Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

A PHOENIX RISING FROM ASHES

Pope John XXIII, when he summoned the Second Vatican Council, is reported to have said that his intention was to open the doors and windows of the Church and let in fresh air.  The cynics will say that a lot more than fresh air blew in through the openings.  As a student in those days, I remember well that my schoolmates and I gathered each day at noontime to pray that the Holy Spirit would guide and empower the renewal that the Council promised.  And I remember hearing two opposing opinions about what to expect when the Council adjourned and its decrees were issued.  One the one hand were the scoffers who said that the Church was firm in her apostolic roots.  There would pronouncements, but they would merely reaffirm the Church as we know it.  Practices wouldn’t change.  Learn your Latin, they said.  If the vernacular comes, it won’t be in your lifetimes.

On the other hand, there were those students of Church history that said we could see some big changes as the Spirit once again, as the Spirit has periodically in the past guides the Church through reform and renewal into springtime of rebirth.

The image of the phoenix came to mind.  You know the legend of the mythical bird with the life cycle of 500 to 1000 years.  As the life is going out of the phoenix it builds itself a nest of twigs and then enters it.  The nest ignites and both burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes.  That is not the end of the story but only the beginning as out of the ashes comes a new, young phoenix reborn to live again.  The church has gone through similar cycles in 500 to 1000 year cycles.  And each rebirth has resulted in a Church that remains in its apostolic traditions but also sheds arcane practices and embraces renewal.

I remember a professor, in what from this present perspective, seems to have been in a prophetic mode, saying that we could expect a period of great enthusiasm in the days and years immediately after the Council closed.  Then, some years down the line there would be a reactionary period challenging the Council’s teachings.  Finally, when none in the hierarchy have had a practical experience of the pre-Counciliar church, the Vatican II Church would emerge.  That, he said, should take about a hundred years.  We laughed.  Little did we know what a seer he was.  Hearing him in the mind’s reservoir seems to indicate that we are in those reactionary days now.

Certainly not everyone welcomed the reforms as they began to affect the Latin Mass, the Tridentine Liturgy that had been offered the same way for 400 years.  Parts of the Mass said or sung in English was one thing.  But it was difficult for some who were used to being silent observers, and often spending their time at mass in private devotions to the saints and praying the rosary, to now have responses to make and, even more challenging, hymns to sing.  All of a sudden there seemed to be singing at every mass.  Then the altar turned around and the priest faced the people and invited them to full, conscious, and active participation in the Liturgy.  Some just wanted to be left alone in the last pews of the church to pray in isolation.

Some of you might remember the first days when the Greeting of Peace was introduced.  The Church was reminding us that those at mass were an assembly, a people come together to be the Body of Christ and celebrate Eucharist.  The Greeting of Peace acknowledged that reality, affected reconciliation were estrangement might have reigned, and, acknowledging the risen Christ in our midst, prepared us to journey together in procession to receive that Body and drink the Blood that would make us ever more one in Christ and ever more sent to be that presence in the world through acts of charitable caring.

Prior to these days, silence dominated the experience in church.  Jesus’ presence in the tabernacle with its burning vigil lamp, demanded silence.  Some thought it was sinful to talk in church, a matter worthy of confession.  Now, not only were people singing in church, some actually began to speak to those with whom they were assembling, even as they said, “Peace be with you,” and embraced their spouses and children, or shook the hands of those near by.  Many were those who rejoiced with these changes even as they struggled to understand them.  Sadly, often the changes were initiated without explanation leaving the people to wonder why.

Ah, but as I said, some are saying that we are in that reactionary or revisionist period now.  A few weeks ago I watched as an irate pastor, having processed into the sanctuary, waited for the last verse of the entrance hymn to be sung before chiding the people for having engaged in conversation in church before mass began.  “After all,” he said, “this is not a communal experience.  We’re here to worship Christ.  From now on, please keep silence in this space so your neighbors can pray.”

This same pastor is not alone as he attempts to bring back many of the artifacts of the pre-Counciliar years.  Six large candlesticks now line the front of the altar and a crucifix of significant size is in the middle.  Effectively he has erected a wall between him and the people.  The Presider’s Chair no longer faces the people but has been turned to face the altar.  There may not as yet be a communion railing to separate the laity from the priests’ place in the sanctuary; but the arrangement of furniture and candlesticks effectively accomplishes the same thing.

From the earliest days of the church, the Assembly stood to pray as a sign of their belief and participation in the Lord’s Resurrection.  The Missal of Pope Paul VI directed that the Assembly should stand from the Preparation of the Gifts (formerly the Offertory) until the last person in the Procession has received Communion.  Some found that difficult in the beginning, but soon realized that the posture changed their attitude and helped them enter more fully into the celebration.  Their sense of oneness with and responsibility for the others with whom they were gathered were also augmented.  The iconography of the disciples on the road to Emmaus made ample sense.  “Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the way?”  “We knew him in the breaking of the bread.”  That is to be our experience each time we gather to celebrate.

It is hard to understand why there are those who want to turn the clock back and restore that pre-Counciliar mass experience.  Having the people return to the kneeling posture does serve to humiliate them and emphasize the transcendence of the God who comes to us in Christ.  Standing helped the people to experience God’s immanence and Christ’s presence in their midst and their union with each other.  Now it seems that only the ordained should stand, ontologically different as some see themselves to be, while the laity are returned to their subservient position of humble adorers.  So much for the awakening in the people of their Baptismal Priesthood that altered them ontologically too.

“Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the way?”  With the Second Vatican Council came a renewed emphasis on the Sacred Scriptures, Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament Scriptures alike.  The Mass of the Catechumens became the Liturgy of the Word.  In the former days, the number of readings was limited to two – always a gospel reading and most often a reading from one of Paul’s epistles.  Rarely would there be a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.  And, responding to the Catechumens idea, the sermons were primarily catechetical, that is instructional for those preparing to become Catholics.  Most often the preaching had little or nothing to do with the readings.  The baptized could fulfill their Sunday obligation even if they missed the Mass of the Catechumens and got to church in time for the Offertory.

The renewed and restored service declared the Liturgy of the Word to be on a par with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Three cycles of readings helped us to journey from Advent to the end of the Church Year with either the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  John’s Gospel tends to dominate the Easter season and occasional Sundays in Ordinary Time.  The readings from the Hebrew Scriptures are linked by theme to the Gospel readings.  The preaching should “break open” the word with the assembly and provide the transition to Eucharist.  Alas, the word “should” seems apt even as it seems increasingly not to be observed.

A friend, a convert of two years, fervent in his newfound faith, told me recently that he had stayed home from mass one Sunday and by the next had decided that he could no longer attend the church of his baptism.  He said that he longed to have the Scriptures unfolded and applied to his daily life.  What he was experiencing was thin, at best, and of little importance in terms of application.  He was determined to make a journey of considerable length just to find a community where those needs would be met.  He and his family now journey an hour each Sunday to the parish where the preacher conscientiously prepares his homily and helps the assembly to make the appropriate applications.  It makes sense to move from the Table of the Word to the Table of the Eucharist.  And he and his family are prepared to face the new week with hope.

Many who have left the Catholic Church either to join another denomination or simply to leave and be unaffiliated, have done so because the preaching is lackluster, inane, or vapid.  I don’t know that many of the clergy would say that preaching is unimportant; but some do boast of spending little time in preparation, some even saying that they do not know what they are going to preach until their first words after the Gospel.  St. Paul said that there are many gifts (charisms) but one and the same Spirit.  Preaching is a charism and does not come automatically with ordination.  All the posturing in the world won’t make that so.

Many of today’s Catholic Christians are well informed theologically.  That has increased their expectations for substantive preaching and well-developed and prepared liturgies.  When both are lacking they become disenchanted, disillusioned, and discouraged.  So many leave.  Or, they stay on, clinging by their fingernails lest they slide away, and they pray for change.

There will not be a return to those heady days following the Council.  The Church has moved beyond that.  But neither will the attempt to re-impose the Tridentine Liturgy last.  It is appalling to hear those clergy say that it’s time to let go of those who are leaving.  When they are gone, the few who remain will be the core Catholics who will keep the true faith alive.  It is sad for me to think this, but we might be moving toward the day of the phoenix when the nest of twigs will be fashioned.  There may be a great conflagration.  But I do believe that the phoenix will rise again and the Church of Vatican Council II will flourish.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 30, 2011

Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10

1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13

Matthew 23:1-12

Once we hear the Prophet Malachi address a specific audience, the priests, it would be easy for those not of that category to sit back, relax, and not let the prophesy penetrate to the heart.  That would be a mistake.  There are chastisements in Malachi’s words that the whole assembly needs to hear.

Remember the prophet is divinely appointed to speak to the people what God wants the people to hear.  That is clear in this reading because Malachi speaks as if God were speaking.  The message hasn’t so much to do with predicting the future, the commonly accepted meaning of the word prophet, as it does with calling the people to a change of heart, a conversion, a return to God’s ways.  If you were to read from an early section of Malachi, you would know that God is upset because the priests are not following the Law.  Imperfect animals are being offered in sacrifice.  Blind and lame animals were considered polluted and therefore unfit to be placed on the altar.  The people do not escape the reprimand, however, since they are the ones who present the priests with the inferior animals.

The priests have become careless in their observances.  This is a source of scandal to the people, who in turn have become careless.  Practically, the people are acting like Gentiles.  If they continue in those illicit practices they will become corrupted, and with corruption will come weakness.  Those are the same conditions that resulted in the Babylonian Captivity.  This restored people could fall again and become contemptible and base before all the people.  What is the adage about being doomed to repeat historical mistakes if we do not learn from our history?

Malachi’s final question of the priests today has particular appropriateness for us.  We are the baptized.  Through our baptism we share in Christ’s priesthood.  Living out our priesthood means that we ought to be a people serious about praising and glorifying God even as we are committed to treating our brothers and sisters, indeed, all people with justice and charity.

For the past few weeks, the priests and scribes and Pharisees have had confrontations with Jesus and occasioned judgment-laden parables.  We have heard that these groups were plotting against Jesus looking for ways to condemn him.  Now the scribes and Pharisees are not present as Jesus addresses the crowds (those undecided about Jesus) and the disciples (those committed to following him).  Both groups ought to pay heed to the official teachers since they sit on Moses’ chair.  They are the official interpreters of the Law.  As such they have the responsibility to be prophetic with the people.  Observe all things whatsoever they tell you.  To follow the Law is to do God’s will.  But another adage seems to apply here.  Do as I say, not as I do.  Follow the Pharisees teachings but do not act like them.

The problem quite clearly is that the Pharisees may know the law well, they may spend time arguing about which law is most important, but they are not facilitating the Law’s intent.  They are being oppressive and judgmental and are breaking the spirit of the people.  What has achieved prominent importance in their lives is the image they project, how the people perceive them.  They do nothing to ease the burdens of the people, but rather add to them.  All their works are performed to be seen.  They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.  They love places of honor at banquets…and the salutation ‘Rabbi’”

Here I couldn’t help but think of a picture I saw recently of a bishop presiding at a Liturgy in the National Shrine in Washington, DC.  The bishop knelt at his pres dieu, behind him stretched out his cape magna, carried by his attendants.  It looked every bit as long as the train on Princess Diana’s wedding gown.  Talk about widened phylacteries and lengthened tassels!  The bishop is the chief shepherd and teacher in the diocese.  But splendor of garb and life-style make it difficult to see Jesus in the midst of that entire refinery.  I remember being impressed when Pope Paul VI gave the triple tiered papal crown to a museum as a historical artifact, never to be worn again in a papal procession.

The image of the church suffers today, not only in the United States but in Europe as well.  Obviously the sexual abuse scandal contributes to that, as does the inappropriate response of some bishops.  In Ireland, mass attendance in that Catholic Country is very low.  Numbers of Catholics are leaving the church and going to other Christian denominations or giving up the practice of the faith.  Pope John Paul II made public acts of atonement for past abuses, vis-à-vis the treatment of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and the Inquisition.  That attitude ought to be replicated by others in the hierarchy so that the image that emerges is one of a penitential church whose primary functions are to praise God in union with Christ, to be servants of the poor and seekers of justice for all.  Harsh judgments and ready refusal of access to Communion do not help that image except among the extreme conservatives among us.

But remember, the gospel is addressed to all of us.  To hear the proclamation focusing only on the hierarchy, thereby letting ourselves off the hook, so to speak, is a mistake.  Again, remember that we are united in Baptismal Priesthood.  We are called to worship God in prayer and praise, to co-celebrate Eucharist as full, active, and conscious participants, and to live as members of the Body of Christ, in service of one another and seekers of justice.  There ought not be a chasm separating what we say from what we do.  Another adage: Actions speak louder than words.  We should not be questing after power, but looking for ways to empower.  That’s what Archbishop Oscar Romero was about and may be why his canonization is not forthcoming.  Some in the Church saw him as an embarrassment.

As we listen to Jesus this weekend we can hear words of encouragement.  Practice humility, which is nothing more than recognizing that all we have and are, is gift.  Listen to your inner promptings.  That can be the Spirit inviting you to recognize your talents and make them available to God’s people through service so that the lowly can be lifted up.  Then Paul’s words in the second reading will resonate in your heart: And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.

Sincerely,

Didymus

YESTERDAYS COME AND GONE


This morning as I jogged my four miles on the track at the local recreation center, songs from the late 1950’s and early 60’s made up the white noise that silence otherwise would occupy.  Inevitably nostalgia envelopes when I get caught up in the music that played at sock-hops of my high school days.  I can imagine “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation” because that’s what I wore to my senior prom.  Remembrances of things past are one thing, but to think of being similarly clad today strikes me as ludicrous at best.  And I don’t really care that much for “Heartbreak Hotel.”

In these difficult times, it seems only natural to look back at those simpler times and idealize them.  Some have said that we have lost a lot over the years in spite of the amazing advances in technology.  Who knew what a forecaster from the past would say now that Dick Tracy’s wristwatch that was also his telephone is now reality?  And George Orwell’s theme of Big Brother watching twenty-four/seven isn’t that far fetched either.  The crowds amassing and shouting out their dissatisfaction with Wall Street have become a sounding board for a number of issues that have fostered a sense of angst and pervading ennui.  Strange how a sense of community seems to be developing among these dispirited individuals from various walks of life, economic strata and representing several age groups.  Shout and demonstrate as they might, suspecting as I do that the Holy Spirit is playing a role, they are not looking to turn the clock back, but set a new course for the future.  Societies evolve.  Revolutions happen.  No matter how nostalgic a people might become, yesteryears will not return.

It seems apparent to me that there are not a few who seem bent on turning back the Church’s clock.  The New Missal, with what some are calling an arcane language, not at all what some of us would call vernacular, is only one step in the attempt to get the Liturgy to resemble more the pre-reform Tridentine Liturgy.  Believe it or not, I have seen some local churches “remodeled” with the altar fixed against the wall, the tabernacle on the altar, with the old-style altar cards for the priest, and the communion railing restored.  The priest reads mass.  The laity, on the far side of the rail, “hears” mass.  There is little evidence of lay participation.  It won’t surprise me if women are asked to wear chapel veils in church the way they used to in days of yore.

The rector of the cathedral in the diocese where I live has announced that girls will no longer be allowed to serve at the altar.  Instead they will be invited to serve as sacristans, a service more apt to encourage them to enter convents and become nuns.  Boys, alone serving at the altar, just might be more inclined to become priests.  The rector’s goal is to increase vocations to priesthood and religious life.  Laudable, perhaps, in this era of declining vocations, but it demeans women who are being asked to be content to take on a subservient role.  The rector seems to think this is the Lord’s will.

This same diocese has announced the restriction regarding access to Communion from the Cup.  So much for the vision of “full, conscious, and active participation” on the part of the laity, called by Vatican Council II, the Body of Christ.  Besides the “danger” of profanation should the Cup be spilled, a stronger motive for the removing of general access to the Cup seems to be that it is no longer tolerable for the priest’s presence to be obliterated by the proliferation of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, i.e., Ministers of the Cup.  Some months ago, I was stunned to hear a local pastor use that reason to justify his announcement that Communion Wine would no longer be offered at morning masses.  Besides, he said, the Presence is complete in the Bread.  The Cup isn’t necessary for salvation.  That kind of thinking happens when in the hierarchical mindset the Eucharist is objectified rather than being an action.  Apparently Jesus didn’t mean it when he said, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it.  This is the cup of my blood…”  This sign value of sharing in the cup as a call to live charitably in the broader community is lost.

I see problems emanating from bringing the tabernacle back to the altar.  The faith community gathers as the Assembly to celebrate the Liturgy that results in Christ’s sacramental presence.  Some seem to be saying that the community ought to come together to acknowledge and adore Christ present in the tabernacle.  Instead of reverencing the Altar as the primary Christ symbol in the church, the tabernacle is acknowledged by the genuflection.  And it happens all too often that when it is time for the Communion Procession, the priest and deacon and a few others will receive from the elements consecrated at the Liturgy; all else will receive from the reserved sacrament – another denial of the assembly’s invitation to full participation in the celebration of the Eucharist.

It isn’t just nostalgia that makes me look back with fondness for those amazing days following the conclusion of The Council.  Certainly those were difficult days for society at large with all the causes that gave rise to masses of people demonstrating in the streets.  There was violence on college campuses as students, calling for war no more, were gunned down the National Guard.  Those demanding racial equality in the south were mowed down with fire hoses and beset by dogs.  A president, his brother, and a preacher-reformer were assassinated.  In the Church at that time, the People of God were being awakened and invited to embrace their Baptismal Priesthood.  The Tridentine Liturgy gave way to the New Missal of Pope Paul VI in 1972.  Now the Liturgy was at last in the vernacular.  Women and men were encouraged to see themselves as having an active role both in the Liturgy, (the assembly was to be co-celebrants with the priest).  The vision of the Council was that the laity would be actively involved in the life and mission of the parish.  Lectors and Eucharistic Ministers, catechists and leaders of the formation program for converts in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program, members of parish councils, in short, the people were waking to the idea that exercising the Priesthood of the Baptized meant being involved in practically every aspect of faith life.  Of course the priesthood and deaconate were not open to women, not yet, anyway.  But it wouldn’t be long before many among the faithful would be voicing the opinion that women just might receive from the Holy Spirit the charism deaconate and/or priesthood just as men do.  And some men might receive the same charism while not receiving the charism of celibacy.

The priest’s role began to change early on causing some consternation among many of the more seasoned clergy who were used to seeing themselves as being in sole charge of a parish, as being mini-monarchs within the parish boundaries.  “Father says,” was reason enough to justify any dictate.   Some of them were mystified by the “new breed” of clergy who had been trained to see themselves as pastors, shepherds, servants of the people of God, sharing ministry with them.  Some of the elders couldn’t understand why the “newbies” saw themselves as empowers of their parishioners gifts.  They suspected that if this new thinking became pervasive, the primacy of priesthood would disappear, just as would their disciplinary control.  The priest would be reduced to being just like everybody else.  Imagine that.

So it was that some came to curse the Council.  I remember sitting in a discussion group a few years ago and hearing a young priest denounce Vatican II as the worst mistake made by the Church in her history and dismissing it as of little significance or importance.  Needless to say, I winced as I recognized how different our theologies of church were.  There is a “trickle down” theory in economics.  Among not a few, there is a similar theory for Church.  God speaks through the pope, the pope to the bishops, the bishops to the priests, and finally the priests announce God’s word to the people.  Lost seems to be the ancient conviction that the faith resides in the people through the influence of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is a living organism, growing, evolving, and developing.  Like every other living organism, the church cannot “devolve.”  To do so would be to die.  Yet the current movement in the Church seems intent on doing just that, turning back the clock, getting the Church back to what she was before the dawn of the Council.  Banned should be any talk of the Assembly being co-celebrators with the presider at Liturgy.  Enough of this talk of Eucharist as action.  Some see such ideas as the sources of many of the problems in the Church today.  I remember being invited to a parish to speak to the parishioners about establishing a reservation chapel for the Eucharist in their church.  Among other ideas I shared, was the concept of the people of God coming together to celebrate Eucharist, bringing about the sacramental presence of Christ in the bread and wine, and in the taking and eating and drinking, becoming that presence to be sent forth to continue that presence in the community.  The tabernacle’s purpose was to be a place of reservation so that Holy Communion could be brought to the sick and disabled who were not able to be present for Eucharist.  A woman walked to the front of the group, huffing and puffing with indignation and denounced me for promoting a concept that would make Jesus a prisoner in the tabernacle alone and in isolation.  She said I should try to imagine how lonely Jesus would be if no one came to spend time in adoration.  I thanked her for her observation but reminded her that since the Resurrection there was no way Jesus could be imprisoned and isolated.  And, I said, I thought it was important to separate our devotional lives from our celebratory lives.  It is certain that Christ is sacramentally present in the Eucharist; but one must not lose sight of the fact that Christ is also present in the Assembly, just as he is present in the Word and in the presider.  Needless to say, she was not convinced and remained in her outraged state, even as she pitied me.

Shortly after my encounter with that woman I was surprised to read in a parish bulletin the message from the pastor urging people to sign up for hours of adoration, especially during the night, since the parish was initiating 24-hour adoration.  It would be terrible let Jesus be lonely in the tabernacle during those wee hours.

In my early years Catholics commonly spoke about “hearing” mass.  The priest read the mass for the people.  The Sunday obligation was fulfilled as long as one was present from the time the priest removed the veil from the chalice until he replaced it there after Communion.  You didn’t have to be present for what we now know as the Liturgy of the Word, then called “The Mass of the Catechumens.”  Except for the earliest masses on Sunday morning, because of the fast from midnight the night before, few received Holy Communion.  Those that did received on the tongue while kneeling at the Communion Rail.  There are those who would like to see that discipline reinstated.  Those who did not receive Communion were encouraged to make a Spiritual Communion.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but sometimes at Liturgy, I get the impression that the priest-presider or celebrant works under the guise that it is all about him, never missing an opportunity to call attention to himself.  Exaggerated gestures like those of opera divas make me uncomfortable.  Prolonged genuflections before and longer elevations of the Bread and Cup serve only to get the people to focus on him.  He doesn’t seem to realize that during the institution narrative the presider is to show the elements to the assembly.  The elevation takes place during the doxology at the conclusion of the Eucharistic Prayer.  The message seems to be that the priest is in primacy of place acting for the people.  The people’s place is to look on in admiration and adoration and not consider themselves as having an active role, much less a participatory role in the celebration.

While it can be said that some are all in favor of turning back the clocks, multitudes are not and demonstrate their displeasure with what is happening by leaving and going elsewhere for solace and the celebration of faith.  The numbers of departing Catholics is staggering and ought to be a concern for bishops and priests.  But in rather typical imperial fashion, there are those who have said that when the exodus is finished those who remain will be the outstanding “quality” Catholics that the church needs to face the future.  Whatever happened to the idea that all are welcome here?  Priests need to be much clearer about who can and who cannot receive Holy Communion.  Or so they would say.  The conscience of the one coming forward to receive has nothing to do with it.

The Spirit that roared through the Council as forcefully as on Pentecost will continue to move the Church forward to embrace the implications of the Council declarations and constitutions.  I believe that.  The Church will continue to evolve and the Risen One will be with us on the way.  In spite of the reversals, we will continue to recognize him in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup until he comes again.

More on this later.

Sincerely,

Didymus