I was praying my Rosary waiting for the Mass to begin. I wasn’t at the Oratory and was therefore resigned to witness some, let us say, strange things.
But this, I had not expected.
A lady goes on the pulpit. She seems to review the reading of the day, but doesn’t talk. A silent rehearsal, so to speak. I barely notice it, and sink into my rosary again.
After the decade, she is still there.
I begin to notice now, and wonder what she might be doing. She is pretty far away, but I can see that she is, in a way, still rehearsing. “Strange” – I think – “she probably reads every Sunday; perhaps it’s the first time?”. I sink into my rosary again.
Another decades ends, and she is still there, on the pulpit. This time, I observe. She is rehearsing, but she is also clearly enjoying. So much so, that she seems unable to leave the place, though she must, she must have become aware of the questionable taste of putting oneself in the pulpit and staying there for, what, seven minutes?
I can’t avoid thinking how a man – let alone a woman – would have been seen in past times if he had installed himself on the pulpit for such a long time. Even in a man, I reflect, this would have been considered something inappropriate unless the man has been invited to preach – which used to happen in the past; think of St. Philip Neri, who was an extremely popular lay pracher before taking Holy Orders. In a woman, this would have been considered, methinks, even worse, the “I want to be a priest” attitude becoming nothing less than obscenely subversive.
Some time passes still, and the lady decides that every good thing must have an end, and finally abandons the fort. But wait. She is not the sanctimonious, “look at how I smell of incense”-type of lady. She looks intelligent, and gives the idea of being very attentive at what she does. She reminds one of a mathematics teacher, or rather she reminds me of my old Greek and Latin teacher with the openly admitted Fascist sympathies, but extremely well-prepared. This here is probably no Fascist, but she surely looks like she is well-prepared. Her lack of sugary look-at-me attitude (rather, she has an “obey me”-attitude; but not in a wrong way; like my old teacher, by the way) makes the insisted pulpit behaviour the more striking; I become curious to listen to the delivery and to see whether the soppy “I try so hard to be like Mother Theresa”-feeling (in my experience, the most common trait of the female Mass reader) becomes apparent.
The delivery comes and it is, I must say, excellent. Nothing of that sentimentality so often heard from the aging representatives of the emotional sex, and which lets you thank God in a very special way that they will never, ever be able to be Catholic priests. No sanctimoniousness, and no self-extolling “If my mother could look at me now”-sense of self-importance. The lady delivers with the ruthless efficiency of a heart surgeon. The voice loud and firm, the pronunciation extremely clear, no uncertainty and no repetition whatsoever. This lady knows what she does, and does it properly. I become more and more curious to hear the next reading, (invariably) delivered by another woman and really, it’s like comparing Mussolini with Berlusconi (my apologies to the lady, if she reads me. The one I compared to Berlusconi, I mean).
What has happened, then? Was the “pulpit” lady so good because she had remained standing on the pulpit for the time a priest needs to deliver an average homily? Or was she good because she is conscientious, and has rehearsed – at home, probably, and for a long time – the proper way of reading in public?
More importantly, what does this episode tell us about human nature?
What it tells me – feel free to disagree; you weren’t there, anyway… – is that pride threatens us in the most subtle of ways; that particularly in these, after all, half-innocent manifestations of human frailty we can observe the way our human nature finds a way to sneak into our habits, to take control of our better instincts for a short time.
Who knows what was going on? Perhaps was the lady asserting her new role in front of other ladies who had tried to put obstacles on her path and was, so to speak, marking her territory? Was there some special message she was trying to send? Why on the pulpit, but without saying a word? Why for so long? Why in such a public, unmistakable, frankly embarrassing, “The Office”-kind of way*?
And if we are honest with ourselves, isn’t this what happens, dear reader, to the best of us? To you, even, let alone to me? Aren’t we all in constant danger of climbing our own pulpit, and to stay there until it becomes an embarrassment to all those around us? Yes of course we must, so to speak, deliver our reading. It is even our duty – according to our abilities – to do so. But isn’t it a wonderful thing to observe – in the others, surely; less in ourselves – how subtly the mechanism works?
There should be no lay readers at Mass. It is, I am sure, difficult enough for a priest to resist the pride. For laymen, this becomes an impossibility.
As shown even by the lady with the excellently clear delivery.
A prayer for her, by the way. This was the first lay reader I liked, and that’s no mean feat.
*Not a UK resident? Sorry, old chap….
Reading around on the Internet, one stumbles upon some debates that to this cradle Catholic – who grew up in a country and in a time where Catholicism was still taken seriously – do sound rather strange.
I therefore thought that I would spend two words about what I think is the role expected from a priest vis-a-vis the challenges of modern times – and, come to that, of all times -.
1) I find it very good that a priest is shocked at perverted behaviour. When a priest – or every other person – is not shocked anymore, this means that he has been polluted by perversion himself. One must wonder about the state of a soul who is not taken by disgust at seeing people of same sex holding hands in public or, worse, kissing. Of course a priest must not be a Pollyanna utterly unaware of the existence of sin; but neither can he be one who looks at sexual perversion without cringing.
2) I find it (after the consecration) the most important duty of the priest to be good from the pulpit. In particular, it is inconceivable to me how a priest – any pastor or minister, let alone a Catholic priest – may renounce to address the matter of sin. I do not only mean the sin of lust, but all sins: envy, gluttony, pride, the lot. We are surrounded by obese people, on their way to a life of trouble and a premature death, because the sin of gluttony is not mentioned anymore; we have more and more vocal perverts around, because their sin of pride has been hidden under the cloak of “understanding” for their “plight”, when vocal homosexuality is simply utter rebellion to Our Lord; we have the environmental madness and the spreading of socialist ideas, because the sin of envy is not properly addressed; nay, it is encouraged.
How important the homily is can be clearly seen from the fact that the Church post Vatican II has tried to kill it, transforming it in a harmless chat where no uncomfortable messages are conveyed. The measure in which sin is so accurately avoided in every trendy homily is simply scary. In fact, whilst we still say that something is said “from the pulpit”, the pulpit itself has been one of the victims of Vatican II. How many new churches have been built with a proper pulpit? And when a pulpit is available, how many priests still use it?
The entire concept and physical presence of the pulpit reminds one of sin. NuChurch wants to get rid of the concept of sin. Therefore, NuChurch has to get rid of the pulpit.
Let me state very plainly that to me, a priest who is unwilling to address sin from the pulpit is unrecognisable as a priest.
3) In my eyes, a good priest is one who is, as it is generally said, a lion from the pulpit and a lamb (when he sees contrition, of course) in the confessional. From the pulpit, I am reminded of what a wretched sinner I am. In the confessional, I am re-directed toward the path of salvation. Being a sinner, I need the constant reminder that I go astray, and need to be reconciled to Jesus; that I am like those half-broken spring-propelled toy cars we had as children, which couldn’t go straight and had to be constantly put on the right way again; and this not only in the very grave things, but in the lesser ones also. I need to be reminded that I alone can do pretty much perfectly absolutely nothing; that left to my devices, I am very likely to find a rather fast way to hell; that my path to improvement and to a life of – at least – struggle to be as good as I can goes through the humiliation of penance, the crushing acknowledgment that I continue to nail Christ to the Cross every day. And this humiliation is really good (I mean: salutary), because it keeps me away from the worst of the sin of pride, and puts ruthlessly in front of my eyes what wreckage concupiscence is ready to make in my soul, if I am complacent.
Unpleasant? You bet! The human condition is unpleasant: we are sinners ready to continue to offend Christ every day. We are serial sinners who, unless we are properly instructed and reminded and admonished and rebuked, would easily find a speedy way to hell, and the priest is the man to help us avoid that.
4) Still, my ideal priest is one who uses a wise mixture of all that; one whose homilies are a healthy mixture of instruction and admonition, of hope and brimstone, of roaring and consoling. By one homily of twelve to fifteen minutes a week there is really a lot to say, and a normal churchgoer can have a thorough foundation in Catholic teaching, and at the same time develop a very healthy, nay, indispensable sense of his own sinfulness, in a matter of just a few years. This is what has always happened in the past, when people actually built churches with pulpits; and this is what the perverted generation of Vatican II has abandoned. Even the way to the confessional clearly goes through the pulpit, as the confessionals are deserted because the need for confession is not stressed strongly enough. One would have to talk about sin, you know. So he devotes the homily to the jooooy that awaaaaaits us aaaall in heaaaaven instead. “What a beautiful homily, Father”, will the people whose hand he is – in pure Protestant fashion – happily shaking after Mass say to him. Nothing but smiles all around. How very nice.
5) A good priest is, in my eyes, one who doesn’t refrain from addressing sexual perversion from the pulpit. He will – if he is any good – be able to express himself in a way that is clear without being obscene, and can be directed to the adults without upsetting the children. I agree that one hundred years ago the Sin of Sodom didn’t need to be addressed in Church; but others did, and St. Augustine openly rebuked his parishioners who slept with their own servants without being so afraid of what questions the children of these very fathers might have asked after Mass.
This is not meant to offend anyone in particular, of course. In fact, the blog where I have read one of these debates is run by what I think a most excellent priest. But then again, it is surprising what comments people (or even: priests) can write around as comments to blog posts or answers to questions. If I look back at my own experience the lack of proper homilies as a child has been, no doubt, one of the things which allowed me to slide away from mass attendance. If the priests isn’t serious, you end up not taking the Mass seriously. My mistake of course, but I can’t say that I was even warned from doing the mistake. Such were the times and such they, I do not doubt, very often are. We live in times where many priests would consider mentioning Mass obligation a no-no. Then they complain about the fact that the world is so materialistic and not turned to God. Why don’t they wake up instead.
A priest doesn’t have to be a master in sensitivity. He is there to save souls. He must be able to find the words, and to use the strong ones when needed. This is what a loving father does.
At times I have the impression that modern “Fathers” would prefer to be called “Mother” instead.