Is Mass Supposed to Be Entertaining?

One argument you hear a lot of in traditionalist and “reform of the reform” liturgical circles is that going to mass isn’t supposed to be entertaining. You’re supposed to go to mass to be edified, to be in the presence of god in the Eucharist, to receive god’s graces, to fulfill your Sunday requirement, to worship god, but not to be “entertained.”

Even when I was orthodox, I thought that the “mass isn’t supposed to be entertaining” line was odd, since I found the Tridentine Latin Mass (TLM) to be very entertaining. The TLM, even during a low mass, provides the kind of color, pomp, and ceremony that you just don’t see everyday, especially in modern American society, where the “default” form of Christianity is a sort of low church evangelicalism. If you’re that rare bird who likes early music and pageantry (like me), then the TLM is as entertaining as a rock or rap concert might be to the average person. While many devotees of the TLM would insist that they prefer the extraordinary form because it’s more reverent, I think they must derive some kind of aesthetic enjoyment from it as well, a sense of the sublime that they can’t get when they attend the vernacular mass. It’s no coincidence that people who attend the TLM often speak about how it evokes feelings of “Truth,” “Beauty,” and other Platonic Ideals. A TLM may not be entertaining in the same way as watching TV or playing video games, but it wouldn’t have such a devoted following if all those traditionalists weren’t enjoying themselves on some level.

I think that the reason why so many people in the Catholic blogosphere take offense to the idea of “guitar masses” is that they mix the sacred and the profane. According to this view, what happens in mass should stay in mass, and what happens out on the street should stay in the street. Although guitar-like instruments have existed for hundreds of years in the West, they were never used for liturgical purposes until the last forty years or so, because they were seen as “vulgar” in the sense of being common. Not the sort of instrument you’d want during the holy sacrifice of the mass, in other words.  Even in the black church, you see these same kinds of controversies over what kinds of music is appropriate for Sunday services; as in white churches/denominations, some black churches only like old hymns, some churches refuse to have drums, other use hip hop music, etc. Fifty or sixty years ago, black artists had to either sing gospel or sing secular music (e.g., the blues, R&B, rock and roll); you couldn’t do both. Those artists that tried to have a foot in both worlds had to do so under stage names, as in the case of Sam Cooke, who got his start as a gospel singer and tried to moonlight as a secular performer under the pseudonym “Dale Cook” (it didn’t work).

Going back to the example of the TLM, it should be clear that the way the TLM is done today by a handful of hardcore devotees is not the way that it would have appeared back in the pre-Vatican II period when it was the liturgical norm for the Roman rite. One of the big complaints about the pre-Vatican II mass that I hear from older people is that they said that it was rushed affair, essentially a dialogue between the priest and god, while the laity sat in the pews saying the rosary or daydreaming. I used to scoff at such things, because the Latin Mass parish I attended was nothing like that; the priest may have been doing most of the work, but you as a lay person definitely felt like you were a part of the mass. Then I saw JFK’s funeral mass on CSPAN a couple of years ago, and I was surprised that it was pretty much as the old folks said: a hasty, private conversation between the priest and god, with the laity just kind of there:

Granted, it’s not fifteen minutes (it is a funeral mass for a head of state, after all), but even looking at this blurry footage I could tell that it was really different from the TLMs that I’ve personally attended. I think the difference is that the TLMs performed today are demanded by self-selected communities of “serious Catholics” who have a desire to know the significance of every gesture, vestment, and word used in the mass.  Back in 1963, there was no expectation that the laity would necessarily understand everything that was happening in the mass, or even that they would need to; the point was that that they were showing up and being socialized into a Catholic community. This is why everyone from age six to eighty-six at a modern TLM will have their nose in a hand missal, but almost no one in the clip posted above does.

After a certain amount of time passes, almost all types of music become “classical,” regardless of whether it was considered “sacred” or “profane” at the time it was originally composed. Four hundred years from now, I expect that the music of Michael Jackson and the Beatles will be considered “high art” in the same way that medieval love songs are today, and there will be symphony halls playing the music of “Madonna during her Material Girl stage” during that far off future time as well. I think that even the detested modern hymns that get so much grief from traditionalists and “reform of the reform” adherents will also be considered “classical,” not because of their content, but because of their age. Or maybe the Catholic church of the far future will have its own set of hymns and another liturgical form that we can’t imagine at this point in time. Regardless, I believe that the Catholics of 2415 will still be complaining about music and liturgy, and how much better it used to be in 2380, before society went to hell in a hand basket.