There is an ancient parable about prayer which is also a parable about liturgical prayer. One version of it runs something like this: Two liturgical committees once met to plan their respective Sunday liturgies:

At the meeting of the first committee, a prayer was offered which, below the more obvious words, went something like this: 

“We thank you, God, for gracing us as you have. We know good liturgy and we celebrate it well. Some of us have been to the best workshops in the country. Several of us have graduate degrees in liturgy. Ours is an inclusive liturgy. We are sensitive to gender, race, and justice. We have a homily, not a sermon. We never get devotions mixed up with the word of God. Our music is always well prepared and its themes actually match the readings. Our readers and servers have all taken the proper workshops and perform their ministries with dignity. We use the latest official hymnals, as approved by the national commission on liturgy. Nobody uses missalettes in our community – and nobody needs to, the word of God is properly proclaimed. No photocopied materials appear in our liturgies and we scrupulously respect the copyright on all the hymns we use. Our priest is a most sensitive man who always uses inclusive language, disdains taking upon himself any ecclesial power, and has an alb that was cut in Brugges. Nobody can fault anything in our aesthetics, our theology, our inclusivity, nor in our commitment to justice.

And we thank you especially, God, that we are not like St. Elmer’s Parish down the road. Their priest is a drunkard who hasn’t taken a theology course in 30 years and all the theology he knows is pre-Vatican II. He comes into church on Sunday mornings wearing an old soutane that has egg stains on the front. The parish prays the rosary before mass and mixes up Marian devotions with the prayers of the faithful. They are still singing hymns from thirty years ago and they do not use inclusive language. The preaching is terrible (when, indeed, there is any) and, just last Sunday, in place of the homily the priest read a letter from the Bishop suggesting that everyone should get more involved in Prolife activities. Every pew is littered with photocopied materials – old parish bulletins, announcements for parish bazaars, and hymns (for which they haven’t received copyright permission). The altar top resembles the workbench at the local garage. The PA system works very poorly. Their readers are badly trained and cannot pronounce many of the words. Nobody seems to care, however, since, during the readings, everyone is absorbed in their missalette. There is always a second collection (for some dubious devotional cause) and, not infrequently, someone is actually lighting vigil lights during the Eucharist.” 

But at St. Elmer’s parish a committee was also meeting, to plan the Sunday liturgy, except they weren’t doing any real liturgical planning at all. They just met and said the rosary and then, afterwards, their pastor, Father Ziggy Donker, who indeed has a drinking problem, stood up and said: “Let’s just say an extra prayer now so that on Sunday we can help the others to pray a little better.” After he had said that, he felt pretty sheepish, knowing of course that he had a drinking problem and he wasn’t really worthy to be offering the mass for the people. So, at his bidding, they all said three Hail Marys. Eleanor Murphy then insisted that they should say the litany of St. Joseph (“because it’s March, after all!”). Fr. Ziggy was tired and bored with the litany, but thought it best to endure it because he did feel bad about his drinking. When the litany was finished, he blessed them and they all went home. As he was walking back to the rectory, a little tear appeared on his cheek and Ziggy hoped that, at church on Sunday, he could concentrate properly so that the mass would be a little better for the people.

A strange parable? Unfair perhaps. Persons saying Hail Marys are often too given over to contempt. Alcoholism is no guarantee of humility; indeed, its effects are often the opposite. Priests who have not read a theology book or attended a workshop in 30 years are hardly an ideal to emulate and lack of aesthetics is not a virtue. Moreover, insensitivity to the issues and language of inclusivity is never a good thing, nor is mixing up devotions with the Eucharist and preaching about everything, except the word of God. But that is not the moral of this parable. What is?

Jesus cautioned against contempt, against thinking ourselves better than others. He had many things in mind, mind you, when he said that, but I suspect he was also cautioning us about how we feel about ourselves when we look at what is happening at St. Elmer’s parish just down the road from us.