Steadily they walked, well-dressed, serious, each carrying a staff or a lit candle about a meter long, even the children.
Over the two hours or so that we watched, there were hundreds of them—men and women, teens and children, members of confraternities and sodalities, walking in the Corpus Christi procession in Seville.
And not, I realized about midway through, a cleric in sight.
Oh, they were there at the end, of course, escorting the Blessed Sacrament. But up until that point, it had been a sea of lay people.
I considered the chapel around the corner from our apartment. Busy all day, bustling with women and men and even some teens once in a while, stepping through the open door from the street outside, taking a moment in the midst of ordinary life in office, home, and classroom, to pray.
I thought about the scores of roadside shrines of all sorts I’d seen in various parts of Europe through the years, from Sicily up to France, and over here on this side of the pond in Mexico and Central America and yes, even sometimes in these United States. Perhaps at one time blessed by an ordained person, yes, but mostly erected by and cared for now by the laity.
I remembered the Holy Week activities we saw in Mexico in 2018: processions on Good Friday, and, most memorably for me, the visitation of churches on Holy Thursday night. There were priests around, yes. There were a few in every procession and of course they’d celebrated Mass and through their hands Jesus under the form of bread rested on the altars in those open churches in Puebla, but those throngs in the processions and celebratory waves moving in and out of the open church doors, stopping to kneel, leading prayers and music—lay people.
Back in Spain, I considered the art. Art everywhere—in galleries, but mostly in churches. All sorts of art from stained glass to ceramics to sculpture to painting to the architecture and adornment of the tiny chapels and massive cathedrals. Oh, religious were involved, yes. Bishops directed and planned, religious played their roles and did their work, painting, lettering, carving.
But most of it? Most of the stone-laying and laying down vivid colors and shaping wondrous images that it was hoped, in some small way, evoked the glories of heaven? Lay people who, after the labor was done, walk by these beautiful structures every day with their children, sit surrounded by beauty during the Mass or simply in prayer, look up and around and see the work of their hands. Their hands.
The Liturgical Movement, as envisioned by its early and mid-century movers and shakers, was all about helping the laity engage more intimately with the Mass and the other prayers of the Church. The pastoral concern (as distinct from the historical concerns) was that the laity saw what happened on the altar as a drama involving the ordained to which they were spectators. All of it—from introducing the vernacular, to moving away from ad orientem postures, to encouraging the use of missals and more frequent Communion—was, ideally, directed at that goal. I’m not judging the accuracy of this assessment. I’m just telling you what’s there in the history of the movement.
And so, after decades, we get, in a way, the climax of the Liturgical Movement in the Second Vatican Council. The Council which proclaimed—in the quote from Sacrosanctum Concilium that anyone who’s ever taken The Mass 101 knows by heart—that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Which meant, in practical terms, that everything became about the Mass.
Which of course, requires a priest to happen.
Unlike processions. Unlike visiting open churches. Unlike roadside shrines. Unlike saying the Rosary alone in your car or with your neighbors or family. Unlike putting the final touches on a garment for your parish’s image of Mary.
There is no logical, necessary connection here. Encouraging the laity to be more consciously engaged with the specific prayers and actions of the Mass doesn’t, of course, require a diminishment of devotional, para-liturgical life outside the Mass. But in the iconoclastic, “purifying” mood of the period, that’s what happened, isn’t it? Add to that aesthetic iconoclasm, and you have little left for the laity to do except slap a guitar and write checks.
And so we’re told over and over that We Are the Church and “clericalism” is a sin of sorts—but then some of the primary means that we, the laity, have of expressing devotion in vivid, interesting, engaging and yes, lay-controlled ways are taken away.
Leaving us with the Mass, the priest in charge, commanding our gaze as we look at his face for an hour, listening to him talk, talk, talk.
One can argue, and probably correctly, that these religious cultures that developed these devotions were actually heavily clerical—that is, the word of the ordained was law, wielded often with an authoritarian hand. Well, yes—and devotional life was the space in which the laity could operate, relatively free of that. My point: it’s no different now. And in fact, the focus on the Mass (legitimately, yes) and the loss of popular devotional life intensifies that clerical focus. It may not be with such a heavy hand these days, but it’s still there.
So yeah, fight clericalism: throw yourself into those Works of Mercy, celebrate the feasts, make things for God’s glory, and then build a shrine, process to it with your friends, and keep the candles burning.
This post originally appeared at Charlotte was Both, and is reprinted here with permission.
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