Saturday, November 26, 2011

A tale of two churches

Catholicism in transition

This is the weekend when Catholics in the United States begin to use the third edition of the English-language Roman missal, which makes several changes to the text of the mass. It is, overall, a more traditional translation, reinstating such things as the thrice-spoken “mea culpa” (rendered in English as, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”) and reverting to “And with your spirit” as the rendering of “Et cum spiritu tuo” (instead of the more mundane “And also with you”). Except for the hardcore ultramontanes who still pine for the old Tridentine mass in Latin, most conservative Catholics are gleeful, correctly seeing the new translation as further evidence of reactionary retrenchment in the Church—and a further diminution of the influence of Vatican II. Can veils for women be far behind?

In the past few months I have had occasion to step into two Catholic churches. (Before anyone asks, I will note that in neither case did anything shatter or burst into flames.) Both churches are modern constructions and had some notable features in common. In particular, they represented a big step back toward a more traditionally Catholic presentation, a far cry from the nearly featureless dark-paneled rectangular box that is St. Aloysius in Tulare.

I visited Our Lady of the Assumption on the occasion of a Portuguese festa in Turlock. The pastor's brother gave me a tour of the facilities. As someone old enough to have been an altar boy in the days of the Latin Mass, I have seen enough Church history to recognize a regression toward the mean. I told my guide that his brother's church represents a successful fusion of modern construction with traditional decor. My guide beamed, acknowledging that the Portuguese community in Turlock had aimed at that exact result when planning their church.

More recently I joined some family members at Holy Spirit Church in Fresno for the baptism of a nephew. The christening would follow the conclusion of the mass service, so I thought I was safe when I made a late arrival and loitered in the lobby. However, my eagle-eyed sister was too alert for me, noted my presence, and came out to collect me and take me inside. (As previously noted, no supernatural phenomena attended my entry into the sacred circle of mystical incantations and wafer transubstantiation.) The first thing I noticed was that Holy Spirit departs from the traditional parallel rows of pews in the same way as Our Lady of the Assumption. Unlike the Turlock church, however, the Fresno church has placed its crucifix so that it is invisible to those sitting in the side pews. From that perspective, where I was sitting with my sister's family, you might as well have been sitting in an Episcopal church. Holy Spirit's altar was a Protestant-compatible table and I'm sure the motley collection of art screens behind it provided ample peek-a-boo opportunities for the servers (both altar boys and altar girls at the service I attended).

The churches in Turlock and Fresno had another thing in common, and I regret not having any photographs to show you. Both of them have the Stations of the Cross (the “Via Dolorosa”) represented in mural form as a kind of frieze on the interior wall above the main entrance. In traditional churches, the fourteen Stations are usually wall plaques depicting the crucifixion of Jesus, seven of them equally spaced on the north wall and the other seven on the south wall (many old Catholic churches were preferentially oriented so that the altar was at the east end). The mural in Our Lady of the Assumption is dark and stark, graphically conveying the pain and anguish of the Savior's execution. I commented to my guide that it seemed more intense than some parishioners might prefer. He admitted that a few people in the community had lobbied to have the mural painted over after it had been unveiled, but that it was now generally accepted. The artist had had plans for other artwork in the interior of the church, but those had been shelved after the mural of the Stations of the Cross had been judged to sate the community's appetite for the artist's work.

By contrast, the Stations mural in Fresno's Holy Spirit is an exercise in kitsch, a truly unfortunate and distracting collection of excessively bright images in different sizes, cartoonish in conception and execution. The color palette appeared to be inspired by sidewalk chalk. If any venue cries out for disciplined and respectful depictions, I should think a church interior does. While the Our Lady of the Assumption mural pushed hard against the bounds of tradition in its display of angst (Jesus is amazingly serene in most of the crucifixion scenes in Stations of the Cross), the composition had a unity of purpose and conception. The Holy Spirit mural was a collage of disparate scenes united by garish colors and amateurish execution.

The results were occasionally unintentionally amusing (unless the artist was being deliberately subversive). The fifth Station depicts Simon of Cyrene, an innocent bystander, being impressed into service to help Jesus carry the cross lest the condemned prisoner die of exhaustion before the authorities get to nail him to it. The Holy Spirit mural makes it look as though Jesus is copping a feel of Simon's butt. In the tenth Station, Jesus is stripped of his garments. This scene in the Holy Spirit mural is so badly composed that it could be subtitled “Jesus flashes his Roman guards.” Both of the guards have stunned expressions on their faces, so they appear to be quite impressed. I made it through the service without chuckling aloud, but I suspect it looked like I was having a better time than the mass warranted.

It will take a few Sundays for practicing Catholics to work the kinks out of the new Roman missal, but I expect the complaints to be few. Regular mass-goers will quickly pick up on the changes and infrequent attendees (Easter and Christmas, anyone?) won't care. For former Catholics who outgrew religion and “put away childish things,” it's mostly a matter of curiosity and perhaps just a bit of nostalgia. The third edition of the Roman missal is yet another signpost that conservatives are in the ascendant in the Church, but we already knew that, didn't we?


In searching the web for photos of the Turlock and Fresno churches, I ran into the following dyspeptic reaction to Our Lady of the Assumption, posted by someone who thinks highly enough of himself to use “St. Christopher” as his handle:
What madness! A Catholic Church that has mostly Portuguese Mass. Oh yes — a TLM [traditional Latin mass] thrown in, at the Chapel at odd times on Sunday. Having cultural loyalty is a fine thing, and Portuguese is a wonderful language — but this focus on whatever is prevalent (Klingon Mass, anyone?) obliterates the meaning of what the Mass is supposed to represent. There is no question but that the Church must return to Latin, and a single, uniform Order of the Mass, as soon as is possible. Let those that wish to participate in something else, go to something else.
Is there any chance that “St. Christopher” might consider taking his own advice? No one is making him attend a Portuguese-language mass. For my own part, however, I think it might be fun to attend a Klingon mass. Once, anyway.


The diligent searching of my friend Gene O'Pedia has uncovered a pair of on-line images of the Holy Spirit mural. The colors are more muted in the photos than they appeared to me in real life, but I recognize the compositions and can confirm that these are the Stations of the Cross that I saw in Fresno. Their resolution is not high enough to zoom in too closely on the panels of particular interest, but they can still convey a sense of what I was talking about. The first image depicts, right to left, Stations 6 and 7 (“Veronica wipes the face of Jesus” and “Jesus falls for the second time”). The flat perspective of Station 7 (not Station 5, as I said above) makes it look like Jesus is patting Simon on the behind. The other photo shows Stations 10 and 11 (again, right to left: “Jesus is stripped of his garments” and “Jesus is nailed to the cross”). Again, the resolution is limited, but you can just tell that the two Roman soldiers are gaping at the undraped Jesus in Station 10. It's a fine example of religious kitsch.


Kathie said...

I don't know about masses. But at son Frederick's bar mitzvah on a memorable epi of "Frasier," the title character winds up giving a blessing in Klingon. Frasier's radio station co-worker Noel Shempsky was supposed to have translated it into Hebrew, but then he got miffed so secretly rendered it phonetically into the "Star Trek" language instead, in hopes of making Frasier look foolish since he'd be none the wise -- except Freddy's friends think Frasier is cool for doing this.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

I stepped into the Oily Cross church in New York and was nearly killed when leaving.

By the god of Gravity.

St Christopher is rather amusing in his hypocrisy, yes.

Karen said...

It baffles me that, after all this time, some people still want their mass in a dead language.

Growing up though, my mother and I often attended a Spanish-language service -- not because we had as many as a dozen Spanish words between us, but because Mama found the time convenient. I definitely preferred it to an English service because I could just let my imagination run free and daydream without any annoying religious lecture interrupting me. While I was still Catholic at the time, I figured that God and I had a fairly decent relationship, and masses weren't useful.

Kathie said...

Karen, back during the Great Depression, my Catholic grandfather used to take his young grandson to church (the kid lived with them for several years). Since the kid attended public schools, he had no idea what was being said in Latin, so would get bored out of his skull. Before they left home to walk the ½-mile or so to church, Grandpa would give the boy one of those classic Hershey's milk chocolate candy bars as a treat to nibble on during the service. But my very artistic cousin would instead use the candy bar edge to sketch on the back of the pew in front of him. Apparently when Grandpa would open his eyes from praying to notice, he'd whack the kid upside the head to make him stop. Once my divorced (horrors!) uncle remarried (to another Protestant -- double horrors!), he moved out with his boy, who stopped attending church of any sort and wound up secular/skeptic like me. Even in his 80s now, my cousin still loves to draw, though.

Karen said...

For my own part, however, I think it might be fun to attend a Klingon mass. Once, anyway.

Maybe, but I wouldn't partake of the sacrament; there'd be blood wine!

Karen said...

OT: Zeno, I did notice there was a magnitude 2.2 earthquake in the Central Valley between Porterville and Bakersfield on 11/26. That wasn't you and your dad arguing, was it?

Kathie said...

"...there'd be blood wine!"

Does that mean vegetarian Catholics abstain from wafers and wine? Can alcoholic Catholics opt out for unfermented grape juice?

Has anyone ever assayed the wafers and wine to determine whether they in fact have turned into flesh and blood?

Zeno said...

Karen: Only 2.2? Hardly!Our arguments are never less than a 3.