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My Catholic Good Friday

Happy Easter everyone.

I went last night with a Catholic friend of mine to a Good Friday service at his parish church in Baltimore. I was looking for somewhere to experience some kind of formal Good Friday worship, and as my Ward wasn't providing anything, I asked if I could join him. It was a good choice.

Mormons have a strange relationship with Catholicism. As an example of a centralising, sacrament-oriented church, Roman Catholicism is not radically different to Mormonism. We have, however, inherited the Protestant suspicion of papacy, Marian-"worship", and the cultural eccentricities of the Roman Church. There is also the popular (and incorrect) notion among Mormons that the Catholic Church is the "Great and Abominable Church" spoken of in the Book of Mormon, and thus Apostasy Incarnate. Fortunately, because all of the practicing Catholics I have ever met have been wonderful human beings, much of this negativity has been diffused for me (and I hope that they can say the same about Mormonism).

Anyway, the service: it was traditional yet contemporary (Negro spirituals, guitars), with a nice balance of singing, prayers, readings and communion. Funnily enough, the whole "Liturgy of the Lord's Passion" (as it is called) lasted 70 minutes, the same as our sacrament meetings. No cushions on their pews, though. The procession of the Cross at the end was particularly impressive. The lights were turned out and a family carried the cross from the back of the church. Members of the Congregation then went up to "venerate" the cross before departing in silence. Readers of UB will know that I am not impressed by Mormon Cross-aversion. What I saw yesterday was not the "apostate" worship of an idol, but the sincere expression of love for Jesus centered around a simple symbol of His Passion.

A few other things of note:

- Despite the use of a Negro spiritual ("Were you there"), there were no blacks in the congregation. This is not because they are not welcome, but reflects instead the ethnic separation of Christian worship in America. This is something my Ward has tried to avoid, deliberately extending its boundaries to encompass both white and black Baltimore.

- There were only two families with kids in attendance, and the solemnity of the service ensured they couldn't roll around on the floor playing with Star Wars figures as my kids do on Sunday. My friend assures me that "normal" Sunday mass includes a kids' meeting.

- The Church was a beautiful European-style church. How ironic that Mormon churches in Europe are (not so beautiful) American-style buildings. Cultural imperialism works both ways it seems!

- There was a lot of involvement by lay-members. From leading the songs, to bearing the Cross and administering the Eucharist, the service proceeded without much direction from the Priest. This particular church seems to have struck a good balance: clearly the RC Church is not about to ordain women to the priesthood, but they were still deeply involved in the Mass, including in the Eucharist.

- The involvement of the lay-members was strictly scripted, however. This ensured that the plebs couldn't say anything crazy (a la LDS testimony meetings).

- Prayers were given for various people and organisations, in this order: the RC Church, the members of the congregation, the Jews, other Christians, all people of faith, good people of no-faith, national and world-leaders. It appears that Protestants, Jews, and all Theists are doing OK in the eyes of the Catholic Church; only atheists need to make a change (by coming to know God, in whatever guise).

In short, I was very impressed. This was the first proper Catholic service I have attended. It was reverent, sacred and beautiful. Many congratulations to the Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Baltimore, MD.

[One final, unrelated Catholic anecdote which I found interesting: my friend told me of an instruction that went out from Rome that Priests had to wear their collars at all times in public. He told me that a teacher of his who hated wearing the collar knew of the instruction but hadn't officially heard it from his immediate superior, and therefore "hadn't officially heard it"! This reminded me of the Church Handbook, which contains all kinds of instructions for Mormons, but because its use is restricted, one could feign ignorance!]

For further reading on Catholicism in America I have been recommended A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America by Peter Steinfels.

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De Vere said ... (March 28, 2005 12:42 PM) 

One has to ask - why the austerity in Mormon services? Is there no room for celebration and rejoicing of Christ's resurrection?


john f. said ... (March 30, 2005 8:23 PM) 

One has to ask, why all the superficial artifice in Catholic services?


de vere said ... (March 31, 2005 12:49 AM) 

Yes, all that superficial artifice talking about Christ, when they should be talking about Joe Smith, the guy who made Jim Jones and David Koresh look like choir boys.


Ronan said ... (March 31, 2005 7:55 AM) 

John, behave.

de vere, of course you're just being mean, but last time I looked Joseph Smith did not promote mass suicide among his followers.

Remember: this blog promotes the Catholic-Mormon Appreciation Society. Please be nice.


john f. said ... (March 31, 2005 4:27 PM) 

Actually, I was referring to the artifice of Catholic worship, not the content. In your comment you assumed that because the Church's worship services are "austere" (by that I assume you mean no incense and mitre, robes, etc. in the worship services), members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not celebrating or rejoicing in Christ. True, Ronan seems to imply this too. Of course, I fully disagree with this and maintain that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do talk of Christ, celebrate Christ, and rejoice in Christ's resurrection. In fact, by virtue of their belief in Christ's literal resurrection in the flesh, Latter-day Saints belief more firmly and literally in the resurrection that other Christians. We believe that Jesus Christ still has his resurrected physical body. This is where Joseph Smith comes in: he saw Jesus Christ in the flesh and by virtue of that encounter learned more about the nature of God and the resurrection that all of the schoolmen and Christian philosophers in the Christian tradition were ever able to figure out with their logic and syllogisms.

As for your depiction of Joseph Smith as a cult leader worse than David Koresh, you are free to believe whatever you want, but hyperbolic statements like that, which run contrary to the factual record and the conviction of millions of solid citizens (i.e. not cultists working against society), detract from any substantive point you might be trying to make against the Church.


Anonymous said ... (March 31, 2005 6:23 PM) 

I am a Catholic who would like to respond to this string.

Part of the reason I am a Catholic is for the style of worship. I find that it facilitates and gives rich texture to worship. Few of us will have an unmediated experience of Christ until we die; in the meantime religious experience will necessarily be mediated by symbols. I find that the symbols, which the Catholic church holds up, represent my own faith experience. Others like a more "austere" style of worship because that style represents their faith experience (just ask the Reformers of the 16th/17th century). Why can't both have merit?

Two small clarifications on John Fowles' comment: first, the Catholic church also believes in the bodily resurrection of Christ and of the faithful, as the "Profession of Faith" states; secondly, while "logic and syllogism" does characterize the Scolastic period, such a rational approach to theology represents a small fraction of the Christian tradition. And we should remember that even in this period, which celebrated God's gift of reason to humans, Christian thinkers still regarded direct encounter with Christ as the pinnacle of revelation. After having a vision of the risen Christ, Thomas Aquinas, the Scholastic par excellence, wrote that all of his writings weren't worth straw!


Bill said ... (March 31, 2005 6:26 PM) 

I’m not quite sure what is meant by "superficial artifice." If you’re talking about ritual and symbolism, in what way is it superficial? It seems like anyone who goes to the temple would think twice before criticizing other religious observances for storytelling and symbolic acts.

For the past five or six years I’ve been part of a professional choir at an Episcopal church, and have found the liturgical traditions to be quite meaningful.


For Ash Wednesday the brocades and silks, and silver and gold usually adorning the altar are replaced by a rude burlap textured red and gray covering and a stark black and red wooden cross covered with crown of thorns replaces the normal decorative elements on the wall behind.

On Palm Sunday, the service begins in the garden with the choir singing Gibbons’ Hosanna to the Son of David. Then, after the distribution of palms, the choir and clergy lead the congregation in a procession (in this case, down E 60 street to the tramway and back) while singing the Palm Sunday hymn, All Glory Laud and Honor. The gospel reading for this day is Matthew’s version of the passion.

Wednesday is traditionally the time for a Tenebrae service, with texts from the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah. This church dispensed with such a service, but I always enjoy listening on that day to one of the great settings of those texts, for instance, Couperin or Gesualdo.

Maundy Thursday is so named for the mandatum, Jesus’s commandment, to love one another, "as I have loved you." In addition to the regular elements of the service, before communion begins, volunteers from the congregation come forward to participate in the Washing of Feet, while the choir sings Durufle’s setting of Ubi Caritas. At the end of the service, the altar is stripped bare, during the singing of the penitential psalm De Profundis (Out of the Depths, psalm 130). The eucharist is reserved and vigil is kept over it overnight.

Good Friday is a very solemn and austere service, traditionally lasting the three hours between noon and 3 pm. No organ accompaniment is used, and the choir is seated in the balcony at the back of the church. At the time of the gospel, I proceed to the front with two other men to sing a chant version of the St. John’s Passion. (I usually sing the narration, but last year I was the only bass so I had to sing the part of Jesus). There are three homilies or sermons, interspersed with the prayers of the people, and with hymns and motets, sung a capella by the choir. During the veneration of the cross, the choir sings the reproaches, (from a setting by Victoria, O Popule Meus) text based on Micah 6: 3-4 with additions. Other traditional anthems for this day include Allegri’s Miserere, Lotti’s Crucifixus, and Schein’s Die mit Traenen Saen. At the end, the reserved communion is distributed. There is a stations of the cross in the evening in which the choir doesn’t participate.

The following evening is the Great Vigil of Easter, which in former times began at 4:00 am on Easter morning, to end with the rising sun (reminds me of the great tradition at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where they have a reading of Dante’s Inferno at the Poet’s Corner every Good Friday night) but this service began at 8:00 pm. The altar has been restored to pre-Lenten conditions, but this is disguised because the entire church remains in complete darkness. The Paschal fire is then kindled and then is passed from candle to candle. The choir chanting psalms alternates with the clergy (reading the collect prayers) and the lay congregants (reading Old Testament passages). Then the Baptismal liturgy (Easter vigil is traditionally a time for baptisms). Finally, at the signal, "Alleluia! Christ is risen," the lights are turned on, bells and chimes sounded, and the organ accompanies the singing of the Gloria. After the epistle reading, I lead the congregation in the Great Alleluia (the alleluia, like the Gloria, having been abandoned for Lent) interspersed with the words to the psalm In Exitu Israel, which is chanted to the Tonus Peregrinus. After the service, there is a big feast of celebration.

Easter is just a regular Sunday service, except the church is full instead of half empty, and usually some trumpets or violins join the choir for some festive anthems. Incidentally, the sermons are always very thoughtful and well-prepared


Ronan said ... (March 31, 2005 7:18 PM) 

Anonymous, thanks for your Catholic perspective. My sense from Good Friday was that the worship of Jesus by the Catholics at Corpus Christi, Baltimore was not the product of some credal or scholastic abstraction, but derived instead from a personal testimony of the Saviour.

Bill, as I will post here shortly, I feel that Mormons can participate meaningfully in such celebrations as you describe, and still maintain their identity as LDS.


john f. said ... (March 31, 2005 9:14 PM) 

This post has been removed by the author.


Rachel said ... (April 01, 2005 10:01 PM) 

I always felt that Catholics and Mormons have the same type of culture.


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