PARISH STRIFE IN NORTH CAROLINA
REFLECTS A WIDESPREAD DIVISION
In the late 1990s my family spent several days in Waynesville, North Carolina. Our accommodations were a comfortable bed & breakfast called the Herren House.
Waynesville is nestled in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains. It offers rural quiet with convenient access to the famous Biltmore Estate and the other tourist haunts of nearby Ashville.
These days, that quiet has been disturbed by a small civil war raging among parishioners of St. John the Evangelist, Waynesville’s only Catholic church. There is deep disagreement over the new pastor and some changes he’s made in parish organization, financial management, and that ever-predictable source of discord: liturgy.
The conservative Catholic website, ChurchMilitant.com, describes the situation as stubborn resistance on the part of a dissident parish faction because Fr. Christopher Riehl “doesn’t adequately channel the spirit of Vatican II.” CM suggests that…
“the complaints seem to boil down to an impression that Fr. Riehl doesn’t sufficiently adhere to a particularly modern interpretation of Vatican II. He’s typically referred to disparagingly as a ‘restorationist’ [someone seeking a return to older expressions of Catholicism].
“One of the specific issues listed by protesters [is] Fr. Riehl’s replacement of popular hymns with Gregorian chant ….
“Another alleged problem was Fr. Riehl’s replacement of the former lay-led Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults with a pastor-led program centered on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
About 20 percent of parish members appear to be actively engaged in protesting Fr. Riehl’s changes (how many others are silent but support the protest CM doesn’t say). Some people have taken to attending special Masses offered by a retired priest at an area retreat center. Others have suspended their Mass-going. Several have jumped ship completely, attending local Evangelical churches.
So far, the Bishop of Charlotte, Most Reverend Peter Jugis, in whose diocese Waynesville is located, seems to be standing by the pastor, despite a petition signed by some 140 parishioners. That may change, if the protest persists, news of it continues to spread, and parish revenues begin to feel the effects of member disaffection.
One can never be sure what goes on behind the scenes in church matters. Perhaps some arrangement is being made to restore peace at St. John’s. We can only hope.
Meanwhile, this situation illustrates a poignant little drama being played out in Catholic parishes around the country — if with somewhat less public visibility.
Since the pontificate of Benedict XVI, an effort to “reform the reform” of the Second Vatican Council has gained momentum. What’s referred to as the Neo-Traditional Movement seeks to re-Catholicize Catholic religious practice after decades of what it views as Protestantizing of worship, dumbing down of faith instruction, and a confusing overlap in the functions and responsibilities of priest and people.
The greatest success of the Neo-Trads has been the revision of language used in the Mass — introduced at Advent 2011 — followed closely by changes in liturgical music. This latter includes addition of sung antiphons, ritual responsory prayers and psalms that change every week and are often done in Latin.
While these adjustments had been in the works since the John Paul II era, it was the conservative predilections of Benedict XVI that made their imposition possible throughout the English-speaking Church. Many bishops resisted, but eventually bowed to heavy Vatican pressure. Acceptance among clergy and laity remains decidedly mixed.
I wrote a critique of the revised Mass language that appeared in New Oxford Review and was later reproduced on this blog. A commentary of mine on disagreements about liturgical music appeared in the priestly journal, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, last August.
The primary rationale given for all the changes is restoring an appropriate atmosphere of sanctity at Mass. And, indeed, the Neo-Trads/Restorationists/call-them-what-you-will do cite legitimate concerns.
A certain kind of free-spiritedness had crept into Catholic worship during the post-Vatican II years. Some innovations pushed the bounds of dignity and appropriateness. They even raised questions about orthodoxy in the understanding and presentation of Church doctrine.
I think, however, that there is a hint (more than a hint, really) of over-reaction in what we are witnessing now, and that this reform is, in some sense, misdirected.
In my NOR article I quoted a priest friend who observed …
“‘This is a slap in the face of the [priests] who always played it straight. We weren’t the ones who were tinkering with the prayers.’ He laid blame for the whole situation at the feet of the bishops. ‘If they had enforced the rubrics in the first place, we wouldn’t be going through all this.’”
Four years into the new liturgical regime, I sense very little change in the level of sanctity. Now, as before, the atmosphere at Mass depends mostly on the sanctity that’s apparent in the priest: the earnestness with which he lives his vocation; the time and effort he invests in preparing his homilies; the solemnity with which he consecrates and distributes the Eucharist.
Beyond that, I doubt much has been accomplished, other than giving a windfall to the publishing houses that are selling parishes their revised missals and hymnals.
Congregations now mumble through language that was intended to hew more closely to the Church’s international Latin standard, but which comes off as old-fashioned and stilted (and is frequently at variance with proper English sentence structure).
Moreover, the musical repertoire at Mass has been cleansed of numerous post-Vatican II “folk” hymns that — for better or worse — had become worship standards. Where we were often distracted by poor songs and amateurish musical execution, now we have antiphons which very few Mass-goers even attempt to sing.
In all, people are left wondering, “What was the point?” Again, from my NOR article…
“As members of Christ’s beleaguered Church, we face the combined challenges of radical secularism and radical Islam, not to mention the fallout from the clerical sex-abuse crisis. And the appropriate response to these grave challenges has been to change the words of the Mass. Really?”
My personal profile doesn’t fit the conventional liberal-conservative divide by which Catholics generally take up sides in debates over worship. As I explained in NOR…
“I do not consider myself a man of the Catholic Left. I am pro-life, I am suspicious of many of the things that pass under the name ‘social justice,’ and I don’t advocate for women priests or for reorganizing the Church along congregational lines.”
At the same time, I’m an adult convert, having come to the Catholic faith in my 30s. And I’ve been involved in music ministry since the late 1970s. All of which puts me in a somewhat distinctive position from which to view the conflict that’s on vivid display in North Carolina and playing out elsewhere.
Undoubtedly, there is a constituency for the new, more formalized, approach to Mass. But there is also one — I believe a much larger one — for the older style which the Neo-Trads/Restorationists wish to supplant. To describe that style as “casual” somewhat clouds the discussion, because all liturgy is firmly structured. But the old language was more conversational, and the music skewed more toward the contemporary. All of which conveyed a more personal sensibility — to me, anyway (of course, others may disagree).
But I’m convinced that everyone’s needs can be accommodated, and by a practice that’s rooted deeply in Catholic culture: High Mass and Low Mass. Since most parishes offer multiple weekly services, there’s no reason more formal liturgy can’t prevail at certain times, more “casual” at others.
I’d say Saturday evening vigil Mass is perfect for guitars and rousing renditions of “Gather Us In.” (I would argue for use of the now-rejected 1970 missal in that slot as well.) You can even offer full-blown Tridentine (Latin) Mass for those whose spirituality is drawn to that (although, I’m aware of one parish in which a Latin revival was tried, and after several weeks of steadily decreasing attendance, abandoned).
Pray for an end to the Battle of Waynesville — which is really just the latest skirmish in the ongoing war over Vatican II. I realize there’s more at stake in this fight than just liturgy. But liturgy is important. It’s the way in which we come before God as the community of His people.
Perhaps with Christian charity, Fr. Riehl, the parishioners of St. John the Evangelist, and Bishop Jugis can resolve their disputes and bring peace back to the Great Smokey Mountains.
May it be so throughout Christ’s beleaguered Church.
…and to my essay on liturgical music that ran in Homiletic & Pastoral Review…
Here’s the ChurchMilitant.com report on the dispute at St. John the Evangelist Church in Waynesville. North Carolina…
If you’d like a view of the situation from the left, here’s coverage in the National Catholic Reporter…
And, in case you’re looking for a snug little place to stay the next time you’re in the Ashville, NC area, check out Waynesville’s Herren House Bed & Breakfast. We enjoyed it…