Oh, Grow Up!

Note: I received a startling volume of responses to this column, which appeared in Our Sunday Visitor's June 2 issue. Some were negative, but the vast majority were positive and most of those letters began with a single word: AMEN!

The negative letters argued that it was childish for people to not sing during Mass, so they deserved to be treated like children. I imagine those people are music ministers.

But the positive letters came with their own stories. One man wrote that a friend of his suggested to his parish's DRE that they have an adult study group focusing on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The lay minister disagreed, saying the Catechism was above the congregation's head. The man voicing the suggestion had a Ph.D,and the parish was filled with others holding graduate degrees. My immediate thought was that the DRE was unwilling to lead such a study because the Catechism was above HIS head.

Another lady wrote that the music minister in her parish had told the congregation that if they didn't sing during Mass, they'd be committing a sin. It reminded me of the priest in a former parish of mine who told the congregation on "Ministry Sunday" that anyone who didn't stop by the tables put out by the various parish ministries on that day, "may not consider yourself a Catholic Christian."

See what you think.

During the Sassy Seventies, we churchy lay folk often voiced a battle cry to the Powers that Were, declaring that the “pray, pay and obey” era was dead in the water and it was time to let us take charge.

Stop treating us like children, we said. We’re baptized, we’re anointed priest, prophet and king, we’re ready to stand tall in the sanctuary and cash a paycheck from the church. Treat us, if it’s not too much trouble, like the adults that we are.

There was nothing wrong with that, of course, although I sincerely doubt that lay Catholics of the pre-Vatican II era were as infantalized as we thought.

Hillaire Belloc? Frank Sheed? Maisie Ward? Jacques Maritain? Dorothy Day? G.K. Chesterton? These folks provided the intellectual and spiritual core of early to mid-twentieth century Catholicism, and there’s not a cleric among them. In fact, there were few of the ordained who even came close to the influence of these lay people during that time: Popes, naturally, plus Thomas Merton, Teilhard de Chardin and Fulton Sheen would be in that select, and far smaller group.

But we didn’t know about that in the seventies, because we were so busy listening to Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx tell us how to stake our claim as Baptized Adult Catholic Christians in the Community of Faith and reading Charles Curran’s instructions for making moral decisions as those same Baptized Adult Catholic Christians.

Did I mention that all of those guys are priests?


I’ll bet you’re now expecting me to shower a dose of scorn on the Catholic Adult Liberation Movement. No way. I’m all for it. In fact, I even have some suggestions on how we can actually, finally get serious about it.

First off, all music ministers should immediately stop confusing churches with kindegarten classrooms.

I’ve recently attended a parish in which the undoubtedly well-meaning music minister has determined, by God, that this congregation is going to sing. Unfortunately, she’s also decided that the way to accomplish this mission is to directly command us to cooperate before every hymn. And if she doesn’t order, she cajoles, as if we’re children grimacing at big nasty plates of lima beans.

Which, in fact, we may be. Maybe we’re not singing because we’re insulted by lyrics that take us closer to summer camp that the Gates of Heaven. Maybe we’re unable to sing because we’re frozen in horror by the memories of first grade that wash over us every time that voice barks, “Don’t be afraid! Go ahead and sing out on this one!”

Music ministers aren’t alone in their treatment of congregations as little more than mobs of stubborn children. I once knew a priest who routinely ordered congregations to repeat their responses when they weren’t loud or enthusiastic enough for his pleasure. He’d cup his hand to his ear and raise his eyebrows. “You can do better than that!” he’d scold.

The second step in my Let Grown-Ups be Grown-Ups Campaign involves the whole issue of control, particularly of information.

We see it all the time: parish and diocesean employees, lay, ordained and professed, armed with staff titles and continuing education credits, treating the rest of us as if we’re little ones with delicate ears, not quite ready to know the whole truth about the Facts of Life or just what happened to Aunt Regina.

When the Catechism of the Catholic Church was first issued years ago, I was running about in moderately high catechetical circles. Hardly anyone at any of the meetings I attended thought it was a good idea for lay people to read the Catechism, and the prospect of it left them were petrified. They never saw the contradiction in their cries for respect for the Catholic adult and their insistence that the Catechism wasn’t really for the masses, but for the experts who would interpret it for them.

“We have to be careful who gets their hands on it.” That’s an actual quote from an actual meeting, made by, believe it or not, an actual bishop. Why were they so afraid? I’ll let you figure that one out.

So there you have it.: if you really believe Catholic adults deserve to be treated as adults, good for you. Then stop playing martinet schoolteacher during Mass, stop singing kiddie songs during the liturgy, cease and desist from “interpreting” (aka glossing over) Church teaching by way of your own ideological agenda and (by the way) stop preaching platitude-filled, no-chewing-required pap.

That, my fellow adults, would be an excellent start, don’t you think?

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