Today’s Family Feud
“We hear that some of our members have disturbed you with their demands and have unsettled your minds. They acted without any authority from us, and so we have decided unanimously to elect delegates and to send them to you with Barnabas and Paul, men we highly respect who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ… It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…” (Acts 15 – first reading of the Sixth Sunday of Easter)
“In the spirit, the angel took me to the top of an enormous high mountain and showed me Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down from God out of heaven. It had all the radiant glory of God…” (Apocalypse 21:10ff.)
Sigrid Undset, in her book “Catherine of Siena”, provides insight into the climate of violence which held Siena and many other mediaeval cities and towns in Italy in its grip at the time of St. Catherine. She explains how not even monasteries and cloisters were exempt from the bloody family feuds so characteristic of a period of transition where one social order had given way and no other had yet replaced it. No one is spared and we are indeed creatures of our times. I was reminded of the unfounded criticism leveled by a very Catholic journalist friend of mine, who insists that Church leadership must be above the shortcomings of its own day, must by definition be visionary/prophetic. This type of criticism, mixed no doubt with chauvinism or naïveté, berates the Church for not having been the first in every way e.g. to condemn slavery and long before the 1800’s, when economics finally granted space and reason to the righteous. In our day, this same sort of chauvinism shrieks out its sense of betrayal over bishops especially, who behaved like men of their time (1950-95) instead of as enlightened rulers of the 21st Century in dealing with the whole pallet of abusive behavior directed against minors (in the church, school and family settings), behavior which had always been considered wrong, yes criminal, but is only now beginning to be faced resolutely and openly.
My object in this essay is not to address the problem of the abuse of minors nor to defend short-sighted leaders but rather to ask what could possibly be meant by the now and not yet of referring to the Church as Christ’s Bride. The problematic character for some folks today of the words used by the Council of Jerusalem to formulate its decision regarding the requirements of Mosaic Law to be imposed on new Christians of Gentile origin: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…” must be faced by all within the Church, whether they feel betrayed by those in leadership or not. This is not a new problem, but I fear that the reticence on the part of many when it comes to confessing Christ present and acting in His Church and the failure to embrace the doctrine that the one Church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Church may be as all-pervasive today as the violence of St. Catherine’s day and with even more tragic consequences for the younger generations in search of the Face of God.
I was surprised to discover that my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary does not even contain the world “triumphalism”. Wikipedia without quoting sources, however, does: “Triumphalism is the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others. Triumphalism is not an articulated doctrine but rather a term that is used to characterize certain attitudes or belief systems by parties such as political commentators and historians.” Very simply, triumphalism is something you might be accused of by others who claim to know better. One man’s healthy pride or simply his humble adherence to the truth as it comes to him from God is another man’s pretence. Pilate asked Jesus, without expecting an answer, “What is truth?” and that is where much of society stands today, questioning while expecting no answer. What is odd and even frightening about this refusal on the part of some people who make themselves outsiders to truth and for many bishops, priests, religious and laity “committed” to the Church as they see it is that while labeling the claim to possess the truth that comes from God as triumphalism, they indulge in a sort of protagonism which leads them to nothing short of despair in the face of problems or issues beyond ordinary human capabilities. They are more apt to believe the “Iron Man Saga” than that “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…”
While I am more than ready along with Sigrid Undset to accept the credentials of a radical like St. Catherine of Siena, immersed as she was in the ocean of God’s love, I guess I have to face the reality as Catherine did of a Church where one monk might blacken another’s eye or knock out his front teeth for love of a brother on the outside whose fabric store had been vandalized by the confrere’s relatives seeking a larger share of the market. Even a child prodigy of holiness like Catherine was born into a family which has no other saints of the canonized variety to show for itself besides herself, Italy’s patroness and Siena’s pride.
Speaking recently on the topic of vocations promotion to our conference of bishops, I laid the problem of too few vocations at the door of a crisis of faith within the community of the Church. Besides good preaching and catechesis, I made a plea at this historic juncture in time for creating a better ambience within the Church. I recommended especially at this juncture in time to do so by profiting from the publication of the New English Translation of the Roman Missal as a way to address squarely the issue of liturgical abuse. I implored the bishops to strive for a dignified cathedral liturgy and to seek to convince all of their priests to renounce caprice and adhere to the rubrics. We have at this point in time a “second chance”, if you will, to catch the runaway train and recover the possibility of worship in spirit and in truth. If each and every church and chapel were truly a place of encounter with the Lord, if the hectic and the willfulness were cast out of our Sunday celebrations, perhaps more children would perceive that it is indeed the God Who is near us Who calls. Success is as close as a little change of heart on the part of priests, liturgists and those who call themselves church musicians: that they might turn again and begin to receive instruction from legitimate authority as it is and must be given in matters of Divine Worship, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…”
For my friends who may be wondering: at over nine months into celebrating Mass daily ad Orientem I assure you I am even more convinced that this minor change when possible (without a building drive or major financial outlay), along with a newfound attentiveness to the official directives of the competent authority ordering divine worship would free most priests of that ugly temptation to protagonism. Why would I ever want to stand over and against my people in something as important as the renewal of the Sacrifice of the Cross? The Lord God and the Lamb are the temple and the light of the holy city. What is my “light” or my leadership by comparison?
One day soon, I am going to try and express my thoughts on the liturgical training I received in the seminary where we were urged as “presiders” to seek eye contact, apart from technique in homiletics or public speaking… My reflection is not yet ripe, but the question is posed: “What does eye contact have to do with worship of the living God?” It is not that simple, but the question must be posed and dealt with.
The call to obedience or conformity with existing liturgical law in the Church, the plea for decorum in worship and the stripping away of a whole series of unfounded accretions, which like all attempts at improvisation are condemned to remain in the backwaters of bad taste and superficiality, may have an aesthetic dimension, but I think the real motivation is rooted in the words of the Gospel:
“Those who do not love me do not keep my words… I have said these things to you while still with you; but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.” (John 14)
Let me repeat my refrain:
Come Thou, Holy Spirit, Come!
And from Thy Celestial Home
Shed a Ray of Light Divine…
Bend the Stubborn Heart and Will
Melt the Frozen, Warm the Chill
Guide the Steps that Go Astray…