Today I attended a particularly beautifully celebrated and sung Mass in the Extraordinary Form. Truly, it was poetry in motion. It “preached” in a way that even the best homilies could never do, about the joys of the Kingdom, where all is beautiful and all is rest.
People who are able to attend such beautiful Masses in either form of the Rite, or an equally well-done Liturgy in one of the other Rites, are very fortunate as Christians. The beauty of the Liturgy can and should exemplify the great hope to which we are called.
The beauty of these Liturgies stands in stark contrast, not to the poor (as beauty’s critics often claim), but to sin. In order to examine our consciences, to see how we are doing, we first have to see what we are supposed to be like. Our lives are supposed to be beautiful and good enough that joining this iconic Liturgy seems not only attractive, but right. In such a context, it is easy to see that none of us, including the ministers, are yet purified and holy, which accounts for the many confessions of sin and need for grace in the Mass.
As with most of the EF Masses I have attended, this morning there was a confessor with a confessional actively at work. People rather easily left their pews and went to confession during the first half hour or so of the Mass, and then went right back to their pews.
In contrast, most pastors have the experience of low usage of the confessional in their parishes, and this is one of the liturgical tragedies of our times. It does not have to be this way. In one parish where I worked, confessions were heard 21 times every week. Most of these times were brief: the priest would arrive at the time posted in the bulletin, and leave when the line was gone. Often there were 2 or 3 penitents, but just as often there were many more–daily after the second daily Mass, and on Sunday mornings. The Liturgy was beautiful, the charitable works of the parish were excellent, and confessions were heard every single day.
The sacramental life is an integral whole, and a critical weakness in one aspect should lead us to wonder whether the rest of the system is sound. Confession, in almost every parish, is in a desperate state. There are many reasons for this, from the rise of pop psychology and its denial of guilt, to sometimes poor catechesis, to the “4:00 pm to 4:15 pm Saturday afternoons and by appointment” minimalism of parish offerings of the sacrament.
Another reason, I believe, is the lack of beauty, and thereby of hope, presented in the average parish Mass.