Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Priestly Personality and Ecclesial Communion

Many of us have experienced five or six parishes in the same city that often seem like different religions.

It is part of the ecclesiastical topography of many a mid-sized town in America. Many of the priests in these parishes are extraordinarily gifted, intelligent, and, each in his own way, very Catholic. There is some good natured ribbing between them, and occasionally some tension, but nothing serious. But many of the laity have migrated between these parishes for years, and not a few of them define themselves by the churchmanship of their pastor. The attempts of the clergy to blunt the more acute excesses of their fans and detractors have not been very successful. To some, this may seem like a snapshot of post-Vatican II Catholicism, it shows the creativity and diversity of the Catholic community. For others, it is a manifestation of the decomposition of unity within the American church.

At any rate, it is certainly different than American Catholicism in the 1950s. Then, people defined themselves by what parish they attended because that was the church closest to them. Curates transferred to and fro, and the Pastors remained for decades, fixed as the stars in the sky. In all of them, Low Mass was celebrated every day in Latin and at very few was a High Mass celebrated occasionally, usually with the Curate singing the Requiem from the gallery, because a pious donor upped the Mass stipend by 100%.

It must be said that the current dramatically different situation has been a natural outgrowth of what has happened to American Catholicism in the last forty years. Each parish and priest’s “style” responds to a real or a perceived need in the Church. Some choose one or the other for reverence, preaching, orthodox catechesis, social justice, convenience, good music: a whole constellation of reasons. Before, the clergy and their people would hop from parish to parish once a year for the Forty Hours Devotion. Now, clergy and their people feel more at their ease in a Jewish synagogue, Islamic mosque, or Unitarian meeting than the Catholic church down the street, because it doesn’t feel like home.

To some extent, this situation has come about because those needs are real ones, and no one parish could hope to respond to how people thought those needs should be met. But it also is a direct outgrowth of the whole concept of liturgical style, and how that style often masks (or unmasks) theology. Now, in this town I do not think that any of the priests want this situation to obtain or to continue.

But again, if we are to renew our parishes, not along sectarian lines, but along the way of reform and restoration that is part and parcel of Catholic Tradition, we have to go back to basics.

The concept of the active participation of the faithful is one of the great landmarks of Vatican II’s teaching on the liturgy, and has been enthusiastically welcomed by clergy and faithful alike. What has not been as happily accepted is the same Council’s clear distinction between the baptismal priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood of Holy Orders. In fact, they have often been posited as mutually exclusive. The hierarchical nature of the Church (and, may I say it, the monarchical episcopate and the infallible papacy) have been obscured by a vague sense that Vatican II desired a certain, or a radical, democratization, of the Church’s life.

Some thinkers have posited specific changes of the Liturgical Reform for creating this situation. It is not the scope of this essay to deny or validate that claim. I am sure, however, that there has been a loss of sight of what the liturgy actually is, and in consequence, it has made the liturgy, and the parishes where it is celebrated, susceptible to monopolization by the person of the celebrant or of those who plan the liturgy in a way unprecedented in Catholic history.

It has been repeated that the liturgy has a vertical and a horizontal dimension, and that the two will exist in uneasy tension until the liturgical consummation of all things at the end of the world. The post-conciliar Catholic experience has privileged the concept of community and the meal aspect of the Mass. It may be true that experience of the Mass before the Council did not incarnate those aspects of Catholic life as well as it could have. But it is also important to see that those two aspects can never be separated from two other important aspects: the concept of transcendence and the sacrificial aspect of the Mass.

As soon as the concept of community is inserted into the discussion, the question becomes: Whose community? An authentically Catholic understanding of community comes from Baptism. By Baptism, we become part of the community of faith that is the Church, the Body of Christ, and are part of a hierarchical communion of holy people, places and things. Because of that, we are linked to the community of the universal Church as well as the community of the time and place where we are called to live and witness to the faith. Community has often been interpreted in our time in a narrow way: community is restricted to those with whom I choose to have community. My socio-economic status, political leanings, theological opinions, linguistic limitations all become factors in how I define community, even if I am trying to escape or transcend them all. Community in a ecclesial communion is replaced by community in a self-defining clique. All of a sudden, people are no longer just Catholics. They are liberal/conservative, Latin/English, Tridentine/Novus Ordo, traditional/charismatic. Such a perversion of community can happen where community is interpreted in varying ways.

The next question becomes: What kind of meal? Each one of us has experienced a wide variety of ways of eating. Formal state banquets, family TV dinners, fast food in a drive-through, fun barbeques, and the parish pot-luck. In each one, who does what, how and what one cooks, and how it is served is important. When the Mass is restricted to a meal, all of these questions take center stage. When this happens against the backdrop of a narrow vision of community, then struggles ensue as to who determines the community and the meal.

The only way to avoid the disunity which comes from privileging community and meal as horizontal aspects of the liturgy is to place them in the context of their vertical correlatives. By transcendence, we realize first and foremost that the Mass is the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ to His Father in the Holy Ghost on the Cross, a sacrifice which is renewed in a very specific ritual form which both manifests and produces the hierarchial communion of the Church. When transcendence is foremost, community becomes the Church produced by the Eucharist, not by the community. By sacrifice, we realize that the fruits of that sacrifice are given under the sacramental veils of bread and wine, and that the ritual re-enactment of the Mass is not principally about re-creating a first-century meal in Palestine, but about connecting heaven and earth.

When community and meal are not balanced by transcendence and sacrifice, a priest, and by extension his parish, loses sight of what it means to be a priest. The cultic (as well as ministerial) liturgical role of the priest, defined by sacrifice and the sacred, is reduced to one aspect of the priestly reality, that of giving human support to people. The Catholic sacramental view of the priesthood is replaced by a Protestant view of ministry, and that in turn by a secular view of humanist employment. When these things are not balanced, a parish begins to see its identity no longer as formed by the reality they celebrate, each one in his own way, but as something they create each one according to his own arbitrary principles.

When this is translated into the liturgy, the priest becomes the presider who acts as a witness to what the community does. What the community does in this case still refers to God, but what is offered to God is a sacrifice of praise, and what is received is the good feeling that comes from the sacrifice of praise. In such an optic, the presence of God is clearly within the community. Any attempt to assert another type of presence, or a cultic transcendent liturgy is vehemently rejected. Yet Catholic teaching, even after Vatican II and the Ordinary Form of the Mass, has never denied that the Mass is a true sacrifice and the priest is a true sacrificial priest. In this optic, the direction, or orientation of the sacrifice, is on the sacrifice itself. Thus, it is on the Altar of Sacrifice, the Sacrifice which is made clear symbolically on the Crucifix joined to the Altar of Sacrifice, and really in the gifts of the Body and Blood of Christ when they are on the Altar of Sacrifice and given in Holy Communion.

The distinctly priestly character of the sacred liturgy does not, however, mean that the lay faithful are reduced to mere spectators of a re-enacted ritual that produces a sacrament which is their only participation in it. While the priest, standing in persona Christi capitis, truly celebrates the sacrifice according to the ritual form the Church has prescribed, the faithful participate in a very real way. They do not participate by way of doing particular actions in accord with how their community has democratically voted them into be done.

Because by Baptism, they are the Body of Christ, the entire Church is transcendentally and mystically present at the Sacrifice because the Body is completely united to the Head. The liturgy, therefore, is a corporate action in which the ministerial priest in his hierarchical and cultic function re-enacts in persona Christi capitis the sacrifice which has made the Body attached to that Head what it is, by its being in union with the Trinity.

This view of the liturgy is hardly clericalist. While a priest is necessary for the Mass, the faithful are by right of their being a royal priesthood just as necessary for the Mass because they are the Body of Christ. It is a nobler function for the laity, because it is not tied to mere human ways of doing. It stems from what the laity are as elevated by grace to unity with the divine. If the laity understand the dignity of their vocation within the liturgy, then they will cease to be preoccupied with the ways in which they can do things to give them a sense of purpose and praise. They will realize that they are the Body of Christ and all of their actions have meaning only insofar as they are in conformity with the Christ of which they are image and likeness.

Before any tinkering with rites and words of the Mass will produce renewal in the Church, clergy and laity must once again rediscover what, or rather who, the Mass really is.

When we lose sight of this, the clergy are sorely tempted to view their work in the vineyard as “their” ministry, and the laity follow. Priests with larger than life personalities and the parishes formed by them see themselves as “us” and others as “them.” A liturgy created and sustained by man, be it the priest or the liturgy committee or a panel of experts, will inevitably cut off those who identify with one particular community and its meal, from the Church and her Sacrifice.

We are now witnessing in our own time gifted and bright clergy who prefer the liturgy and the community they have created to the Sacrifice of the Church and communion with the Church created by that Sacrifice. They feel they have to choose between the Catholic Church and the community they have created. Others have rejected the corrected translation of the English Mass or papal instructions on the liturgy because they do not conform to the narrow community they have invented in their own minds. Priests separate God from His Church, charism from institution, because they cannot reconcile the liturgy of their hopes and dreams with the liturgy of a Church which is not theirs to create, but theirs to serve.

These are all false choices. The restoration of peace in the Church can come only when priests and people abandon the idols of their own making and return to a liturgy which is not about them, but entirely about the worship of God. The only choice a Catholic can ever make is to worship Him in spirit and truth. That has nothing to do with priestly personalities, styles of liturgy, or actions and reactions.
(Comment moderation is now in effect for this site.)