“A Revival of New Catholic Initiatives”

I attended a fascinating lecture the other day about a junior naval officer, later an admiral, who really knew how to make waves. (¡Hagan lio!) The solution was simple and obviously important, a technological and tactical improvement that would revolutionize the accuracy of naval gunnery. The trouble was, how to make a change in a bureaucracy?

It’s always the same in war, isn’t it? Generals fight today’s battles with tomorrow’s technology–and yesterday’s tactics. Ranking officers would prefer not to hear suggestions. Junior officers are afraid to speak. Losses due to a simple lack of candor can be astonishing.

In the Church, since apostolic times, there has been a tension–often ultimately fruitful–between structure and charism. Both structure and charism are God’s will for the Church and the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, administration is itself a charism. And Jesus Christ personally instituted the hierarchy.

In light of these structural realities, it is often necessary to take deliberate steps to open up listening processes. New initiatives will at first seem impractical or even impossible, and due to the inertia inherent in institutions, quite likely undesirable.

In his interview book Light of the World with Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict spoke in a way that might at first glance seem more, shall we say, Franciscan:

“Less clearly but nevertheless unmistakably, we find here in the West, too, a revival of new Catholic initiatives that are not ordered by a structure or a bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is spent and tired. These initiatives come from within, from the joy of young people.”

Ironically enough, one of the first things that can happen with a fresh initiative is that it can become a new rule, a new codified structure. This is what has happened with ecclesial music, for example. Once the first fellow got out on stage with his guitar, it was basically all over for chant.

And thus today’s fresh new initiatives are often recovery efforts, finding the best kinds of service and evangelization, the best sources and methods of Catholic teaching, the best kinds of art, architecture, and music, and bringing them to new life. Often this happens with a certain struggle. A parish or diocesan initiative having to do with chant will have an infinitely more difficult time getting started than one involving a guitar and piano combo, despite the obvious failure of Elvis-era outreach, and despite the clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council on chant’s primacy in our Liturgy.

So the way forward, it seems to me, has a lot to do with thinking. We want to do what is best and most appropriate for both “vertical” and “horizontal” reasons, without a lot of inertia.

What are the next steps?

Meeting people where they are; leading people to where they are not yet

It’s ordination season, a time of great joy in the Church as dedicated young men are called forward and consecrated for conformity with Christ and priestly service to all of us.

As is usual on intergenerational ecclesial occasions, something of a generation gap is in evidence.

  • Current and recent ordinandi are likely to process in a reverent and calm way, looking straight ahead, perhaps with a slight smile but with a certain recollection.
  • Older priests are likely to wear large smiles in the entrance procession, looking for friends in the crowds and waving.

Standing outside this phenomenon and only being able to guess at the reason for the difference, I believe that there must have been a time when a particularly extroverted interpretation was given to the Pauline ideal of being “all things to all men.”

According to the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, the goal of the Entrance Antiphon has four specific aspects.

47. When the people are gathered, and as the Priest enters with the Deacon and ministers, the Entrance Chant begins. Its purpose is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity, and accompany the procession of the Priest and ministers.

This fourfold goal would not be met in any way by individual greetings or casualness. It is well addressed, however, by an attitude of recollection and prayerfulness on the part of all, ministers and people.

As we have often noted here before, we’re still in the middle of an awkward, upside-down time in the Church, when the young are more formal than their elders. As we continue to think through these matters together, it helps to keep an open mind.

It could well be that received wisdom has sometimes overemphasized one aspect of pastoral concern at the expense of others.

Aurora lucis rutilat

An Easter hymn by St. Ambrose

The light of dawn is reddening,
The heavens’ morning praises spring,
The earth exults: “The morning! Hail!”
While hell’s sad dwellers groan and wail.

Our King, the victor in the strife,
When death was smashed apart by life,
Has trampled hell triumphantly
And captive led captivity.

The Lord, whose barricade of stone
The soldiers kept sharp eyes upon
In vict’ry conquers through that gate
And rises forth in pomp and state.

 “The Lord is risen from the dead!”
The splendid angel loudly said.
And hell is evermore left free
To grumble in its misery.

Be this our thought through all life’s days,
Our Easter joy, our Paschal praise:
The grace in which we are reborn
Was won in triumph on that morn.

Jesus, to You let glory rise,
Who vanquished death and won the prize;
With Father and the Spirit blest,
Be endless ages’ praise addressed.

Trans. c. 2013 Kathleen Pluth 

Where Angels Fear to Tread

As someone who produces art intended for the liturgical use of the Catholic Church, I can testify to the fact that it is a very intimidating ambition.

As Catholics, basically, we’ve already won the art contest. Any historical survey of visual or musical art makes it perfectly clear that the Church is peerless. In order to maintain “top chef” status, the Church in its art simply has to basically not ruin its own reputation.

It is worth asking whether we are currently meeting the standards that have been set over the two millennia. How is our drawing in the churches, for example? How is our sculpture? Do our churches show a concern for proportion and shape? How are we doing with verbal art, in hymnody?

And of course, how is our music?

My sense is that we’ve lost a dimension or two over the last century. For a thousand years, the visual quest involved depth: portraying the third dimension as a way for the viewer to enter into the frame.

Often enough now, and disappointingly, this third dimension is missing from liturgical visual arts. We’ve gone from paintings, which invite the viewer in, to flat cartoons.

Music, uniquely capable of providing a fourth dimension and an artistic representation of life in time, has similarly lost richness and joy. Too often, liturgical music is merely serviceable, barely imaginative, and almost entirely a matter of patching things through from one cadence to the next.

My purpose here is not to cast blame but to suggest that our devotion to God should involve the highest aspirations possible, particularly in our art, which, when excellent, has the power to make one Christian’s devotion accessible to another.

What does the present look like–and what would we like the future to bring?

Let the feast begin!

This year of Roman-American festivities in honor of Blessed, soon-to-be-Saint Junipero Serra, was kicked off today in a big way at the North American College, our American seminary in Rome.

My friend Rev. Mr. Richard Miserendino had the honor of serving as the deacon of the Holy Father’s Mass. Isn’t that wonderful?

Looking forward to a blessed year!