Diagnosis: Self-Centered

Gavin asked some good questions in the thread “First Person Problems.” I think they’re worthy to raise to the top of the post heap, and then, I must be off to work on tax forms.

We know from Sacrosanctum Concilium that liturgy has two facets: the worship of God and the sanctification of the people. The conciliar bishops and the liturgical follow-up were very pragmatic in their approach. People should participate not only internally, but externally. They should find in liturgy a place and time to be led to greater holiness. No serious Christian would presume to suggest salvation is a personal accomplishment. Were a believer to have that error, my first thought would be the person is naive.

It’s largely because of that I find the argument about people “worshipping themselves” at Mass to be stupid. A gross majority of Christians would dismiss the thought right out. And there’s a lot going on at Mass that does not explicitly center on God, but on people or things. If the standard is that everything must be explicitly about God at the Mass, then we can toss out prayers of petition. That means not only the general intercessions, but much of the content of the Eucharistic Prayers, and probably most of the homily.

I find the self-worship argument of a kin to the non-Catholic objection that Catholics worship Mary. It’s a crude attempt to gain attention for a personal reticence toward the Blessed Mother. If a person doesn’t like a hymn text that describes the faithful, fine. The reason behind the dislike should be a strong, well-argued one. Otherwise, it’s easy to dismiss the dislike as personal taste.

As a side note, personal taste is not a bad thing. We all have personal tastes, even irrational ones. Most are rational, given the dimensions of our own discernment. But another person’s tastes are not serious fodder for theology.

All that said, there is no doubt that some people and communities think too highly of themselves. I confess I know that from personal experience. Especially the former. Gavin asks if we’re tempting fate by even putting the words into our mouths:

However, hasn’t it been said again and again from Christian theologians to psychologists that we are inherently self-centered? Isn’t our tendency towards narcissism and vanity a basic fact of human sinfulness? Given that, I’d think it could be spiritual poison to give such a song to a community, whether they have a recognized* narcissism or not.

*it should be pointed out that you might say “my parish doesn’t have a problem with self-centeredness.” But isn’t it possible that you are included in the self-centered attitude? I’m only stating a hypothetical, but given the deadly nature of narcissism, one should do all they can to avoid it. Same goes, of course, for self-righteousness or exclusion, or any other vice that one might find in a hymn.

I agree with the self-centered dominance. But it’s not only narcissism, but also religious problems like clericalism and scrupulosity. Narcissism and vanity are definitely problems, but only part of the spectrum of being self-centered.

Most priests I know consider most of their flock not as flag-wavers at the top of the cultural heap, but as physically or emotionally downtrodden, the poor souls crunched in the layers under the summit. To me this is clear in the many years I’ve interacted with kids in parish schools or religious ed. The worst bullies and terrorists are deeply needy, it seems to me. They have a profound lack in their lives–usually parental love and regard. The victims always seem to outnumber the holders of the bludgeon. If only they realized strength in numbers.

Likewise most of the world’s believers are not bullies, and I think there are a lot of pathologically meek people out there who benefit from the affirmation behind a song that voices truths about the Church, the Body of Christ. I know that some conservative commentators have zeroed in on the affirmation movement as being congruent to the continuing erosion of society. I disagree. If bullies didn’t have the psych tools, they’d find other ways to get what they want. And sadly, some victims are too self-centered to break out of the culture of victimhood.

When I used to look for new songs and worked with people who did, I would often ask, “What texts does the community need to sing?” I can’t say I’d be in the market for “Gather Us In” today. I’m looking for other ways to accomplish what the GIRM says the entrance chant should be:

47. After the people have gathered, the Entrance chant begins as the priest enters with the deacon and ministers. The purpose of this chant is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers.

Hmm. There’s no mention of God in the purposes listed here. I’d assume it’s understood in the context of the Mass, though.

Clearly that second purpose would eliminate a lot of texts from a St Blog’s Mass, wouldn’t it?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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18 Responses to Diagnosis: Self-Centered

  1. Liam says:

    A couple of random thoughts:

    1. Liturgical solipsism: I spent years in a liturgical community that gradually descended into an almost pathological wallowing of wonderment at its wonderfullness. And I know of a few others, and I imagine Todd knows some too. The risk is higher in intentionally-gathered communities (it’s the underside to the reward potential of such communities). That’s *not* what’s going on in your typical American Catholic parish, pace the neurotic writings of people on other blogs.

    2. Singing affirmations of their own goodness is not necessarily a good way of healing the pathologically meek. In fact, it can easily have the opposite effect – of trivialising and diminishing the gap between self-perception and reality. It can even be psychologically toxic. I speak from first hand experience, and I am far from alone. So that strikes me as a very weak argument here.

  2. Todd says:

    Thanks, Liam.

    Your point 2, that makes a lot of sense to me. The bs-detector should be quivering on the worst of these choices.

  3. Brian says:

    Honest question, not rhetorical box-cutter:

    Todd, when you choose music for the entrance, do you look at the text of the Entrance Antiphon? If I had time, I would do survey these texts, and the texts of that forefather of the “Gathering Hymn,” the Introit. But just looking at some of these texts randomly, I see that they they are all from Scripture (not the Book of Hallmark) and either praise God or our refelct on our dependence on Him. And while the GIRM does not dictate that God should be mention X times in the entrance antiphon, I wonder if even the texts selected by those diddly-dang Protestants and Masons for the missal aren’t a good measuring stick.

    Just think, for generations lyricists stood in a bread line while composers and chantmeisters stuck to the Introit text.

  4. Todd says:

    I always look at the texts of the antiphons when planning music.

  5. Tony says:

    And there’s a lot going on at Mass that does not explicitly center on God, but on people or things.

    Name two things in the Mass besides the sign of peace that center on the people or on things.

  6. Todd says:

    The prayers of the faithful, the intercessions during the Eucharistic prayer, the call to examine the conscience before the penitential rite, and the care taken with symbolic things: candles, bread & wine, oils, furnishings, vestments, and the like.

  7. FrMichael says:

    The prayers of the faithful and parts of the Eucharistic Prayer focus on us? And my motivation for using candles and vestments is primarily for beauty, not for people. The people don’t need candles to see: that’s what electricity is for. The candles are for beauty.

    Now furnishings (e.g. pews and chairs) are more to the point of being people-centered. But the care lavished on them is more for beauty’s sake rather than solely the utilitarian need for an assembly to have these objects. Otherwise we could use cheap plastic chairs rather than expensive wood.

    Quite frankly, I find much of the accusations of people-centeredness in liturgy overdone. Does it exist? Surely– I’ve had the misfortune of participating in such liturgies. But if a liturgy degenerates into such a thing, it’s usually done at the hands of the presider/preacher or the music ministry. An attentive priest who was involved from the beginning of liturgical planning could cut these things off in planning before the People of God were subjected to them at a liturgy.

    So, in essence, I blame the priests for the problem, where it exists.

  8. Jimmy Mac says:

    Worship is simply recognizing that I am not God. God is.

  9. Darwin says:

    People’s reactions to “community centered” hymns and liturgical innovations may in part have to do with their experiences in regards to community.

    In my own parish, some of the core of people who’ve been around 10+ years (we’re a 100 year old parish that’s grown massive only in the last decade or two) like to talk every so often about, “The real sacrament is us” and “The real miracle at mass is the community”. Because they see the group gathered as key, they tend to really love some of the “community centered” hymns — Gather Us In is actually a favorite.

    For me, this wonderment is highly tempered by knowing that when a new (more traditional) pastor arrived five years ago, this miracle of community expressed itself by destroying parish property and spray painting swastikas on the doors of the rectory and several more “conservative” parish employees.

    Now we have a new pastor and peace has been restored (some of the more “wonderful” people having taken themselves off) but it tends to leave me rather unimpressed when older folks wax eloquent about the “good old days” when they celebrated mass in the middle of the church hall with everyone gathered around in a crowd because “it was a meal”.

  10. Gavin says:

    there are a lot of pathologically meek people out there who benefit from the affirmation behind a song that voices truths about the Church

    And there we have a disagreement. I would say that a congregation is a social order like any other. There are people in power, there are people oppressed by those in power, there are those who are not wanted, and there are those who just don’t give a darn about that. These borders are drawn along different lines: in one parish, they may be drawn by income; in another along ethnicity; in another along family presence in the parish; in another along orthodoxy or conservatism. I was bullied by a few and ignored by all in high school; I now know that was only preparation for the social orders of dominance in every facet of life, even in parishes. Yes, there’s the “pathologically meek” or downtrodden, but there’s also the bully and the power-monger and the egotist. Do we strengthen the resolve of the power-monger to give the meek the Dr. Phil affirmation? Do we allow the truths about the Church presented in an iffy way to bolster the egotist, just because of the truths expressed in “Sing a New Church”?

    I’m not going to say that Darwin’s church wouldn’t have had its problems if no one ever sang “Gather Us In”. But I can’t imagine it helped much, and yes, maybe the pastor saw the future graffitists as “downtrodden” or “pathologically meek”. My point is that we don’t know who may be emboldened to evil and self-love through “affirming” liturgical praxis. Anyway, you correctly often repeat that a proper post-conciliar view of liturgy includes the needs of edifying the Faithful. But perhaps affirmation isn’t a part of edification?

    it’s not only narcissism, but also religious problems like clericalism and scrupulosity

    And that’s the challenge you and I face as liturgical ministers: do we care about our pet peeves or the whole spectrum? For you, clericalism may be the greatest evil, for me (as an example) it may be narcissism. But neither of us are doing our job if you unwittingly promote narcissism in your congregation or I promote scrupulosity. These are all important issues, hence why I said that egotism is only one of many potential ills facing congregations.

    As an example of clericalism being fed by music, I’d cite these accompanied settings of the Eucharistic Prayers, as they turn the priest into a secular performer. Let’s just assume you agree with me on this for the sake of illustration. Would you then say it would be in my place to say “my congregation doesn’t respect Father well, so I’ll ask him to sing the Mass of Light canon,” or is that a matter of running the risk of promoting clericalism? By the same token we ought to be careful of promoting ANY unhealthy attitude among those we serve, from egotism to scrupulosity, and not leave it up to our own limited views of the community to decide if something potentially deadly can be used.

  11. Whoa, Gavin! I’m gonna have to re-read that post a number of times.
    For my little contribution here, I’m going to riff off a couple of aspects in your last paragraph that aren’t about the thread’s main theme-

    I’ve never researched this, but always pondered the need to canonically prohibit the Eucharistic Prayer from being accompanied. The prevailing documents, it can be argued, generally provide for multiple options on what can be sung at specific moments, who can/should sing them, etc. We know that some of these canons have heirachical priorities as well.
    I’ve supposed, as have many others, that a simple rationale is that all celebrants’ singing faculties aren’t equal in quality or tessituras, and so in deference to that reality, we will just legislate that their intonations of the EP shall remain unaccompanied through the preface to the Sanctus, and either a pitch or an introduction will establish the tonality of the corporate singing, and so forth.
    If someone knows that this prescription or prohibition has its origins in a tradition, I’d like to know of it.
    Barring that, what of those priests who can intone on key, whether they’re singing in Dorian from the Sacramentary that can be tonally linked directly to the Sanctus, or an EP preface set anew by a composer that whose musical elements are congruant throughout the whole ordinary?
    I’ve always read the prohibition of such accompaniment as a matter of fact, not subject to interpretation. But in my musical heart, I don’t get the “why” of that? Sure, a musically gifted celebrant can find or be provided a pitch, then chant unaccompanied and maintain the modality/tonality that leads to the next ordinary movement; but if accompaniment adds to Mahrt’s “paradigm of beauty,” why banish it?
    And, IMO, a celebrant singing with competent accompaniment (austere, minimal) would also lessen the notion of clericalism, in that there is a real collaboration between him, the accompanist(s) and eventually the choir and congregation.
    Regarding your contention that original composed settings of the preface and the EP’s relegate the celebrant to the role of a secular performer, I think that somewhat depends upon whether there is an appropriate (sacred or liturgical) melodic/harmonic/rhythmic construct that is self-evident in the setting. When you mentioned the celebrant as secular performer, my mind didn’t reference that to, say, the canon in MoC or MoL, but to Leonard Bernstein’s MASS. That _would_ be bad. That, as a first and foremost artistic work, must call forth attention unto itself.
    For myself, I prefer the celebrant to use the Sacramentary chants. I just also think they can be easily, modestly and yet beautifully accompanied as well. YMMV.

  12. Liam says:


    I think the best way to understand the context of the prohibition of accompaniment to presidential prayers (not merely the Eucharistic prayers) is that, in the development of the liturgical traditions of the Roman and Byzantine churches, harmony and then accompaniment for the schola or congregation was only gradually allowed by concession. There are still many Eastern churches that forbid the use of instruments in liturgical music, as well as choral contrapuntal harmonies, et cet. While the Roman liturgical tradition is not as rigid, you can see in the current proscription of accompaniment to presidential prayers an intentional residue of this longtime struggle, which gives our liturgical music tradition something more in common with the other old liturgical traditions.

  13. Gavin says:

    Charles, I appreciate your points, but I don’t think they’re appropriate in this case. I’ll give you some history on this topic:

    Todd posted at a blog which criticized GUI. In the course of discussion, he said something to the effect of “I see how one could find that genre of text to be self-centered, so I would not use it in a congregation where self-centeredness is a problem.” I responded (on this blog) that self-centeredness is a common sinful human condition that, among other things, we must take pains to avoid fostering. As an example of things besides narcissism that are harmful, Todd listed clericalism and as a sign of agreement I said that if I were aware of a musical practice that I found to promote clericalism, and I listed the “pop” canons as an example, I would make a point not to use it, regardless of whether I think my congregation “needs” clericalism or not.

    In fact, I don’t strongly think that accompanying the priest is a manifestation of clericalism. I was only giving it as an example. As to why I would give that example, I find the largest threat of clericalism today not to be snooty Italian priests with the backs of their fiddleback chausibles to the laity, but rather the performer priest who makes Mass about him. I think performing rather than singing is a risk of that, although more symptomatic than a cause. Anyway I could say that, then Todd would reply that no true Scotsm-errr progressive would do such a thing, Tony would reply that it’s a serious threat to the Faith, everyone would argue the same old nonsense, and then Liam would say something at the end so brilliant that we all look like chattering morons. Whatever. I don’t care about how you sing the canon. My point is how we make a pastoral judgment, not on whether my illustration is right or wrong.

    I don’t want to see what I found to be a rather good point overshadowed by arguments over something I didn’t even mean.

  14. Well, Gavin, I did state a disclaimer.
    In my best MontyPython dialect: “Sorry, sorry.”
    PS. And FWIW, I have both suggested and ranted to my “ones who are collared” that it was my opinion should they want to really awaken the masses, they need go ad orientem.
    IOW, I agree with you that the worst clericalism isn’t the obvious reactionary culture of fiddlebacks, it’s the “cult of (unctious) personality” that is exhibited by most celebrants of all stripes in the manner in which they make their utterances. I really don’t know how to describe my feelings in this succinctly. Suffice it to say, I can’t help but think of “Bizarro-Alter Christi” with most of them, rather than the ideal.
    Rambling out west. Sorry to have intruded.

  15. Gavin says:

    Well it’s a good topic, Charles, I just wouldn’t want to see it derail the point, as often happens. FWIW, I’d say I don’t see any great reason for the ban on accompanying the priest, but it’s a rule my boss and I follow, although I’ll confess to leniency on some other ones (no instruments in Triduum, for example).

  16. Todd says:

    “As an example of things besides narcissism that are harmful, Todd listed clericalism …”

    Not exactly. For the record, I think clericalism qualifies as narcissism.

  17. FrMichael says:

    “…and then Liam would say something at the end so brilliant that we all look like chattering morons.”

    No truer words were ever spoken on this blog! No offense to Todd or to Neil, but what do we have to do to get Liam out of the posts and onto the blog itself?

    Peace to all!

  18. Liam says:

    Fr Michael

    It’s all a sham (my supposed brilliance). I think what passes for brilliance is really just a willingness to analyze and name what’s lurking between the lines, always with a nose for That Which Gets In The Way Of Ourselves When We Least Expect It (usually: look in the mirror). It’s a bias from my training in history – which is merely the story of how human beings tend to get in our own way often for the best of intentions. I am a widely read and reasonably experienced UVA-cum-Harvard Law School Know-It-All(TM) with a history of extended exposure to both to extreme conservatives and extreme liberals (don’t ask, don’t tell), so I see the commonalities between them.

    Todd has invited me to blog on many occasions. I, knowing my strengths are more in criticism (OK, I’ve been an editor of many sorts in many years of my life) than in authorship, have usually finessed. But I am supposed to be preparing some work for Todd here on suggesting grouping of readings from the lectionary for the rite of matrimony; I’ve been preoccupied with some health issues and must start on that this weekend.

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, which I will convert into a needed kick in my butt.

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