On Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI will make his first papal visit to the United States. He’ll land at Andrews Air Force Base with much pomp, and spend his days being ushered around on important state and ecclesial business; an itinerary with a profile even higher than the Olympic torch’s (and security to match).
His Holiness deserves only the finest treatment, of course. And he has lots of important business laying claim to his limited time. But I have this lingering daydream in which Benedict slips away from his handlers — like Henry V or Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday — and ventures out to observe, incognito, the American Church in its unedited form, particularly the liturgy.
What would our unmarked pontiff observe upon entering St. Pat’s in Everytown, dipping his finger in the font, and taking an inconspicuous seat a few rows up from the cry room? Many good things, make no mistake. Faithful families doing their duty; worthy priests “saying the black and doing the red“; pockets and patches where earnest and unpretentious shepherds lead well-formed sheep in the universal prayers of the Church.
Naturally, in other places there’d be travesties of a flamboyant variety: garish innovations, petulantly illicit formulas and postures, purposeful smudging of lay and clerical roles, and all the well-documented rest of it.
But one phenomenon I’d especially like him to see, after rejoicing in the good and setting the dogs upon the egregiously bad, is not so notable, but more common — and maybe even more dangerous than any clown Mass. I call it eusebephobia: the curious and pathological fear of being (or appearing) too reverent.
How does eusebephobia manifest itself? I have personally observed it in scores of distinct incidences suggesting that there are thousands more, but there’s always a common thread among them: Some word or action on the part of a priest or deacon, within a liturgical setting, that shatters the sense of mystery, gravity, or awe that the liturgy is in the process of creating. It’s a splash of cold water, a tug back down from the clouds, a juddering shift from eternity back into time. To put it in artistic terms, it’s akin to an actor stepping through the fourth wall.
Sometimes it’s just a mild case of not letting ritual be itself, such as that sometimes-observable phenomenon whereby priests feel compelled to “narrate” or prosify the Mass. “And now let us together pray the prayer of glory, found on page 24 of your Missalettes.” “The Smith family will represent the parish in bringing up the gifts.” Replying “thank you” when the congregation says, “And also with you.” And so on.
This bespeaks a lack of confidence in the power of ritual; for if it needs to be spelled out or propped up with workaday language, then the poetic symbol isn’t communicating what it should. The practical result is a herky-jerky liturgical rhythm, constantly interrupted by stage notes, and a deflation of whatever air of otherworldliness (the Mass is still the Heavenly Banquet, after all) the un-glossed words of the liturgy would have created on their own.
But there’s a still-worse (and more proper) expression of eusebephobia, by which a liturgical minister, through some gratuitous word or deed, consciously acts to de-reverence the moment.
Some examples I’ve seen:
- Father has begun to develop a bit of a dry throat. At some point in the prayers of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, just prior to the consecration, he coughs, smirks, and remarks aloud, “Boy, I hope I can get through this.” A brief titter rolls through the assembly, and the Holy Sacrifice resumes.
- A very common one: the de rigeur crack about the baby immediately after baptism — either because the baby cried when the water poured on his head, or because he didn’t, or because he passed gas. Contemplating in silence the awesomeness of this child-saint, this new spiritual creation now destined for union with the Holy Trinity, is not an option.
- Water jokes for the adults, too. It’s a favorite gag of one priest I know to announce, just before sprinkling the congregation in a solemn renewal of baptismal vows, that those on the edges of the pews “will get wet!” Welcome to the Sea World Mass.
What is going on here? Can we dismiss such things as attention-seeking, or an overdeveloped sense of showmanship?
Not all examples of eusebephobia involve cracking wise at solemn moments. We all hear odd stories of Catholics refused Communion on the tongue by priests who consider themselves a kind of border patrol for traditionalism. Or consider the experience of friends of mine who, every week, so exasperated the pastor of their Southern California parish by kneeling to pray for a few minutes after Mass, that one Sunday he leaned in on them and said loudly, “It’s over!”
So no, I don’t think eusebephobes are just frustrated comedians. What drives them, then? I think it is the pastoral presumption — all the rage in their seminary days, but now 30 years obsolete — that the greatest spiritual danger facing Catholics is too much reverence. For with it, they believe, comes spiritual pride, rigidity, triumphalism, humorlessness, pharisaism — all those preconciliar vices that keep us from being the Easter People we’re meant to be.
Locked in a Star Trek-style repeating time loop in which they’re perpetually on the cusp of finally implementing the ol’ aggiornamento spirit, eusebephobes seem unaware that the pastoral danger most of us Catholics face today is not the prevalence of belief that rote reverence is an end in itself, but the loss of belief that reverence matters — which is then followed by a loss of faith in the object of reverence.
Whether they realize that de-reverencing the liturgy creates other problems — focusing our attention on the priest rather than God (ironically, eusebephobes are often avowed anti-clericalists, too), and diminishing our experience of the sacramental principle, of the substantial relationship between ritual and reality — and don’t care, or whether their consciences are clear but simply misinformed, I couldn’t say. But I will give them some benefit of the doubt, for there can be an attractive logic to their approach.
After all, the very concept of reverence is paradoxical, in the sense that no finite value is any closer to the infinite than any other finite value. Thus, Father Dan can tell his youth group, with some speciousness, that “God doesn’t care” if you wear cut-off shorts to Mass. After all, who can deny that it’s our hearts He’s interested in, not our clothes? And likewise could a eusebephobe say since we’re all sinners deep down, and since even the holiest among us couldn’t muster up one-billionth of the reverence that God is due, what does it really matter? Pastorally speaking, isn’t it better to put the people at ease, filling them with a sense of acceptance and comfort, rather than demanding silence, bowed heads, and upright spines?
But reverence is a paradox, not a false concept. Likewise the whole idea of communion between the human and the divine — yet it has come to be. So even though we can never truly approach the fullness of due reverence, we are to make the token effort, with all our meager human gestures. We make our tabernacles of gold and our altars of stone and our candles of beeswax; we put on our Sunday best, kneel, bow, and sing; we try hard to hush the little ones and quiet our own wandering thoughts. We lay our very best at God’s feet, and like any loving father, He doesn’t disdain our poor efforts, but endows them with merit.
Holy Father, while you’re plotting the renewal of the liturgy, please don’t let the eusebephobes take that from us.