Sing God a simple song
Make it up as you go along
Sing like you like to sing
God loves all simple things
For God is the simplest of all.
Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Schwartz
“Simple Song” from “Mass”
In his dictated, late-in-life memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung recalled “a fine old story about a student who came to a rabbi and said, ‘In the olden days there were men who saw the face of God. Why don’t they anymore?’ The rabbi replied, ‘Because nowadays no one can stoop so low.'”
If God is the simplest of all, we have to stoop in order to see him. And apparently we have to listen very closely because God seems to be a people-whisperer. And sorry to say, God is almost certainly not a “he.”
We get a lot of things wrong when it comes to God. We value certainty over belief, for instance (there’s a big difference). We put words in God’s mouth, some of them awful (instead of awe-full). Our religions and religious beliefs, if unquestioned and unchallenged, tend toward idolatry.
And every once in a while, the whole thing comes crashing down. “Things get broken,” as we hear near the end of Bernstein’s Mass, which is getting a revival this year in honor of the composer’s centennial.
I had never seen it but was given the opportunity to attend the dress rehearsal at Ravinia in late July. It was awe-full. Largely overlooked, even dismissed, when it debuted in 1971 (commissioned by Jackie Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center), today some call Mass Bernstein’s greatest work, arguably one of the greatest works of the 20th century (John Clay III, one of the more talented OPRF High School alums in recent years, was in the ensemble cast at Ravinia, by the way).
At the very least, Mass is a work that should be seen by all Catholics — practicing, lapsed, recovering and returning — because, as many will testify, right now in the Church, things are broken. The recent Pennsylvania grand jury report documenting widespread clergy sex abuse reminded us that the Catholic Church’s biggest self-inflicted wound is nowhere near healed.
As one of the faithful commented in a recent NY Times article, it’s tough to be a Catholic these days.
The ongoing scandal is a function of the institution’s greatest flaw — patriarchy. A close second is the Catholic Church’s deep resistance to change, defying the wisdom in the adage attributed to St. Augustine: “The Church must always be reformed.” Ecclesia semper reformanda est.
Despite the immense energy for reform unleashed by Vatican II, the Ecumenical Council that briefly broke things open, the Church dropped anchor shortly after the ship left harbor in the mid-’60s, and Vatican II was wrongly blamed for the institution’s worsening problems. Successive popes reaffirmed the ban on birth control, turned abortion into the Great White Whale of moral obsessions, and covered up the sex abuse scandal instead of confronting and changing a sick system that has created so many sexually twisted priests.
Inability to change will be the demise of the institutional Church — or at least this version of it. The latest report puts an exclamation point on that warning. And it’s not just in Pennsylvania. It’s not just in the U.S. It’s worldwide.
Incremental change won’t save the Church. Women must be ordained and otherwise enjoy equity with men. Clergy must be allowed to marry because it will allow priests to embrace their full humanity, which will make them better ministers (and reverse the chronic priest shortage). Birth Control must be embraced in support of women’s equality and to decrease abortion demand. The laity must be further empowered. Clericalism must end.
Sr. Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the Bus” fame, who was interviewed on NPR’s Weekend Edition last Saturday, said that last part is key. It wouldn’t do any good to ordain women into a sick system, she noted. What must change first, she said, is “the culture of arrogance.” The Church hierarchy can’t see the face of God any longer because they lack the necessary humility, despite Pope Francis’ valiant attempt to set a better example. Not everyone is willing to stoop so low.
Real change will improve the Catholic Church, making it an institution worthy of Jesus’ legacy, which it purports to protect but often ends up damaging. Things get broken. The moral authority of the Church is one of those things. And when your moral authority is gone, you lose everything.
Everything except the core of Christian faith: “Where love is, there God is.” It doesn’t need the protective walls of the institution, though too many Catholics fail to recognize that. Too many lack faith in the faith, turning the institution into an idol — worshipping the protective tabernacle instead of the truth that lies within.
The institution has been breaking down for a long time. Those whose natural inclination is to resist change, call for the walls to be rebuilt, ever higher and stronger. But that only makes problems worse by covering them up.
Those who embrace change, on the other hand, start by opening the windows to let in some fresh air, as Pope John XXIII did with the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65. Over half a century later, Pope Francis is trying to open the doors but faces powerful resistance, including the recent highly suspect effort by conservative hypocrites to implicate him in the very cover-up that they themselves condoned and/or engineered.
Near the end of Bernstein’s Mass, the celebrant suffers a breakdown. He can’t cope with a rapidly changing world and the complicated issues raised by those who live within it. Things get broken, he cries, desecrating the altar in the process.
To his rescue come the congregants, singing God a new song, a simple song, making it up as they go along. Because God loves all simple things. Because God is the simplest of all.
But that’s Bernstein’s art. In the real world, can grassroots Catholics rescue and resurrect the current Church from this broken, unholy mess?
I hope so.
It will be a miracle of biblical proportions.