Sunday, September 15, 2013

For the Minds and Hearts of the People

These days, for many reasons, I have been sorely tempted to try and work out a little reflection which would address (as I see it) a burning issue which many and greater than I have grappled with before me. Really, to the point of being counterproductive, people too many, albeit from various angles, have addressed this question in the Year of Faith, which is also a golden jubilee for the Second Vatican Council. More than anything else I see it for purposes of this discussion as an existential question, an attempt to clarify where we are and where we should be going. In the Broadway musical OLIVER our little orphan has a tear-jerker of a number he sings entitled "Where is Love?" The existential question we face for today may sound more prosaic, but it is no less heart-wrenching, namely, "Where is reception?" What constitutes reception of the teaching of the fathers at the Second Vatican Council? Is there a more rewarding path? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? 

For me it is ultimately the question and on so many fronts, oftentimes well-documented today but still not confronted by lots of ordinary folk both in the pews and on the cathedra. How dare we be discontent with the status quo and insist that with a whole range of things as we find them, especially in parish life, we have gotten off track and are either wasting time or more likely and tragically daily drawing farther from our goal, the Church's goal, of drawing others to Christ, for the sake of the life of the world!

Posing this question is not a pride issue as to who is right and who is wrong; it is a confidence issue for most of us and on a day to day basis. If I class a whole series of choices made or imposed (most obviously in the area of Divine Worship, but also elsewhere) as being wrong and of that world headed towards perdition, am I saying that the Church is foundering? What ever happened to the Church's indefectibility? Minor tweaks or course corrections like the new edition of the Missal, OK, but what is in play here is very much more radical. Whoever would have thought, let alone declared that retracing our steps was a viable option? Even in a worse case scenario, don't you just cut your losses and get on with it? Who in their right mind would consider recovering our lost patrimony a viable option? Never turn back somebody said, right? Where is reception if not in what we de facto achieve? What does reclaiming our past have to do with building strategies to face the "modern world"? How dare one pose the question as if the reception of the teaching of the Council had not yet or had only just begun? Some might say, well maybe it is just time for Vatican III.

Stated directly, I guess I would say that too many ordinary people have too closely circumscribed what it means to believe in the Church. En masse, not unlike fallen leaves, set out to the blustery autumn winds of a directionless secular society, we have been carried all over and been told that what was blowing was the Spirit.  Post-Enlightenment, pseudo-scientific notions of progress as value and as meandering in its search to reach points where it hasn't been, relativism really has often had the upper hand in compelling folk to move on. Once again and for many years another form of iconoclasm has reared its ugly head, not only sweeping our temples bare of images but discouraging the people from coming too. 

The great Hubert Jedin, among his other claims to fame, Catholic historian of the Council of Trent, argued that it is folly to attribute the success of the Council of Trent to some trailblazing insights which carried the Church across the threshold and into the modern era. He would say that kind of venturing forth is not an option and never has been, because it can't be; neither life nor the Holy Spirit works that way. Trent did what reasonable people always do when they want to fix things or plow ahead by the grace of God. They retrench; one regroups before moving ahead in battle. Fair to say or not, it sometimes appears as though in the post-Conciliar period (over the last half century), somebody forgot basic war college strategy about regrouping on the battle field before attacking. I will leave to you to cite the examples of heedless standard-bearers lunging forward without cover, without orders, without a reasonable plan of attack. 

By rights, I should move now to illustrate my point. I suppose I should plunge into a whole series of "red flag" issues, but full well knowing that some would turn me off and others would despair of the insurmountable odds of seeking remedy through a return to the wisdom and piety of the ages and then, as so many times before, they would turn away. I won't do it, because I don't think it is a constructive way of approaching the issue in order to move past the present and enduring impasse now that the worst of our iconoclastic period seems past. Even in my own case, I don't think it was grappling directly with the issues that got my attention concerning the essential importance of adherence to rubrics and celebration ad Orientem. Personally, I would say I ultimately responded, though haltingly, to authority in the person of Pope Benedict XVI. More of us, if truly docile to the promptings of the Spirit, should be responsive to the authority argument, but sadly that one comes up short an awful lot of the time. Would you believe that I know bishops who balk at both sound teaching and orders from on high?

By way of an example of a red flag issue, how about examining as detrimental to devotion and faith the present hurried fashion in many parishes where Holy Communion is distributed in the hand to people who can barely come to a standstill and then in some places are even discouraged from kneeling for their quiet thanksgiving after Communion? I said it, didn't I? And then what happens? Well, they look back at me annoyed or helpless. Sorry, I won't go there. Minds are either too foggy or hearts are too hard for certain topics. We altar boys of 50 years ago knew that already back then many priests were rushing along the rail and if you couldn't walk fast enough backward before him with the paten, then you'd get your toes stepped on (it did wonders for my coordination!). No, I am convinced that more is to be gained by better framing the issue than by another direct confrontation... Call it "war college strategy" and hope it works!

My tack will be less confrontational and perhaps less relevant, because more than anything else I want to frame my discourse and gain it more of a hearing among ordinary folk. Better perhaps to start on easy ground and let folks proceed at their own pace. That framing is an important part of the exercise in any case, and it also seems more constructive to me, if for no other reason, then well, because shunning obedience happens much too much these days. I hope the framing can help people on opposite sides of the issue face it better together.

I do so first by noting two talks sent my way on YouTube: one of Dr. Tom Woods, a well known Catholic author and speaker, and the other on technology and tradition by a young, clever, but perhaps too cutsy traditional priest, obviously a good man who, I pray, promises much for the future of the Church, that is, once he gets his youth behind him. Both men see the Catholic Tradition in liturgy and catechesis as sufficient for facing the deadly challenge of Relativism/consumerism today. Neither fears anything that secularists might have to throw at us. Both have clear ideas about regrouping and moving forward, not imposing but seeking to establish God's Reign, as gift, as pearl of great price. This would be a goodly part of my framing, perhaps even more marketable than some of the stuff prosperity Gospel preachers are selling in books and on CD's.

For the rest of my frame, let me examine perhaps a smaller pearl or a principle cast aside early on in the half century for reasons known only to somebody long dead (I presume) from the liturgical movement of the 1950's. That would be the practice of covering or veiling (not women!) but things in church, and most specifically altars and sacred vessels. Old folks like me remember that after Mass each day and after the last Sunday Mass, the altar boys placed a decorative covering over the altar. Most those I remember were of an off-white or a green colored felt and usually had lettering on them front and center, most often "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus". If you didn't get it centered everyone in church would let you know. Covering the altar was an act of devotion which required skill and attention often beyond that usually required of boys between the ages of 10 and 18. Here in the Kyiv Nunciature I found on my arrival that the sisters still use the cover: green for most of the year and violet for the two penitential seasons of the liturgical calendar... smile.

Even more universal than such altar covers were the veils for chalices in the liturgical colors, tabernacle veils and the very elaborate veils for ciboria inside the tabernacle. The disappearance of all these covers and veils, which symbolized reverence, could be explained by a customary or habitual change we used to refer to when it was novel as "stay-pressed". Fine fabrics and linens, "high maintenance" things have been tucked away for safe-keeping. I won't even try and interpret the disappearance of these four categories of covers or veils as a denial of the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. My point is that through such beautiful fabrics we intended to show reverence; dressing up altars, tabernacles and vessels remains yet today to the mind of everyone's child a recognizable sign of devotion.

In this matter of clothing or veiling, there exists one more horror which cannot be excused by appealing to "stay-pressed": stripping altars bare outside of the liturgy. The tradition foresaw the stripping of altars after the Holy Thursday liturgy until the Resurrection. It symbolizes the desolation of the Cross and Grave; it does so very clearly in a fashion understandable to all. For that reason alone, why would you do it any other time of year? At its dedication we prepare and deck a new altar with the utmost of care. In the Latin rite, we anoint the altar with Holy Chrism, we burn incense and light fires upon it before clothing it with altar cloths. In the Byzantine rite, the altar is washed with soap and water, with wine and with rose water, before its anointing and clothing. The Altar of the Holy Sacrifice symbolizes Christ; besides the Eucharist, for both Latin and Byzantine traditions, the actual conferral of Holy Orders takes place in proximity to the Altar. The identification with Christ in Holy Orders is rendered tangible by that proximity.

One of the abuses in liturgy today is this stripping so as to deck the altar again for each Eucharist. Disagree with me if you will, but the altar was prepared and decked at its dedication for a reason; a symbolism was imparted and should be respected with constancy. I do not renew the dedication of the altar. If it happened a year ago or a hundred years ago, it is done and the value comes in recognizing that constancy. Catechetical conferences in LA, beyond giant puppets and dance numbers, do irreparable harm in relativizing such absolutes and simply contradicting the enduring character of the altar's significance as a symbol of Christ.

I do not wish to go down in history as one fomenting liturgical wars. Not only is the position of liturgical abuse indefensible, but much of the innovation we have seen over the last half century was neither decreed by the Council nor stands in continuity with best practices aka good sense. Perhaps this is no more than a punch or a jab at others, but I guess I don't have a better strategy, in the face of disrespect for authority, to seek to win the minds and hearts of the people for a reception of Church teaching rooted in the Tradition.

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