Thursday, February 18, 2010

Externals: Essentials and Non-Essentials

Led Astray By Fr. Z!
Against my own better judgment, I followed a Z-Link this morning to “” and spent some time reading an essay by John Zmirak, entitled “All Your Church Are Belong to Us” – a passionate plea for the rightness of attempts to recapture the hill and plant the old flag as a rallying point. Fr. Z seemed smitten by John’s last line: “And by changing back the flag, by taking back our Mass, we are saying: Go back to Hell. Our Church belongs to Christ.” I’m truly sorry I didn’t click the thing as read and go on to check the weather. The “Writer-in-Residence” would have gotten a barely passing grade on content if it had been up to me to check him in English Comp at St. Thomas More.

Truth to be told, I also wasted time with the numerous comments on the post. The comments managed to vilify what and whom John didn’t succeed in trivializing in his article. I really have begun to wonder just how close some people might be to coming out in favor of the Maccabaean model for the restoration of Temple worship as the model for liturgical reform today. Don’t mind me, but such an “in-your-face” stance on anybody’s part makes me wonder if they are not rejecting the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, that is turning their backs on our present Holy Father and his counsel on the urgency of reform through right choices and good example. I will not indulge that thought.

One of the popular YouTube videos of the last few days talks about the planet Jupiter. It makes the point that space probes show less interest in the giant planet for its own sake but rather use its gravitational pull to sling-shot their satellites much farther afield. Essential or non-essential is ultimately not what is at issue when we speak about the central role of liturgy in the life of the Church. Much of what flaunts itself as liturgical renewal today must be labeled folly and escorted to the church door. It is not up to me to judge whether the folly is essential or non-essential. What happens within sacred space should never be frivolous but rather be pondered; it should have its weight from beginning to end. It is not to be ponderous but weighty, that is important, and therefore endowed, to use a Latin word, with a certain gravitas. Gravitas in worship is meant (mutatis mutandis, like Jupiter) to propel us on and further into God; folly scatters. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council about the Liturgy as the source and summit of Christian existence ought in and of itself to provide the rule and banish the fears that if we do not limit ourselves at the altar to the rigorously contained Low Mass of yesteryear then we will put ourselves inevitably on the slippery slope down to clowns, balloons and cold unadorned grey concrete. Pope St. Pius X and the Venerable Pope Pius XII should be able to teach us that if nothing else. The disjuncture, however, must be repaired.

John Zmirak may be clever and Martin Mosebach attention grabbing, but “The Spirit of the Liturgy” by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is also to be had on “Kindle” and much worthier of a read in terms of what we should be about today. Good literature is to be recommended and approved authors to be cultivated.

Battle imagery leaves me cold and shows little respect for my little old ladies who love God and haven’t been served up anything better than Joan Baez and Bob Dylan tunes in almost a lifetime. Take their Carey Landry, if you will, but show them some respect; it really wasn’t their fault. Most of the perpetrators of that which is light-weight are dead or in their dotage; it’s time to remove the bushel basket and put the lamp up where it belongs. Confrontation has its place in the face of a wrong-doer, but the better course would be to simply spread the good news, seeking out the lost and leading the mother ewes with care.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Noise in the Camp

Burying more than the Alleluia
            I happened on some pictures in a blog I follow of a funny little ritual for choir boys where they, in full choir dress, solemnly “bury” the Alleluia for Lent. The catechetical possibilities are indeed boundless, but I think it should be limited to use with committed liturgical choirs and perhaps only with those made up of boys.
            In any case, this little idea and a few chance exchanges have contributed to a brooding reflection on noise, silence and encountering the Living God on this the noisiest day of the year in St. Clair, Trinidad’s Carnival Monday. This day is legend for noise in the early hours, but in recent years this noise has been magnified to the umpteenth thanks to the employ of man-size boom-boxes on flatbed trucks, which produce enough basso to rattle windows and doors, and bring down the plaster from the cracks in your ceiling. How folks ride those trucks all day and how Carnival revelers “chip” down the street for hours enveloped in those sound waves are questions which remain without an adequate response. These questions and more get tucked away on Ash Wednesday and are only brought forth a lunar year later, when J’Ouvert once again mercilessly rousts the residents of St. Clair out of bed at well before 5:00 a.m.
            Sitting outside after lunch and hearing the roar of Carnival off in the distance, Moses, of all people, came to my mind.
            “When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, ‘There is a noise of war in the camp.’ But he said, ‘It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.’ And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tables out of his hands and broke them at the food of the mountain. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the people of Israel drink it.” (Exodus 32:17-20)
            I do not wish to express a judgment about a good old “catholic” custom like Carnival, but only reflect upon the noise, like unto the noise in the camp which was far from the focus solely upon the Living God which Moses and his servant Joshua had enjoyed during the 40 days and 40 nights they had spent alone with Him on Mt. Sinai.
             In a sense, the Carnival “mas” (for masquerade) camp is like Israel’s camp at the foot of Mt. Sinai, without Moses and before the giving of the meeting tent. A distracted people filled the silent desert with “noise”. I think that simpler times, without boom-boxes, might have found the Carnival mas seductive and perhaps filled certain hearts with a wish to prolong that moment of gaiety. Today with all the amplified sound, one might say it has become a frightening endurance test, for which people walk and jog and do aerobic exercises and take vitamins from Christmas on to get themselves into shape, so as not to fail on this day of days. Veterans will warn that the exhaustion of these two days in close quarters with all sorts of strangers from far and wide will bring the risk of post-Carnival colds and flu. But my only concern is the booming base and the ever present noise, rattling windows as it passes by, filling the air in any case with an undifferentiated roar.
            You see, J’Ouvert parades before the general public an experience which not everyone knows. It is the experience of youth with ear buds in and the volume turned up; it is the experience in Germany, as I remember, that has youth on the way home from nights of partying and dancing as their parents and grandparents are rising of a Sunday to walk to church. J’Ouvert flaunts for less than 18 hours what cannot but rob the world’s youth of the New Moses and the Meeting Tent. What to do? If you are a serious choir boy, you can bury the alleluia, but for the rest of us we can eagerly accept the ashes on our forehead. “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return”! Symbols and sacramentals do indeed have their worth.
            As the “Red Ants” come “home” to Jackson Square after a whole day of chipping around town and my whole office shakes with the incessant thump-thump too deep for any musical scale, my arms reach out to Wednesday and the “burial” of Carnival for another year. Pray that many young people will abstain from noise this Lent and with Moses, Joshua and Elijah before them have a mountain top experience, far from the maddening crowd!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Here I am, Lord, send me!

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C

“What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips… your sin is taken away, your iniquity is purged… Here I am, send me.”

“Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man… Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch.”

In my five years here in the islands the most important, the most pressing and yet the most daunting existential question which I have had to face and which the Church here in the region has to face is that of discerning and promoting vocations to the priesthood and to the religious life. The existential importance of this question for the Church anywhere in the world is a given, but the revival patterns, especially those which seem to apply in the U.S.A., just don’t seem to follow here, and hence my categorization of the challenge of seeking vocations and bringing them to fruition as daunting.

I’ll offer one example. Despite scandals, confusion, the general destabilization of the classic family model, in the U.S. men keep presenting themselves for priesthood, good men. If their home diocese is in chaos due to poor leadership, they may be put off for a time and end up studying for the diocese of their choice, but we still hear the ADSUM up north and many times all it takes is a change of bishops at home to give these men the courage to return to the place of their baptism and say “Here I am, send me”. That does not seem to be the case here in the region. Why?

I asked a younger priest in one of the French speaking dioceses, who is responsible for a house of discernment for men, as well as diocesan vocations director: “Father, when I was a boy, lots of us felt called to the priesthood as children and wanted in our own childish way to respond to God. This explains the big minor seminaries of yesteryear. If a boy didn’t respond, then he was obviously fighting something and gave in at some later point and came to the seminary. Is the world so different today?” Father told me that from his contacts with young people that children did indeed still feel called, but the noise, the chaos of adolescence completely numbs and deafens them to that call. He thinks that most vocations are all but snuffed out in the adolescent years. What to do? The culture is as vehemently opposed to minor seminaries as it is to boarding schools these days. You can’t pretend to take a young man away from home before 18 years of age. Father corrected me and said he still has 24 year olds whose parents are fighting their departure from home! What to do?

As I say, this is only one aspect of the drama. There are other examples and other issues. It is rare to find the perspicacity of my Frenchman, when it comes to identifying and encouraging vocations these days too. You have to know what you’re doing when you start clearing away the “weeds” in a person’s life and begin cultivating him. You have to know whether there is that “depth of soil” which permits of cultivation. It is only right that we pray for good standard bearers, who will rally the young and idealistic to them, who will mentor and form them, who will give them the outlets they need for responding in some fashion and with the passage of time in an ever more articulate fashion. The readings for this Sunday however tell me that there is something more.

Isaiah had a vision of the Lord present in His Temple. The nothing-short-of-miraculous catch of fish brought Peter to his knees at the feet of the Holy One of God, “Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man…” It is easy enough to point at the noise and chaos which fills the average adolescent life, but it may be more to the point to say that the children of our age are deprived of the sacred or can experience no sense of the sacred. Is it so? Why is it so?

St. Francis of Assisi, as a vain and chaotic youth, had his God experience which he interpreted at first as a command to rebuild the little church of San Damiano. St. Ignatius of Loyola, with a cannon ball to the leg, was immobilized and given quiet time away from the thunder of battle to choose between books about knightly chivalry or romance and the lives of the saints. For both of them, however, the Lord’s glory filled His Temple. I get a bit sick at heart wondering what the odds are that young people today might happen upon a Catholic church where worship takes place in spirit and in truth.

Lots of priests, even some bishops I know, are puzzled by why folk are drawn away from parish liturgy to the stillness of devotions and perpetual adoration. The longer I listen and observe the more convinced I am that it should come as no surprise at all that people who are serious about God might want to escape or at least not put too much stock into their Sunday obligation. After the Exile, with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies remained empty for lack of an Ark of the Covenant. It was a focus and a space for God the Most High. Is Sunday Mass in most of our parishes a focus and a space for God, lifting our thoughts to Jesus, Who became a Man like us in all things but sin, Who suffered and died for us upon the Cross, Who rose again on the third day and is now seated at the Right Hand of the Father? Not hardly! In some places, folks enter into church as if it were an auditorium. The building itself has no focal point. Vapid lyrics and trite music, substitutions of psalmody with anything but, dance numbers, holding hands and hug sessions interrupt the flow in the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice offered once and for all on Calvary. Holy Communion may seem to be neither nor, as distribution stations scatter through the church toward front and back; the Body of Christ is pressed into a hand and we’re off and running with hardly a pause.

Let me just drop that “bomb” and ask priests to look at how they organize worship. I will repeat now at six months into celebrating Mass here at home only ad Orientem, that if at all possible it does help the focus. The urgency of feeding the flock and providing the space and the silence to encounter the Lord and curtailing the emission of all sorts of “gases” has reached the moment of truth. The disappearance of the Church in North Africa was not overnight, but it was complete. The “if only’s” are water over the dam. Here in the region the time is now to help today’s little Samuels focus like old Eli did so long ago.

“What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips… your sin is taken away, your iniquity is purged… Here I am, send me.”

“Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man… Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch.”