Liturgy and Perfection

As a parish pastoral associate , one of my favorite “ice-breaker” questions for small groups is: “What has been your most profound experience of Liturgy?” The answers are usually quite revealing, ranging from wedding Masses to funeral Liturgies to “mega-Masses” like those at World Youth Day. My answer, however, is always the same: my most profound experience of Liturgy took place in the fall of 2011 in a small chapel at San Hermano Pedro Hospital in Antigua, Guatemala.

I was in Antigua for a three month language immersion program, in an effort to learn enough Spanish to be competent in my new job at a Latino parish. I was introduced to the hospital by my Spanish teacher—she would typically attend Sunday Mass there and visit with patients afterwards. One day during our class, she invited me to come to Mass with her the following Sunday and experience what it was like helping at the hospital.

The first thing I noticed as we approached the chapel off of one of Antigua’s busiest streets was all of the wheelchairs. The sides, altar, aisles, and even outside the front of the church were lined with people in wheelchairs. Many could not sit up straight because they could not support the weight of their heads, so they reclined back in their chairs with their heads propped up on lightly-padded headrests. Their presence surprised me—I didn’t realize so many patients went to this Mass, and especially so many with such severe disabilities.

When Mass began, those who could speak did their best to say the responses and to sing—loudly, joyfully—even though they were unable to enunciate their words or sing in tune. Many of the hospital’s pediatric patients were there as well, also in wheelchairs. The nurses would wheel them off to the side of the altar where they could easily be wheeled into the sacristy if they became fussy. Some nurses and visitors would take the children out of their wheelchairs and hold them in the pews for the duration of Mass. The rest of the children stayed put in the sanctuary, some within arms’ reach of the altar.

I spent most of this first Mass in great discomfort, unsure of myself in this new place where I was surrounded by people experiencing such physical and intellectual hardships. After the Lord’s Prayer, my anxiety deepened in expectation of the Sign of Peace. Do I give people peace even if they can’t lift their arms or turn their heads to see me, even if they are drooling, even if their hands are dry and cracked? I decided to just turn and shake hands with the people next to me—my Spanish teacher and a couple of patients who didn’t need wheelchairs.

My disposition completely changed after Communion. While I was walking back to my seat after receiving the Eucharist, I passed a line of men in wheelchairs, all of whom had various physical and intellectual disabilities. Suddenly, one of these men reached his hand out to me. I hesitantly took his hand in mine and he grasped it, brought it to his lips, and kissed it. Then he let go.

My hand fell back to my side and I slowly walked back to my pew. As soon as I sat down, I began to weep. I wept at the shame I felt for feeling so uncomfortable, but also at the fervor and love with which he grasped my hand, and the delight that simple gesture brought him. After spending an entire hour questioning the necessity of the hospital patients being at Mass (surely they were released of their Sunday obligation!), his act of love revealed to me the reason for their presence—to be nourished by the love of Jesus in the Sacrament and to experience the love of the worshiping community. This is why any of us goes to Mass.

I attended Sunday Liturgy at San Hermano Pedro for the rest of my stay in Guatemala. Those Sunday Masses revealed to me the grace and mystery of the Eucharistic liturgy more than any Mass, sacraments class, or book I have ever read. The invisible reality of what we participate in was brought to life each Sunday—we all come together, in our brokenness, in our imperfections, and become united by the Body that is broken and shared.

Since my time in Guatemala, I have worked for two parishes and have begun formation in a religious order. In both parish ministry and in religious life, I often find myself in critical conversations about liturgy—picking apart a homily, questioning certain song choices, debating whether or not people should hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer or leave their pew during the sign of peace, feelings about noisy babies and children in church, the ability (or lack thereof) of members of the congregation or choir to sing–the list goes on from there. At times it seems that what underlies these conversations is a belief that liturgies must be perfect, or at least as close to perfect as possible.

When I have these liturgical discussions, I often think about the liturgies at San Hermano Pedro. They were far from perfect in almost every way, which, for me, was what made them so true and so beautiful—because they were inclusive and authentic. The irrational, Pelagianist quest for perfection in liturgy is a common disposition in certain parts of our Church. While I agree that it’s important to strive for respectful, inclusive, and engaging liturgies, obsessively seeking perfection—whether in the choice of music, the homily, the lectors or servers—can itself become an idol that distracts from the reality of the Mass, where we come together in our imperfections, in our brokenness, and offer this brokenness to God who, by His grace, somehow manages to make us whole in the Most Holy Sacrament. If we forget this in our quest for perfection, we make the Liturgy more about us instead of about God. We run the risk of shutting people out of the Liturgy that get in the way of our version of perfection—children, the disabled, the poor, the elderly, the immigrants, all those who are pushed to the margins in our society.

The great Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, described the meaning of liturgy as “an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals.” The good news of liturgy and Eucharist is that, in spite of our mistakes and imperfections, in coming together for the breaking of the bread, we become the Body of Christ. Let’s not be obstacles to others’ participation in this reality.

Gabrielle Bibeau has worked in parish ministry both as a youth minister and as a pastoral associate. In August 2015, she will begin her Novitiate with the Marianist Sisters in San Antonio, TX.