1. The Priests' Liturgies

This is the first of a series of 6 posts.

Why Guatemala? The Catholic Church there has lost 30 to 40% of its faithful within the last two generations–much like in the U.S. Moreover, in the number of priests and parishes, the archdiocese of Guatemala is about the size of half that of Brooklyn, NY.; hence gettingto know the churches in Guatemala City should be no more difficult than knowing half the churches of the diocese of Brooklyn.

Guatemala City is divided into nineteen zones; I started visiting churches in zone one and continued to zone nineteen, skipping a church here and there when there were too many in one zone, until I reached a total of fifty. Similarly in the U.S. I visited fifty churches starting from one point in the New York Metropolitan area and moving further away from that point until I reached fifty churches with usable homilies. No claim of statistical representativity is made here, except that a selection of fifty out of the seventy-two parishes in Guatemala City is likely to be somewhat representative.

Before Vatican II, the Sunday Masses were usually silent "low Masses" or  "high Masses" in Latin. All this changed in the 1970s. The Notre Dame Study of Parish Life in the early 1980s was designed to evaluated, among other things, the progress made since Vatican II in the participation of the faithful in the Mass. Like the Notre Dame study, I will divide the parishes according to the level of participation of the assembly, from little or no participation to full participation. Out of the hundred liturgies observed:

    7 in the U. S. and 17 in Guatemala were classified as priests' liturgies . . . . . . . . or 24%
   43. . . . . . . . . . . . 19. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . as ministers' liturgies . . . . . . or 62%
    0. . . . . . . . . . . . . 14. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . as assembly celebrations . . . or 14%

The analysis of Sunday liturgies according to levels of participation is related, besides its emphasis since Vatican II, to the central sociological thesis that people join a church for fellowship rather than doctrine. Stark and Brainbridge (The Future of Religion : Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation, 1985)  have documented statistically the importance of networks in recruiting new members. Social psychologists have long ago (e.g. Maslow and Erikson) proclaimed the social dimension of human development, as if the social needs were as important as food and shelter. Finally, if in Christianity "love thy neighbor" is as important as the love of God, one would expect fellowship, community, or a sense of belonging to be of primary importance.

We can relate the importance of belonging to the three types of Sunday Masses. In a priest's liturgy, there is little or no participation of the faithful who, besides, are likely to be spread out in the church; such "low Masses" are mainly cultic performances with little or no fellowship. The same is true in ministers' liturgies, as the assembly tends to attend passively the cultic performance of choir, cantor, lectors and musicians, their only (yet important) contribution being their financial offering. In the third category, the assembly liturgies, there is participation in singing and prayer, and a sense of belonging.

I will present separately the priests' masses, the ministers' Masses and the assembly celebrations. Let us begin with the first today–the rest, later.

1. The priests' liturgies

Let us begin with the American sample. An example of a priest's liturgy would be a low Mass said during the week when all the action is performed by the celebrant with little or no input from the faithful, usually spread out throughout the church. Let us look at such a liturgy aired on a Catholic TV channel. Typically such TV Masses last exactly thirty minutes, as they are broadcast during the week in thirty minute time slots. One major characteristic is the apparent absence of assembly. At the Mass I recorded, at no point did the camera show images of the faithful. I could count the number of people receiving communion and, knowing the seating capacity of the cathedral from where the Mass was took place, I could estimate that the church was about 90% empty. Most faithful were seniors. A second major characteristic was the efficiency or perfunctory nature of the performance: the Gloria was skipped; there was no Responsorial Psalm, and no recitation of the Creed, apparently for expediency. The homily was performed in three and a half minutes. The liturgy was centered on the recitation, in loud and clear voice, of the Eucharistic prayer by the priest. The kiss of peace was reduced to a hand shake between the priest and his acolyte. Because no television broadcast of a low Mass can be totally silent, there was some singing by a cantor accompanied by organ music, and during the Offertory and the Communion there was an organ recital. The Mass was completed in 29 minutes, that is, about 20 minutes for the Mass, five minutes for the distribution of the communion, three and a half for the homily, and another minute or two for the entrance and the exit.

There are seven such priest's liturgies in my American sample but describing three or four should suffice. The first one took place in an Italian neighborhood. It had no acolytes, no altar server, no choir, no instrumental music, and little or no singing. The church was 80 to 90% empty; there were 25 people present at the beginning, and about 15 more joined later. There was no processional entrance, as the priest went directly from the sacristy to the altar. His prayers were usually inaudible, accompanied by constant background noise from children and the assembly. The priest recited the Gloria with only feeble voice participation of the faithful. The homily lasted four and a half minutes.

A second priest-centered liturgy took place in a mixed ethnic town, with a strong Spanish-American presence in the parish. The church was 85-90% empty, with mainly seniors present. The Mass was said by an older priest. The only singing was done by a cantor on the balcony with organ accompaniment. One special characteristic of this church was its bad sound system: I could only understand a few words here and there in the two readings. The gospel reading was no better: although I knew that it was the story of Emmaus, I could hardly recognize it because the priest was yelling into the microphone in front a nearly empty church. At one point I thought the liturgy was a funeral service: there were six candles, three on each side of a square box covered with white linen, which actually was the altar. No, it was not a funeral, although it sounded like one. The homily was totally inaudible.

The Mass at the third church took place on Pentecost day. The church was about 30 or 35% full, with people taking seats as far as possible from the altar, either in the back of the church or at the end of each pew for easier exit. There was no acolyte, no choir, only a lector fulfilling various sub-deaconal roles. Before the Mass, the priest waited for about ten minutes in the back of the church without making contact with the faithful coming in. The recitation of the Kyrie and Gloria was functional. The priest read the "collect" from the Missal in a perfunctory way like reading an announcement from the parish bulletin. The scripture readings were equally functional, without effort to be understood or eye contact with the assembly. The Responsorial was sung by an invisible cantor on the balcony; he sang in dialogue with himself as the organ took the place and role of the assembly. The homily lasted five and a half minutes; some of it was inaudible because of a crying baby. In short, on this day of Pentecost, the liturgy was perfunctory and the attendance functional, as the assembly consisted mainly of seniors spread out throughout the church showing little or no participation. As in all or most priests' liturgies, the Mass could have been said without the people: a Mass is a Mass, and only one acolyte is needed.

The three liturgies described above took place on Saturday or Sunday evenings but there are also such priests' Masses on Sunday mornings. At the beginning of the 11:30 Sunday Mass, there were only 18 people present. The Mass began 15 minutes late, as the priest waited in the back of the church for more people to come. The faithful were spread out, with only two people on the right side of the church, one in the front and the other in the back. Another twenty came later, making the church then only 90% empty. There was a choir of two or three on the balcony but nobody sang in the assembly, not even the priest. The homily lasted twelve minutes but developed no main idea. Why would people come? Half the people arrived late, as if trying to avoid the homily.

In the Guatemalan sample seventeen Masses are classified as priests' liturgies. Most people in Guatemala belong to the lower class, especially the indigenous Mayas, who are accustomed to submission and silence, not active participation.  Let me describe briefly a few of these Masses.

In one, there were no acolytes and no lector, only a cantor serving as organist and lector; only 15 people were present at the beginning, five more joined during or after the homily. The priest's prayers, the readings, and the homily were generally inaudible. Another small church was more than half full, about 60 people in all for a parish of 25,000 inhabitants. There was no entrance procession, no cantor, no singing; it was a minimal Mass: it took only four minutes from beginning to the first reading. At another church located between two busy streets, there was constant overpowering noise from dilapidated buses and trucks passing by; the noise came in through doors left wide open. The two readings were inaudible because the lectors did not speak loud enough to overcome the background noise; the priest in his eighties was inaudible and powerless because he suffered from a speech impediment which allowed him to say only two or three words at a time. Another assembly, consisting of 25 people and 15 more at the offertory, was the anniversary Mass for a deceased: men wore black jackets and women conservative dresses; the Mass served a social function more than a religious one; there was no participation besides the singing of the cantor and the music of the organ.

Another church on Sunday was 10% full at the beginning but 70% by the offertory; for his homily the priest sat down at the point furthest away from the entrance and the people; he spoke in a soft monotonous tone, like speaking to children sitting at his feet. Another Sunday evening Mass took place two hours before the parish procession. In front of the church there were about 20 stands preparing food for the crowds to come; the noise of their gasoline engine generators pervaded the church whose doors were left wide open; most of the service was inaudible. At another church, the priest spoke for fifty out of the first sixty minutes of Mass time; the church was 90% empty at the beginning, filling up to 50% by the end of the homily. At one church built at street level, a friendly dog walked down the main aisle, then gently turned around and left. At another, there were five or six small children running around like on a playground; no one said anything; before reading the gospel, the celebrant stopped to send the cantor-organist to tell the mothers to keep their noisy kids quiet. Finally here is my last example to summarize the various aspects of this type of Masses. Choir singing began at 11:10 for the entrance procession, but stopped when the priest did not show up. He arrived late, but went straight from the sacristy to the altar without music. It took him only five minutes to rush through the liturgy of the Word, but spent fifteen minutes preaching on the opposition between "to have" and "to be;" "religion is an anthropological dimension of all societies... The kingdom is something bigger than religion." The church was 90% empty at the beginning, but half full by the end of the homily.

Why so little participation? You can blame the people, but in these empty churches the celebrant had the option of inviting the scattered faithful around the altar, thus creating a sense of community. This never happened in my sample.

Out of 100 liturgies, about one in four was of this type. You may say: not in my parish! – Sure not! Have you visited 100 liturgies? - In any case, my initial question was: will a church-shopper come back after their first visit as described above? I leave it up to you to decide.