Sunday, September 20, 2009


The Crux of the Matter
The whole “liturgical debate” or controversy is really much bigger than the word “liturgical”. It cannot be boiled down to choosing “reform of the reform” vs. “restoration” as the necessary or best way of picking up the thread of the tradition, which may or may not have been broken, frazzled or dropped during the years of renewal after the Second Vatican Council.

Calling it a “liturgical debate” suffices only if we understand “liturgical” in the fullness of the term, so as to encompass art, architecture, music, and an almost endless list of types of artisanry which serve the plastic arts in particular: vestment making, textiles in general, book binding, woodcarving, masonry and so on.

While “continuity” might be a fair litmus test for faithfulness to the tradition, I can understand why people get into debates over what is involved with standing in an unbroken line with the past. Maybe the issue can only be resolved by appealing to authority: Roma locuta causa finita… This is not the worst of all solutions. Nonetheless, recent talk about pending developments in promoting the reform of the reformed liturgy through building consensus and appealing to the leadership of bishops and priests has left me cold or wanting additional directives. Consensus building certainly has its place in politics and is most likely the fairest and best way to hammer out a party platform, but in so far as we owe God “worship in spirit and in truth”, it must be more than my conditioning as a canonist which tells me that either the prophet or the prince has to speak and say “This is the path. Follow it!”

Even so, just in case we are relegated to consensus building on the way to reform, I would like to suggest a “via negativa” to help get a handle on a good deal of what is at issue. Call it an added element for a liturgical examination of conscience if you will. Ask whether something is appropriate for Divine Worship; measure the sufficiency of its “gravitas” or weight, and do it by asking whether or not he, she or it (thing or action) is frivolous.

friv⋅o⋅lous [friv-uh-luh s] –adjective 1. characterized by lack of seriousness or sense: frivolous conduct. 2. self-indulgently carefree; unconcerned about or lacking any serious purpose. 3. (of a person) given to trifling or undue levity: a frivolous, empty-headed person. 4. of little or no weight, worth, or importance; not worthy of serious notice: a frivolous suggestion. (Origin: 1425–75; late ME frÄ«volus worthless, trifling; Related forms: friv⋅o⋅lous⋅ly, adverb; friv⋅o⋅lous⋅ness, noun) Synonyms: 3. idle, silly, foolish, childish, puerile. 4. light, trifling, petty, paltry, trivial, flimsy. Antonyms: 3. serious. 4. weighty.

By way of illustration, one might ask of himself as a celebrant: Is my manner of presiding at liturgy or my preaching style frivolous or thus inclined? Good Church music, which lifts our minds and hearts to God, does so not like a hydrogen balloon or a will-o-the-wisp but by sustaining us with its strength and beauty: are you singing stuff which is “4. light, trifling, petty, paltry, trivial, flimsy”?

Forgive me if I resist the temptation to shoot a whole series of ducks right out of the water! I will not set myself up either as critic or judge in matters where anyone or his friend might question my competency. Let it suffice to say, that with reference to my decision almost two months ago to celebrate ad Orientem always in my chapel, I find myself as a celebrant affirmed and confirmed. Most of the congregation seems to have found the change affirming as well. A certain “gravitas” has won the day; the verdict is indeed positive.

You are excused if you do not buy this business of questioning the frivolity of much of that which is out there as a first step to appreciating where the Holy Father and many others wish to go with a renewed liturgy desperately in need of reform. I personally, however, find the notion helpful in labeling things which have always gone against my grain. Just observing the rubrics presently on the books would in and of itself be a big help toward ordering the house of worship.

To illustrate what I mean by this “via negativa”, I will offer two examples of my “Is it frivolous, yes or no?” test from the realm of art and architecture, dealing with the cathedral where I was baptized, ordained a priest, where in the crypt of the cathedral I celebrated my 25th of priesthood at the same altar of my first Mass, and where I was ordained a bishop.

I clearly remember the first temporary altar set up to accommodate Mass “facing the people” in the cathedral after the Council. It was made of aquamarine or turquoise Formica. Although as an adolescent, I did not have any strong feelings either about Formica or the color turquoise, I can say that as a boy I knew of no self-respecting woman who would have had her kitchen cupboards made out of the same material. Permit me to brand someone’s choice back then as “frivolous”.

These days (the turquoise altar disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared) I am eagerly watching the diocesan website for progress on the renovation of the cathedral being carried out under the direction of the architect Duncan G. Stroik, LLC, who is attempting to set forth and complete the original architect’s vision for the cathedral, which was never realized because of that man’s death. Basically, Stroik is reversing the modifications made to the building in the 1970’s.

Looking at the photos on the website, I was caught short and really stung to the heart to see the foundations being poured for the new steps up into the “sanctuary”, which are nearly the same as those I remember so well as an altar boy, and which I thought had disappeared forever under the new platform for the new altar and lectern of the 1970’s. It would seem that even modifications in stone might be labeled a hiatus as opposed to a progression. Were those changes, with no provision for a single use cathedra in the bishop’s church, a rupture? I need not say or judge any more. They are gone and continuity with the past in faithfulness to the liturgical norms which have always been in force is in the process of being reestablished. God rest all those behind the stone modifications of the 1970’s, but might they not have been just a bit frivolous in the radical changes they imposed upon that building?

Pope Benedict XVI is preparing for an encounter with artists in just a matter of days within the 10th anniversary year of the letter which the Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote to artists on the eve of the great jubilee. It is another attempt by the popes to engage human creativity for the Gospel. Although artist saints like Fra Angelico may not have been common over the course of history, the Church has benefited from a marvelous engagement also with very mortal artists who have produced truly sublime works of the spirit over the course of the centuries. Hoping for a wedding between the Church and the world of contemporary art is not a wish for frivolity but might be likened to Hosea's efforts at God’s command to call his bride home.

Ideally, I guess I’d like to propose the frivolity test to bishops and priests concerning their own responsibility for liturgy. Musicians should be able to judge as well if one or another of the pieces in the song book might not better be left aside as frivolous. I cannot see how a call for “gravitas” in worship involves clipping anyone’s wings or hemming anyone in. The instructive parts of the liturgy of ordination call us to just that, to be anything but frivolous in dealing with the things of God.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Washed and Saved!

Triumph of the Cross

You decreed that man should be saved through the wood of the cross. The tree of man’s defeat became his tree of victory; where life was lost, there life has been restored through Christ our Lord.” (from the Preface for the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross)

The prophetic image from the Book of Numbers of the bronze serpent, lifted up in the desert of the Exodus by Moses as God had commanded, is explained by Jesus in His words to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel (3:13-17) of which vs. 16, “God so loved the world…”:

“No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man who is in heaven; and the Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

The contradictory sign of the bronze serpent became the gateway to survival in the desert and hence life in the Promised Land. The contradictory sign of Our Savior Crucified becomes the way to eternal life, “so that through him the world might be saved.”

As familiar as we might be with the Old Testament prophecy and its fulfillment in Jesus on the Cross, the iconography puts most folks off. I was reminded of that not so long ago when I set up a copy of my coat-of-arms at the entrance of the chapel: “What’s that snake with the cross doing there? Why the snake!” Both the bronze serpent and Our Savior Crucified seem to be able to shock even those saved through water and the Wood.

Although I may not be able to substantiate the claim that this part of John Chapter 3 is the most quoted passage of the New Testament, I’d bet that if it’s beat out for first place by parts of the Nativity and Passion narratives then it comes in a close third for all-time oral Bible quotes. Nonetheless, Catholics make strange when faced with the serpent and my bet would be that the image would appall those fervent sons and daughters of the reformation who are continually “john-3:16-ing” or “god-so-loved-the-world-ing” themselves and anyone they can witness to.

God knew what He was doing and the prophecy points most effectively to the scandal of the Cross for which the Transfiguration had been meant to be the antidote. The Cross without the Corpus, maybe for reasons of our psychology if not by way of our sins, sadly enough seldom points to Jesus lifted up and drawing us all to Himself. This state of affairs reminds us of another prophetic reaction: namely, the shudder passing through the crowd which looked away or covered their eyes, unwilling to lift their eyes to face Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, “bruised, derided, cursed, defiled…” for our sins. Why the serpent on the cross? Perhaps the serpent is there to throw us off balance and open our eyes to the Sign of Contradiction, our Savior Crucified?

Let me simply formulate a tiny aspiration and a fervent hope on the eve, that the Feasts of the Triumph of the Cross and of Our Lady of Sorrows might not escape our gaze this year. May we discover the Cross, soaked and sanctified for us with His Blood (the gateway to heaven), and if we have effectively filtered out of the picture and our consciousness His Body lifted up upon that Cross, may the Sorrowful Mother’s tears catch our attention and cause us to look again and this time see, no more put off by the snake than we are by God’s Servant and His Son!

“You decreed that man should be saved through the wood of the cross. The tree of man’s defeat became his tree of victory; where life was lost, there life has been restored through Christ our Lord.”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Never Too Late

“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1-2

By accident really, looking for something to read for an upcoming airplane trip, I happened to pick up a book by Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, CFR, “The Reform of Renewal”, Ignatius Press, 1990. The sense of the title of Father’s book lies in describing the heritage of Vatican II as renewal accomplished, but still very much in need of reform. In the course of the book, Father leaves no doubt of his absolute conviction that reform in the lives of individuals, from greatest to least, is what the Church urgently needs today.

After the fact, I checked the reviews and find myself in agreement and wondering why this little book doesn’t seem to have made it “big” at some point over the last almost 20 years…

"Father Groeschel has written *the* book for the Church in the '90's. He is right on target! He has said clearly and prophetically what must be said before it is too late: namely, that all true Christian renewal must be rooted in personal, on-going conversion. I found reading the book as valuable as making a retreat."
— Father Richard Roach, S.J., Marquette University

"By his frequent use of appealing concrete examples and comparisons, Groeschel shows conclusively that true, lasting renewal in the Church can only happen by continual repentance and reform in our individual lives."
— Father Kenneth Baker, Editor, Homiletic and Pastoral Review

Permit me to quote at length the last paragraph of what certainly is not a “classic” but is definitely more than a “gem” in the genre “spiritual books”, meriting attention even twenty years after the fact in a situation both within the Church and in our world where answers are required or keys are sought for applying or unleashing St. Paul and the force his timeless words to the Romans:

“Every disciple of Christ is obliged to confess Him before all men and to follow His example. This is the real meaning of bringing the Good News to the ends of the earth. The lethargy, depression, conflictful attitudes and lack of commitment and zeal that are evident in the Christian churches at this time strongly suggest that no real sense of repentance and conversion is deeply present. There is no question that Christianity is losing ground because the Good News is not being effectively communicated to the people of our time or to young people who belong to families of faith. All those who consider themselves disciples of Christ must pause at this time to see if conversion is ongoing in their hearts. Every Christian is called to a ministry of reconciliation between man and God through the teaching and grace of Jesus Christ. We can hardly be working on this ministry of reconciliation for others if we are not pursuing it in our own lives. The real answer to the problems of the individual, of society and of the churches is to be found in the simple and direct words of Our Lord Jesus Christ at the beginning of His Gospel: “The time is come and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Good News.” (pp. 215-216)”

What shines through from beginning to end of this book is that Father knows hearts and understands that regardless of where a person might stand on the ideological spectrum there is room for change of heart: repentance and conversion, the components of reform.

No telling how long my copy of the book had been on the shelf of that Catholic book store, but I’m grateful that it fell within my grasp late rather than never. Father Groeschel’s focus is certainly the Catholic Church in America. One of my concerns has always been somewhat akin, namely that of distinguishing the measure of vitality in the past within the Church in the New World by comparison with the vitality in the past within the Church in the Old World (the other pole of my life experience). Since the Second World War and until maybe twenty or so years ago this New World vitality carried with it a constant turnover, thanks to large families filling the pews on Sundays and any number of converts “joining the Church” as they entered into marriage with a Catholic. The neophytes always more than offset those who quietly drifted away and disappeared from the parish lists. Today’s demographics are different and the institution no longer seems to have the pull to carry people to the altar and through the first years of matrimony. The balance of pressures to conform has tipped from church, family and school to Hollywood, Bollywood and “Reality TV”.

BBC radio has a program running on G. Allegri’s Miserere mei Deus. I started to listen until I discovered that this musical masterpiece can be for some little more than a warm fuzzy just like my rosary or my pectoral cross can be bling for others. Father Groeschel finds in St. Catherine of Genoa and her prayer groups the source of “plutonium” for the engines of both the Reformation and the Catholic Reform. Before I criticize or doubt him for attributing so much influence to the holiness of life of one woman, I guess I’d better give that kind of reform in my own personal life a try and see what might be unleashed. Just maybe a heart contrite and humbled is more than mountains of inspirational music or sacred bling…

Nonetheless I still have this gut feeling that imparting knowledge has something to do with this equation. Whether it’s Miserere or Dies irae, if I get people beyond the symmetry to the content, I have the means to build on and beyond sentiment. Unforgettable for me is the example of our little boy blessed, Francisco, from Fatima, who knew, yes, knew enough to want to do reparation for the sins of others. I am thinking of a whole world of Catholic folk in the sunset years of life that knew its catechism and built upon it. Thanks to home, I still have rhymes and memorized prayers that nourish me and challenge me to that change of heart never too late even six decades into the game. Where would I be without? How many of our younger baptized were treated to catechetical content as opposed to sentiment?

Thank you, Father Groeschel, for laying it out there especially for priests and religious! I’d hate to think we are losing the race against time and that another generation might have to be claimed for Christ from paganism or ignorance by missionary bishops and little monks in their tiny boats from a far away someplace. Christendom is really a great word and something worth ringing church bells about no matter the silly ordinance about decibels. Knowledge and substance imparted, we hope and pray for the grace of repentance and conversion, for the grace of reform.

“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1-2