The (Ir)reverent Churchgoer

Have you ever had an urge to laugh when you are supposed to be quiet, thoughtful and well-behaved?  What about those times when something that is supposed to be serious and solemn goes wrong and, even though it wasn’t funny at the time, it’s hilarious when you think about it later?

Easter Vigil Mass in France.
A great place for things to go wrong, especially for Catholics, is at church, especially during a service that only comes once a year or so.  If that service contains a procession, watch out.  Processions are flubs waiting to happen.

Anything involving large crosses, books, flowers, statues, holy water or incense usually goes without a hitch.  The priests are pros at this.  Altar servers, readers, deacons and Eucharistic ministers just have to carry whatever they are supposed to carry and go where they are told, which usually means the same direction the priests are heading in.  No problem here.

The worst procession destroyers are lit candles and choir members.

Humankind first mastered fire over 1 million years ago.  Fire has enabled us to cook, keep ourselves warm, and make gold jewelry and swords and Crêpes Suzettes and all kinds of stuff.  It also burns everything, including us.  Nobody knows when humans began to make music.  The oldest musical instruments discovered by archaeologists are about 35,000 years old.  People had to sing a cappella before then, I guess.  Approximately 10 percent of our population is tone-deaf, but you don’t have to be Pavarotti to join an amateur church choir.  If you can sing the same pitches as the person standing next to you and hit most of the notes in your voice range, you’re in.

The easiest procession for a choir to demolish is the one that comes at the end of the evening service on Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday to you Episcopalians).  This involves the choir chanting the old hymn Pange Lingua, either in Latin or in English, while processing out of the church and into a smaller church or chapel, often down a flight of stairs.  The choir is followed by the priests, deacons, readers, Eucharistic ministers, altar servers and congregation members.

Have you ever tried to walk down a flight of stairs while reading Latin words in a hymnal and singing at the same time?  If you don’t have to do it, don’t.  In addition, if your voice is the strongest one in the choir, don’t stop singing, even if you are about to tumble down the stairs and land on your face.  If you stop singing, everyone else will stop, too, even if you have warned them ahead of time not to stop singing if you do.  I know this from experience.  Being a former opera singer, I have a voice that can take the paint off the walls in every building within a two-block radius.  At age 70, I also have a hard time keeping my balance on stairwells.  Inevitably, I have to stop singing during the Holy Thursday procession downstairs.  Inevitably, the choir stops singing, too, because nobody else wants to take the lead.  When I start again, they do, too.

That should give me a sense of power, but it doesn’t.  It gives a sense of wanting to shoot all the choir members with paint balls.  You can’t do that in church, though.

See that guy second to the right who is staring at the woman?  He's the one who's tone-deaf.
Last year’s Holy Thursday procession was even more discombobulated.  As usual, I tried to lead the choir out the front door of the church and downstairs.  After I had gotten all the way down the stairs and halfway to the destination, I turned around and noticed that only one or two others had followed me.  I started wildly gesticulating and shouting for people to come.  Somebody went back upstairs, then came back down and told me that we had to go back upstairs because Father K____, the pastor, wanted us to go another way.  We went back upstairs, and there was Father K_____, gesturing and hissing in a stage whisper that we were processing UP THE AISLE instead!  We began the Pange Lingua again, walked up the aisle, turned left, then went through the SIDE door, downstairs and into the smaller basement church.  This would have been fine, except that I was walking right in front of Father K____, who wasn’t prepared for my usual hesitation on the steps and bumped into my back.


This year I stayed upstairs and the organist led the choir members in the procession.  By this time the route was established, with the organist being a younger guy who can still run up and down stairs, so everything worked.
Lit candles are rarely dangerous when confined to the people walking down the aisle.  They know to be careful.  If you set a priest on fire, however accidental it might be, you will never live it down.  Like Cain in the Bible, you will carry a mark for the rest of your life, or at least until you move out of the parish.  It gets interesting, though, during services such as the Easter Vigil Mass, where everyone in the church has a candle, and they are lit, one by one.  It’s a really cool sight, because the church is dark when this is going on.

There was a lot of excitement in our church last year, when someone in one of the pews set fire to another congregant’s hair.  Maybe there was a story there, maybe not.  Most likely, the amateur arsonist was just an absent-minded clod.  Nobody was hurt, but it put a damper on the proceedings.

Then there was the time, many years ago, when someone sitting near me during an Easter Vigil Mass dripped candle wax onto my raincoat.  I guess I should have appreciated the effort to improve my wardrobe, but I didn’t.  I was up in the choir loft with the rest of the choir, and I didn’t notice the mess until later, or it would have been a memorable Easter for the soprano section that year.

Tranquility, at last!


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