Carried along by the crowd

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 01:09am on 14th August 2012

This Easter, many RCIA participants will join the flock of Christ, ‘marked with the sign of faith’, labelled as Catholics.  It is not a label easily shrugged off, and we do not know what our allegiance to Catholicism will demand of us.  The sheep follow the shepherd to pasture, but he is also the one who takes them to be slaughtered.  The Church is sometimes valued by society as a beacon of moral integrity, an example of charity and a comforting presence.  On other occasions, Gospel values are profoundly counter-cultural.  However, we do not live them out alone, but in community. 


Being part of a crowd acquired literal significance around the world in recent months: at the Royal Wedding and subsequent exhibitions and tours, during the Arab Spring, in the Occupy movement, and the summer riots.  Many of these were promoted by social networking and virtual communication, but the crowds were real.  It may not have been quite what David Cameron had in mind when he talked of the Big Society, but we’re getting together more frequently it seems, to celebrate who we are, and demonstrate what we oppose.  As benefits are cut, claimants may need to reconnect with other circles of support – family or charity or churches.  When concerns are expressed and celebrations enjoyed in such large numbers, the Church cannot remain aloof.  Controversially, the Occupy movement set up camp in London in front of one of our most iconic church buildings, and challenged those inside to consider their position.  Local churches have seen an increase in demand for their charitable services, and continue to co-operate to provide places of belonging, attracting the needy and those who will support them.  Maybe each of us plays both roles at different times, seeking and offering support within the one body of Christ. 


The liturgy is not a solo activity.  It is public and communal worship, distinct from private and devotional prayer.  The Mass involves masses of people, swelling the ranks of the hosts of heaven in perpetual adoration.  The liturgical assembly exercises a unique ministry:


For this people is the People of God, purchased by Christ’s blood, gathered together by the Lord, nourished by his Word.  It is a people called to bring to God the prayers of the entire human family, a people giving thanks in Christ for the mystery of salvation by offering his Sacrifice.  (GIRM5)


Uniformity of liturgical movement, gesture and posture enables the assembly to act as one body.  This is reinforced when we sing together, an activity which leads us even to breathe as one and conveys our message in one strong clear voice.  The Church has long valued community singing, and it is enjoying increasing popularity in secular society, epitomised by the success of the Military Wives with their Christmas No.1.  It’s like the football ground, where supporters express support of their team in song, and the protest marches which surge forward with drums, dancing and singing.  In both environments, the type of singing is described unashamedly as chanting.  The chants express the identity and aspirations of the people.  Similarly in church, our singing, our chanting, demonstrates what we believe and what we oppose, it accompanies movement and procession, it expresses what is heartfelt. 


Within a crowd, we may overcome personal inhibitions, feel connected and affirmed, but the experience is not always pleasant or productive.  In The Gameshow, the second of Derren Brown’s recent TV Experiments, a crowd mentality of a television audience was manipulated resulting in what they believed to be a shocking fatal accident.  The solidarity, strength and recognition in numbers enjoyed by the Military Wives and their fans was also sought out by those who joined the riots on Britain’s streets last summer.  They acquired recognition through rebellion, in many cases setting aside personal morality.  No-one broke the glass or sang the song alone; but just as each singer in the Military Wives can take credit for the achievement of the group, so each rioter is called to account for individual involvement in criminal activity.  Each of us chooses which crowd to join, which shepherd to follow.


In 2012, the nation will be encouraged to get behind Team GB, in the crowds around the capital, or from the comfort of our sofas.  The Church is collaborating with other religious groups to offer hospitality to Olympic athletes and fans through More than Gold, and to support those working at the sites and capitalise on the opportunity for international co-operation through 100 Days of Peace.  Many will throng the streets to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, and prayers will be offered, sung and said.  No doubt at some point this year, strikers and protestors, and perhaps even rioters will once again take a public stand against perceived inequality and unfairness, for issues of economic instability and social injustice are yet to be resolved.  Where will we stand?  The witness of RCIA candidates and catechumens, signing up to be part of the Catholic crowd, challenges us all to consider anew what we believe.  Converts consider carefully their decision through a lengthy process of preparation.  As members of a mass religion, personal commitment requires surrender and contribution.  We do not abandon individual conscience, but each is integrated into a collective enterprise.   


Reproduced from Issue 345, Volume 38, Number 2 of Music and Liturgy, July 2012, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory

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