Sunday, March 26, 2006

Loud. Way too loud.

I was visiting the Montgomery Theater in downtown San Jose, California, yesterday afternoon to deliver some photos for an upcoming production of the Johann Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus. The Montgomery is a venerable old place at the south end of a plaza ringed by big hotels, the Tech Museum, and other spots the city fathers (oops, non-inclusive phrase! sorry!) would like you to visit and spend your money at. It's normally a fairly inviting spot, too, as urban spaces go.

However, it's also frequently used for rallies and outdoor concerts, and yesterday was such a day -- Mexican Heritage Day, I think. Unfortunately, outdoor concerts mean only one thing: loud -- really loud -- music. And loud -- sometimes really loud -- spectators.

The bandstand was almost a quarter of a mile away, but I could barely make a cell phone call outside the theater. I don't want to think what the decibel level was at the other end of the plaza. It wasn't helped by the two cars that were blocking traffic, a fifty feet from me, blowing their horns endlessly while waving huge Mexican flags at each other.

The problem is that popular culture firmly endorses the principle that in order for music to be good, it must be as loud as it's possible to make it. And if you're outside and want to hear your music, it's OK to you force anyone within a mile to listen to it too.

Nor will going inside a building always give you some quiet in which you might do something other than the Officially Sanctioned Loudness. I've been in the Montgomery during performances when a band is playing in the plaza, and whenever it's only dialogue from the stage, you hear, faintly, the whump-whump-BOOM, whump-whump-BOOM and the overamped singers from outside, ruining the effect the actors are trying so hard to achieve, and that the audience paid to experience.

Ah, well. Everything that is not forbidden is compulsory.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


One thing I've learned about falsehood: it seldom is a complete falsehood. Almost always, it has a good deal of truth mixed in with it, especially in the early going. But that's just the bait; the Deceiver tolerates it, in order to get us to believe that the hook isn't really a hook, the fishline isn't really a fishline -- and the frying pan isn't really a frying pan.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The AP poll on abortion

The new AP poll on abortion attitudes is out, and it's being trumpeted by my local paper (the San Jose Murky News) because it purports to show that the majority of Americans support most abortions for most reasons. Never mind that this result contradicts several other recent polls from CBS, Gallup, and Wirthlin (and that the all-important texts of the questions asked to respondents were "unavailable at press time". But I digress.

The real shocker for me was this:

Looking at other results from the new AP poll, two-thirds of white evangelicals said abortion should be illegal all or most of the time while 54 percent of Protestants agreed. Catholics were evenly split.
That is, the only church with an official worldwide policy against abortion can barely manage to influence the opinion of half its American membership. And who is responsible for seeing to it that the official policy is clearly and frequently explained to rank-and-file Catholics, to counter the daily drumbeat of pro-abortion propaganda they hear from news outlets? American bishops and priests.

Of course, not all are equally guilty. Some, like Vasa in Oregon and Chaput in Denver, are doing great work. Unfortunately, however, some of the worst, like Cardinals Mahony of Los Angeles and McCarrick of DC, are also in control of the largest and most influential dioceses. And too many parish priests, overworked and discouraged, would rather preach another homily on "God is love" than on the greatest social evil of our time.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ten words

I recently encountered a lullaby called "Slumber, My Darling" by Stephen Foster, and these lines struck me:

While others their revels keep,
I will watch over thee.

They struck me because, in ten words, they sum up the things that good parents do, and the sacrifices they make to do them. As they see many of their childless peers spending all their time and money on their own pleasures and advancement -- travel, undistracted education, possessions, careers, promotions, and the rest -- parents choose to conceive and bear children, make good homes for them, play with them, give up career advancement to keep from having to uproot them, worry over them, protect them, teach them, read to them, pour thousands of hours helping them grow up in every way, and then endure the pain of letting them go.

And yes, often, just quietly watch over them as they drift off to sleep.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

From the St. Ann Choir today during the noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas, Palo Alto, CA:

Orlando de Lassus, Ne Reminiscaris and Audi Benigne Conditor
Cristobal de Morales, Inter Vestibulum et Altare

At last, truth in advertising

Remember Jesus talking about not being able to serve both God and Mammon? If Mammon ever did some nice, truthful advertising, it would probably look like this, noted at White Around the Collar (scroll down to the March 1 posting). Very funny, in a sort of whistling-past-Gehenna sort of way...

Friday, March 03, 2006

Getting baptized here? Bring a snorkel!

At that church I wrote about in my post about acolyte training, I learned that they have plans to spend as much as $100,000 to install a huge baptistry in their sanctuary. How could you spend that much on a baptismal font, you ask? Ah, but this will be no mere font. It will be a pool, large and deep enough to allow full-immersion baptism -- which, I was told, has been mandated by our bishop. That is, all adult baptisms in our diocese are one day to be performed by submerging the poor catechumens completely, it seems.

I'm sure glad I was baptized in the bad old days, and as a child. A little water, poured with dignity and decorum over the forehead. I won't need to pretend I'm a Southern Baptist, getting dunked in the Chattahoochee.

Talk about an impediment to adult conversions! I don't know about you, but if I was a potential convert and heard that I had to endure this:

... I'd think again about the whole thing.

Staying in the boat

Catholics who prize fidelity to the Church's teachings have a lot to be angry and disappointed about these days, especially those of us who live in the United States. From the cover-up of priestly sexual abuse by some bishops, to the imposition of liturgical abuses by some of the same bishops, to the mandating of highly questionable sex-ed classes for Catholic school children by some of the same bishops again, it seems that there's something outrageous happening almost all the time.

The ever-present temptation is to get out, in one way or another. Get out of the Church and start going to one of those big Protestant churches, where admittedly sometimes you'll hear the Gospel preached far better, and more faithfully, than you did in your Catholic parish. Or get out of the Church and go defiantly Traditionalist with the St. Pius X folks, where at least you'll get the liturgy done reverently and solemnly, as it was before things started rolling downhill -- but not in communion with the rest of the Church.

The common thread, of course, is Getting Out. But I think that's exactly what Old Nick is hoping for: that our legitimate frustration will lead to our breaking away, so that the Body of Christ will be even more broken than it already was.

That's exactly what happened in the early sixteenth century. You think we have abuses now? Read up on it. There was plenty for ardent, sincere Christians to be outraged by back then. But when the Church didn't immediately respond with positive change, Luther and others let their zeal drive them into disastrous impatience: they said, "We won't wait any longer. We're breaking off to set up our own church, which, by the way, is the real Church."

That's not reform; that's rebellion. The Catholic Church used to call it that, too -- the Catholic history texts I read from in seventh and eighth grade did so. We're too polite for that nowadays, of course. But we called a spade a spade not too long ago.

Protestants, don't be insulted. Just accept your origins for what they were. The 'Reformers' had no intention to work humbly and slowly within the Church to effect real reform. That would have taken decades, maybe longer. That would have taken consummate humility and great personal sacrifice. They wanted action, and they wanted it now, in their lifetimes, so they could enjoy its supposed fruits. When they didn't get it, they Got Out.

That's a cautionary recollection for all of us who are discontented now. Let's not follow that terrible example, whose main fruit, five centuries later, is the spectacle of 40,000 denominations who all claim to have the truth.

Instead, let's follow this one from St. Theresa, via Fr. Robert Altier: [Update: this link to the website containing transcriptions of Fr. Altier's homilies no longer works. Fr. Altier has been silenced by his bishop, apparently for opposing too noticeably the very questionable Virtus sex-education program now being forced on Catholic families by the same bishops who betrayed them with thirty years of abuse cover-ups.]

Saint Therese, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, made the point so clearly and so simply when she was talking about the apostles when they were in the boat with Jesus, and Our Lord was sleeping in the bow. The water was sloshing over the top and the boat was being pushed about by the winds and the waves. The apostles, many of whom were fishermen, were afraid that the boat was going to sink. And she said simply, Do you really think the boat is going to sink if Jesus is in it? ... As long as you are in the boat, you have nothing to fear! As long as you are with Jesus, you are just fine. Do not try to showboat it and walk on the water or do something cute because you are going to be in trouble, but stay in the boat with Jesus. Keep your eye on Him. Do not worry about the winds and the waves; let it happen. It is not our problem. Let the Lord take care of that. Our task is to keep our eyes on Him, to pray, to live the life, to keep our focus on what is good and beautiful and excellent – and that is Jesus. If it seems like He is not answering and He is a million miles away when you come to pray then just let Him sleep and keep your eyes on Him.

That's mighty hard advice to follow, especially when the boat appears to be getting steered in the wrong direction by one of the Apostles (i.e., one of their successors). It's hard to trust that Christ will "wake up" (i.e., intervene) at just the right moment to right every wrong and dry every tear with His incomparable power. It's hard not to jump out, to drown in unbelief or to be "rescued" by another boat (but the wrong one).

But staying in the boat -- remaining in the Church and working quietly but ardently for what's right -- is our job. These are the times we we born in, and this is our work. Let's do it.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Acolyte school, then and now

I happened into a Catholic parish church a few weeks ago after Mass and found a small group of children, mostly girls, attending a class for acolytes, or altar servers, or whatever they call what used to be known as "altar boys."

It was barely controlled chaos. Kids crawling over the pews, talking, laughing, barely paying attention. (Remember, this was going on in the front pews, a few feet from the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament). The poor young woman teaching the class wasn't able to convey much because she was constantly interrupting herself to plead with the miscreants to stop, without more than a few seconds success each time. The miscreants were beyond help; the majority looked bored; the few serious ones looked angry and frustrated. The only topic she could cover during my 15 minutes there was how to hold the Bible so the priest could read it during Mass, including reassurances that if they held it upside down, no problem, the priest would turn it over for them.

Roaming down memory lane about 45 years, I recalled my altar boy classes at St. Mary's, a little parish in Fullerton, California. Our little bunch of third and fourth graders were taught our Latin (and the tiny bit of Greek in the Kyrie) outside at the school lunch tables on Saturday morning by the redoubtable Fr. O'Brien, straight from Dublin and strict as all get-out. Did you catch that about Latin? All the responses, including the daunting Confiteor, from memory. Third and fourth graders. And we all got it.

Needless to say, Fr. O'Brien didn't allow even the slightest irreverence while we were finally allowed inside to practice at the altar. After all, Jesus was there. And everyone knew that the sanctuary was only used for worship, and that worship was solemn and reverent.

By the lights of modern liturgists, we kids shouldn't have been able to do it. We shouldn't have had so much demanded from us. We shouldn't have wanted to do it. But we did. And I think we did because it was hard, but it was real; we were being allowed to take part in something big, something adult, something rightly awe-inspiring.

Contrasts: Being taught by a priest who demanded respect and attention, and behaved like he deserved it, vs. being taught by a harried young lay woman who begged for attention and respect and so got neither. Being taught the ancient traditions in the ancient languages, vs. being taught dumbed-down contemporary liturgy in Oprah-speak. Being allowed inside to the sacred space as a privilege, vs. using an already demeaned sanctuary as just another noisy classroom.

This parish church is one of three in a town of 70,000, and they're down to one Mass per Sunday. If they keep it up, they'll get down to zero. Soon.

A hidden treasure: the St. Ann Choir, Palo Alto

Since I often complain here about things that are wrong in the Catholic Church, I'm going to take a break from that and mention a wonderful thing that has been going on here in Palo Alto for many years: the St. Ann Choir.

Every Sunday and on all the major feast days since 1963, the St. Ann Choir -- about a dozen dedicated men and women, with personnel changing over the years -- has provided Gregorian chant and one or two Renaissance motets for a Mass in our town. For many years, that Mass was celebrated at St. Ann's Chapel, a modern but rather attractive church built by Clare Booth Luce for Stanford University students in the 1950s. When St. Ann's closed a few years ago (it was ultimately sold to the Anglican Province of Christ the King -- more about that another time), that Choir moved to St. Thomas Aquinas, a gorgeous 1902 wooden Gothic revival church near downtown.

The Choir probably wouldn't exist without the tireless work of William Mahrt, a professor in the music department at Stanford. He's there almost every Sunday to sing and conduct, and to play the recessional on the little pipe organ in the choir loft -- usually something by Bach, Buxtehude, or one of the other baroque masters.

Not only do we get the Introit, Gradual, and other parts of the Proper sung in Latin, there's a little Mass booklet for the congregation, customized for each week, with the neume notation of the Gloria, Credo, and Agnus Dei, which we're encouraged to join in on. Scripture readings and much of the rest of the Mass are chanted in English.

At the Offertory and Communion, the Choir sings motets from the Renaissance or late Middle Ages -- Dufay, Byrd, Palestrina, di Lasso, and so on. There's another little booklet with the words to their entire repertoire, in Latin and English, so we understand what's being sung.

What a treasure!

It's safe to say that if the St. Ann Choir hadn't been there when I decided to return to the Church, I would have had a much harder time getting as far as I have. Everywhere else in this very politically and religiously liberal area, I would have encountered Masses stripped of all beauty, all good music, not to mention all Latin. I guess I've gotten to share in quite an unusual blessing!