In November, the bishops of the United States will gather in Washington, D.C., as they always do, to talk things over, drag their feet on the latest Vatican directive, and issue, in turn, directives that their own flock can ignore.
In honor of that gathering, let's play a game.
In an election year, one of the activities people like to waste their time with are games of imagination like this:
If you were running the debate, what would you ask the candidates?
What would you do if you were elected president?
What do you think the priorities for the next administration should be?
Inspired by that spirit, let's play a similar game: First you have to magnify your own existence by a factor of more than two hundred, and then you have to ask:
What if you were the entire National Conference of Catholic Bishops?
As I pondered the question myself, I was tempted to lower the imaginary episcopal boom on any of my now well-practiced peeves: schmaltzy music, vacuous catechetical texts and Catholics seeking truth in every book in the library except the ones labeled "Catholic."
But then it hit me. Let's see what you think.
What if the bishops made one brief, quite simple declaration. Every priest, lay minister, parish and school employee, musician and liturgist would be bound by it. Every Catholic in this waning year of Jubilee and beyond would be asked to read it, ponder it, and take it very, very seriously. Here goes:
In celebration of the 2,000 anniversary (sort of) of the birth of our Savior, every moment of every celebration of the Eucharist will be devoted to a single purpose: Prayer.
You're unimpressed, I can tell. After all, the Mass is prayer. Everyone knows that, right? Right. Been to Mass lately?
If you're like most Catholics I know, you can cope with your various doctrinal doubts. You've adapted to mystery and walk in the faith that if Jesus said He'd remain with the church, he meant it, no matter how illogical the whole thing can seem sometimes.
There's one little thing, though, that gives you pause. It's what puts lead in your feet on Sunday morning. It's the fear that creeps into your heart as you pull in the church parking lot and think, alhtough you're not really sure, that what you're seeing through the front door of the church just might be - balloons.
What are they going to do to us this morning?
Yes, on paper and even ontologically, Mass is prayer, of course. And in its essence, no matter what we do to it, it's prayer, and the saving grace of Jesus is there for us through Word and Sacrament.
No matter what. Repeat after me - No matter what.
Now. Just imagine. What if that wonderful directive I dreamed up actually did come down next week, and every Catholic in the land in charge looked at it, read it, and - instead of writing long articles in America magazine clucking how once more the bishops have overstepped their bounds - said instead, "Okay. Sure thing. Let's do it."
The change on both ends would be startling.
Liturgical planners would trust that the people in the pews were, in fact, praying, so they wouldn't feel the need anymore to dream up additions to the liturgy that they think will "make them see" or "make Mass more meaningful," force community, or manipulate emotions. god would be trusted to do His work.
Banal and unsingable music would disappear instantly, since we'd all see that precious little of it contributes to a prayerful spirit.
And get this -- no more music about us - about being gathered in, about being the light of the world, or just really, really special. Since we've all remembered that it's prayer we're about, we'd make sure our music would actually get back to concerning itself with God.
Just think: (and this one gives me goosebumps of glee) You'd never, ever, have to hear applause at Mass again.
I wouldn't be surprised if homilies got shorter while their content level actually improved, since more homilists would spend more time praying over the words, cognizant of the responsibility, not to be funny or smart or even liked, but to help listeners engage their own struggles with the Word they've heard and the Jesus they're about the receive. And the really bad homilists would finally admit the fact, and just be quiet, sit down, and pray with the rest of us.
Remember, we're praying here. That's all we're doing at Mass for the next year. So, no money talk at all. Even if the roof's collapsing, no nt a word. No membership appeals for the Knights, no Scout recognition, no kids in costumes advertising the school play to a captive audience.
The change would be just as startling for those of us inthe pews. We'd be praying, so we wouldn't have a second for anything else.
No time to judge what other people are wearing, or those whom our exalted spirits deem unworthy to receive (or give) Communion. No evil eyes cast toward young parents valiantly struggling with fretful children.
Nope. We'd all have to pray. Even the cynics. We'd have to pray, too.
Hey -- I can dream, can't I?