Thursday, 12 September 2013

The liturgy of the Resurrection: countering modernist triumphalism

Ordination of Fr Richard Waddell
for the Personal Ordinariate of the Southern Cross, September 8
Pope Francis has resumed giving his daily sermons at Domus Martha.

Unfortunately, as previously, the selected extracts that have been made public are often hard to interpret, whether because they lack the full context of his homily, or because the Pope is using a shorthand that may not be meaningful to many.

Accordingly, his recent comments on 'triumphalism' have generated a lot of confusion as people wonder whether they are another attack on traditionalists, and what exactly he means by the claim that triumphalism reflects a lack of belief in the Resurrection.

I would suggest, however, that the Pope's main message actually seems to be about the underlying reasons for the reluctance to evangelise in the wider Church today, and I actually do think that is an important message to reflect on.

Fear and demoralisation in the Church today

He apparently said (inter alia):

"Christians are called to proclaim Jesus without fear, without shame and without triumphalism...The Pope also stressed the risk of becoming a Christian without the Resurrection and reiterated that Christ is always at the center of our life and hope... 

“Jesus is the Winner who has won over sin and death.” ...He was referring to the Letter of St. Paul to the Colossians in which the Saint recommends we walk with Jesus " because he has won, and we walk with him in his victory “firm in the faith." 

...The Pope then recalled that when St. Paul spoke to the Greeks in Athens he was listened to with interest up to when he spoke of the resurrection. "This makes us afraid, it best to leave it as is." Pope Francis said.

Continuing his Homily the Pope recalled the Apostles, who closed themselves up in the Upper Room for fear of the Jews, even Mary Magdalene is weeping because they have taken away the Lord's Body . " …they are afraid to think about the Resurrection." The Pope noted that “there are also the Christians who are embarrassed. They are embarrassed to "confess that Christ is risen."

The Gospels show us several stages of the formation of the Church: the stages of curiosity and seeking, of instruction in the faith and ways of living during Christ's three year mission; in a stage of despair and demoralisation, after the death of Jesus; of joy and preparation, after the Resurrection and Ascension; and finally in a state of deep commitment, mission and martyrdom, after Pentecost.

Which stage are we at?  Too often today, it seems to me, the Church around the world seems locked into a state of paralysis, despair and demoralisation, unable to make the radical changes of direction necessary to counter the effects of the child abuse crisis, the collapse of morality in our society, and the lack of commitment to vocation and state of life.

In Australia at least, the 'new evangelisation' remains more talked about than actually acted upon, with few real efforts being made to convert lapsed Catholics back to the Church; while the mission ad gentes is pretty much non-existent, replaced instead by efforts to promote better 'understanding' between religions.

And instead of taking a hard look at themselves, the conservatives who have dominated in recent times are instead turning on traditionalists and others that actually are making some inroads, the classic example being move to suppress the use of the TLM in the highly successful Franciscans of the Immaculate.

Nor are traditionalists always in a better place, too often, perhaps, locking themselves away in that upper room that might perhaps be preparation for mission, but sometimes seems to turn it into a ghetto instead.

The rejection of the Resurrection

Pope Francis is right, I think, to point to a lack of belief in the Resurrection as the underlying cause of our fear and despair.

And it is liberals and some neo-conservatives, rather than traditionalists, I think, that the Pope's comments best fit:

"...there is the group of Christians who "in their hearts do not believe in the Risen Lord and want to make theirs a more majestic resurrection than that of the real one . These, he said are the “triumphalist” Christians.

" They do not know the meaning of the word ' triumph ' the Pope continued, so they just say “triumphalism”, because they have such an inferiority complex and want to do this ... 

When we look at these Christians , with their many triumphalist attitudes, in their lives, in their speeches and in their pastoral theology, liturgy, so many things, it is because they do not believe deep down in the Risen One . He is the Winner, the Risen One. He won. 

"This, the Holy Father added, is the message that Paul gives to us " Christ "is everything," he is totality and hope, "because he is the Bridegroom , the Winner " . 

Liberal Jesuit Fr James Martin suggests that:

"Triumphalism is usually (in Catholic circles) taken to mean a particular approach to our understanding of the Catholic church. Rather than focusing on the "triumph" of the Resurrection, we instead focus on our own "triumph," as in: "We Catholics are perfect. We are always right. We have all the answers. Everyone else is wrong, and they have nothing to offer us whatsoever, and we're going to let them know it--often." Basically, it is a focus on how great we are. In other words, triumphing in ourselves rather than in the Risen Christ. 

It also implies assuming, seeking and enjoying a position of power, dominance and even ruthlessness, as well as forgetting the need to be humble, gentle, charitable and--as Jesus asked--a servant rather than a master. Triumphalism, again in Catholic circles, is usually taken to mean the opposite of humility in the presentation of our message--which is, paradoxically, about triumph, i.e., Jesus's. It is related to the sin of pride."

Frankly that lack of charity and humility seems more applicable to the authors of the string of attacks on 'rad trads' of the 'Do we need person x', or I'm going to go on being a jerk' variety, than anything that comes from traditionalists, however intense their critique.

And it also fits that 'mainstream' school of liturgy and practice that has dominated our parishes since Vatican II.

Consider, for example, the arrogance exhibited at those funeral masses that instantly canonise the deceased, and where the priest tells the congregation that we are a 'Resurrection People' whose place in heaven is guaranteed, regardless of how we act and what we believe in this world.

Consider the arrogance of those Masses that are a celebration of self and the particular community rather than worship of God.

Consider the triumphalism of those who refuse to kneel to receive the body and blood of Christ, reject the historical reality of the Resurrection in favour of a 'spiritual explanation', and refuse to acknowledge Christ's divinity.

Consider the problem of those who, like Prime Minister-elect Mr Abbott, apparently see their 'faith' as nothing more than something that offers a bit of occasional comfort, without the need to actually attend Mass regularly, or with any other consequences for their actions:

"Australia’s incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott says his Catholic faith does not determine his politics in any way...

The purpose of religious faith, Mr Abbott said, was to “assure people that it’s not entirely meaningless” and that “regardless of what happens, there will be some solace and comfort at some point”."

These, I would suggest, are the true manifestations of triumphalism in the Church today that need to be fought against.

Towards a liturgy, theology and pastoral practice that reflects the Resurrection

How do we counter this modernist triumphalism and replace it with the true triumph of Holy Cross, that we celebrate especially this coming Saturday?

Pope Benedict XVI has actually written extensively on this very subject.  In his Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, for example, he drew attention to the traditional iconography that confronts us at Mass in a Church.  As we look towards the altar and worship, he pointed out, we traditionally looked up to see the image of Christ as king, pointing us to our participation in the heavenly banquet of the wedding feast; as we left the Church, we saw an the image of final judgment as a reminder to orient our lives towards this.

The liturgy, he consistently argued, is meant to be something transcendent, a foretaste of heaven that reminds us of our ultimate destiny.  It is for this reason that we need sublime music, attention to the ritual and beauty in the liturgy.  For, he argued, it is only by being lifted out of ourselves that we can confront the prospect of final judgment depicted above the door as we leave the Church, and thus be inspired to do good in our lives.

The liturgy of the Resurrection, then, is not the banal and boring Mass that passes as the norm in most parishes; it is not the rock music extravaganzas that celebrate the infiltration of secularism.  Rather it is those Masses that truly honour and worship God through their beauty.

It does not end with the liturgy of course: a real belief in the Resurrection also requires that our practice does not end at the Church door, but rather embraces prayer, charitable works, missionary work, and of working for the social reign of Christ, that is, of putting our faith into practice in the public sphere.

What is triumphalism?

The confusion over what the Pope is talking about, and about the true role of our faith, is surely an understandable one.

Look up a standard dictionary, and it will tell you that triumphalism means "excessive celebration of the defeat of one's enemies or opponents" (Collins).  Personally, I can't see much of that going on in the Church at the moment!

Worse, look up Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary and it will tell you that triumphalism is "a term of reproach leveled at the Catholic Church for the claim that she has the fullness of divine revelation and the right to pass judgment on the personal and social obligations of mankind."

Now it is true that many in the Church these days, including the Pope, sometimes seem reluctant to maintain the Church's claim to the fullness of revelation, instead insisting that elements of the truth can be found everywhere (which is true of course in the same way that a stopped watch tells the correct time twice a day) and that false religions should be accorded respect.  And it is equally true that the Pope has, in one of his throwaway lines ('who am I to judge'), appeared to walk away from the Church's role in insisting on moral absolutes.  All the same, he has still insisted on the imperative to evangelise and convert all to Christ, so I think it is appropriate to assume that he is not really walking away from these claims about the Church.

A stronger case can indeed be made for identification of the word with the Spirit of Vatican II liberal agenda.  Some have pointed out that 'triumphalism' is one of those code words of the 1970s, used by liberals to attack the trappings of office of the Pope and bishops, elaborate liturgy and the like as manifestations of arrogance and pride (rather than as signs and symbols that point us to ultimate realities, as a traditionalist would view them).  This Pope certainly seems to be committed to advancing the cultural revolution of Paul VI when it comes to the office of the papacy, so viewing his words as another go at traditionalists and conservatives might seem, on the face of it, entirely plausible.

All the same, we should surely adopt Pope Benedict's hermeneutic of continuity in interpreting Pope Francis' agenda.  And that means that while we must indeed propose truth to others with a humility grounded in our shared humanity, as well as the knowledge that we too are sinners whose salvation is not assured, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the true counter to any false triumphalism lies in the patrimony and traditions of the Church.


Martin S. said...

Hear hear.

jeff said...

Well this would have to be the first time that the term "triumphalist" has been directed at liberals..


Kate Edwards said...

I'm not really suggesting it was directed at Liberals Jeff - I'm talking more about the mainstream of the Church today (which in many places means the 'conservatives').

When it comes to liturgy that is banal, for example, you don't have to look to puppet masses and the like, just what passes as normal at pretty much every parish church around. When I talk about instant canonisation ceremonies, I'm not talking about the odd Mass out but the absolute norm, encouraged by the Guidelines.

And when I talk about institutional inertia, I mean things the failure of the Australian Bishops Conference for example to ditch its General Secretary despite his central role in several inquiries on the abuse crisis.

Or about an institution that has been obsessed about getting its share of the Government funding pie rather than turning out actual catholics from its schools.

While Pope Francis has certainly taken a few shots at traddies, most of his attention has rightly been on the mainstream of the Church as it is manifested in so many places.

A Church that seems more concerned about middle class comfort than reaching out to the poor and actually converting people.

Anonymous said...


Well I will have to say that Pope Francis is simply no Benedict.

It seems that every time he speaks a clarification is required. How often have we seen Bishops and Priests and learned laity go on mad scramble to explain what the Pope said and explain it in context because if one were to simply read what he sad, we just don't know exactly what he means.

I think he needs to think more before he speaks as he is certainly creating the mess that he seems to be joyfully advocating for.