Bad Liturgy Is Not A Victimless Crime. Just Ask Jimmy Fallon.

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Until this week, I had no idea that Jimmy Fallon grew up Catholic.

Then I came across this interview from 2012. As it turns out, Fallon really loved the Church when he was a young boy. In the interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, he talked about his childhood experience of Catholicism:

GROSS: So you went to Catholic school when you were young.

Mr. FALLON: Oh yeah.

GROSS: Did you have…

Mr. FALLON: I wanted to be a priest.

GROSS: Did you really?

Mr. FALLON: Yeah. I loved it.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. FALLON: I just, I loved the church. I loved the idea of it. I loved the smell of the incense. I loved the feeling you get when you left church. I loved like how this priest can make people feel this good. I just thought it was – I loved the whole idea of it. My grandfather was very religious, so I used to go to Mass with him at like 6:45 in the morning, serve Mass. And then you made money, too, if you did weddings and funerals. You’d get like five bucks. And so I go ‘Okay, I can make money too.’ I go, ‘This could be a good deal for me.’ I thought I had the calling.

For many, this is how their Catholicism begins. It’s primarily cultural. It’s what you grow up doing. You find the aesthetics appealing. It’s an experience that you find comforting, and it’s something you can be a part of. There’s a foundation, but also a need for growth and greater depth. In other words, a fantastic opportunity for catechesis.

But over time, like so many Catholics, Fallon fell away from the Church. And when he fell on hard times, and looked to his childhood faith for answers, he found that things had changed.

GROSS: Do you still go to church?

Mr. FALLON: I don’t go to – I tried to go back. When I was out in L.A. and I was kind of struggling for a bit. I went to church for a while, but it’s kind of, it’s gotten gigantic now for me. It’s like too… There’s a band. There’s a band there now, and you got to, you have to hold hands with people through the whole Mass now, and I don’t like doing that. You know, I mean, it used to be the shaking hands piece was the only time you touched each other.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FALLON: Now, I’m holding hand – now I’m lifting people. Like Simba.

(Laughter)

Mr. FALLON: I’m holding them (Singing) ha nah hey nah ho.

(Speaking) I’m doing too much. I don’t want – there’s Frisbees being thrown, there’s beach balls going around, people waving lighters, and I go, ‘This is too much for me.’ I want the old way. I want to hang out with the, you know, with the nuns, you know, that was my favorite type of Mass, and the grotto, and just like straight up, just Mass Mass.

For Fallon — arguably one of the silliest comedians in show business — the Mass he experienced was too frivolous, and thus unappealing.

The knee-jerk reaction of some Catholics is to say, “That’s a lame excuse. Christ is still present. He needs to man up and go.”

But that’s really not fair.

There is an anthropological dimension to liturgy that corresponds with belief. Gestures, symbols, aesthetics, and rituals all signify deeper sacramental truths. Just as the Mass is highest form of prayer, it is also the primary catechesis of the faithful.

In other words, we learn how to be Catholic by going to Mass.

The Church teaches that the four principle ends of Mass are adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and satisfaction, but there is an ancillary benefit to attending Mass. Seeing what happens at the Mass, reading the Gospel, listening to the homily, reciting the creed, witnessing the consecration, and comprehending the sacred dimension through which all these things transpire is fundamentally pedagogical. Almost everything you really need to know about being a Catholic and attaining eternal salvation can be obtained from regular Mass attendance.

When someone is turned off by what is happening in the liturgy and decides not to come back, it’s easy to point the finger in their direction. I would argue, however, that the primary responsibility falls on the pastors of souls who are obligated to provide something of substance to the faithful. If the most significant encounter people have with the Church undermines the belief that what is happening is sacred, important, and worthy of reverence, how can they arrive at that conclusion?

It should go without saying, but this means frisbees and beach balls have no place at Mass.

My favorite book on this topic is Martin Mosebach’s The Heresy of Formlessness.  He writes about the effect that changes in the liturgy have on our belief:

Go to any city church: What do people do naturally and as a matter of course? Hardly anyone kneels for the act of transubstantiation; often enough, not even the priest genuflects before the transubstantiated gifts. A woman brings the Hosts for the congregation from a little golden cupboard to one side; she does so in a busy and confident way, as if she were bringing some medication from a medicine cabinet. She places the Hosts in the communicants’ hands; few of them show the Host the reverence of a genuflection or a bow.

People of aesthetic sensibility, much scorned and suspect, are the recipients of a terrible gift: they can infallibly discern the inner truth of what they see, of some process, of an idea, on the basis of its external form. I had often spoken with pious apologists about the situation I have just described—it is observable all over the world. It was painful for the clergy to talk about these things, but they were not willing to admit that there had been a loss of spirituality. Kneeling was medieval, they said. The early Christians prayed standing. Standing signifies the resurrected Christ, they said; it is the most appropriate attitude for a Christian. The early Christians are also supposed to have received Communion in their hands. What is irreverent about the faithful making their hands into a “throne” for the Host? I grant that the people who tell me such things are absolutely serious about it all. But it becomes very clear that pastors of souls are incredibly remote from the world in these matters; academic arguments are completely useless in questions of liturgy. These scholars are always concerned only about the historical side of the substance of faith and of the forms of devotion. If, however, we think correctly and historically, we should realize that what is an expression of veneration in one period can be an expression of blasphemy in another. If people who have been kneeling for a thousand years suddenly get to their feet, they do not think, “We’re doing this like the early Christians, who stood for the Consecration”; they are not aware of returning to some particularly authentic form of worship. They simply get up, brush the dust from their trouser-legs and say to themselves: “So it wasn’t such a serious business after all.” Everything that takes place in celebrations of this kind implies the same thing: “It wasn’t all that serious after all.” Under such circumstances, anthropologically speaking, it is quite impossible for faith in the presence of Christ in the Sacrament to have any deeper spiritual significance, even if the Church continues to proclaim it and even if the participants of such celebrations go so far as to affirm it explicitly.

So what is the solution? It seems that we have been looking forward for too long without being rooted in the past. I’ve written on this topic for over a decade, and I’ve made no secret of my preference for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (for reasons I consider obvious.) Though not the Mass of my youth, its discovery was hugely significant in my spiritual life. While it is certainly true that I have seen the Novus Ordo celebrated reverently in many parishes, when comparing even its best iterations to the Mass which has permeated most of the Church’s history, there is a stark and troubling difference.

A young priest I know in the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter once told me, “In the traditional Mass, I am a slave to the liturgy. The Church tells me where to stand, what side of the altar to go to, how to place my hands, and so on. Every action is prescribed. It is through this restriction that Christ is able to act through me. I diminish, and He becomes the priest.”

Conversely, the new Mass offers excessive freedom to the celebrant. With so much room for improvisation, reverence — which all liturgy should strive for — becomes merely an option, and a subjective one at that. The priest who desires to offer reverent liturgy has to answer to unhappy parishioners about why he’s including Latin or celebrating ad orientem, and it’s all on him. His choice. The priest who wants to have the kind of Mass that Fallon speaks of can do so too. His choice. All options are on the table, greatly diminishing the unity of the Church, which is one of her four distinguishing marks.

The question of how liturgy should be celebrated is not merely academic. The intended reconciliation of the the old and new liturgies of the Roman Rite was of primary concern for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Yet this reconciliation has proven immensely difficult, and has become a much lower priority since his abdication last year. It is unfortunate that nearly seven years after the release of Summorum Pontificum, the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is still difficult for most people to find or attend. This makes it very difficult for the “mutual enrichment” that Pope Benedict hoped to see between the two forms to take place. A friend (and convert from Calvinism) who is just now discovering the traditional form of the Roman Rite wrote to me just the other day with an observation: “When extraordinary ministers are a sight a hundred times more ordinary than the Extraordinary Form, something is wrong with either the word ‘extraordinary’ or the liturgical reality.”

Recently, Fr. Thomas Kocik, author of The Reform of the Reform? A Liturgical Debate, revisited the arguments he made in his seminal work. Once an advocate of trying to restructure the Novus Ordo to incorporate more of the reverential aspects that were lost when the new liturgy was promulgated, his continued study of the matter seems to have left him at an impasse:

Whatever else might be said of the reformed liturgy—its pastoral benefits, its legitimacy, its rootedness in theological ressourcement, its hegemonic status, etc.—the fact remains: it does not represent an organic development of the liturgy which Vatican II (and, four centuries earlier, the Council of Trent) inherited.

There are significant ruptures in content and form that cannot be remedied simply by restoring Gregorian chant to primacy of place as the music of the Roman rite, expanding the use of Latin and improving vernacular translations of the Latin liturgical texts, using the Roman Canon more frequently (if not exclusively),9 reorienting the altar, and rescinding certain permissions. As important as it is to celebrate the reformed rites correctly, reverently, and in ways that make the continuity with tradition more obvious, such measures leave untouched the essential content of the rites.

[...]

To draw the older and newer forms of the liturgy closer to each other would require much more movement on the part of the latter form, so much so that it seems more honest to speak of a gradual reversal of the reform (to the point where it once again connects with the liturgical tradition received by the Council) rather than a reform of it.

The twofold desire of the Council fathers, namely, to permit innovations that “are genuinely and certainly required for the good of the Church” and to “adopt new forms which in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (SC 23) could indeed be fulfilled, but not by taking the rites promulgated by Paul VI as the point of departure for arriving at a single, organically reformed version of the ancient Roman rite: that would be like trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. What is needed is not a ‘reform of the reform’ but rather a cautious adaptation of the Tridentine liturgy in accordance with the principles laid down by Sacrosanctum Concilium (as happened in the immediate aftermath of that document’s promulgation in 1963), using what we have learned from the experience of the past fifty years.

I concede that the Pauline missal is here to stay for the foreseeable future, but the need to continue work on authentic liturgical development is important. The form and shape of the liturgy matters, and is not just a matter of personal taste. Mass is made for us, but it is not directed to us. It is offered as a sin oblation to God the Father, the perfect sacrifice of Christ made present once again on the altar, transcending time but always efficacious. We should ask ourselves not if our liturgy is pleasing to us, but if it is pleasing to God; if it is, in fact, an acceptable sacrifice. The book of Psalms tells us that “A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Ps. 51:17) An attitude of supplication is an important component in liturgy that God finds pleasing.

If we are worshiping in a fashion that God finds worthy, how can this not have an effect on our hearts and souls? If we treat the Blessed Sacrament with reverence and respect, how can this not impact the life of faith for those who witness the care with which we show our devotion? If we want belief in the Real Presence (which is at a historical low point) to return, why would we not take every possible step to ensure that our actions match the words of our creed?

Reflecting on all of this, I can’t help but wonder if Jimmy Fallon might have told a different story if, when he decided to return to the Catholicism of his youth, what he had encountered had been something that was appropriately sacred and mysterious, rather than entertaining and frivolous. There is a power in reverence, an evangelical magnetism that transcends words. It draws you in, and makes you want to go deeper.

If we desire to bring people into the Church — or keep them there — we need our worship to reflect the sacred mysteries we celebrate. The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324) and thus there is no more important aspect of the life of faith on which we should focus our attentions. 

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Categories:Liturgy

123 thoughts on “Bad Liturgy Is Not A Victimless Crime. Just Ask Jimmy Fallon.

  1. Mariam says:

    Interesting, and an important article, I think. It reminds me of something I often read, maybe on Fr. Z’s website, “the law of prayer is the law of faith.”
    When the liturgy and the reverence during the Mass becomes watered down, when the mystical and beautiful ancient traditions of Catholicism are replaced with tambourines and big bands and holding hands like Jimmy Fallon pointed out, faith will, undoubtedly, suffer.
    It’s a terrible shame, too.
    Many people crave what Jimmy Fallon mentions made him so attracted to Catholicism long ago. I just pray he returns to the faith. I’m sure there are other churches.

  2. Bobby says:

    The way you wrote your comment, it sounded like you are saying Jimmy fallon left his wife. He did not leave his wife. They had a gestasional surrogate baby. Which means the egg and sperm are put together, then another woman has the baby. Jimmy Fallon and his wife tried having a child for a long time and it didn’t work. Sounds like someones being judgmental!

  3. Faith says:

    Seeing that Mr. Fallon dropped his first wife for another and had their baby by a surrogate tells me that following our Lord and His church is not forefront on his mind anyway. I’m not being judgmental, but these details are enlightening. I am heartened by the commenters that profess their love for the Mass, period. The devil is certainly in the details these days, Mr. Skojec.

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