Friday, May 10, 2013

Code - No Code - Second Opinion

Spending leisure time with family just now, at less than 4 months since Mom's funeral, the topic of hospital care and bedside manner came up. One of the real frustrations the family had to face was the lack of responsiveness or communication both on the part of nurses and doctors. In the estimation of one of my sisters the nurses are not uniformly so, some are actually quite good. Doctors, however, seem to hold their cards close to their chests. Even outside the hospital, like at a gathering, the pattern for emergencies and first aid seems to be active involvement until the ambulance arrives and then complete withdrawal in the face of the med-techs. The explanation in our suing society could be as simple as liability. Not sharing openly about the patient with the patient or with the family in a hospital setting could simply be a strategy for not provoking the family or the anxious patient to seek the famous "second opinion". Everything seems guarded; there is no room for immediacy. (By comparison, the Hospice environment was most consoling.)

Some might easily and perhaps rightly observe, well, we've dethroned our physicians; nobody is Dr. Anybody anymore: he's Ted or Bill and she's Mavis or Kathy. What do you expect? I really don't know how informality as a cultural trait impacts on the issue at hand. Some of it might be training as well. Upon reflection, however, I have to say that it is not just the medical profession. It is society in general, we're very much in a tearing down mode when it comes to institutions; obviously not even the Church is spared in such matters. I don't think that mistrust or hostility is the issue. Rather, as in the case of the medical profession, what worries me more is the behavior of the "practitioners".

Apart from the perennial and generally unfair question about what we can or cannot expect of a young priest, which is always more than we expect of other men his age (rightly or wrongly so), I'm missing what should set the ecclesial experience apart. That something which in all other fields gets an indeterminate but very romantic French name, but which for priests should be tagged in Latin: ex opere operato, and with no apologies offered. At issue is not the counselling setting or matters of governance, but the administration of the Sacraments, and not so much in the official sense that the Sacraments, if the proper form is respected, are assured of their efficacy for the one receiving, regardless of whether the minister be worthy or not, but rather also subjectively in that we believe Father does not get in the way of an action which is Christ's directed to the Father Almighty on behalf of His Church and of the individual there present or absent intended and prayed for.

As time goes on, it is this aspect of the "rupture" or discontinuity both in our liturgical tradition and in the way we live out Church which has me anxious. This is not what was intended by that romantic Italian word aggiornamento. This worry surfaced quite vividly for me in the course of my retreat in a beloved retreat center where I arrived in the midst of a very serious and solid mini-Ignatian silent retreat for priests. That each man kept rigorously to his own silent world with eyes averted, well, that is indeed as it should be. But as a couple of the priests needed singly to anticipate their departure and get on the long road home and celebrate Mass privately before leaving, I encountered something which never would have been the case just 50 years ago: a reticence to celebrate Mass in the presence of someone else in the chapel or to "intrude" (if you will) on another Mass being celebrated (this is no small chapel either). We are, to say it another way, light years away from the early morning scene of side altars in alcoves dedicated to private Masses in a monastic community or in a house of priests.

It may be wrong to go with a gut feeling, but I have the impression that this reticence or shyness stems from a very different perception of what it is that a priest celebrant is about at liturgy, and namely, somehow not so perfectly identified with Christ acting as once upon a time... Alter Christus? It is, but not only, a question of the Ordinary Form. I experienced this same reticence these days from a priest celebrating the Extraordinary Form.

It could simply be that as all are parish priests they may never have experienced the Eucharist apart from the context of having those others in church, many or few, assisting specifically at their Mass. Nonetheless, forgive me, but this shyness strikes me as something akin to a crisis of faith, when not of the priest himself, then of the community around him. Let it be clear, I don't think it is the environment of the retreat center, which is generally nurturing and evidently supportive of the priest's celebrating sine populo and in either form approved by the Church. It is something of the Church in a more general way and certainly in certain places more marked by the vicissitudes of these last decades. It is not the nurturing world I knew as an 8th grader (1963), taking my turn as server sacristan, coming to the Cathedral at 6:00 a.m. on weekdays to set up for the 6:45 Mass and then serving the private Mass of the director of Catholic Charities at Mary's Altar, being sure first that whichever of the three young associates who had Mass that morning at the High Altar was in the sacristy, otherwise alerting the housekeeper to knock on his door. The environment was positive and without apologies; it carried us all and thankfully so.

Nostalgia is not an option; very simply, it has to be possible to constitute a fully nurturing environment for Divine Worship today, which draws people to church, even 8th Grade boys at 6:00 in the morning, if need be. But what to do? Creativity seems to be called for, just as it does in finding spaces at home for nurturing. Our world is different and parents need help in sorting through lots of things which our parents and grandparents were mercifully spared: I can remember coming home after two years in Rome, in the summer of 1974, and discovering the new and sadly different world where extracurricular activities were keeping children out and away even at the supper hour; family meals were gone except maybe for Saturday night. Yet before microwave, dinner was simply in foil in the warming oven to be consumed when younger siblings returned from football, cheerleading practice, the school musical or whatever.

Truth to be told, I am always happy to hear folks discussing such matters and I hope that such reflection can lead to strategies. It is not only life in a war zone which is cataclysmic. Contemporary society would tempt us generally to something other than God-centered living. Sad as it sounds, I am looking at my two young priests (OF and EF) as canaries in the coal mine. We need more fresh air here below, lest they perish and we with them.


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