My parish church has been hijacked. What once was a place of quiet devotion with the exception of a decade or so of banal Saturday evening guitar Masses is now a Broadway-musical venue.
In yet another misguided Roman Catholic strategy to bring in the kids and the adults who never stopped thinking like kids, my former mid-Michigan parish is hosting “The Cross and the Light” nondenominational multimedia extravaganza. In the church the pews will be rocking. All the altar’s a stage, doncha know. Rock’n’roll!
To quote Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” libretto: “Don’t you get me wrong,” I enjoy pop and rock music, and have been known to write and speak extensively on both genres in this real estate and elsewhere. Furthermore, you couldn’t grow up Roman Catholic in the 1970s without a trusty copy of “Godspell” and the aforementioned Rice collaboration near the turntable in catechism classes.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the “JCS” live network performance on Easter Sunday. In fact, I thought it rocked out magnificently. But, then, I watched it on television in my living room. Afterwards, I even watched the “Mr. Show” parody, “Jeepers Creepers Semi-Star.”
Heck, I’ll even go so far as to admit I was president of my Catholic high-school student council. When tasked to plan the first student Mass of the school year in 1976, I brought in my friend’s stereo and set it up in the back, speakers aimed toward the altar. During the processional, Rev. John and I walked up the center aisle while George Harrison and Eric Clapton tag-teamed their guitars on “My Sweet Lord.”
As much as I admired John, he wasn’t much for adult supervision, even allowing me to pepper the remainder of the Mass with Harrison’s “What Is Life,” Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord,” and the Guess Who’s “Share the Land.” It was John’s copy of Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” that I borrowed. I had wanted to use “The Concert for Bangladesh” version of “My Sweet Lord,” but John insisted on the studio version instead.
Suffice it to say, however, Sister Euphemia was aghast. When I matured more fully a few years later, I was inclined to agree with her. The Mass wasn’t supposed to be about celebrating what I assumed was my impeccable but hardly eclectic musical tastes in the late 1970s. Perhaps not surprisingly, poor faith formation was pervasive in that era. Someone wrote a “hep-cat” version of the Bible titled “God Is for Real, Man” that a grade-school nun taught from.
Even “Kumbaya” became a staple of those guitar Masses disparaged above. Cute girls sporting the latest leg-warmer chic performed the liturgical boogie. Don’t even get me started on other apparel worn to Mass—short shorts, blue jeans, and even sweatpants are today the norm rather than the exception. Perhaps some think athletic and work clothing are appropriate when sweatin’ to the sacraments. Aye carumba! Someone in the ‘70s slipped something illicit in the chalice, and the flashbacks today are fierce.
Now casual-slob couture has invaded the altar. “The Cross and the Light” program features attractive and presumably talented young performers wearing blue jeans, T-shirts, and ball caps. Say what you will about the blue jeans and T-shirts—ball caps? Worn in church? On the altar from whence my grandparents, father, aunts, uncles, and numerous friends were granted their respective final blessings and I was confirmed? Heaven forfend.
Shouldn’t the altar be where priests draw a distinct line between secular, ecumenical, and Roman Catholic cultures? Last time I checked, the altar of a Catholic church was specifically the domain of sacramental activities in the service of a sit-down, stand-up, or kneel meal. Now nondenominational worship is ordered like takeout and delivered to the altar itself rather than round back or left at the vestibule for the congregation’s synchronized-dance consumption.
Laser-light shows, video screens, thumpa-thumpa bass lines and lyrics randomly mentioning God and Jesus emotionally sung by Bono and Pentatonix wannabes sort of fall under the rubric of megachurches, do they not? It’s fine if you choose to attend a megachurch. I, on the other hand, do not. This cradle Catholic who spent more than his fair share of young adulthood wandering in the wilderness craves the real RC deal on altars over the boom-boom visuals, bang-bang beats, and theatrical preening of what passes elsewhere as contemporary worship.
As far as I know, no art museum installation has placed Michelangelo’s “Pieta” next to religious art by, say, Pablo Picasso. Works by both artists are fine, and some are even sublime, but would clash significantly in proximity. What are necessary to make Catholicism relevant to today’s young people aren’t theatrics and rock-show pyrotechnics but better Catholic spiritual formation and intellectual instruction.
By all means, enjoy “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Cross and the Light” elsewhere. Just not in RC churches and, for heaven’s sake, certainly not on the altar.