Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Law of Love

A Meditation on the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
26 October 2008, Port of Spain

“On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also” (Matt. 22:40).

The primacy of Love of God and Love of Neighbor in the Christian life and the victories won in this regard in the lives of countless saints and very ordinary Christians are a source of pride and encouragement for us as we look out upon the world. Nobody does it better than a faithful servant of Jesus Christ. These heights never cease to challenge and humble us as we strive to live up to this standard in our daily lives. Love is indeed everything; as the story goes, the elderly St. John the Evangelist never ceased speaking about the commandment to love and urging his followers to fulfill it in a perfect way; it was everything for him in his old age. Nothing could be righter when dealing with others on a personal or interpersonal basis.

A whole series of recent events experienced and anecdotes shared, however, lead me to pose a question regarding the duties of leadership above and beyond love. I’ll frame my question to deal with only one issue today, but it certainly has, to my mind, wider-ranging ramifications. Granted that integral or authentic leadership is 90% good example; if I love with all my heart, soul, mind and strength God and love my neighbor as myself, I truly am a beacon not only for some others but for everyone. Nonetheless, as the pilgrim people wanders about there comes a time when tent pegs have to be set for those some others, be they the Church Universal, my diocese, my parish or my worshipping community. Law and order have their place and must have even within the community of believers.

My question: Doesn’t authority and law have its part to play in assuring love’s triumph? (As a convinced canonist, I must answer this question in the affirmative) Taking this matter a step further, in matters of choice where there may be several good options, am I allowed to make public choices where my opting for the better implies commitments which condition the choices of those around me (given my leadership role or the office/authority entrusted to me) and in the case of brick and mortar decisions, by what right can I also condition the choices of those who will come after me by modifying a building?

My issue today is that of the organization of worship and worship space. It has become an issue for me as I look to the good example set by our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI and ask myself about my options for following him. Am I free to start celebrating Mass ad orientem just like that? Can I also make some small but permanent changes in the chapel to enhance the experience and in a sense commit the space for the future to worshipping in this way which the Holy Father and I following his lead find better?

Why has this matter come up in my life with such insistence just now? The discussion is not new. Perhaps because of the stir caused by the reporting on some thoughts shared by Pope Benedict in his forward to the first volume of the German edition of his assembled works by Vatican Radio and translated into English by ZENIT. Let me quote the Holy Father as he is quoted the other day in ZENIT:

"The concept by which the priest and the assembly should look one another in the eye during prayer has been developed only in modern times and is totally foreign to ancient Christianity," the Pontiff wrote. "The priest and the assembly didn't pray facing each other, but directed toward the one Lord.
"Because of this, during prayer, they look in the same direction: Either toward the east, a cosmic symbol of the Lord who is to come, or, where this was not possible, toward an image of Christ in the apse, toward a cross, or simply all together toward the heights, as the Lord did during his priestly prayer the night before his passion."

One commentator on the Pope’s words invites his readers to follow the Holy Father’s good example and underlines what he means by publishing in his article pictures of the Pope celebrating ad orientem in two different configurations: one, as in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with himself on one side of the altar and the people on all sides looking with him to the Crucifix which is front and center on the altar of St. Peter’s Confession; the other, a picture from the Sistine Chapel at last year’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, where the whole chapel with the Holy Father lift their eyes to the Crucifix and the wall fresco behind it of Michelangelo’s Final Judgment.

Parish priests generally in these days of priest shortage are alone in the parish. If the building was built after the Council or was extensively renovated, the lonely parish priest can easily take the first option with a prominent Cross and an arrangement of 6 candles straight across the front of the altar. Even the second option is possible if there is enough of a platform on the people side or if the altar of celebration is still temporary and can be moved away to enable celebration on the old high altar.

What do you do when more is required? And what do you do when there are other priests who share your life and don’t necessarily appreciate what you consider to be the better choice? In a parish setting, what happens when you’ve finished your catechesis and the folks in the pews object to your choice of the “better” for them? The primacy of love would certainly urge us not to provoke the situation, since we are not dealing with a clear case of right and wrong, good or bad. But don’t we have to strive to bring out the better or the best from the storehouse as good stewards?

What does it mean when we say that the Holy Father presides over the community of charity? Who has to “set the tent peg” when it comes to worship? I’m not saying that for peace and good order the supreme lawgiver must act today. Maybe wisdom and love demand time to build a consensus. At some point however rubrics must prevail. The Pillar of Cloud led Israel to the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Setting up camp, breaking camp and the movements of God’s Chosen People in the desert were ordered by God and Moses called the shots. Lesser judges helped keep the peace among the people. Maybe Moses’ father-in-law Jethro would advise that this is a clear case for subsidiarity. Part of liturgical renewal in our day would seem to be ruling out the ambiguity of the past few decades and coming to grips with the true nature of divine worship as it was and should be everywhere and always. Good example, certainly, but above all good order!

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