There is perhaps no memory more vivid to me than those 9 a.m. children’s Masses in the basement of Sacred Heart Church, where we all sat with our classmates (as if we hadn’t seen enough of them all week long) and did our best to steer clear of the nuns’ glares.
This was the early 1960s, and there wasn’t much else to capture anyone’s attention on Sunday mornings. You got up, went to church, and then bought doughnuts and a copy of the morning paper on the way home.
Mass was not created for little kids, something the church finally realized long after I grew out of childhood. Priests spoke Latin, their backs were to the congregation, and they delivered mind-numbingly long, rambling homilies that would have put anyone to sleep had they not hollered so much they woke up the dead.
There were always one or two priests in every parish with reputations for long, bombastic sermons. And if you were a frightened little kid at 9 a.m. on Sundays, and got one of them, hoooooowahh! You were in for one raucous morning.
I recall one priest in particular preaching on the evils of Satan himself — a tried and true topic. Only in this iteration, Satan was “Beelzebub.” I swear he kept us in that church for about a day and a half, and every so often he’d reach an oratorical climax by shouting “bewaaaaare of Beelzebub.”
The priests were very definitely the stars of the show in the pre-Vatican II days. And they knew it. Homily time was their time, and they did not get cheated.
They had carte blanche to deliver the unabridged version of “War and Peace” every Sunday, and would get so wound up that they’d sound like your father if you bothered him while he was watching the ballgame (I had firsthand experience at this).
Toward the end of grammar school, the Mass switched from Latin to English, and the priest was turned around to face the congregation. To me, that took a lot of mystery out of something whose very appeal was in how mysterious it seemed.
Mass had that “secret society” feel to it, mainly because none of us knew what in the world anybody was saying. When I became an altar boy, and had to learn all that Latin, none of it got translated. I memorized it, but for all I knew I could have been mumbling the nuclear codes every Sunday.
(I can still recite the Suscipiat from beginning to end. But I never knew what it meant until it was translated into English for us.)
By the time I hit high school, it became just mass for me. Not Mass, upper-case “M.” The only thing that didn’t change were the sermons. You’d try to listen, and get halfway through before you started to blank out. Worse, a new generation of priests came in with a kinder, gentler approach to preaching. Gone was the fire and brimstone and in its place was “happy, happy, joy, joy,” which meant you actually could fall asleep.
Oh, you’d get a few throwbacks who let it rip. And I was fortunate in adulthood to encounter priests whose sermons tended to be relatively brief, and relevant to issues that you could apply to modern life. But there were still plenty of priests who saw their sermons as liturgical versions of “In A Gadda Da Vida” — complete with that drum solo that rendered you comatose.
Once I hit college, I regularly attended what I called the “Last Chance Cafe,” a 7 p.m. Sunday night Mass in Saugus that routinely lasted a half-hour or less. One of the big attractions was a truncated sermon.
One particular priest there managed to say a New Year’s Eve Mass in 20 minutes. He’d played football for Boston College in his youth and he never lost his love for the game. On this night, Alabama was playing Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, so it was “chop chop” and be in front of the TV in plenty of time.
Where’s all this going? Last week, Pope Francis spoke of the need to make sermons “shorter and simpler.”
“Allow me,” he said during an ordination in Rome, “to ask you to remember your dad and how happy he was to have found another parish in a town nearby where the Mass was celebrated without a homily.”
Wow. When the Pope tells you to be brief and be seated, who are any of us mere mortals to dispute him?
So I thank him for his — pardon the pun — frankness. I like anyone who would tell all these would-be Ciceros that you don’t need to re-create a U.S. Senate filibuster to get your point across. Maybe the Pope feels more people would go to church if they didn’t feel imprisoned by some mad monk in vestments, screaming and pontificating as if he was giving the State of the Union address.
I’m with him on this. No more James Joyce interpretation of the scriptures. Give us Joe Piscopo.