Holy Monday in Seville

Fr Luke made a very profound point yesterday as we watched procession after procession in the Cathedral of Seville on Palm Sunday night. As priests, we are so used to being the ones who guide others spiritually, who tell others to have faith, that we forget that we have to be led as well. It was a pious thought, but we were able to put into practice today.
Don Pedro let us observe the processions very much as outsiders yesterday. This morning he said, “OK, so today we are going to do the processions my way.” As an Anglo-Saxon, I have always seen gate-crashing as a particular form of rudeness. I could never imagine just walking around in and out of processions like I owned Seville. But, lucky for us, Don Pedro does not have any of that Victoria reserve, and so we spent most of the day winding our way through one procession after another, and most of that time directly in front of the floats. Not only did no one consider the native son and his two American friends as interlopers, we were always guided to the spot where we needed to be.
Of course, directly in front of the floats you have Spanish army officers in their black plastic hats, servers in their albs and dalmatics, precentors of the confraternities with sticks they know how to use to keep order, and lots of people. There is perpetual motion, and even when the precentor uses the silver knocker to signal a stop, the stop is less a period than a comma, a brief pause in an other wise endless undulation of bodies.
How could there not be accidents? Men carrying literally tons of precious metal, sixteenth-century statues, velvet cloths, candles and flowers in abundance. What could go wrong? Everything! But it doesn’t. How? These processions are not choreographed with the precision of military ceremonies; they are as natural as the Sevillians are natural.
During the procession today of the Condemnation of Christ by Caiaphas and Annas, I began to see why nothing ever goes wrong. Trust. As a priest, I say I trust in God, I tell others to trust in God, but deep down inside I am as much of a pragmatic cynic as anyone else. How do you walk backwards in and through hundreds of people when there is a two ton float coming at you with men underneath it who can’t see what is in front of you? The costoleros who carry the floats are practically blindfolded and do their work in the hot, sweaty undercroft of the float. Their only instructions are given by the loud banging of the knocker. It is all instinct and obedience. For those in the light of day participating in the procession, everyone guides each other by hands, arms and elbows as the procession moves its way as one united motion.
This procession is different than many processions, because at certain points, the costoleros in unison not only jump high in the air, but they move as rapidly as 36 men holding two tons on their backs can move. The effect is one that I can only akin to the most majestic waves of the ocean, where sea foam is replaced by silver filigree and salt spray by velvet and lace. And the thousands of people that are in the procession all have to trust each other and work together as a team, all in instinct to the need for survival and obedience to the knocker. And as we three priests were right in front of the float, we more than anyone else had to trust the men who had our back, quite literally.
And so the dance began: tons of metal and statue rising up and down rolling forward like the crashing waves on the seashore, and the masses of people going with it like so many perfect surfers. But what we saw from our vantage point was not the azure sky or the reddening afternoon sun. At one crest of the wave it was the resigned face of the Savior, then a slave holding on his back the Law, another time Annas looking confused and bewildered. The music was a plaintive soliloquy of loss, pain and sorrow, and as I let myself be moved physically in this incredibly trusting way, I was able to surrender my own self-will to the obedience of the motion initiated by the Christ in whose honour this dance was held. Had I stood motionless, or tried to do my own thing, I would have been crushed, and would have imperiled other people’s lives. But I resigned my own will to the nature of the thing, and as such experienced a movement, bodily and spiritually, which lifted me beyond myself to trust in the LORD and my fellow men.
I nearly almost fainted from the beauty of it all, and that’s not being overly dramatic. It was that powerful. And when we finished the procession, we realized that we had traversed half of the city center of Seville in what seemed like a moment. But for Don Pedro the Indefatigible, we had other Prcoessions to participate in, each time as close as the first.
We followed Christ El Cautivo, bound in ropes and clothed in the purple livery of mock royalty. We followed the Betrayal of Christ by a Judas who was inches away from the kiss that sent the Prince of Peace to the Cross. We followed the Blessed Mother under her several titles and in her manifold dress as she followed her Son, pierced with a sorrow none of us can ever imagine. All the while, the music alternated between the minor Passion symphonies of the mysteries of Christ and the prophetic notes of joy that accompanied the Lady of Sorrows as she grieved for the pain of her Son while basking in the faith in his Resurrection to come.
Back in the parish of Moron, preparations were underway for the village’s Spy Wednesday procession. Thousands of dollars of flowers arrived from all over Europe as the men who would be disguised under robes unloaded and prepared them and the thousands of dollars of candles that would go on the one float they were preparing. It made me wonder. How on earth could a small village afford all of this? There were no wealthy Sevillian patrons of the aristocracy who could underwrite the thousands of dollars that went into making one float, much less the thousands of floats that floated all over Andalucia every Holy Week. And none of that compared at all with the inestimable value of the floats themselves.
My question was answered. We went to another village called El Coronil where a team of grandmothers were working overtime making pestinas, fried pastries soaked in honey, lemon and sesame fabulousness, as some wag called it. We knocked on the door and were ushered into the Kitchen that Makes Millions, a modest kitchenette in someone’s home where the abuelitas of El Coronil make this delicious pastry.
At first it seems odd to make pastries of this lavishness during Holy Week. I thought they must be for Easter. But in Seville, penance during Semana Santa does not apply to food. According to venerable custom, anyone in Seville who participates in the processions is exempt from fast and abstinence during Holy Week. The anxiously awaited fax from the Archbishop’s Palace arrived on Don Pedro’s IPhone granting those who participate a dispensation from fasting and abstinence on Good Friday.
So are the Spaniards weaklings who just can’t fast one day of the year? Are they really that pathetic? Actually, the immense physical exertion that those who participate in the procession, particularly the costoleros and the penitents, endure, is so great that they must eat big and healthy meals with lots of protein and carbs to manage. The bodily penance that they endure is more than anyone can imagine, and, in order to do the penance, they have to eat.
This is where we see the wisdom of Mother Church even in her laws on fast and abstinence, and how she adapts herself to unique situations all over the world. It also gives a unique character to the ascetical life of Seville’s Holy Week. The Manichean, Jansenistic, Puritanical tendency that stalks Catholicism from time to time tends to want to whitewash, denude and hyperperfect everything in a Pelagian attempt to use soulless penance to channel grace. Thank God for Seville and its Baroque piety, which destroys that heresy. For this spirituality, penance is done in an extreme way amidst a sumptuous and sensual display that delights the senses and moves the heart. Just as in the Incarnation, Divinity charges mortal flesh with the grandeur of God, during Holy Week, mortified flesh and bone meets a Christ whose real human suffering is retold in a display of beauty, chant and light.
As the day went on and the procession continued, silence descended upon the city. As one procession after another prepared for the Procession of the Cross, silence reigned. We were entering into a place where words and sound could do nothing. There was only the Cross, and that to end the evening. The silence of the tomb came down as so many droplets of dew from the heavens, bringing Seville to serenity.
But, the Blessed Virgin of the Waters was not far behind. And so, the silence was unexpectedly broken by a band out of nowhere, as joyful notes poured forth into a torrent of expectation for what would come on Easter Sunday. The great wood and copper doors of the Cathedral were closed shut and Seville had an early night at 1am.
Check out my bad photos at the Picasa Web linked in the first article, Semana Santa en Sevilla.


Semana Santa en Sevilla

I knew I was not in America anymore when on the night before Palm Sunday we walked into a bar in Moron de la Frontera. The bar belonged to the Confraternity of Loreto, and the men and their sons were all abuzz, for the next day would begin once again the most famous celebration annual celebration of Holy Week: Semana Santa in Seville. The men were comparing the knots that had developed on the backside of their necks after years of carrying floats called pasos in these celebrations. And the young boys looked up to their fathers and the day that they too would carry in their bodies the sign of the Passion they celebrate in such a sumptuous manner.

Two Americans, Fr Luke Melcher of Louisiana, and I, went to visit our friend Don Pedro, who is Chaplain to the American Air Force Base in Moron as well as pastor of two parishes outside of Seville. This Palm Sunday morning I celebrated the Mass in the parish of Moron for the community there, and after Mass we began the great adventure Semana Santa in Seville.

I had heard of the world-famous celebrations of Holy Week before. I had seen the pictures on the Internet and Youtube videos. But nothing would prepare me for what really is the largest Catholic block party in the world. Of course, before we could begin, we had to have lunch in the one of the chic quarters of cosmopolitan Seville and plan out our day.

Good thing there is a IPhone App for Semana Santa in Seville. But we also had the ABC Newspaper’s several sheet spread timetable to choose which processions we would follow. As we drove into the city, we were listening to the ESPN of Religion, a running commentary on the radio of every moment of every procession. Of course, having as our guide one of the most well-connected young priests in Spain was like having an all-access pass to be up close and personal with this amazing religious event.

In the early afternoon, we were able to work our way to the area around the famous Cathedral with its imposing belltower, the Giralda. To say that it was crowded does not begin to describe it. But on this incredibly hot afternoon, what struck me was how everyone was dressed. Nowhere in all of my travels through the Americas and Europe have I ever seen such a large number of snazzily and preppily dressed people. I don’t know if the indomitable blogger of the Sartorialist has ever been to Semana Santa, but he has no idea what he is missing!

Every procession follows a similar pattern. The first float depicts a mystery during the events of the Passion. The statue compositions rest upon wooden or silver and gold tables and often weigh up to two tons. Beneath them are from 36 to 56 men who carry the float. Each float has an elaborately carved knocker. A precentor uses the knocker to give instructions to the litter-bearers, who are hidden beneath the float by richly embroidered velvet cloths. Water boys occasionally steal under the floats to bring these men something to hydrate them. The famous penitents, in their distinctive robes and hoods, process in full anonymity. Behind the float depicting the mystery of Christ is a band, always playing a hymn in a minor key. Not far behind are more penitents. Many carry silver staffs, crosses, or the Rule of the Confraternity that sponsors that procession, often a book itself encased in silver.

Each procession also has another float with a statue of the Blessed Virgin, under a canopy, often of fine silver filigree work. Each canopy as eight or ten poles, and tassels of precious metal. Around the Blessed Virgin is a forest of candles as well as wax flowers as well as real flowers. The interesting thing about these floats is that everything is in motion. While the candlesticks, poles, and vases are all attached, they are attached in such a way that the entire float moves graciously and there is a peculiar sound of metal in perpetual motion. Acolytes with crucifix and torches are vested in dalmatics of velvet and couched gold embroidery over handmade lace albs, and are accompanied by several thurifers with so many charcoals in their censers I still do not know they did not melt every thurible in Andalucia. Following the Marian float would be another band, playing lively music in a major key.

The music for the procession that the bands use dates mostly from the 19th century, and not a small portion of it sounds suspiciously Puccini-inspired. Occasionally from a balcony a Spanish VIP with a stentorian voice would intone a saeta, a haunting Arabic-sounding serenade to the Blessed Virgin.

While this is the general procedure for a procession, it is important to understand that at any given time, day or night, for an entire week, there are several elaborate processions going on at the same time. As Our Lord of Victories, triumphant in his resignation to the chalice of suffering was making His way in front of us, behind us He was also marching triumphantly into Jerusalem as two processions skirted opposite ends of the plaza.

One of the most edifying things was the comportment of the faithful. Extraordinarily well-dressed young men and women climbed on top of anything that could give them a better view and kept a reverent silence when the floats passed, and the Sign of the Cross was reverently made. In some of the processions, those who processed walk backwards as a sign of reverence to Our LORD and Our Lady.

After several hours of watching processions under the blazing Andalucian sun, we stopped into Starbucks (America, America everywhere) for cold Frapuccinos. By this point, around 9pm, I was ready for a liter of sangria and bed. But the night had just begun.

We went to the Cathedral where the Confraternity that Don Pedro’s family has belonged to since time immemorial, La Estrella (Stella Maris), was beginning its procession. He was avidly looking for his brother, but how do you find your brother when he is dressed in a robe and a hood along with thousands upon thousands of other penitents? But they did find each other, and so Fr Luke and I gazed upon the delightful scene of two brothers, one a priest and the other penitent, chatting in the nave of the Cathedral, one shrouded in anonymity and the other in his clerics, taking part in a ritual that existed centuries before Christopher Columbus, who awaits the Resurrection of the Body in the Cathedral of Seville, ever thought of a voyage of discovery.

We spent several hours in the Cathedral, working our way through the endless files of people in procession. The Archbishop of Seville and his Auxiliary were seated in a makeshift throne room in a side chapel where we were granted a brief but warm audience. But one of the most emotional scenes of the day was when the Archbishop rushed to one of the floats, and went under it and knelt before the men who carried it. With those poor men who had been carrying the float through the streets of Seville for hours he prayed. He asked them to pray with him for vocations to the priesthood, for holy priests to shepherd the flock of Christ. He prayed for World Youth Day, for young people. He begged their prayers and prayed with them. Fortified by the blessing of their shepherd, at the sound of the knocker, the men in unison jumped as high as they could in the air and the procession began once again.

The greatest honour of the day was to accompany this procession through the streets of Seville, rather than being mere spectators. We saw so many tears of gratitude, prayer, and repentance. We saw so many acts of kindness to the penitents and the float-bearers. And what an edifying thing to see among the hooded throngs barefoot children walking through the streets with candles taller than they were, all meditating in their own way on the Passion of Christ.

It was quite the introduction to Holy Week. It is now after 3am. The streets of Seville are still thronged with worshippers, and they are still at it. They are predicting rain this week, but as absolutely exhausted as I am (and I can only imagine those who carried the floats or walked barefoot through the streets in procession), I am praying ad repellendam tempestates. I do not want to miss a minute of this extraordinarily Catholic manifestation of faith.

As one float passed by of Christ silent before the unjust judgment of Pilate, I was moved to pray for the Church, for her priests, for those who have been abused, for those who have been accused falsely, for all of those who do not have a voice. Somehow the prayer that comes from meditation over a scene like that seems so much useful than the angry words, political machinations and ideological battles which ruin our lives in society and the Church.

Something like Semana Santa is not strictly liturgical. It does not correspond to historical-critical interpretations of Scripture. It is impervious to the politically correct mindset of those who would force reforms on the Church hardly consonant with Catholic tradition. It is folkloric, but it is not pagan. It is a massive movement of humanity in dialogue with the power of the narrative of the Passion of Christ. A movement which brings tears to the eyes, which are tears of joy, repentance, fatigue, and wonder.

The world needs Semana Santa. The world needs Semana Santa because in Seville at least, people recognize their own fragility and limitations in a dramatic way. But they recognize even more that there is Victory in the Blood of Jesus, and they call down the power of that Blood upon them and the whole world in prayer, penance and works of mercy. I can hardly think of a better way to live Holy Week than that.

Check out my PicasaWeb Album of Semana Santa pictures I will be updating ALL WEEK LONG!

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.

Challenging the Liturgical Status Quo

For the last year, I have been doing my doctoral research on the French Jesuit Henri De Lubac (1896-1991). This mild-mannered man who played a heroic part in the resistance to the Nazis in France was catapulted to a dubious fame in 1946 when he published a little book called Surnaturel.

The book was ostensibly little more than an historical survey about the concept of the supernatural in Catholic theology, but behind it was a more ambitious project. De Lubac, together with some other French and German theologians, was convinced that the evil of secularization had arisen in part because of a decadent interpretation of theology that had gripped the Church ever since St Thomas Aquinas. For them, the only way to shake the Church out of its fortress mentality and allow her to engage with the world was by renewing theology to re-establish contact between contemporary thought and the early Fathers of the Church.

When De Lubac charged that the noted commentator Tommaso di Vio, better known as Cajetan (1469-1534), had falsified St Thomas’ teaching on the supernatural, the theologians of the day reacted bitterly. For several years, the debate raged in French theological magazines. De Lubac was removed from his teaching post in Lyon. Then, Pope Blessed John XXIII was elected Pope and convoked the Second Vatican Council. This theologian was asked to be a consultor to the council, and his name was inscribed among the theological glitterati who comprised a school that came to be known as the nouvelle theologie. In the wake of the Council, De Lubac, who had been known before it as a dangerous radical, was just as easily dismissed as a reactionary throwback. De Lubac had always maintained that the answer to the question How is God related to human nature? was crucial, not only for theology, but for every aspect of the Church’s life. Within a decade after the Council, theologians were speaking of the twilight of the supernatural as if it were a theological category which had passed into the land of fairy tales, along with limbo and the doctrine that outside the Church there is no salvation.

De Lubac, to his credit, made some valid criticisms about the theology of the supernatural as had come to be explained in his time. He also rejected in great part the entire neo-scholastic system in which theology had been taught for centuries, but did not foresee that his name would be invoked for every kind of trend from liberation theology to Radical Orthodoxy, whose tenets he hardly would have supported. Yet his critique of the theology of the supernatural was accepted prima facie for generations, as it turns out, rather uncritically.

De Lubac’s rejection of the post-Tridentine Baroque commentatorial tradition was part of a fascinating phenomenon in mid-twentieth century theology. Throughout Catholic academia, there was the growing belief that there was something not quite right with the Council of Trent and what came after it. Theologians looked at the often dry and boring manuals of theology of the time and compared them with the vivacity of Patristic and early Medieval authors, and found the former wanting. These academic accurately foresaw the wind of secularism.

What they did not see was the whirlwind of the disintegration of a unitary method of Catholic theology. There had always been pluralism in Catholic theology. Every major university had chairs in Dominican, Franciscan, Jesuit, Thomistic and nominalist theologies. But the critique men of the Church like De Lubac made of the hegemony of neo-Thomism in their time actually gave a tool for others to replace legitimate theological pluralism with doctrinal disorder and chaos.

In matters liturgical, there was also the growing feeling that what happened to the liturgy at Trent and afterwards was somehow not quite right. Eminent liturgical thinkers like Louis Bouyer decried what they saw to be the theatricality of a baroque liturgy removed from the active participation of the people. They looked backwards to the liturgical experience of the primitive Church as having some kind of normative status even as it was admittedly shrouded in mystery.

Pope Pius XII, who was very much in favour of theological progress and research, did see the dangers with such an approach. His encyclicals, Humani generis and Mediator Dei, sought to put thinkers on the alert that such thinking was really anachronistic, and could actually harbour dangers for the integrity of the faith. The exuberant optimism of the conciliar period, however, confident in its own scientific claims, ignored this warning, and continued to propose that the only way forward, for theology as for liturgy, was to go backwards into a better time and forwards into an even better time. What had to be done was not only challenge, but eliminate, the status quo. In doing so, a new Church could be sung into being which would be more authentically Catholic.

The chief problem with this mindset is not the often sincere intentions for ecclesiastical renewal which accompanied it. This problem is expressed in two postulates. The first, is that there existed in the past some point of reference in which the liturgy, theology and Church life was pure, was what should be. This is incorrect, because the Church is never pure and what should be will only be in Heaven. The second, is that placing such a vision in dialogue with contemporary trends will renew the Church. This is also incorrect, because it assumes that such a dialogue and a renewal is always and everywhere possible.

After the Second Vatican Council, these two errors accompanied critiques of liturgy, theology, and Church life from left, right and center. Catholicism in the latter half of the twentieth century had imbibed the myth that there was out there a perfect way to do theology, make liturgy, and be the Church. If we read the memoirs of Annibale Bugnini and Cardinal Antonelli, both deeply involved in the Liturgical Reform and also divided by it, we can see that these two men in different ways took these postulates to be true, differing only in the details.

The assumption that the liturgy was broken and needed to be fixed, that theology was broken and needed to be fixed, that the Church was broken and needed to be fixed, began well before Vatican II and has continued unabated every since. People’s assumptions of how all of this came to be broken, and what must be done to fix it, have divided Catholics ever since.

The Neo-Thomists who reacted to De Lubac and others associated with the nouvelle theologie often refused to entertain legitimate points of their criticism because it was not expressed in a form they recognized. Likewise, those who felt themselves attacked rejected everything dear to their attackers because they were being attacked. A similar thing is happening with the liturgy. Many self-appointed proponents of what is now known as the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy defend one particular form of liturgy without always engaging concerns about the way in which liturgy is celebrated and intended to be. (One thinks of the rather odd situation of those who defend the 1962 Missal and the 1955 Holy Week Reforms without granting that they were as much the brainchild of Bugnini as the 1970 Missal). Likewise, liturgical revolutionaries have successfully poisoned the minds of many an otherwise faithful Catholic against liturgical forms of previous and current times because they do not conform to standards which they themselves set and which often have little to do with the liturgy at all.

In the past ten years, some younger theologians who were born after the debate over De Lubac’s Surnaturel and for whom the mid-century theological debates are about as personally relevant as those at Nicea I, have begun to ask themselves: What was the fuss all about anyway? In doing so, they have pointed out that De Lubac, even as he rightly pointed out certain aspects of the supernatural problem that had been obfuscated and hoped for a renewal of theology, still created more problems than he solved with his answer. These theologians do not accept De Lubac’s critique as unassailable and are realizing that the wholesale rejection of the Baroque commentatorial tradition was a mistake. They do not seek to return to a pre-St Thomas, pre-Cajetan, or a pre-De Lubac position. They do seek to renew theology by questioning what had become universally accepted, namely that the Baroque theology was bunk.

Liturgy is experiencing something similar. A younger generation, which does not have the baggage of the experience of Vatican II, are questioning the fundamental assumption that the Tridentine liturgy was bunk and the liturgical reform was good. They do not seek to return to a pre-Trent, or pre-Vatican II position. They do seek to recover a celebration of the liturgy in which there need not be temporally chauvinistic dividing lines.

So what does this mean for the future of the liturgy? There will continue to be those who argue that there will be renewal in the Church only when we go back (or forward) to a certain liturgical text, or time period, or modus celebrandi. The temporal chauvinist is always tempted by time: to be progressive or conservative, to go backwards or to go forwards. But there are also those within the Church who argue that in the Church’s life, whether it be at the Altar in the liturgy or in Classroom in theology, there is no time, there is no progress or regress, backwards or forwards. There is only the extent to which our prayer and our work are in fidelity to Christ and the timeless Revelation of His Truth for us. Authentic Catholicism is not within the realm of how we get theology, liturgy, or the Church right. Authentic Catholicism is right because it is encounter with the fullness of Truth celebrated in Beauty.

In this optic, the most important question is not to decide for ourselves how to worship: what words to say in what language (hieratic or everday English, Latin or vernacular), what rite to celebrate (Tridentine or Byzantine or Amchurch), or what music to accompany the narrative of our lives of faith (chant, Lifeteen or Viennese orchestral masses). When we realize that Catholic worship is the self-oblation of Christ to His Father through the Holy Spirit for the Redemption of the world, the fruits of which we receive in Holy Communion and which constitute the Church herself, and give her a theological and evangelical mission, then those questions will work themselves out.

We are right to challenge the liturgical and theological status quo. But we are wrong to do so if we think that by doing so, we can foist upon the Church our own pet project vision of how things should be. We should always challenge ourselves as to how we enter into the Mystery of Salvation, of how our celebration of the Paschal Mystery is not bound to criticism, but to Glory.

Some Brief Remarks: Fr. Smith’s Mutual Enrichment Recipe

I thought I’d try a new strategy in modifying my writing style to be much more “Strunk and White,” as my graduate advisor always, yet vainly exhorted me to try. So, succinct and cogent are my goals here.

As Fr. Christopher Smith provided us all a template for one of the stipulated goals of the Holy Father’s Summorum Pontificum, just today Fr. Cody Unterseher provided the readership at PrayTell with the opportunity to state their positive vision as to what constitutes worthy worship at Mass.

We have synchronicity, at long last.

So I will just give bottom line reactions as a pragmatist first, philosopher second to Fr. Smith’s items.

First Stage of Mutual Enrichment-(Fr. Smith’s “preamble.”)

“In this first stage, I see that there are many things that can be done now with no mixing of or change to the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite as currently found in the liturgical books. I also envision some guidance from the Magisterium to point this mutual enrichment in the right direction so as to avoid arbitrariness and to give those priests who respond to the call to mutual enrichment support.”

An interesting observation in the PT article combox cited above, from Scott Pluff , might be appropriate here as a counter-preamble from PT:

“The best quality of architecture, art and environment that the community can muster. Great music, preaching and presiding can still limp in a church that looks and sounds like a 1970s living room.”

This is a church building. Hat Tip to The Crescat.

Well, one must admit that Fr. Smith’s first stage seems premised upon a “tabula rasa” platform, whereas Mr. Pluff does advance a frighteningly real, practical scenario. But now we press on. My remarks to select portions of Fr. Smith’s comments will be in “bleu italics,” as in “sacre bleu!”

Enrichment of the Ordinary Form by the Extraordinary Form

– Bishops in Cathedrals and Pastors in their churches spontaneously adopting the ad orientem position at Mass as implicit in the OF after sustained catechesis of the faithful.
Not a problem for me, personally. But, it bypasses both the Benedictine arrangement and/or the altar crucifix adornment that could be said to be EF enrichments, but more in keeping with the notion of progressive solemnity, or “brick by brick.”

– Reconstruction of altar rails in churches and the spontaneous use of the communion rail as a place from which to distribute Holy Communion.
Problematic on multiple levels for likely many folks, not the least of which pastors burdened with “Mr. Pluff” Rambusch-like buildings, but with pastors who would have to present the simple realities of cost for design, fabrication and installation to even fiscally stable parishes in this era. I won’t restate the obvious about external attributes of mutual enrichment being sold, er….catechized among the laity who will foot the bills.

– Catechesis from the pulpit about the Church’s preference for Holy Communion on the tongue and under one species.
Not “going there” at odds with Fr. Smith on this one. I assume the presumption of the communion rail and a minimalist need for EMHC’s is concomitant here.

– Move towards singing the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin at OF Masses.
I think Fr. Smith likely would polish that a bit more, as technically a Latin Ordinary could be set to metrical styles such as, say “calypso” or “conjunto.” So, I presume the extraordinary efforts of many of our CMAA and religious ordered colleagues to finally provide “new, gregorian-inspired chant and actual psalm tone settings, even in a vernacular, pass his muster, depending upon local conditions and personnel.

– Priests, on their own, choosing the options of the OF which are analogous to the EF, and leaving aside those which are not. No comment due to no competence here.

– The spontaneous and consistent use by the clergy of the maniple, biretta, amice.
Why does Fr. Smith add “spontaneous” to consistent as a criteria of enrichment? For many celebrants, donning a short sleeve BLACK clerical blouse with the collar piece before the alb, stole and chasuble is an austere act of obedience in their opinion. How about asking our clerics to don cassocks on Sundays as the “first stage” and be consistent with that under the local deans’ and bishops’ supervision?

– Singing of the Propers according to the Graduale Romanum at Sung Masses.
B-I-N-G-O! But pastors and musicians must also be totally familiar with the hierarchy of musical disciplines, and take great care in their introduction and consistent usage in the clearly stated goals of Tra le sollecitudini” and all subsequent authoritative documents that clearly define the singing roles of congregations, cantors/psalmists, celebrants and scholas/choirs.

– Enforcement of the ecclesiastical discipline on extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.
No problem here, theoretically. But we’re going to need a lot of permanent deacons ordained in a couple of decades to be consistent with this demand and the other enrichments Father states above.

I’m sure much of this is a rehash of the many combox reflections in Fr. Smith’s original post. But I offer my practical “take” here on these specific, initial items. End of this commentary of Fr. Smith’s prescriptions, part one.

The Liturgy and Play

I study at an Opus Dei university, so I hear a lot about how work sanctifies our daily life, one of the principal teachings of St Josemaria Escrivà. Because Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, labored alongside St Joseph in the carpenter’s workshop in Nazareth, work has been redeemed. The ordinary tasks on daily life can now be an opening to the extraordinary action of God, if we just let it. The skeptic in me, however, is reminded of the fact that work is a four-letter word. It was a punishment for original sin. Toil, that other four-letter word, is an inescapable quality of work in this valley of tears. So shouldn’t we try to escape it as much as possible, and thereby anticipate our re-entry into the Garden of Paradise where there was no work and no toil?

One of my professors here at Navarre is convinced that Spain has been so backwards for so long, not because of a lack of resources or talent, but because of a cultural propensity going back for centuries that viewed work as beneath the dignity of man. As for me, I try to avoid work as much as possible, and as I write my 300th page of my thesis for the faculty here, I am beginning to think that this very Castilian and very not Opus Dei idea of work as getting in the way of life is not a bad idea at all.

I am struck by the fact that we have made the liturgy into work. From one point of view, this makes sense. After all, liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgeia, which described the work done on behalf of the people by pagan priests in offering rites as part of civic ceremonies. And with all of the bother of decapitating animals and disemboweling them and reading their entrails, it seems that liturgy has been a lot of work since even before Christ changed the meaning of sacrifice and rite forever.

But we still see liturgy as work. If there is one thing everyone along the liturgical spectrum is doing nowadays, it is working at the liturgy. It is a lot like the welder who puts together lots of various pieces by heat and light, and then sends those welded pieces off to a faceless assembly line where technological efficiency makes them into the things which make our lives more comfortable.

It is also like the lab researcher who breaks compounds down into the most minute particles to see what it is all made of and see how those particles can be out together differently to make other things. It is truly like the advertising mavericks of Mad Men who brainstorm ways to dupe the masses into buying a product that will make them rich.

Everyone is working at the liturgy. The traditionalists: busy restoring the Mass of the Ages to every altar of the world. ICEL: busy preparing a translation that had a shelf-life shorter than a Facebook status. Vox Clara: busy preparing a translation that its adversaries predict will bring about the end of ecumenical councils and the action of the Holy Ghost/Spirit/She Who Is and Must Be Obeyed. Clowns: busying preparing their noses for their next gig in an Austrian Cathedral. People: building Christ our Light in Oakland and people building the chapel for Thomas Aquinas College in Ojai. Canons regular: restoring the sacred and Jesuits lost in Holy Week. Everyone is busy at the liturgy.

I am so busy I am exhausted. I say a twenty minute Mass in a hospital chapel every day and toil over the Liturgy of the Minutes, and I am practically exercised by my patrimony. Why am I so tired, then, when I spend so little actual time reading/praying/proclaiming/celebrating/being Liturgy? Because I spend the rest of my time picking apart why our translations are so bad, why the liturgical reform happened and why it has been so difficult, how I can amass a sacristy to rival the Lateran Basilica’s, plotting the hire of a CMAA musician to make Westminster Cathedral look like chump change, worrying over how to explain to the Liturgy Committee that I can’t wash women’s hands/feets/bad hair coloring job next Maundy Thursday. Like a lot of people, I am tired of working at the liturgy.

How different is the attitude of the children all over the world who open their presents on Christmas morning. Gifts all around them, brought by an invisible but familiar figure, and warmth and love all around. The children rip apart the wrapping paper and play with the wrapping paper for hours. Then they notice that there is a box, and they are fascinated by the containers.

Finally, they get to the actual present, and they realize that the whole experience has been a gift that keeps on giving: so many levels and so much playing to do before Mom and Dad call us to go to Mass because they didn’t go to the Vigil Mass like every other family in the parish who hasn’t been to church since the Easter Bunny went though the house with silent furry feet.

The liturgy is much like that. The central core is not the work we do (unless you are a blood thirsty pagan or a social activist), but the Sacrifice of Calvary. At first glance, it may seem like blasphemy to liken the august Sacrament of the Altar to play. But Our LORD in his wisdom knows our weakness, and so He cloaks the Terrible and Awesome Event of the Passion in the soft garments of sign and symbol, Word and Sacrament.

We are irresistibly attracted to the wrapping in which the Gift is found: the delight to the senses that the ceremonies of the Church produces. And then we gaze and rip into the container for that Gift: the words, the music, the gestures, the art, the architecture. We revel in them. It is as if we play Hide and Seek with the Baby Jesus among the boxes and bows and debris of signs and symbols and rites and ceremonies. He reveals even as He conceals. And our response is one of wonder and awe, but also of joy and perfect gladness. So by the time we get to the Gift, we are ready for it. And it is marvelous in our eyes, because it is what we have always wanted. Not the Gift, the Giver.

When we work too hard at the liturgy, when we think the liturgy depends on our work to tie the bow right or wrap up the box in a certain way, we miss the Gift and the Giver. The Gift and the Giver: the Eucharist received in Holy Communion and the Christ who offers Himself up to the Father in the unity of the Spirit for the salvation of the world. Only when we let ourselves be carried away like children at play with awe and wonder for the gift of the liturgy, can we then work at our daily tasks, and even at the necessary tasks to make the liturgy happen, without being exhausted. The dried blood caked on our baptismal robes from the useless toil of our human working at the liturgy is replaced by the fresh springs of the Precious Blood of Christ renewing the Church through the divine working through the liturgy to help us play with God as His friends. And that, my dear friends, is how we truly sanctify our world.

Wise Virgins and the Transformative Power of the Liturgy

The Rector read out that year’s pastoral assignments for the seminarians with all of the aplomb of Charlton Heston reading a telephone book. “Don Christopher Smith, Centro d’Accoglienza.” The Welcome Center? I had visions of rest areas on US interstates, wondering if the Italian versions had chapels in them. But my wondering where I had been sent was interrupted by the spontaneous bursting into laughter of my entire seminary community. I was to find out why later. Four Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul lived in a large building not far from Rome’s main train station. In that building they took in teenage mothers and young ex-prostitutes who had nowhere to turn and wanted out of the dead ends their lives had become. I had no idea what I was supposed to do there. Why would a seminarian be sent there? I had no formation, no education to deal with this kind of problem. And I had to go every Wednesday and every Sunday for most of the day. The seminarians roared, “Imagine, Christopher, the liturgist, the musician, the theologian, hanging out with a bunch of hookers. That’s rich!” I was taunted.

Needless to say, the first time I meekly rang the bell at the Centro, I had a foreboding sense that this pastoral assignment would be my undoing. That sense would not leave me for a long while. The Sisters lived in common with the girls and their children. They had no private space to themselves, except for their Spartan rooms. And they shared in each other’s lives twenty-four hours a day. And with forty odd women living in a house, four of them Catholic nuns and the others with a vast array of psychological, mental, and emotional problems, as well as infants and toddlers all over the place, you can imagine that I had not walked into The Sound of Music.

In fact, if there was any sound at all, it was of unrelenting noise. MTV blaring in a makeshift common room, ten different languages blared into cell phones, babies crying for their mothers who were smoking on the porch, everything but quiet. Twice a week, I would nervously wend my way through the rooms of the house, feeling totally inadequate and at a loss as what to do with myself, and anxiously watch the clock for deliverance.

The Sisters had a tough regime in the house. One of the many inflexible rules was that everyone had to come to Sunday Mass in the stone chapel in the basement of the house. Priests from all over Rome take their turns coming to the house to celebrate Mass. And generally, the chapel was full of girls who wanted to be anywhere but there.

The Sisters realized that I was uncomfortable. I had lapsed into being reserved, introverted, mute and listless. I must have appeared like a haughty gentleman from a Victorian novel, a clerical D’Arcy who observed scenes with such detachment as to seem incredulous and censorious. In reality, I just had no idea how to act or what to say. The Sisters then told me to give spiritual conferences to the girls once a week on the Gospel readings. At least I felt more comfortable in the role of teacher, and on a subject of theology, but how could I do this in front of a hostile audience?

So week after week I tried, and it was unsuccessful. Then we had the Gospel of the Wise Virgins and the Foolish Virgins. With all of the girls and their children, and the Sisters assembled in the Chapel, I started my meditation. “Well, I know I’ve got to be the only virgin in here, but I am sure you can relate somehow.”

My heart stopped. Did that actually just come out of my mouth? Did I say that in front of the Blessed Sacrament? Was I going to be dragged out of here in a body bag? And then, the laughter started. First one, then three, then before I knew it, the chapel was roaring with laughter. And I was laughing too. I had let down the pretense of trying to be the perfect clerical gentleman striving too hard to say the right thing in the right way to the right people. In a singularly absurd episode, I had betrayed my own weakness. I acknowledged what had been my own discomfort, and was then able to move beyond it. I then proceeded to talk about the Gospel passage as it really related to their lives and from my heart, instead of how I thought they should interpret it according to my mind.

From that moment on, I was able to relate in a natural way with the girls and their children. Week after week, we explored the Word of God and celebrated the sacraments together. It was during those days that I realized the vital importance of something I had laughed at before: the ministry of presence. It was a brave thing for these girls to let me, a man, a priest and a young person not that much older than themselves into their world, especially when men had hurt them, priests were foreign to them, and their peers had betrayed them. Sunday Mass became more interiorly and exteriorly participated. I started to see the girls go into the chapel on their own for quiet moments in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

Then one day a seminarian suggested, “Why don’t we ask the girls over for Sunday Vespers and dinner at the seminary?” I was a little skeptical, but the Rector enthusiastically agreed. The seminary was abuzz before the big day, with lots of good-natured jokes about my “ladies of the night” coming over to pray with us. And so the day came. The nave was littered with strollers, filled with sight of young women of every nationality who had been to the school of hard knocks, and the cries of the children mingled with the sight of black cassock and white surpliced seminarians processing to their choir stalls to sing the Evening Prayer of the Church.

After Vespers, the girls and their kids came down to the refectory for dinner. What a sight it was to see the seminarians serving these women and their children at table. Although for us it was a normal Sunday dinner, many of these woman had never been invited to, much less, been served at, what seemed to them such a formal meal. And the atmosphere was one of great joy. Wine flowed freely and conversation even freer as these women and their priests-in-training shared the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands after having prayed.

This scene was repeated over and again over the rest of my time in the seminary. The girls began to learn to sing Vespers, they came to our ordinations, they shared in all of the important events of our seminary life. What a sight to see the Lateran Basilica, Mother and Head of all of the Churches of the City and the World, as a place where the fatherliness of the ministerial priesthood could meet these remarkable young women, who were not a pastoral problem to be solved, but a blessing to be cherished.

Sharing the Word of God and celebrating the Liturgy together was not made fruitful, because we found the “right way” to do ministry. It was made fruitful because we found a way to be natural, genuine and spontaneous, even as we let Word and Sacrament speak to us in their God-given power to transform and elevate.

When I left Rome, as much I longed for long walks through the Roman Forum, sumptuous liturgies in the basilicas and the stimulation of theology, I missed those girls and those Sisters perhaps even more. They taught me, despite my own fecklessness, how to be a father. And I also saw that, in the Church, the liturgy and prayer can become a motivating factor in people’s lives. The presence of God in the Eucharist, as well as in prayer and common life, comes into the messiness of our life and takes hold of it. That presence encourages us to light our lamps with the oil of virtue and wait for the Beloved, in whom all of our Loves are made perfect.

Narcissism and the Liturgy

If there is one thing that Catholics on all sides of the liturgical divide can agree on, is that the besetting problem of the Catholic clergy today, and often the liturgy they celebrate, is narcissism. The navel-gazing preoccupation with the self at the expense of the common good and the communion of the Church is faulted for many of the Church’s woes. But just where that narcissism lies, Catholics are in disagreement.

There are those who argue that young priests today are unbelievably narcissistic. All they care about is cappa magnas, lace albs, highly cultured music, and imposing a pray-pay-and-obey mentality on a faithful increasingly tired of clerical self-absorption. The charge is that many of those who seek a reform of the liturgy in a certain direction are using that as a disguise for clerical narcissism.

Then there is the riposte. There are others who condemn the consciously Vatican II style priests as the real narcissists. They obscure the sacred behind talk-show, living room, vulgar antics. They advance an agenda of heresy and schism by preferring their own half-baked opinions to the solid rock of doctrine. They are the ones who have necessitated a reform of the liturgy because of their reign of narcissism.

How has this come about? Often theories are put forward based on gender confusion. For some, this narcissism is motivated by repressive, introspective tendencies that have come raging out as crass effeminacy. For others, it is squarely the effect of a womynization of the Church and capitulation to an ideology of feminazi origins. And for others, it is precisely because there are not enough women in the Church to counter the male’s tendency to fall into the pool of self-admiration.

As with most things, there are actually merits to all of the above arguments even as there are also significant problems with them as well. They also focus almost exclusively on the narcissism of the clergy, as if that alone is the root of the malaise in the contemporary Catholic Church. In this essay I would like to explore what I opine to be some of causes of narcissism in the Church and possible avenues of correcting it.

Causes of Narcissism:
1. A confusion of the natural/supernatural
One of the great projects of modern theology has been to try to underline the fundamental unity between the natural and the supernatural, and to overcome the dichotomy by which man is seen as independent of the supernatural order and God. This project has not been universally successful at the theological level. Too often, it has lapsed into subsuming the natural into the supernatural or reducing the supernatural to some pale unnecessary addition to nature.
Yet if I somehow sees the supernatural life of grace as a right owed to human nature, then it is impossible for me to see anything beyond my own intrinsic goodness. Even the recognition of my error and sin can be dismissed by a distorted understanding of Divine Mercy. How many people in our pews and sanctuaries have deceived themselves into believing that they are good people and that God must grant them eternal life just because they exist? The relativization of sin and its consequences has led to a dismissal of God’s justice. My human nature is good and this is all that is. Grace is just a good happy feeling that I have that God sees me as good too. The supernatural life of grace is reduced to my own self-esteem. This leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with myself and my own natural happiness, because of my inability to see my nature in its reality and God’s supernatural power to transform and perfect my nature. In the liturgy, this leads to an attitude that the sacraments are merely human rites that must be manipulated to grant me the maximal boost to self-esteem. Liturgy becomes a celebration of my best self.
2. The exaltation of immanence over transcendence
Often we speak of a tension between the vertical and the horizontal in the liturgy, between a focus on God and a focus on man. In reality, the liturgy contains this tension. There is the aspect of adoration, of praise rendered freely to God, as well as instruction and inspiration of man. But it also must be recognized that while the supernatural is found within the soul in sanctifying grace, immanent, it is also entirely transcendent, and independent of me. If the liturgy does not incarnate an attitude of reverence and respect for the absolute holiness of God, then it will lapse into a preoccupation with individual and social human needs. Against the backdrop of confusion over nature and the supernatural, the exaltation of the immanence of grace in me versus the transcendence of God means the end of doxological aspect of worship becomes secondary to the liturgy seen as a means to fulfill my own need to transcend myself. But that transcendence can only be had by divine agency, but having banished it, I continually seek for the liturgy to serve me instead of its being a place to praise God.
3. Gender Ambiguity
It is a truth that every human person is not only a rational animal sharing a common human nature, but an engendered individual. We are either male or female, and that brings with it a corresponding biological, spiritual and psychological component of our nature. This is independent of the way that culture and history conditions perceptions of gender roles. The liturgy incarnates in its own symbolic way the engendered nature of the human person, according to divine revelation. Political attempts to modify the cultural and historical perceptions of gender roles have been translated into the liturgy. There are calls to modify the language and symbolism of the liturgy according to the changing perception of gender roles. This leads to a preoccupation with the physical gender as well as the conformity or lack thereof to gender roles of those in the sanctuary and in the pews. It deplaces the attention from the gender-independent Mystery behind the rites to the gender of those who participate in them. In so doing, it leads to a preoccupation with conforming the liturgy to however I want to reshape gender roles instead of respecting the engendered nature of liturgical symbolism which points beyond the symbol to something transcending it.
4. Democratization and Declericalization of the Liturgy
Calls for reconstituting the Church along the lines of an imagined democratic organization have obliterated the distinction between the ministerial and the common priesthood. Emphasis on the sacraments as encounters with Christ the High Priest has been replaced by an exaggerated emphasis on the rights of the priest over the rights of the laity and vice-versa. The laity, in assuming or usurping roles that belong by right or by tradition to the clergy, have correspondingly been clericalized. The clergy who protest at such a phenomenon are dismissed as clericalists. Either way, the respect for the difference in roles at the liturgy and their ontological and theological roles has faded before the demands of a politically motivated egalitarianism. Just as in political life, the struggle for equality requires a constant calling attention to where inequalities remain, when this is translated to the liturgy, the rites become a battlefield for the destruction of inequality and not a place of prayer. Attention is given to political change within the Church and not to the adoration of the Divine Majesty reflected in the hierarchical communion of the Church whose constitution was given to it by Christ.
5. Individualism
The perduring idea that the liturgy should correspond to my likes and dislikes perpetuates individualism within the liturgy. The refusal to actively participate in the liturgy, both interiorly and exteriorly, privileges an atomist understanding of the human person vis-à-vis God. The subjection of public prayer to private devotion, individual initiative, temerarious opinion, and the arbitrary decisions of committees reinforces the idea that the liturgy is a merely human rite capable of manipulation by individual interests. When I see the liturgy in this fashion, it is easy then to focus on how I want to change the liturgy to correspond to my own individual needs.

Antidotes to Narcissism:
1. Mass is not a What, it is a Who
The first antidote to narcissism in the liturgy is catechetical. We must be taught again that the Mass is not a what, it is not a human rite which can and should be manipulated so as to express human desires or to promote human goods. The Mass is a who, rather it is the prayer of self-offering of Jesus Christ to His Father for the remission of sins. A vigorous reproposal of the teaching of the Council of Trent and Vatican II on the sacrificial aspect of the Mass will help us to overcome the tendency to make the liturgy a merely natural human phenomenon.
2. Ad Orientem
The celebration of the parts of the Mass which are not directly aimed at the instruction or the edification of the faithful must be returned to a symbolic focus which is not the people. The classical ad orientem position of the celebrant at the altar in celebrating the Sacrifice of the Mass underscores the transcendence of Christ’s action in the Mass. Facing the people during those parts of the Mass which are for their instruction or edification will then highlight the immanence of the divine life of grace in us. The balance between immanence and transcendence will thus be restored in the liturgy.
The celebration of all of the parts of the Mass versus populum actually assists clericalism. It makes the altar into a barrier between presider and people, and sets him up against the people. Rather, the fact of presider and people facing the same direction indicates the unity of the priest with his people, rather than give the opportunity for the priest to manage the people by his actions.
3. Eucharistic Cultus
Pius XII stated that the tabernacle and the altar should not be separated. This follows upon the principle that Sacrifice and Sacrament are not separated. To that end, the placement of the tabernacle once again upon the altar prevents the celebrant from arbitrarily placing himself at the center of the divine drama. It also shows the unity between the sacrifice of the Mass and the sacrament shared in Holy Communion. The adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass flows from Mass: Adoration, Benediction, Processions and Holy Hours all stem from the Mass.
The cult of the Eucharist is a pledge of faith in the Incarnation of the God-Man. Because Jesus is a divine person with a divine but also a human nature, engendered, incarnational and Eucharistic devotion also underscores the proper sphere of gender in the human person without ambiguity, as well as points to the Mystery of God which is beyond gender and humanity.
4. Communion on the Tongue and Kneeling
There is nothing inherently wrong about receiving Holy Communion standing or in the hand. But the reception of Holy Communion kneeling is a sign of adoration of the transcendence of the Divine Majesty. It is a corrective to a democratization of the liturgy in that it emphasizes the humility of the believer who does not stand with rights before God. It also is a corrective to the declericalization of the liturgy because Communion on the tongue emphasizes that the Body and Blood of Christ come as a gift from Christ the High Priest. Just as a baby bird is nourished by its mother directly in the mouth, the Christ the Priest through the ministerial priest nourishes the spiritual child directly in the mouth with no other intervention.
5. A Liturgical Communitarian Spirituality
Homiletics during the liturgy must focus on the intrinsic connection between liturgy and life. The Eucharist has dimensions which extend far beyond the church doors. It reaches into the family hearth, the school, the workplace, the soup kitchen and the courtroom. The correspondence between the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries and the social apostolate of the Church and the moral life of families in the world combats individualism in the Church. The realization that as a Church we are a communion of holy people sharing in the Holy must be accompanied by the vision of the Church on a mission to build the Kingdom of God in the world.

These are just a few ideas of the causes of narcissism in the Church today, as well as some practical ideas for overcoming them. I have never claimed the charism of infallibility, so feel free to disagree with me or challenge the above. I do think that it is a disservice to the Church to pin narcissism on such superficial things as the fashion, hobbies, and quirks of the clergy. Those things can certainly be manifestations of narcissism, but the roots are much deeper, and affect not only the clergy, but the whole life of the Church. It is imperative that we discover those roots, and get rid of them. But the eradication of all that is less than it should be in the Church will come, not from polemic and mutual incrimination, but through conversion of heart away from ourselves and towards God.

Latin: The Intelligibility of the Unintelligible

I was at a training workshop for priests in the Extraordinary Form when Fr Calvin Goodwin, professor of theology at the seminary of the Fraternity of St Peter in Nebraska, gave me some food for thought that I have been chewing on for years now. He said that, in the West, the Latin language performed a function similar to how the iconostasis functioned in the East. I had thought of reasons why we should continue to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy in Latin for years. One was to fulfill Church law and the express wish of Vatican II in Sacrosanctum concilium 36, “The Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” Another was to preserve the musical and literary tradition of the Roman rite in its original form. Finally, I thought that having a common language for some of the prayers of the Mass would be useful, to express the unity of the Church across the various linguistic divides brought about by Babel’s aftermath.

All of those reasons are valid ones for the preservation of Latin in the liturgy. But they are all legal, historical or cultural. None of them are theological. At first glance, Fr Goodwin’s thesis, that Latin served to veil the rites as the iconostasis veiled them in the East did not seem to be a particularly winning thesis. On legal grounds, the fact that the vernacular had been admitted by the supreme authority of the Church in circumscribed ways (The Glagolitic Mass comes to mind) indicates that in the West, Latin was not universal and not imposed uniformly by liturgical law. On historical grounds, it must be remembered that the permanent iconostasis is a peculiarly Byzantine tradition whose use is different than the veils used at certain times in the Syrian and Coptic liturgical traditions. On cultural grounds, it also seems that there is nothing in anthropology to suggest that Latin provoked the same phenomenological response in its hearers as the other symbols used to veil in religious ceremonies in the Christian East and beyond.

But is there something else, much deeper, to Fr Goodwin’s thesis? The notion that Latin is a sacred language in and of itself has been widely rejected. Why should Latin be the language of prayer rather than any other language? The notion that Latin has become sacred because of its venerable and historical traditional use raises the question of how something becomes sacred. Does something become sacred merely by antiquity, by historical use, or its association with religious rites? Modern anthropologists may claim that, if something is sacred on those grounds, then Latin could be considered a sacred language. After all, languages associated with religious texts are often held to be sacred because of their use in communicating those texts: Arabic for the Qu’ran, Hebrew for the Torah, Sanskrit for the Rig-Veda. By the same token, Latin should be a sacred language for Catholics.

Yet the Biblical notion of sacred is not the same as that used by sociologists. The Hebrew term qadosh, which is often rendered into English as sacred or holy, in the Old Testament indicates something set apart from other things and associated with God. Here is where Latin does not seem to be a sacred language. Latin was the ordinary day-to-day language of the Romans. Its use in commerce, law, literature and scholarship continued long after it ceased to employed on the streets. So at no time was Latin ever set apart specifically as a sacred language. But it coexisted as a language employed in the service of the sacred alongside secular uses. So it is clear that Latin coexisted as a language both on reference to the sacred and the secular as it coexisted with other languages at the same time.

Yet the association of sacred languages with sacred texts is not univocal in Christianity. Christianity is not a religion “of the Book” or even a religion based on the words of a famous teacher. Christianity is a religion of the Word Made Flesh. The fact that the Word of God became incarnate, that God became man, would forever change the meaning of all words, and of all man’s ability to communicate. The union of God and man was not only with one chosen people to whom were revealed a sacred text read in a sacred language, but with all of humanity by means of a Word which made Flesh sacred.

The fact of the Incarnation means that human nature now has a passageway into the supernatural divine, but in such a way as to not change, but to elevate and perfect, that human nature. And if communication by language is part of human nature, grace also elevates and perfects human language. The fact that man can address prayers to God and that they can be heard, and acted upon by Divine Power, shows that human words, accompanied and transformed by the Word, can bring us into contact with the Word.

Yet, for all of this immanence of the divine in human nature, human nature is not itself divine. The Divinity remains what, or rather Who, it is, without change. “Between the Creator and the creature there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater,” is how Lateran IV expressed it.

The gift of human language, therefore, expresses this abyss between the Divinity of the Word and the humanity of our words. If words are conventional signs of realities, they are always and everywhere going to pale with the reality behind them. This is never more true than with the Word of Divine Revelation, which is far beyond what we can ever grasp. Our human language will never exhaust the mystery which is celebrated in the Mass.

Yet, does faith not come from hearing, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 10.17? And did he not also write in 1 Corinthians 14.14, “If I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful”? It is true that faith comes from hearing. But hearing is not merely a passive reception of the words of Sacred Scripture or the liturgy. And faith is not merely the response of acting upon those words. Hearing in the scriptural sense indicates the opening of the will of human nature to cooperate with the action of God. Faith in the scriptural sense is the assent of the intellect to the action of God to which we have opened the depths of our being. That gift of faith impels us to enter into communion with the Giver of the gift through prayer. And that prayer, be it liturgical and communal or private and individual, is more than human words. It is the encounter between the Word and our human nature, with its words, deeds and actions.

A faith reduced to mere emotional response to a sacred text needs to have the words of the text intelligible for it to produce understanding. But a faith which is a supernatural gift that is an encounter with the Word is beyond the ability of our intellect to understand. Our LORD Himself indicates the difference between the two conceptions of faith coming from hearing the Word.

In John 8.34, Jesus says, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.” There were many people around Him who heard his words, which were Divine Revelation, but they were unintelligible to them. Likewise, there are many people in our churches and society today who can physically hear and understand the words of Scripture and the Mass, but they do not grasp their true meaning, and are not led by them to supernatural faith and the life of the virtues. His language is made clear, not by the words themselves, but by the gift of faith, not because of anything lacking in Him, but by what is lacking in us when we lack faith.

The singular phenomenon in which the Apostles then go out to preach this Word in all of the languages of the earth is also instructive. The Apostles may not have had intelligence of the words which were passing through their mouths, but the Word brought about through them faith in their hearers. Here we see the supernatural action of God over and above the limitations of human speech, working through human language, to bring about faith in those whose wills were open to God.

The point of this brief exegesis is to show that the supernatural action of the Word makes intelligible in the soul that which is not necessary intelligible to the mind. It is the supernatural action of the Word in the life of sanctifying grace in the believer which means someone can live a life in accord with the Truth even if he is not ever capable of knowing all there is to know nor all of the Truth.

The use of Latin in the rites of the Church is an important marker in our Catholic identity. It connects us with other believers from other languages, it gives us a common word for prayer, it links us with the history and tradition of our faith. These are important considerations, but they are human, natural ones. The use of Latin in the Mass also has another function. It reminds the worshipper that, although the Mystery of God is that which is the most intelligible thing in and of itself, it is not always intelligible to us. Even for the classicists in the sanctuaries and pews of Catholic churches around the world, Latin in the liturgy points to the abyss between us and God. It veils insofar as it conceals the human words with which Divine Revelation is expressed, emphasizing the distance between the subject and the object of our worship. It conceals the encounter between His Word and our word with words that are not of our own making as surely as the Word is not of our making. But it also reveals: it opens up the teaching of Christ for those who are willing to learn the language of the Latins, and even more so those who are open to learn the language of the spirit. It is unintelligible in that the meaning behind the words is not readily self-evident, just like the presence of God. But it is intelligible in and of itself, just as God is that which can and should be known, and will be, in the beatific vision. For that language to become intelligible to us, not only do we have to prepare nature by learning the Latin, we must open ourselves up the supernatural life of grace given by the Word.

Mutual Enrichment and the Reform of the Reform: A Game Plan?

Not that anyone asks my opinion, but one of the things I think is wrong with the Liturgy Wars is that most people seem to start the discussion from their answer to the question: What do I think the liturgy should look like? Yet, the liturgy is not about us, it’s about God. And the Popular Mechanics approach to liturgy which has made everyone an expert in DIY Rites means that anyone who has ever come into contact with the Mass has an opinion. So generally I avoid like the plague pontificating on how I think the liturgy should be celebrated and try to actually live the liturgy instead.

Yet the Vicar of Christ, Pope Benedict XVI, has called for the mutual enrichment of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite and has also suggested that the time has come for a Reform of the Reform of the rites after the Second Vatican Council. He has also reiterated that there should be mutual respect of both forms and no “ritual mixing.” And so many voices are out there calling for a reform of the modern Roman Rite, it’s hard to know what such a reform should look like. There are some who are determined to make sure that the Extraordinary Form never has any influence on the Ordinary Form, and, if they had their way, they would obliterate its memory from the face of the earth in the most radical damnatio memoriae known to human history. For them there is no question of mutual enrichment; rather, they advance a platform of constant liturgical anarchy. Then there are those for whom mutual enrichment sounds like a plot to infect the venerable classical worship of the Church with the theological and spiritual rot that has affected the ephemeral postmodern worship (?) of the new community sung into being.

As a parish priest who habitually celebrates both forms, I am left scratching my head how the two forms are supposed to enrich each other organically if I can’t mix the rites. Pope Benedict XVI has given us a rich teaching on the liturgy as Cardinal Ratzinger, and he has also given the Church quite an example of how to celebrate the liturgy. But I am sure I am not alone in desperately wishing for some more practical guidance as to how exactly this is supposed to done and what I can and cannot do to help bring about the organic restoration of the sacred.

And so I think out loud in this essay and ask for comments. In the final analysis, I wait for the Church’s instructions on how to go about this. But I do wonder if there could not be three possible stages to the Mutual Enrichment and Reform of the Reform, and so I outline what that might look like here. I offer no timeline to this little fantasy, and I have no illusions that this discussion will go beyond the loyal readers of this blog. But here it is. Discuss.

First Stage of Mutual Enrichment

In this first stage, I see that there are many things that can be done now with no mixing of or change to the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite as currently found in the liturgical books. I also envision some guidance from the Magisterium to point this mutual enrichment in the right direction so as to avoid arbitrariness and to give those priests who respond to the call to mutual enrichment support.

Enrichment of the Ordinary Form by the Extraordinary Form
– Bishops in Cathedrals and Pastors in their churches spontaneously adopting the ad orientem position at Mass as implicit in the OF after sustained catechesis of the faithful
– Reconstruction of altar rails in churches and the spontaneous use of the communion rail as a place from which to distribute Holy Communion
– Catechesis from the pulpit about the Church’s preference for Holy Communion on the tongue and under one species
– Move towards singing the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin at OF Masses
– Priests, on their own, choosing the options of the OF which are analogous to the EF, and leaving aside those which are not
– The spontaneous and consistent use by the clergy of the maniple, biretta, amice
– Singing of the Propers according to the Graduale Romanum at Sung Masses
– Enforcement of the ecclesiastical discipline on extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion

Enrichment of the Extraordinary Form by the Ordinary Form
– Celebration of at least one EF Mass as part of the ordinary Sunday Mass schedule by clergy trained to do it in their parishes.
– Use of the readings in the vernacular at Low Masses
– Recitation of the parts pertinent to the faithful
– Use of new prefaces and new saints’ Masses in the EF.

Magisterial Involvement
– document by the Congregations for Divine Worship and Doctrine of the Faith clarifying the Church’s teaching and discipline on the reception of Holy Communion, indicating the preference for the Church’s traditional mode of reception. In the same document, a clarification of the right of the priest to celebrate Mass ad orientem.

Second Stage of Reform of the Reform

In this second stage, the Magisterium would change the existing relevant liturgical and canonical legislation as well as provide new editions of the OF and EF Missals.

Papal Encyclical and Disciplinary Norms
The Reform of the Reform would be ushered into being by a papal encyclical, the Mediator Dei of our time. This encyclical would present a rich theology of the liturgy, a frank and honest reappraisal of post-Vatican II liturgical praxis, and a liturgical, historical, theological and canonical explanation of the following: the two forms of the Roman Rite and their mutual enrichment, the ad orientem position of celebration at the altar, the traditional mode for the reception of Holy Communion, Latin and sacred music. This encyclical would strongly encourage in an optional but clear way all of the points of the Reform of the Reform. This would be followed, after consultation with the entire hierarchy in a special synod on the Reform of the Reform, disciplinary norms which would indicate the normative status of each of the points of the Reform of the Reform.

Restoration of the Subdiaconate and the Revisiting of Pontificalis Domus
The disciplinary norms would include the restoration of the ancient subdiaconate to the life of the Church put in abeyance by Paul VI’s Ministeria Quaedam. It would also revisit the simplifications in Paul VI’s Pontificalis Domus concerning the costume of prelates to allow greater freedom for hierarchical dress.

Norms on Church Construction
Issuance by the Congregation for Divine Worship of practical guidelines for the building of new churches and the fabrication of new linens, vestments and vessels with accompanying theological and spiritual commentary (d’apres St Robert Bellarmine’s works on church construction).

The Reform of the Reform Edition of the OF Missal after the Encyclical
– dropping the options which are rarely used, streamlining of remaining options
– all editions of the Missal would be bilingual
– all editions of the Lectionary would be bilingual
– addition of a new Ritus Servandus with more detailed rubrics for the ceremonies
– the addition of the EF Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, Offertory Prayers and Last Gospel as an option in the OF
– restoration of the genuflection at the Creed and before the elevations in the OF
– restoration of some feasts from EF
– integration of Orations from the EF as options
– issuance of a Caeremoniale Presbyterorum from the Papal Household in a companion volume to the Missal
– integration of the Offertory Antiphons from the EF
– making the Prayer of the Faithful optional
– substantial restoration of the EF Kalendar to the OF
– integration of the EF Lectionary as an optional cycle of the OF

The Reform of the Reform Edition of the EF Missal after the Enyclical
– all editions would include the Readings, Antiphons and Orations in the vernacular as an option.
– permission for Holy Communion by intinction
– option for the pre-1955 Holy Week Rites
– addition of OF saints’ feasts not present in EF Missal as optional
– addition of some OF Prefaces
– option to omit the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar and the Last Gospel
– composition of vernacular graduals for the antiphons for optional use
– option for the use of the OF Lectionary at Low Masses
– option for the distibution of Holy Communion by ordained subdeacons

Third Stage of the Missal of Benedict XVI, Pope of the Sacred Liturgy
This third stage would take place after the Reform of the Reform has been in place for some time and the Roman Curia, together with the world episcopate, can look into the feasibility of a once again united form of the Roman liturgy. With some distance from the post-Vatican II reforms and the lived experience of the Reform of the Reform, the Magisterium of the Church could ostensibly distill the organic development of the liturgy from its restoration and renewal into one Roman Rite again.

Is this a do-able Game Plan?
Let it be said from the beginning, that I am perfectly fine with celebrating the Missal of St Pius V in toto and the Missal of Paul VI as the occasion warrants. I do recognize, however, that flexibility in rubrics, calendars and rites, Communion under both species and the vernacular are among those things that Vatican II called for. Could they be allowed in the EF in an optional way so as to open the riches of the EF liturgy to more people? Also, the OF could easily be influenced by many of the prayers and ceremonies of the EF if that influence is tutelaged well by the Magisterium. But if priests attempt any of this on their own, they risk making the liturgy into an eccentric celebration of their opinion on how they think Mass should be celebrated. Because so much of the post-Vatican II Reform was imposed inorganically by arbitrary decisions of clergy and by officialdom, the Mutual Enrichment and Reform of the Reform also has to happen by the leadership of the clergy united with the Holy Father and the Roman Curia in collaboration with the world episcopate. Then, the organic process of liturgical development can begin again, and the future will be less charged with everyone making their own opinions into the standard of liturgical celebration.

I would love feedback on this scheme. I am not wedded to it. In fact, I am not totally sure that many of the ideas I propose here are prudent, workable or even desirable. But the discussion is beginning. This time, however, may we start, not with What do I think the liturgy should look like? but with How can I support the communion of the Church to restore the sacred and celebrate the Christian Mystery in spirit and in truth?