Today, I want to broach a controversial topic, knowing full well that I may cause a ruckus. I want to talk about masculinity and the liturgy. (Fair warning: This is going to be long.)
I will start with a few caveats. First, I do not believe the liturgy should ever be a controversial issue. It shouldn’t be a matter of politics, factions, personal preference, or cultural fads. But sadly, many have made the liturgy their personal plaything, making these conversations all but impossible to avoid.
Second, all of the following opinions are just that—opinions. I am an uneducated layman. I am not a theologian or a liturgical scholar. If you want an in depth treatment of the liturgy, read Pope Benedict’s “Spirit of the Liturgy.” That said, I am a man, and I want to share my personal observations on why I believe the liturgy is now less masculine.
Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, I attend the Latin mass. I am not a sedevacantist, nor do I believe the Novus Ordo mass is somehow invalid, making those who attend it from choice or necessity inferior Catholics. I love Pope Francis, I love our priests, and I love the Catholic Church. All right, onto the issues.
I want to begin by sharing a few of my experiences as a convert. On the final stages of my road to Rome, I spent a good deal of time with high church Anglo-Catholics, regularly attending liturgies at a seminary and church near my home. These Anglicans took the liturgy seriously, and their services were conducted reverently and beautifully.
In fact, their services looked so Catholic that experiencing them led me to study further exactly why Anglicans weren’t Catholic anymore. The rest of the story is beyond the scope of this post, but the point is, I came into Catholicism with an experience of very reverent and dignified liturgy, kneeling to receive communion, and an atmosphere of sacredness.
Eventually, after months of studying Catholic teaching, I worked up the courage to attend a Catholic mass. I had no idea what a mass looked like, but at the very least, I expected it to be more beautiful and reverent than the Anglican liturgy. After all, the Catholics had the body, blood, soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, while Anglicans did not have the real thing.
One Sunday, my wife and I slipped in the door of a beautiful, Spanish style parish near our home. What followed was eye opening, and frankly, a bit disappointing. The music was tacky at best—a piano and guitar playing shallow ditties. The altar was stripped and bare. Where there was once an incredible high altar (there was a painting of it in the back of the Church), there was now a bizarre piece of glass with swirling colors. The priests vestments looked like a pinstriped sheet. Even the language of the Mass was far from sacral—it was almost on a kindergarten level. When it came time for the parishioners to receive communion, a number of laymen came forward to distribute it, and it was received standing and in the hand.
All of this was in stark contrast to the sacredness I had experienced in the conservative Anglican churches I had attended. In this instance, the Anglicans literally out catholiced the Catholics.
This was hard for me to digest. Intellectually, I knew how powerful the mass was from my studies of Catholic doctrine. Yet, when I encountered it first hand, it was far from a transcendent experience. Rather, it was trite and banal. A few months after we were confirmed, my wife and I were attending a Latin mass.
Where are the men?
An Irish Catholic friend has told me that his grandfather, who was a coal miner, would rise well before dawn to attend 5:00 am mass with his fellow miners. These men took the faith seriously and they loved the mass. They also weren’t unique. Parishes used to be packed with men who saw the mass as something masculine, inspiring, and something worth sacrificing time for.
A few decades later, most parish masses are dominated by women. The lectors are women, the cantors are women, the extraordinary ministers are predominantly women, and the altar servers are often girls. Other than the priest, there are hardly any men involved in the liturgy.
This is not to denigrate women. The most glorious creature God ever made is a woman. I also do not mean to say there are no men involved in parish life, because this is not the case. I am referring specifically to the liturgy.
Why is this? I am not a liturgical scholar, and I can’t propose to provide a precise diagnosis. Many others, including Pope Benedict, have done a fine job of that. Instead, I will share 7 reasons I think men no longer love the mass.
1. Lack of order – In the Extraordinay form, there are few surprises in the liturgy. While there are occasional seasonal changes, it follows a set pattern that can be learned easily. The actions of the priest and acolytes are regimented and orderly, and the mass looks essentially identical no matter where you go. In short, the Extraordinary form is rigid, disciplined, and almost militaristic in its precision.
In contrast, the Novus Ordo mass is much more fluid. The priest can choose a number of different Eucharistic prayers, the penitential rite at the beginning of mass can be chosen at the discretion of the priest, welcoming remarks and announcements are commonplace during the opening and closing prayers. Extraordinary ministers are not required, but they are almost always there, even if there are only 10 people at a daily mass.
The Novus Ordo can be beautiful and transcendent, or it can be incredibly poor. The point is, you just don’t know what to expect. The difference between the two forms of the mass is really the difference between objectivity and subjectivity.
2. No longer exclusively for men – Radical feminism has ensured that there are almost no roles left that are exclusively for men. Whereas men and women used to have distinct and exclusive roles, the lines have now been blurred.
Sadly, this blurring has crept into the liturgy.
Being an altar boy used to be a high privilege. It was even considered a potential first step on the path to the priesthood. Even if a boy didn’t become a priest, he would have a unique opportunity to see the dignity and masculinity of the priesthood firsthand.
Now, girls can be altar servers, and boys aren’t as interested. It’s like adding girls to the football team—it saps the masculinity right out of it. While it may be hard for women to understand, exclusively male roles are a healthy thing for boys. Quite literally, boys need to be boys, and they need to learn from masculine men.
In addition to altar girls, the distinctive role of the priest—who is, of course a man—has been diluted by the introduction of laypeople into the liturgy. The very fact that a woman can now distribute communion or read the Epistle immediately makes the liturgy less masculine.
You could argue that the priesthood is still exclusively for men, and that’s true. But if you start distributing the priestly duties to laypeople, it doesn’t really matter if women can’t be priests. They can still do the priest’s job.
3. Sentimental music – The music at most parishes is abysmal. It is more suitable for a Greenpeace rally than the church of God. It is sickly sweet and sentimental fluff that no man in his right mind would want to sing. The lyrics are all about our feelings, and they use vague ambiguities to describe our relationship with God. Of course, a growing number or parishes are working to change that, but the majority are still stuck in the doldrums.
I don’t mention music just to nitpick. Music has everything to do with the atmosphere of the mass. A communion hymn set to a tune that sounds similar to, “Won’t you be my neighbor,” from Mr. Rogers is going to trivialize the source and summit of the Catholic life.
On the contrary, beautiful, dignified, ancient, and masculine music like Gregorian chant (the music Vatican II actually called for) sets a solemn tone that inspires the lifting of the mind and heart to God.
4. The priest faces the people – Frankly, most people don’t think the priest facing the people is a big deal. Even if it is, it doesn’t have much to do with masculinity, right? Wrong. It has a lot to do with it.
When the priest faces the same direction as the people (ad orientem), he is very clearly leading them before the throne of God. He is the representative of the people of God before an awesome and objective reality. He stands in the gap, offering sacrifices for us and for our sins—something we cannot do on our own. He is the captain, leading us toward heaven.
Furthermore, the entire congregation is oriented toward someone: Jesus Christ present in the tabernacle. Again, it is very clear who the real audience of the mass is (hint: it isn’t us). When the priest faces the people (versus populum), however, it turns the whole mass inward, toward us, and toward our subjective feelings and experience of God. It turns an objective and transcendent reality into a self-referential act.
The priest, rather than courageously and humbly standing before God, becomes a performer for our observation. Our sense of participation is wholly dependent on whether or not we can see what is going on. The mass is no longer a march toward heaven, it is solely about us and our feeling of community and belonging.
Turning the chief player in the mass, the representative of Jesus Christ, toward the people is like having a battalion commander march into battle backwards. It makes no sense. It reorients the action toward an object it was never intended for.
5. The sense of ancientness is lost – Men love tradition. While women find their sense of community through shared conversation, men find it through shared action. Men would much rather have a shared battle cry (Hooah!) than have a conversation over a cup of tea. That is why men love fraternal orders and the camaraderie of the military.
The extraordinary form is all about ancient actions. I have a missal at home that contains pages from ancient manuscripts of the mass. In 900 a.d., the ordinary of the mass was almost identical to what it is now. When you become a priest of the old rite, you are literally entering a centuries old club with its own secret signs and actions. The role of the people, too, is largely unchanged.
There is a sense of participation with the Church through the ages that men need (and I would argue women need as well). As men, we need to know that the we are making the same genuflections that the great soldier-saint, St. Ignatius of Loyola, made. We want to be drawn upward into a reality larger and older than ourselves, like being drawn into a secret society.
While there is debate about whether or not it is an inherent problem with the Novus Ordo, the fact is, it does not have this sense of ancientness about it. Rather, change is the name of the game. Even the words Novus Ordo mean “new” order.
If you study the texts of the mass, you realize just how much has changed in the prayers. But even if the prayers were unchanged, the atmosphere of most parish masses is something new and innovative. Again, you never know quite what to expect. There is no sense of ancient or shared action. Some people hold hands during the Our Father, others don’t. Some shake hands and socialize during the sign of peace, others don’t.
Men don’t like this unpredictability. We crave order, and the more ancient the venerable traditions that shape our actions are, the better.
6. No more Latin – Like it or not, Latin is the language of the Church. It isn’t something to be scorned, and it isn’t the domain of a few extreme traditionalists. It is essential to who we are as Catholics.
And guess what, Latin sounds incredibly masculine when you hear it. It is strong and concrete in its cadences. “Credo in unum Deum.” “Omnipotens Deus.” “Adveniat Regnum Tuum.” Abolishing Latin from the mass was never the object of Vatican II. Read the documents. The mass that Vatican II called for was a “Latin” mass.
Besides that, it provides the ancientness I mentioned previously. It keeps the mass from being constantly revised and retranslated to keep up with the changing fads of the vernacular.
While it may seem strange and foreign at first, I think most men are drawn to the power of the Latin language. In a way, we want mass to feel foreign, like we are stepping into something special rather than common place. There is a healthy feeling of disorientation upon stepping into a sacred place, and Latin enhances that.
7. Sacrifice is downplayed – The mass is the sacrifice of Calvary, but sadly, that reality has been hidden from most Masses. Some parishes don’t even have a crucifix near the altar. Instead, the concept of a “community meal” has taken precedence.
This weakens the mass, the central reality of which is always the sacrifice of Christ, and seeing his once for all sacrifice re-presented inspires us to make sacrifices of our own. Men love the concept of sacrifice. We desperately want to be called to it. We don’t want a community meal. We can get that at the local pub.
Removing, or at least downplaying, the sacrificial element has driven men away from the mass.
Why it matters
You may be reading this and thinking that I am just ranting away and criticizing everything about the ordinary form of the mass and those who attend it. This simply isn’t true. I love the mass, and that is why I want it to be the best it can be, an action worthy of its Divine audience.
I took the time to write this post because I believe that transcendent liturgy isn’t an option. It is everything, and as the health of the liturgy goes, so goes the health of the Church.
The mass is literally the incarnation of the faith. Lex orandi, lex credendi. It is where the faith meets reality in our lives, and where we encounter firsthand the creed. And because of this, there is no more urgent need in the Church than a dramatic return to sacredness in the liturgy. The reason that 50% of Catholics don’t believe in the real presence is because the mass they attend doesn’t tell them about the real presence—not just through words, but through reverent and sacred actions.
Specifically relating to men, we can try programs, clubs, books, prayer, etc., but if the liturgy is weak and trite, men won’t love this beautiful reality. They will muddle through it and be half-heartedly engaged at best. Of course, men should go to mass anyway, but the point is, it won’t inspire us to holiness or great feats of sacrifice.
If we return to sacred and reverent liturgy, I guarantee we will see a new dynamism in the Church: increased conversions, more vocations, and men again taking the lead in matters of faith.
I’ve done enough talking. What do you think? Am I off base? Do you find the liturgy in most parishes masculine? Why or why not?