Mystery Worshipper!

Do you know about “Ship of Fools“? Neither did I until a friend sent a link 10 minutes ago.

The “Mystery Worshipper” link is pretty entertaining. As they explain,

Since ancient times (ok, 1998), Ship of Fools has been sending Mystery Worshippers to churches worldwide. Travelling incognito, they ask those questions which go to the heart of church life: How long was the sermon? How hard the pew? How cold was the coffee? How warm the welcome?

Catholic Churches in Manhattan, Peoria, Michigan, Arizona, and North Carolina got “mystery worshipped” last Sunday – and whaddayaknow, they encountered new liturgical texts. On other fronts, some interesting trends in this totally unscientifically selected sample: preaching gets consistently higher marks than the Catholic clergy’s reputation would suggest; if you stay after the service in  Catholic churches, you can mostly expect  nothing to happen.

Some choice comments:

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The new translation of the mass. I especially liked the invitation to communion: “Blessed are they” rather than “Happy are they” followed by the restored quote from Matthew: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof.”
And which part was like being in… er… the other place?
Well, the new translation of the mass. “Chalice” in the eucharistic prayer rather than “cup” just, to my ears, grates.

Did anything distract you?
The sheer size of the space. When, for example, the cantor went from her stand in the music area to the lectern to proclaim the responsorial psalm, it seemed like it took an eternity for her to get there.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days’ time?
How long it takes to undress an infant so he can be immersed.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Watching people grapple with the unfamiliar, trying to engage with the new liturgy in a meaningful way.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hardbound Adoremus Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
Acoustic guitar, played from inside an alcove at the back of the church. The gentleman who played guitar also sang, and he was joined by a woman vocalist.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon was followed by several minutes of silence during which not a person coughed, not a baby cried, not a cell phone rang. It was truly heavenly.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He began by calling the new missal “the Grinch that stole Christmas,” as with the introduction at Advent, we’ll spend all the season learning it. But the new missal should remind us that we are part of a larger community of prayer.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days’ time?
Overhearing the man in the pew behind me saying, “Cons… consub… what the h___?”

Any “mystery worshippers” out there thinking of descending upon St. John’s Abbey? We’re in Collegeville, Minnesota. We’d very much welcome your honest report. Really, we would.







30 responses to “Mystery Worshipper!”

  1. Pastor Tim Madsen Avatar
    Pastor Tim Madsen

    Anthony, I’ve been a member of the Ship for a few years. There are a lot of topics that might interest Pray/Tell readers especially on their board “Ecclesiantics” which is exclusively dedicated to things liturgical. Glad you found it!

  2. John Swencki Avatar
    John Swencki

    I swear on a stack of Sacramentaries this is true:
    On Xt the King, I had the children’s Mass, and during the homily explained how the prayers might have some ‘funny’ new words in them– like, “consubstantial”. I asked the kids, “Does anyone know what ‘consubstanntial’ means?” One little guy, could not have been more than 10, raised his hand. Oh, this will be good, I thought,, and asked the kids to come up to the microphone. And so I asked him, “So what does ‘consubstantial’ mean?” And this little guy replied, “Being one with”. My jaw dropped. I asked him, “How did you know that???” He shrugged his shoulders and said he just knew.
    OK, if a little kid can handle it….

    1. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

      You don’t have to swear, I can confirm the truth of what you say with the first graders at our elementary school. And these are the words they know the meaning of that I don’t:
      netiquette, netizen, toggling, RAM, nanotechnology, modem, kilobyte, megabyte, terabyte, pixel and scrumpdillyiscious

      1. Sean Parker Avatar
        Sean Parker

        You don’t know what netiquette means. I never would have guessed.

      2. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        Sean, I’m hardly the only one around here who doesn’t know the meaning of netiquette, but I did look it up and now we’ll see if I practice it, but old ways are hard to break! 🙂

      3. Steve Millies Avatar
        Steve Millies

        I’m with Mr. Parker here because the fact that most people (including first graders) recognize “consubstantial” as “being one with” does not assure that they understand the fine theological distinction between “consubstantial” and “one in being.” Since that first grader could little explain that distinction, having recurred to the language of the old Mass, I don’t see how a first grader’s recognizing the term vindicates the new translation’s use of it.

        More importantly, I don’t see how that matters. The Arian heresy is long over, and I doubt very much that many of us in the pews don’t understand that mystery of the Trinity intuitively. Very few of us could explain it in a seminar or to an audience because we lack the technical understanding (in the sense of verstand, as Hegel would have put it) to describe it very well. But that doesn’t mean we don’t understand it (in the sense of vernunft) intuitively and spiritually as something we’ve absorbed from the tradition.

        If that be true, then “one in being” has been just fine for almost forty years, having done little to disturb the long-settled understanding of the Divine Nature Catholics held before 1973 and, apparently, have held since. Which, once more, raises the valuable question: Why are we doing this?

      4. Rita Ferrone Avatar
        Rita Ferrone

        Bravo, Steve M.! That’s exactly right. If everyone, including little children, is to be applauded for understand it as “one in being” what was the problem with saying “one in being”?

  3. Sean Parker Avatar
    Sean Parker

    John, keep in mind, children are very good at repeating what they’ve been told without necessarily thinking about what it means.

    In science, I was taught that density=mass/volume. I didn’t know or even care what mass or volume was. I just knew that if you were asked to calculate density, you took the number called mass and divided it by the number called volume.

    In the case of the 10 year old, if that child goes to Catholic school, or attends religious education, I’m sure that they’ve been prepping the children for the change, by telling them “Consubstantial means being one with”, so that they could give that answer if needed.

    But, if the children were asked to evaluate:

    “one in being with the Father”
    “consubstantial with the Father”

    and explain which one provided a clearer understanding to them of the relationship between Jesus and the Father, as well as which one sounded better, seemed more like modern everyday English, I doubt most 10 year olds would know what you were asking, much less be able to give an objective evaluation.

    Similarly, most adults who don’t like the word consubstantial, think it’s too pretentious. It would be like saying, “It’s precipitating outside.”, instead of saying that “It’s raining.”

    1. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

      If my communication was to a meteorologist, I would not say to him that there are three inches of rain outside, no, I would say, the precipitation level is at three inches. If I’m reading a technical manual about rain, I would expect it to use the term precipitation. And of course I would hope that everyone would learn the theologically precise term “consubstantial” when speaking to the Father just as those who want to use the meteorological term of moisture coming from the sky, precipitation, when speaking to the weatherman, I mean meteorologist.

      1. Joe O'Leary Avatar
        Joe O’Leary

        I think the vast majority of Catholics instinctively know what the unity of being of the eternal Word with the Father means. When they say “one in being with” or “of one being with” they express the unity of the divine nature quite strongly. The fuss about consubstantial is actually weakening that witness, making it seem only a footnote in church history.

    2. Sean Parker Avatar
      Sean Parker

      The point I was making is that just because a child can say that consubstantial means “being one with” doesn’t provide a base that it’s a better term to use than saying “one in being”.

      It only means that the child is able to repeat what he was told in class.

      1. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        I think that’s called learning. 🙂

      2. Sean Parker Avatar
        Sean Parker

        Learning is when you not only repeat it. You also understand it and concur that it is correct.

        If a 5 year old is repeatedly told that 72×3 is 216, and the child later tells someone that 72×3=216, it doesn’t mean that the child knows how to multiply. It means he knows how to repeat.

      3. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        That’s true and because of that all the arithmetic (mathematical) tables I memorized as a child still help me to this day! I didn’t realize that memorizing these wasn’t actually learning them.

      4. Sean Parker Avatar
        Sean Parker

        I’m an adult and I’ll decide what I need to learn, not the church.

    3. Richard Verver Avatar
      Richard Verver

      Mr. Parker,

      I’d say that the “consub… What the h?” comment might be spiritually healthier (assuming the ‘h’ was for ‘heavens’ 🙂 ) than the pseudo-familiarity of the expression ‘one in being’. We are dealing with a credal statement articulating the relationship of the First and Second Persons of the Trinity (nb ‘Trinity’ and ‘Person’ are also tricky theological words), which is the highest and deepest mystery.

      Indeed, the term consubstatial was effectively invented to describe this relationship. More precisely, we could say that is was invented to distinguish heretical positions, such as that the Father and Son are ‘homoiousios’ (of like essence/substance). It does make an iota of difference (the orthodox homoousios lacking the heretical ‘i’ -iota).

      I don’t believe ‘one in being’ to be heretical, but rather that it’s too vague. It’s just not precise enough to clearly exclude heretical ideas regarding the Trinity. And while it isn’t possible to fully understand the Mystery of the Godhead, it is very easily possible to misunderstand that Mystery.

      Perhaps we should ask for the intercession of St. Athanasius, that the the use of ‘consubstatial’, for which he endured exile and persecution, bear fruit in the English-speaking church and help the faithful steer clear of the broad road of false opinion about the Godhead.

      1. Paul Robertson Avatar
        Paul Robertson

        Soooo… Let me get this straight. We’ve invented a word whose definition is, basically, “the ineffable relationship between the Father and the Son”, and now we use that word to describe that relationship. It is the ultimate self-referential definition, and saying that “consubstantial” is more precise than “one in being” is largely useless.

        “What word do we use to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son?”
        “And what does consubstantial mean?”
        “It is the relationship between the Father and the Son”

        It tells us nothing.

        It’s also interesting to note that you state that “one in substance” is heretical, given that that is exactly what the word “con-substantial” encodes.

        What is the difference between one-in-being and one-in-substance? I think the answer for many of us is “theological nit-picking.”

        It is far from the worst thing about the new translation, but it’s inelegant, pretentious and unnecessary.

      2. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        I’m not wedded to consubstantial in the Credo, but I like it and its precision. I would certainly use it in a catechetical session and explain it in RCIA. However, consubstantial is only used to describe the Mystery that is the relationship between the Father and Son. One in being and one of substance could be used to describe this relationship or any other sort of relationship, between mother and daughter, a hen’s egg and an alligator’s egg, etc. You would never use consubstantial to indicate these similarities.

      3. Richard Verver Avatar
        Richard Verver

        Mr. Robertson,

        A few clarifications. I didn’t say anything about ‘one in substance’ at all. I did say that ‘one in being’ is /not/ heretical but that ‘of /like/ substance’ is heretical.

        In an article by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (translator for Hans Urs von Balthasar) entitled ‘Liturgical translation: what’s at stake? The example of calix praeclarus’ ( we find the following:

        “To take one example: My reaction to the rejection by the American bishops of the word consubstantial in the Nicene Creed, on the grounds that “people wouldn’t understand it”, was: ‘Indeed, it’s a revealed truth and so a unique reality and word, as unique as our faith in the Holy Trinity. Who could be expected to “understand” spontaneously? But rather than hide it, let’s teach people what it means and why it’s so crucial!’ The preferred “one in being” is an excellent instance of a so-called “dynamic equivalence” translation that is only apparently simpler and more accessible than the original, but which in actuality is amateurish, ambiguous and, in fact, impenetrable. Are the Father and the Son only apparently different persons but in reality only one? Therein lies the genius of the prefix con- in the word consecrated and entrusted to us by the Council of Nicaea through the precise Latin translation of the Western Church!”

        I have heard numerous catechists teach various Trinitarian heresies on the basis of ‘One in being’. Most notably, a type of Sabellianism whereby the Persons of the Trinity are distinguished by their roles in salvation history or as modes of God’s presence. It can even be interpreted in a way that doesn’t block off the route to Tritheism. For example, you can be one in being with me: it’s called solidarity. It can even be a description of marriage.

        ‘One in being’, in my view, just does not function as negative theology, it leads us to a non-analogical positive understanding,…

      4. Joe O'Leary Avatar
        Joe O’Leary

        St Athanasius was not really a great fan of the term homoousios; he uses it only 2 or 3 times in his vast three volume polemic Contra Arianos. What you say of “one in being” (what about “of one being”?), many would say also of homoousios: — “ambiguous and, in fact, impenetrable. Are the Father and the Son only apparently different persons but in reality only one?”

  4. RP Burke Avatar
    RP Burke

    I’m an old friend of “Ship of Fools,” and here is a comment that is about one of the two actual reasons people get dismayed about liturgy, neither of which has anything to do with the new transliterated missal text:

    And which part was like being in… er… the other place?
    Miss Amanda could go on for hours about the Catholics and music, but what’s the point? The thin nasal voices of the two leaders of song, the guitar strummed artlessly and sometimes not in tune with the singing, the fact that few if any people joined in – it’s all been complained of before.

    (The other is preaching)

  5. John Swencki Avatar
    John Swencki

    Memorization always comes before understanding, whether it’s the alphabet, or the times tables, or “Q. WHo made you? A. God made me.” The key is not to skip the ‘understanding’ part. In time, we grow in understanding. But we will have had the ‘basic equipment’. Too many of us, in the past, were satisfied with just the memorization. Parrots are great pets (Im told) but make boring people.
    Sometimes we can get so picky, picky, picky. Reminds me of when Churchill was criticized for ending a sentence in a speech with a preposition. He responded, “That’s a kind of snobbery with which I shall not put!”

  6. M. Jackson Osborn Avatar
    M. Jackson Osborn

    You meant to say ‘that’s a kind of snobbery UP with which I shall not put’.

  7. John Swencki Avatar
    John Swencki

    Picky, picky, picky.

  8. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    I was surprised that the mystery worshipped reported only old people attending the Mass he visited at Epiphany. I know something of that parish. A friend of mine goes to Mass at that parish because there are so many young people there! Must be a different Mass…

  9. Brigid Rauch Avatar
    Brigid Rauch

    Fr. Allan J. McDonald :

    I’m not wedded to consubstantial in the Credo, but I like it and its precision. I would certainly use it in a catechetical session and explain it in RCIA. However, consubstantial is only used to describe the Mystery that is the relationship between the Father and Son. One in being and one of substance could be used to describe this relationship or any other sort of relationship, between mother and daughter, a hen’s egg and an alligator’s egg, etc. You would never use consubstantial to indicate these similarities.

    Only comments with a full name will be approved.

    On the contrary, a mother and daughter can never be “one in being”, nor can a hen’s egg and alligator’s egg. They can be similar in many ways, but not “one in being”. On the other hand, the notion that “consubstantial ” is precise is dangerous. Precision in describing the Trinity? I prefer the open-ended, poetical “one-in-being”.

    1. Richard Verver Avatar
      Richard Verver

      “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy

      “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

      The quote from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is, for me, emblematic of the dynamic of error. There are an infinity of ways to be wrong, one way to be right. To use Tolstoy’s language, heresies are those unhappy families, each unhappy in its own way.

      The precision of “consubstantial” is not the precision of a positive description at all – the Council Fathers of Nicaea were not so naive as that! Rather, it is a term akin to Sherlock Holmes’ process of elimination. In a single word, all those ‘impossibles’ are eliminated. What remains? The Truth. Does the word articulate that truth? Not really. Ultimately, that truth is only known in the beatific vision in heaven, and known darkly even now in contemplative prayer and the liturgy of the Church.

      I fully agree that the Trinity cannot be neatly understood with some rather abstract technical term coined by 4th century theologians. I appreciate that your fondness of a poetic term flows from its ability to somehow communicate the numinous mystery of the Godhead. I believe, however, that consubstantial can do so insofar as we use it to help us turn off all those dark lights that prevent us from seeing the luminous darkness of the Trinity.

      1. Joe O'Leary Avatar
        Joe O’Leary

        But consubstantial is not necessarily the best translation of consubstantialis and that in turn is not necessarily the best translation of homoousious. And a term that despite its extreme opacity served as a tactical weapon against heresies in 325 is not necessarily a term that can be effectively used to express faith today.

      2. Joe O'Leary Avatar
        Joe O’Leary

        Luther said, “If my soul hates the homoousios and will not use it, I am not thereby a heretic”; but he later admitted the necessity of the term.

  10. Mitch Powers Avatar
    Mitch Powers

    Why would it people think that people can not grow in the Faith to understand what they memorize and grow into an adult Faith. With some of the reasoning here it is any wonder that anyone worldwide grows past a third grade vocabulary. At least in the English speaking world. As parents when your kids don’t understand something, they ask you, or you inform them. No ? What is the difference here? Does one not think that their kids will not encounter new words, and ways of thinking in the University? They are expected to learn with our help as much as we can, the rest is up to them. Why should Mass be something you understand one Sunday in an instant without any further need to understand or strive to when confronted with something unfamiliar?

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