary. As we walk the streets, we pray with the Rosary hidden in our hand in our pocket; as we are driving, the little knobs under most steering wheels can serve as counters for the decades. While waiting to be served at the lunchroom, or waiting for a train, or in a store, or while playing the dummy at bridge, or when a conversation or a lecture lags – all these moments can be sanctified and made to serve inner peace, thanks to a prayer that enables one to pray at all times and under all circumstances.

So before I break out my book, I’ll pull my Rosary beads out of my pocket, make the Sign of the Cross, and slowly, rhythmically begin to pray. Although I may have already prayed the Rosary once that day (it’s a part of my morning routine), I relish this opportunity to meditate quietly once more on the daily mysteries. Without the other distractions of home around me, I actually find that I’m able to better concentrate on my prayers when I don’t feel guilty about tuning out the world around me. Since the Rosary usually takes about 20 minutes to pray properly, I’ll only begin this prayer if I know I’m in for a lengthy wait.

But what about the other times when the waiting has been thrust on us unexpectedly, or we know it will only be a few moments? What if you know you won’t have time to say even a decade of the Rosary, let alone all 5. Depending on the time, location and what you’re waiting for, your quick prayer can take on different forms…

If you know you’re only going to be a few minutes, perhaps you’re behind a few cars at the drive-thru, a decade of the Divine Mercy Chaplet to remind you of God’s saving grace is what’s in order. In line at the grocery store, instead of getting frustrated at all the price-checks or reading the tabloid magazines, a prayer of thanksgiving that you are able to put food on the table is in order.

When the wait comes completely unexpected and my frustration level boiling over, I find it helpful to think of a favourite saint, quickly asking them to pray for me to get through the moment with God’s grace. Once the initial surge in blood pressure subsides, I am then able to approach the unexpected pause in a prayerful manner.

We cannot choose whether or not we find ourselves with these moments of unexpected downtime, but what we can choose is what we do with it. And like in all suffering, big or small, prayer helps make our Cross bearable.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Why We Fear Judgement

Dear Theophilous,

“Who am I to judge?” One might say that this was the question heard around the world. The fact that it was asked at 35,000 feet on a Papal flight, might just justify that moniker. The context of the question and the Pandora’s box it opened aside, by asking the rhetorical question, Pope Francis brought sharply into focus the human fear of being judged.

Very early on in my blogging career I wrote a short article on judging and being judge (you can read it here). I addressed the dilemma of trying to help others avoid condemnation at the final judgement without coming across as taking on God’s unique role of judge of their soul. It is a very fine line, and recently I happened across Edward Sri’s Who am I to Judge?, which gives great insight into how to go about helping others understand God’s judgement without becoming judgemental themselves.

What all of this has highlighted for me lately is our human fear of being judged – especially God’s final judgement at the moment of our death.

Meditating on this question, I’ve come to realize that there are two reasons why we fear judgement:

Ø  We are used to imperfect, human judges; and
Ø  We have already judged ourselves, and found we are lacking.

Imperfect Judges

None of us here on earth has stood before Christ, the perfect judge. That time will come only at the moment of our death, when each of us will face our final judgement. Our last breath taken, our soul will stand before the Lord, the evidence of our earthly life presented for His merciful judgement.

Until that time, however, we will have to content ourselves with less than perfect human judges. This statement isn’t intended to slander judges or our judicial system. I place a lot of faith in both the system and those who run it, for our judges “would have no power over (us), unless it had been given to (them) from above.” (cf Jn 19:11) I trust that in His infinite wisdom, God has placed the right people in the right authority to bring about His plan for Salvation. It may be earthly authority, but its ultimate goal should be to help us to heaven. This is probably why it takes years of law school, practice as a lawyer, and innumerable checks and balances to ensure that only the best of the best become judges,

This said, these are human judges, and, unfortunately, human weakness and sin can get in the way of God’s plans.

Mistakes happen, and even the best and most experienced of judges can make an error in judgement. Even though they are the exception and not the norm, stories of wrongful convictions abound in the media. The masses call foul of the judicial system, and our mistrust of those put into a position of authority deepens.

Unfortunately, this developed mistrust of our imperfect human judges then get projected onto the perfect judge – our merciful Father.

We fear death and our final judgement, because we fear that we will be the exception and not the norm. Although there has been an eternity of God’s perfect and impartial judgement, we fear that we will be the first to be wrongfully condemned. Our human minds, formed in their frailty by a history of imperfect human judges, are unable to understand that God’s judgement is not only perfect and impartial, but that it is also merciful.

We tend to forget that God is slow to anger and abounding is steadfast love. (cf Ps 86:15, Jl 2:13, Jnh 4:2, Ex 34:6, Ne 9:17, Ps 103:8 and Ps 145:8)

This fear of imperfect human judgement leads into the second reason why we fear judgement…


Don’t judge me! is often the pre-emptive retort before someone can make a comment on whatever it is we are doing. What this statement is really saying is: I have already judged myself, and know that I am lacking.

I know that I took an extra trip to the buffet table – don’t judge me!
I know that I drink too much – don’t judge me!
I know that I shouldn’t smoke a pack-a-day – don’t judge me!
I know that I slept around – don’t judge me!

We all know the litany of sinful behaviours and skeletons that hide in our closets. Yes, deep down, we’re ashamed of them. We know what we’ve done is not in our best interest. We really don’t need you to point this out.

When it comes to the list of our own short-comings, we can all be pretty harsh on ourselves, and hearing it from someone else just makes the wound that much deeper. Self-control is usually listed as the last of the fruits of the Holy Spirit for a reason, it can seem to be the hardest to come by. Still, it is something that we desperately need, and should ardently desire.

Our short-comings are never more evident than when we come upon perfection. As an recreational athlete, I never feel more inadequate that when I play with someone who has competed at the highest level… I become aware very quickly of the chasm of skill and athleticism that separates myself from a true athlete. I judge myself unworthy to be on the same playing field as my more-talented adversary, and the lack of confidence soon shows in my increasingly sloppy play – but don’t judge me… the other guy is vastly superior.

Looking ahead to our own final judgement, we can’t help but think that we will feel the same way when we come before Jesus. Christ is the ultimate perfection, and we are not. Although called to hold ourselves to His divine standard, we come to realize very quickly that we will fall considerably short of His heavenly criteria… but don’t judge me – at least I’m trying.

Maybe in this day and age we want to shout out to Christ: “Don’t judge me!” because we have judged ourselves against His divine standard and we understand just how much we are lacking. We don’t want God to judge us, because through His revelation we already know where our actions are taking us, and we don’t want to go there. If we ignore His judgement, then we can ignore the consequences.

We need to remember that if we have judged ourselves, we’re being judged by an imperfect human judge.

In the end, Christ, our ultimate judge, understands this and He is compassionate towards us. This is why He has given us the sacrament of Reconciliation through the Church. He offers us the opportunity to bring ourselves out of our own imperfect self-judgement into His perfect and merciful judgement.