Tuesday, February 3, 2009

S. Clement's: The Paradigm of Catholic Worship in Philadelphia

Last evening I marked the end of the Christmas season by attending Mass at S. Clement's, an Anglo-Catholic parish here in Philadelphia which I frequent from time to time and where I have a number of friends. This parish is well-known for its excellent liturgical praxis (indeed, orthopraxis) and music. One of my own schola members even came along for the experience and left impressed. "The choir was as advertised," he said.

S. Clement's uses a Mass that is essentially the Traditional Mass said in a sacral vernacular, translated by someone who was clearly literate and aesthetically sensible. It offers perhaps the solution that Rome should have pursued in the mid 20th century. Alas, I need hardly comment on how far afield we've gone from that.

While the Traditional Rite translated tastefully into the vernacular may offer a simple solution to the present liturgical upheaval, it also gets to the white-hot center of the issue: bad taste. More than once, while marveling at the beauty of a Mass at S. Clement's, I've had the thought, "We should do this: translate the authentic Roman Rite into good English, and everything will be fine." But soon my delightful daydreams are rudely interrupted by the recollection of this bad taste problem which will in most places inevitably invade any liturgical rite. I, being the snot-nosed kid that I was, used to think less of Thomas Day's book _Why Catholics Can't Sing_ because it wasn't academic enough and didn't seem to offer many concrete solutions, but recently I have come to admire it as one of the most important books on the liturgy, precisely because Day fearlessly tackles American Catholicism's knack for the liturgically insipid and ugly.

Bad taste. It's such an easy problem to state, not difficult to summarize, but nearly impossible to solve, for it is a function of pervasive ideas in the minds of what Albert Jay Nock called the mass man, and these are not easily overcome. In fact, one wonders about the wisdom of systematically trying to overcome them. It seems far better to start small, convinced communities who believe in the importance of the liturgy, and then let them perform their mustard seed-like miracles. There are two such parishes in the Diocese of Camden, and there is one in South Philadelphia that looks like it's on its way.

Of course, many Catholics immediately turn up their noses at the mere mention of S. Clement's. In a fit of reeking, ultramontane, pious self-righteousness, they dismiss the beautiful Masses at S. Clement's as some kind of pretentious British chauvinism, not worthy of being acknowledged whatsoever. (It's worth pointing out that the same people often turn around and call for religious dialogue with churches that are theologically and liturgically much further afield than the Anglo-Catholics.) Such provincialism breeds mediocrity, for when the really excellent is hidden from view, people are kept from knowing what is truly possible if only there were the necessary dedication to make it happen. (One of my relatives calls this the "mushroom technique": Keep' em in the dark and feed 'em you-know-what.)

In the title of this post I called S. Clement's the paradigm of Catholic worship in Philadelphia, but truly this is an understatement. In all honesty, I've never seen better liturgies on such a consistent basis anywhere in this country. Rather than ignoring them, we ought to be asking them how they manage to achieve all this. (The short answer is a lot of hard work by a small group of highly dedicated individuals who probably read more in one year than most of us do in a lifetime.)

Bad taste. It's a depressing problem, and perhaps we musicians have to deal with it more than anyone else. If there is anything that can be done, I suppose the best course of action is to provide a good example of what is truly excellent, good, and beautiful, and S. Clement's is a good place to start.


9.West said...

It sounds like they do a good liturgy. What about the theology? Do they have positions on marriage, chastity, life and the primacy of Scripture that are consistent with received Christian tradition of the past two millenia?

Paul Goings said...

Yes as to marriage, chastity, and life. You'll need to be more specific regarding "the primacy of Scripture," and what you mean by that.