Whence Big Puppets? Why do dissidents like them so much?

Did you see the article at Catholic World Report about “big puppets”? You know the ones.

Whence Come These Puppets of Doom?

August 21, 2012
“Liturgical puppets” have shown up in churches for years, but aren’t limited to Catholic venues—they have long been used as agents of iconoclasm and revolutionary agitprop.
John B. Buescher

“We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.”

— Hilaire Belloc, This That and the Other (1912)

I, for one, hesitate to welcome our new puppet overlords.

They visited the 2008 West Coast Call to Action Conference closing liturgy, the video of which the proprietors of the Orate Fratres blog have linked under the title “Mr. Potato Head Concelebrates the Holy Mass?”

Other recent sightings (among many) are documented on the web, showing one puppet floating through a nave at a Minneapolis church’s Palm Sunday Mass, and several puppets pausing for a few moments from Speaking Truth to the Man to pose with their human wards, stimulating the owner of the Bad Vestments blog to ask, “What is up with leftists and giant papier-mâché puppets of doom?”

Sightings of the large, sad variety of “liturgical puppets” go back some years, and are by no means limited to Catholic venues. Episcopalians, unsurprisingly, have paraded them down the aisle of St. John the Divine Cathedral. And St. Michael’s Episcopal Parish in Litchfield, Connecticut supports the Colossal Puppet Theater Company. In recent years, puppets have appeared in many denominations’ services.

All of which has elicited enraged incomprehension in some quarters—what is the point of these visitations into the sanctuary?

The Spirit of Vatican II as today’s special guest on Sesame Street


Read the rest there.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. rcg says:

    When I see the puppets and all the other stupid things solemnly paraded before us to make The Most Sacred Prayer more ‘entertaining’, ‘meaningful’, and ‘relevant’ all I can think of is:

    “Here’s your sign.”

    -Bill Engvall

  2. Supertradmum says:

    The article is excellent. I have a strange comment. One of my brothers and I were always afraid of puppets of any kind. My son did not like the Punch and Judy shows as a child, either. It was as if the puppets were personifications of some inner darkness of the puppeteers, who did not have the guts to come out and say what they really wanted to, so they used a false creature to reveal some inner demons. Even the so-called benign puppets, as in the famous show in The Sound of Music bothered us as surreal and purposefully anti-human personifications of vices.

    I feel this unease why I listen and see Petrushka, for example, as there is a blurring of reality and a straw puppet. One is purposefully confused as to reality in that ballet. There is something sinister in the seemingly pathetic puppet, but I could never feel the compassion for a magic creature, a puppet pretending to be a person.

    I grew up in areas where there were pow-wows yearly and the local tribes would come and dance in various costumes, dressed like the Raven god, or various spirits. Some of the dances called for war spirits to come down and embrace the tribes, making them strong. Some of the dances and costumes were of animal spirits, called in for protection. I always felt uneasy at these events and even at nine, asked my dad if we had to watch. He actually deferred to me and we never went back.

    I also associated the puppets with these demons for some reason, as if the play-acting was real. Play-acting with puppets seemed to be something to entice people to negative, even evil thoughts and desires. Indeed, is there still not something sinister about masquerades as well, as in carnivals, where masks allow for licence and violence? The puppet is in the same genre as masking-pretending to be something else for a less than virtuous outcome. One is either real and honest, or cloaked in disguise and dishonest.

  3. AnAmericanMother says:

    Come, come now.
    The lunatic-fringe Catholics are mere amateurs compared to the Episcopalians. The Piskies’ “Procession of the Ghouls” at St. John the Divine is legendary – and totally inappropriate for a cathedral.
    But at least their stuff has some artistic merit, inappropriate as it is. THAT is how you do puppets, not the tacky amateurish papier-mache grade school efforts of the Progressives.
    And they don’t just have puppets at the cathedral. They have an actual stuffed HUMP BACK WHALE. Full size, hanging in the nave (or at least they did before the fire). And cow skulls on poles in a circle. There is much weirdness up there on Amsterdam Avenue.

  4. Thom says:

    There is a legitimate tradition of these things, but like many things these days it seems to have been twisted beyond all recognition.

    The tradition of “Gigantes y cabezudos” in Spain goes back to at least the 13th century, where they were associated with various festivals and processions in the life of the Church and the community. They may have originated in Navarre and become associated with the Santiago de Compostela. Many times, these processions would culminate in the procession to the altar.

    This is, in fact the reason they have been used occasionally at the Cathedral of Saint James in Seattle, the architecture of which is a conscious imitation of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

    The introduction of these giant puppets to any portion of the Mass beyond the procession is, however, a relatively new phenomenon unheard of in Medieval Spain.

  5. AnAmericanMother says:

    I’m with you. The whole purpose of Punch & Guignol is to say things that can’t be said by decent human beings.
    You think the AmerInd rituals are bad, don’t hang around in Haiti. We had friends there when I was a kid, and I assiduously avoided the houngan and his crowd. Bad medicine.

  6. Indulgentiam says:

    “what is the point of these visitations into the sanctuary?”
    To offend the Almighty
    To feed concupiscence and thereby lead souls to hell.
    The Spirit of Vatican II and the N.O need a good exorcism. This stuff is hurling souls into the abyss. I don’t understand how the powers that be in the Church can allow this to continue knowinf that eternal souls are at stake. Recall the N.O NOW!!! Heaven help us all!

  7. AnAmericanMother says:

    It may be o.k. in Spain, as an ancient tradition — but using that as an excuse to introduce exotic customs into an ordinary American diocese is what brought us “liturgical” “dancers” and all the rest of that nonsense.

  8. Nathan says:

    I suppose we should steel ourselves for the next Christmas/Holy Week articles from the newsmagazines:

    Assume serious, “academic” tone Archeologists have uncovered a 3mm by 2mm fragment of a mosaic from what is believed to be a fourth century Christian tanning spa in the former Roman city of Marxius in Asia Minor (present day Kurdistan) that reveals a large humanoid object with an over-sized head and limbs. Professor Polly Ester of the Department of Obtaining Government Money for Spurious Postmodern Research at Jesuit-ish University states, “The fragment is revolutionary. It clearly demonstrates that the early Christians used giant puppets at the center of their liturgies.”

    In Christ,

  9. AnAmericanMother says:

    Thom — if St James Seattle wants to introduce the Botafumeiro, now THAT would be o.k. with me. Duck!

  10. JKnott says:

    Very interesting comment Supertradmum.
    By contrast, traditional statues and images of the saints capture the essence of virtue for meditation.

    Those soulless puppets are the antithesis of the image and likeness of Christ, who suffered and died for man, not hollow cardboard non-entities. They are a deformation of the God- created harmony and beauty of man. What could promoters of this silliness be thinking of?

  11. SimonDodd says:

    What is the point? Desacralization.

  12. Pingback: On The Feeling Of Being Watched « The Port Stands At Your Elbow

  13. wmeyer says:

    AAM, the Episcopalians may be worse, but they are not contaminating our churches.

  14. Thom says:

    AnAmericanMother – Oh, I agree. The tradition has been “adapted” in wildly inappropriate ways.

    And yes, I’d pay extra to see a Botafumeiro installed in St. James Seattle… though I imagine the insurance required would be prohibitive!

  15. Legisperitus says:

    I question the author’s comparison of radical puppeteers (in their own minds) to an “unfazed” Toto knocking down the screen and exposing the Wizard of Oz as a humbug. Toto merely tipped over the screen by accident when he jumped in fright, and, more importantly, the Wizard himself was a liturgical puppeteer, working that giant head “made out of many thicknesses of paper, and with a carefully painted face.”

  16. Dave N. says:

    Big Puppet Mass (BPM) at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, already well documented here at wdtprs:


    was probably the most surreal liturgical experience of my life. Scary. Parishioners tell me it’s the close connections with Seattle U that bring this type of thing into the cathedral. Fr. Ryan (who I believe was even once on the Fishwrap Board of Directors) is still ensconced there—and I suppose Abp. Sartain will now be too busy trying to catch the nun bus to enact any reforms at the cathedral.

  17. dominic1955 says:

    Makes sense to me. Dissidents and heretics take their cue from subversive leftist agitprop technique. Like St. Pius X said, “For the true friends of the people are neither revolutionaries nor innovators, but traditionalists.”

    Leftists, Communists, socialists, and any sort of anarchists and subversives are a bane to civilization. Their equivalents in the ecclesiastical realm (amongst us as well as the sectarians) are cancer.

  18. Gail F says:

    Voila: “The History of Radical Puppetry.” Don’t know anythign about who wrote this or how true it is, but there is a history of puppets for radical causes. Fr. Bourgeious and his anti-war people are associated with one group, but I can’t remember their name and I don’t see it here:

  19. Frances M says:

    A question for Fr. Z: If – heaven forbid! – such puppets show up in one’s parish during Mass, may one actively protest instead of stewing in silence or leaving?

  20. majuscule says:

    Supertradmum– wow, thanks for putting into words something I’ve felt subconsciously about puppets since I was a child!

    JKnott– so true about statues and images–even those larger than life. I’ve always loved and not feared our beautiful church statues–ahem, not as idols to worship, but as spiritually inspiring art. This includes, perhaps especially, the crucifix.

    But the giant potato-heads…scarey.

  21. Supertradmum:

    I could not agree with you more about both the puppets and the Native American dance. I don’t find it surprising that you were uncomfortable by the invoking of spirits. That’s the thing about the Catholic Church – We are wedded to the Most High, and His Spirit alone has domain in us. Where the Holy Ghost is, there is no room for spiritual adultery with other spirits.

  22. AnAmericanMother says:

    My point was not so much that the Piskies are doing it, as that they are doing it right – i.e. professionally and artistically, while our home-grown loonies are not only loony but very bad at it as well. Their giant puppets look like something a bunch of third-graders put together on short notice for a PTA night.
    I suppose it’s a good thing that our rebellious brethren are so darned inept at being rebellious. But it’s just as embarrassing as the fact that their “contemporary” music is not just inappropriate and often heretical — it is objectively bad music.

  23. wmeyer says:

    AAM: “I suppose it’s a good thing that our rebellious brethren are so darned inept at being rebellious. But it’s just as embarrassing as the fact that their “contemporary” music is not just inappropriate and often heretical — it is objectively bad music.”

    On rereading, I see my error in understanding your point. And I agree, it is probably good our rebellious brethren are so inept. However, their ineptitude seems to cause no decline in their popularity.

  24. skypilot777 says:

    Maybe the Botafumeiro can be used to discourage the giant puppets from crossing over into the sanctuary, lest they be “knocked out of the park”.

  25. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The Spanish cabezudos, gigantes, dracs, tarascas, mulasses, bueyes, etc. are happy fun giant puppets of monsters and fabulous beasts. They are tall so that they can dance along with the whole crowd, including those on the second and third story windows of the streets. It’s like medieval Macy’s parade balloons, except on stilts. They are entirely suitable for the less solemn bits of a Corpus Christi celebration.

    Here’s the Spanish Wikipedia page, which shows puppets and fireworks beautifully combined at the Patum at Corpus Christi, in Berga in the Catalan area.

  26. Suburbanbanshee says:

    And if people were making giant puppets/felt banners of dragons for Rogation processions, nobody would object in the least! Giant puppets were meant to serve good, not evil!

  27. Cheesesteak Expert says:

    Anti-Czarists in pre-revolutionary Russia used these big heads every day.

  28. Kathleen10 says:

    I find Supertradmum’s experience with puppets intriguing. It sounds like you were demonstrating discernment, a valuable spiritual skill, and so opposite my dim experiences of puppets, which I loved and still do. I was weaned on Lambchop and Mr. Moose, but there’s alot of difference between them and puppets which represent animism in native worship services.
    If I personally saw these huge heads though, coming down the aisle, I would now get up and leave. Then write a letter to the priest and Bishop. I’m sorry, big, fat heads are just too much.

  29. Michelle F says:

    Here’s my two cents, since art is something of great importance to me:

    I have a hypothesis, very underdeveloped, that the spirit of an artist is reflected in his work. The nature of any other spirit (an angel or demon) influencing the artist also is reflected in the artist’s work.

    I looked at the pictures of the Spanish puppets on the Wikipedia page supplied by Suburbanbanshee, and these are nothing at all like the big-head “liturgical puppets” shown above and elsewhere.

    The Spanish puppets seem imbued with a Christian spirit. The Catholic “liturgical puppets” above seem to reflect ineptitude, as some readers said. I would call the spirit of these puppets a confused attack on the Faith, with the confusion being produced by the Holy Spirit, who has not (so far) let the people who make and use them go as far astray into the dark side as they could. The puppet in the picture provided by AnAmericanMother (taken at St. John the Divine?) looks like the spirit behind it is refined evil – something coming completely from and leading completely to the dark side. The puppets used at St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis (the link for those is in The Catholic World Report article), which are made by a non-Catholic company, are extremely close in spirit to those used at St. John the Divine’s “Procession of the Ghouls.”

    I think, then, that the problem isn’t with puppets themselves (although they have NO place in Catholic worship!), but with the spirit in which or by which they were created. They, like other works of art, convey to the observer the spirit behind their creation. When that spirit is an evil one, we, being incarnate spirits and blessed with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, can detect it.

  30. frjim4321 says:

    “Other recent sightings (among many) are documented on the web . . . “


    The only thing that is ever posted is the 2008 CTA. And it’s repeated over and over again ad nauseam. The first thing I learned in Social Research Methods was the anecdotal data is good for cr*p. I haven’t seen a puppet in more than 28 years and I’ve been around. I would bet that there’s never been a puppet in this entire province in that entire time.

    The links in this string don’t document a significant number of puppets anywhere except for the solitary CTA and some foreign thing that does not even portray a mass.

    Can you say “Straw Horse?”

  31. Maxiemom says:

    Is any one else beside me creeped out by those puppets? Not only do they not belong in any Mass, they don’t belong anywhere but a dump!

  32. Indulgentiam says:

    frjim4321 says: “The links in this string don’t document a significant number of puppets anywhere ”

    how bad do things have to get before you will be moved with pitty for your savior?

  33. PostCatholic says:

    The only service I’ve ever attended in which there were “big puppets” was a memorial service for Jim Henson, which was deeply touching and healing and not Catholic, so perhaps Big Bird and Elmo can be forgiven for having a liturgical role. I’m so glad I was in New York that day.

  34. PostCatholic says:

    Oh. Also, Supertradmum, one shouldn’t forget the delightful nativity addition of so many Spaniards to the nativity scene, the caganer.

  35. vox borealis says:

    The first thing I learned in Social Research Methods was the anecdotal data is good for cr*p. I haven’t seen a puppet in more than 28 years and I’ve been around.

    Umm, frjim, isn’t your personal experience anecdotal evidence?

  36. frjim4321 says:

    vb, pick up any social research methods text and see what they say about the generalizability of anecdotal evidence.

    Meanwhile, ask yourself why moderates like myself tend to entirely write off elements of the ultra right due to the intellectual dishonesty demonstrated by this recurrent puppet theme that is one rehash after the other of an isolated situation from four years ago. Not to mention the item from yesterday of the President’s “O-H-I-O” which was obviously little more than a still taken slightly before or after the actual pose. [Ahhhh… I see! They were not actually posing. That was… something else. Rabbit hole closed again.]

  37. wmeyer says:

    You know, besides the ever variable “social justice”, moderate may be one of the most abused terms in today’s culture.

  38. PostCatholic says:

    wmeyer, would you humour me and describe what you consider to be a “moderate”? It seems to me that many people on the far right no longer allow the possibility of spectrum between themselves and the far left. As a liberal reasonably in the middle distance on lefty side, I often don’t get it when people describe politicians as “ultra-liberal” who I consider to be centrist and to the right of my views (and to the left of many people who I do consider way out there on the liberal fringes).

  39. jameeka says:

    I was horrified to see these puppets for the first time at a mass at the Cathedral in Portland, Oregon several months ago. I cannot recall the theme, but many priests from around the country were visiting the city for something. As soon as I saw them at the entrance, I almost turned right around and left the church, but instead stayed for a little while, trying to keep an open mind. I left in the middle, was sick to my stomach, it seemed a parody of the Holy Mass .

  40. vox borealis says:

    @ frjim,

    Right. So isn’t you personal experience anecdotal evidence?

  41. nanetteclaret says:

    frjim4321 –

    Re: “province” and “generalizability” You wouldn’t be located in Canada by any chance would you?

  42. frjim4321 says:

    Might have a double post here due to computer issues.

    vb, all personal experience is anecdotal, but one situation in 2008 does not mean that this situation has been perpetuated always and everywhere for the past four years.

    nc, province as in not only the archdiocese but all the diocese of the state, and I am pretty sure “generalizability” is the common spelling in the U.S.

    Meanwhile does anyone have any evidence of puppets at mass in more than a handful of cases over the past five years?

  43. vox borealis says:

    @ frjim

    vb, all personal experience is anecdotal, but one situation in 2008 does not mean that this situation has been perpetuated always and everywhere for the past four years.

    I never said that it was. In fact, I made (and make) no comment one way or another on this story. I’ll leave that to all the moderates out there. Rather, I just loved the irony of your initial complaint against using anecdotal evidence followed immediately by counter-evidence that was…anecdotal evidence.

    By the way, your subsequent condescension in tasking me to “pick up a textbook” was a nice touch!

  44. vox borealis says:

    Meanwhile does anyone have any evidence of puppets at mass in more than a handful of cases over the past five years?

    Even one case would be infinitely too many!

  45. frjim4321 says:

    vb, the last person I met that was so exhausting was a borderline.

  46. vox borealis says:

    Sorry to tucker you out by poking a little fun at the ironic incongruity of your very words, frjim. Get some rest.

    Meanwhile, for some reason I have this image in my mind: http://tinyurl.com/9593jp3.

  47. frjim4321 says:

    Vb take ur meds and go to bed. [Wow.]

  48. vox borealis says:

    Very pastoral, frjim. And moderate, too.

  49. I promise you, if I see the word pastoral on the side of the blog, I come running. There’s something about that word… along with the word nice… that is just so mutually enriching when sisters and brothers use it in helpful dialogue and nice banter.

    Of course, all of that niceness won’t do much to repair the human element of the Barque of Peter.

  50. Mariana says:

    Supertradmum, AnAmericanMother,

    I’m so with you!

    “Indeed, is there still not something sinister about masquerades as well, as in carnivals, where masks allow for licence and violence? ”

    I’ve always hated carnivals and masques, though I had’t been able to analyse why, so – thanks!

  51. Kerry says:

    Why the big puppet heads? Easy. They are their Aristotelian formal causes.

  52. SimonDodd says:

    I’d be interested to see whether anyone has an actual reply to Fr. Jim once the mudslinging phase of the program is over. He asked a perfectly reasonable and pertinent question seeking to quantify the scale of the problem—”does anyone have any evidence of puppets at [M]ass in more than a handful of cases over th past five years?” VB’s answer is no; that s/he chose to spell “no” as “[e]ven one case would be infinitely too many” doesn’t change the fact that his/her answer is no. Can anyone give an answer that adds up to “yes”?

    Puppets in the liturgy are an absurd and silly business, but Fr. Jim is saying that it’s a myth, that it is an abuse that has happened in a vanishingly small number of cases. I think that point merits a more serious and charitable response than he’s received.

  53. Paul Young says:

    I’ll probably be banned for suggesting this, but I wonder if Fr. Jim is Fr. Z’s alt persona? ;-)

    [Nope. And, ironically, the term of art in the blogosphere for such a tactic is “sock puppet”, which ties nicely to this entry. However, no. And let’s close off this digression now.]

  54. AnAmericanMother says:

    We have WCCTA, St James Seattle & the cathedral in Portland OR on this thread.
    And looking on the internet quickly produced others. Somebody in Quebec and a church called St. Joan (which I have to think is that oddball crowd in MN).
    Given how “out there” this stuff is, and the improbability of it reaching the internet except by accident (except in a diocese with a very complaisant bishop), that’s quite a number. The whole thing ought to be discouraged in no uncertain terms.

  55. Lori Pieper says:

    The only liturgical puppets I’ve ever seen were the gigantic paper dragons carried in procession at the Vietnamese Mass in my parish. I think it was for the Vietnamese new year. I don’t know for sure, because of course, the Mass was in Vietnamese. However, they struck me as being not a silly and pasted-on innovation, like the radicals’ puppets, but something that was an integrated part of the culture.

  56. Sissy says:

    Paul Young, we’ll find out soon enough. I have a theory that Father Jim is the “sympathetic Catholic” who has been invited to pray at the DNC. ;)

  57. PostCatholic says:

    Thinking about it, I have seen puppets and costumes at nativity re-enactments. Good? Bad?

  58. frjim4321 says:

    Thanks for the complement but I am not a doppleganger.

    Still no evidence of more than a handful of puppet masses globally over the past five years.

    I could point out more abuses with exposition in one year in one diocese.

  59. wmeyer says:

    Still no evidence of more than a handful of puppet masses globally over the past five years.

    Open the window to 10 or 15 years. Or focus not on just the clowns, but add in “liturgical dance”, wymyn priests, and the entirety of Call to Action scandals.

  60. Sissy says:

    wmeyer said: “Or focus not on just the clowns, but add in “liturgical dance”, wymyn priests, and the entirety of Call to Action scandals.”

    Hey, don’t forget the Supersoaker water gun asperges!!! I would have pictures, but my camera got wet.

  61. wmeyer says:

    Sissy, thanks for the reminder! ;)

  62. frjim4321 says:

    So if it was over 15 years ago, what’s the problem.

    Look up “straw man” in the dictionary and there’s a picture of your puppet.

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