Sunday, 27 November 2011

Advent I in the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms: Presence, Power and a more 'Biblical' Church

Today is of course not just the start of the new liturgical year, but also the official start date of the new missal.

The new missal was officially launched at yet another closed-to-the laity meeting of the Australian Bishops' Conference Plenary last week.  The stream of feel-good but largely content-free press releases so far stands, I have to say, in stark contrast to the livestreamed video of US Bishops' Conference meetings that are the norm these days.

Personally, I think that the fluff over substance and accountability appearance at least of the bishops' conference is a symptom of a real underlying problem in the Church today that won't be solved by better translations of the texts of the Ordinary Form. 

Indeed, the readings and particularly the collect for this Advent Sunday really point to one of the necessary next stages in the reform of the reform, namely a fundamental rethink on the lectionary.

Power and presence vs a good deeds/social justice paradigm

At the recent Canberra-Goulburn Diocesan Assembly, Archbishop Mark Coleridge  made some comments on the need to move beyond seeing Jesus as merely a good example whose life we should imitate - but who implicitly at least is not really divine - and seeing Jesus as truly God, someone whose presence and power we should be conscious of, and thus worship.

It is an issue that lies behind many of the current debates within the Church I think, and is certainly relevant to a debate I'm participating in over at Cath News on Vatican moves to ensure churches actually look like churches (yes decided to give CN another whirl - so far accused of probably being an adherent of an interesting new heresy on the nature of the priesthood of the people on the one hand, and of being an SSPXer for daring to suggest reading a traditional commentary on the other, but hey, it could be worse!).

Over in that place, many seem to want to forget the foundation Our Lord insisted on of starting by keeping the commandments, including the first one about worshipping God, and instead jump straight to the counsel of perfection for individuals (though I doubt they are applying it to themselves!) and have the Church sell everything it owns, including its churches, and give it to the poor.

And the fault for this state of affairs, I want to suggest, lies in part in the texts selected for the Sunday liturgy.

A tale of two collects for Advent I

The  idea of the 'presence and power' of God is very strongly brought out in the Extraordinary Form collect for the First Sunday in Advent.  It says:

"Stir up Thy power, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and come; that from the threatening dangers of our sins we may deserve to be rescued by Thy protection, and to be saved by Thy deliverance."

And the collect links neatly to the readings and propers set down for this Sunday.

By contrast, the Ordinary Form collect, despite a vastly improved translation over its previous incarnation, still has, to my mind at least, an almost Pelagian flavour, giving more emphasis to our actions than those of God:

"Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom".

Fr Z has done a nice analysis on the OF collect, which shows how it can be interpreted in a very Catholic way, and points out that the emphasis on good works stands in contrast to mainstream protestant ideas of salvation by faith alone.

Unfortunately, mainstream protestantism is not really the main threat from within the Catholic Church today.

Rather, the biggest problems are on the one had the fundamentalist Christian 'magisterium of me' approach, that leaves it to the individual to decide what teachings he or she will actually accept, and on the other, the refusal to actually worship our all-powerful God. 

Instead, many Catholics seem to favour idea that all we need to do is imitate a rather bowdlerized version of Jesus' life, such that our bishops and others appear to be preoccupied with doing 'good things' such as worrying about the treatment of Australia's Indigenous peoples or the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt than about addressing poor catechesis and ars celebrandi.

It is not that social justice issues are not important.  Of course they are.  But they are not the core of our faith, nor are they, on the face of it, that central to the problems currently facing the Australian Church!

A tale of two parishes and the new Missal

At the Mass I attended this Sunday, the priest said the Mass nicely, and lead the congregation in using all of the new prescribed gestures.

This stands I have to say, in stark contrast to my geographical parish, where the local Dominicans, though they say the words, can't quite seem either to bring themselves, or perhaps to remember, to bow during the Creed or strike their breasts at the Confiteor.  The effect of this and other minor seeming aspects of the ars celebrandi flow onto the congregation - almost entirely of a certain age - who mostly can't bring themselves to even try and say the new words, in between practising self-inctinction and other such abuses. 

The Congregation at St Thomas More's, by contrast, mostly managed to avoid the Tower of Babel effect (though 'And also with you' does seem to be very hard to dislodge from the brain!) and we got a good, solid sermon.  Moreover, while the choir didn't tackle the English propers - 'singing at the mass rather than singing the Mass' to steal a phrase from the Archbishop - they did pick musically attractive traditional hymns (though when I went to thank them, they told me they are currently alternating week about between real hymns and that 70s junk due to differing views within the congregation on the music front - it seems I chose the right week to come!).  The intercessory prayers even included one that we might all go to confession this Advent!

Moreover, St Thomas More's, though still suffering from its now past history as a church cum school hall, is also that rare church in Canberra which places the Tabernacle at the position of honour immediately behind the altar, instead of encouraging priestly narcissism by substituting a throne for the priest there.

All in all (and despite the girl altar server, though she was very young indeed and paired up with an equally young boy), it was a Mass that really showed the difference that the new texts can make when combined with proper attention to the celebration.

But the contrast between the two parishes I think illustrates that good translations alone won't won't solve the deeper problem of the perversion of some basic tenets of the catholic theology of worship: both after all do actually nominally at least use the new Missal.

How do we effect change?

I haven't said much about the recent Diocesan Assembly mentioned above here in part because I'm still trying to absorb its paradoxes and challenges.

On the one hand, it was an extremely well-organised, well managed, and engaging day.

The tone was set by an introductory speech by Archbishop Coleridge which had enough in it to appeal to those at all ends of the spectrum of belief (I know because I liked it, but so too did a lady at morning tea told me all about her horror at a Mass she had stumbled on at the cathedral said by the Nuncio, that actually had the several ministers dressed up in elaborate vestments denoting that they were deacons etc.  How terrible!).

Some useful thoughts and suggestions seemed to come out of it, and at the very least it started, perhaps, a process of engagement for necessary change.

But on the other hand, the 'liturgy' that started the day was lay-led (despite the presence of numerous priests plus a bishop or two!) and involved a lot of guitar-twanging second-rate made up songs (admittedly the guitar-twanger had a nice voice, but still...), interspersed with some uncontextualised chunks of Scripture.

Heresy flourishes...

And in the course of the day I was exposed to a concentrated dose of just about every current popular heresy and distortion of faith and practise going from some very passionate advocates of error indeed. All in all, that was pretty depressing, and didn't quite make up for the positives!

The most recurrent problem was indeed the rejection of the idea of worship, and the idea that God actually sets some limits on us.  The discussion, in my group at least, on whether and how to reclaim Sundays, for example, largely focused on how to make it a family day, not how to get people to see it as a day of worship.  And when I tried to probe behind some of the ideas being advocated, it became clear that it was all built on a highly selective knowledge of Scripture that edits out all the 'hard sayings' and creatively reinterprets what remains through a modernist lens that views miracles as merely symbolic.

That's not surprising.  Where once repetition ensured that a core of readings were known by all Catholics, the three year calendar ensures that almost nothing sticks in mind. Most modern Scripture commentaries advocate outright error.  And those errors are regurgitated to us in weekly sermons...

Where once priests had to say the psalms every week, now it is spread out over four,  Worse, the Liturgy of the Hours edits out some of the psalms altogether, and many of the verses of others because they don't fit the 'modern mind', thus undermining the continuing catechesis of priests.

We need indeed to become 'a more biblical Church'  - that is one that doesn't simply discard those parts of Scripture that don't happen to accord with the modern mindset, and that interprets that Scripture in the light of the Tradition, not just in the light of our own preferences and prejudices.

1 comment:

PM said...

The truly scary thing about the Archbishop's observation on the young people's vision of Jesus as just a moral exemplar is that they are a small and presumably keen minority within the 2% who emerge from what passes for Catholic education as anything like practicing Catholics. As for what the other 98% know or make of it all....