Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Liturgical Formation of Theologians

I was in high school when I first read Vittorio Messori’s The Ratzinger Report, a book-long interview with the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this book I was presented for the first time with the one of the premier intellectuals of our age. And what struck me the most was how obviously Ratzinger was a man of the Church and a man of prayer, and none of that stopped him from being a rigorous scientific thinker. I thought to myself, “I want to be like him when I grow up,” and a love affair with theology began.

There are many young men and women of my generation who were born and raised under the pontificate of John Paul II, but feel very akin to Benedict XVI. I know many young fathers whose love of theology, sparked by reading something Ratzinger wrote once and probably forgot about, has led them to do night classes and online courses in theology while raising families and putting food on the table. It is now officially “cool” to be a dogmatic theologian, and Generations X and Y are working their way to becoming the theologians of the future.

The life of these young theologians, however, is not what you think it might be. Many inspired to study theology have entered undergraduate or graduate programs in theology. Their lives are spent in classrooms and libraries, they live and breathe theology. But something is missing. The self-described orthodox among them are keen on getting the doctrine right and serving the Church in fidelity to the Magisterium. And so they slough through years of lectures, papers, exams and theses. If they can even consider an entry-level job as a professor, they then enter the rat race for tenure, the pressure to publish, and they are imprisoned in the ivory tower of academia. They look around them years later and then wonder what happened to their dreams to serve Jesus Christ and His Kingdom on Earth.

Many of them look for faculties with recognized names and faculty. Not a few of them even choose to go to non-Catholic faculties of theology where brilliant Catholic scholars can mentor them. They fully agree with John Paul II that they have to do theology on their knees, but what that means is usually praying to keep their head above water in the topsy turvy lifestyle they have chosen. They are faithful Catholics, and many of them carve out of their busy schedule time for Sunday Mass in their local parish. The parish with the bad preaching, happy-clappy hymns, and, banal language.

Formed as theologians in this type of environment, working as theologians in this type of environment, will inevitably take its toll. It is very easy to see theology as an independent science, a matter of thinking independently about religious matters so that we may enlighten others as to what has come to mind. It becomes an individual quest. And it becomes detached from the lived communion of the Church, and from the founts which inform theological reflection: ecclesial life and prayer.

Theology becomes an academic discipline in a rarified university setting where its practitioners occasionally emerge to go to Mass and a parish social function. Is this what is meant by the “ecclesial vocation of the theologian” who learns his craft “on his knees”?

The doctrine which is the sine qua non of dogmatic and moral theology is more than creedal statements of the Magisterium. The teaching of Christ is celebrated in the liturgical experience of the Church. A theologian will approach the mystery of faith only as well as he has encountered the mystery through the sacred liturgy.

The document Ex corde ecclesiae is important not because it establishes a minimum of Catholic identity by way of imposing certain prohibitions on university life: we don’t do plays about body parts that talk, we don’t think that latex will save the world, we don’t allow teachers to say like the fool that there is no God. The document is important because it re-establishes contact between the search for Truth and the Truth who is grasped most fully through the Church at Prayer. For the theologian to be worthy of the doctrine he plumbs, he must be able to say Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum and understand as much as he can about why that phrase is so important.

The Catholic educational world must be suffused with the spirit of the liturgy if it is to produce seekers of wisdom and if its theology is to be authentic.

It is not surprising that in Pope Benedict’s theology, we are always bumping up against the liturgy. He could do theology by a rigorous examination of the statements of the Creed in the light of all of the human sciences. But for him, theology flows from the encounter with Christ in prayer, which is both liturgical-communal-ecclesial, as well as private-individual-contemplative.

This is why the experience our theologians have of the liturgy will inevitably shape the way they explore the words they pray every Sunday in the Creed which makes theology possible. The weekly experience of trite man-made counterfeits for liturgy will weigh heavily in their thought.

But what if students and professors of theology participated fully and actively every day in a sung liturgy? What if their reflection on the Incarnation naturally began, not from the latest book written by a PhD on Christology, but from the Introit Dominus dixit ad me from the Midnight Mass of Christmas that rang in their ears and the homilies of the Fathers in the Breviary?

Christendom College, where I began to study theology, was a place like this. Every First Friday the college community gathered in the chapel for a Holy Hour and Nocturnal Adoration. And most of that time, we sang St Thomas Aquinas’ Prayer, O Sacred Feast, according to the peaceful and beautiful setting of Healy Willan. Doing that year in and year out, the prayer and its music are etched in my memory. If I ever stop to think about the Eucharist, the soundtrack of that song, the memory of our worship of the Sacrament, is in my mind. It does not take away from the conceptual theological rigour with which I must think about the Eucharist. But would I think about the Eucharist in the same way if all I had ever heard was a praise band singing Our God is an Awesome God?

The liturgy of the Church, particularly the Propers and the Orations of the Mass, are an inexhaustible source of inspiration for prayer and theology. When they are omitted, substituted, or badly translated and expressed, they are emptied of their power to form our minds as well as our souls. The Gregorian chant which is the Church’s own gift to mankind, word made music, must be as an integral part of the life of the theologian as it is of the choirmaster. The Graduale Romanum is as important tool for the theologian as Denziger’s Enchiridion symbolorum. Think of how one’s reflection on the Holy Spirit is different if one looks for the little light inside to let it shine in a Pentecostal blaze of emotional glory, than when one listens to the readings of the Pentecost Mass, hears the Factus est repente antiphon with its musical incarnation of tongues of flame, and sings the Veni creator spiritus.

There are some who say that diocesan seminarians and lay theology students need to experience the liturgy as it will be seen in their parishes. Anything else is just monastic, wasteful and irrelevant. But is not all Christian life ordered to contemplation? What can we contemplate, if not the truths of the faith that we apprehend through their ritual celebration? How can we transcend the limitation of our darkened intellects and weakened wills, if we are not borne aloft to heaven by the symphony of the Church’s praise? How can we pass from the noise of a passing world to the inner silence of mystery, if we do not spend much time with the Word of God transfigured in glory on the Mount Tabor of our richly nourishing Mass?

I do not know if Pope Benedict XVI has a plan for renewing the Church through the reform of the liturgy. I do know, however, that he is a first-rate theologian capable of presenting the timeless truths of the faith to the time-shackled victims of the culture of death. He can do so because he is a man of the Church and a man of prayer. And in being who he is, he gives us as theologians the best example of how to be thinkers in the heart of the Church. For those of us who have caught the “theology bug” from him, we do well to make sure that the center of our theological study, reflection and work is not our own professional career, but the Christ encountered in the Liturgy and life of the Church.

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