Sunday, June 27, 2010

Save the Vernacular?

To the Best of His Ability
 And on the day called Sunday, τῇ τοῦ ῾Ηλίου λεγομένη ἡμέρᾳ, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, ὅση δύναμις αὐτῷ, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. (taken from an internet translation and commentary on St. Justin Martyr’s Apology: Chapter LXVII.—Weekly worship of the Christians)
          Just last week sitting in the Geneva airport waiting for my flight to Paris, I observed a traveling businessman standing near the gate waiting for the boarding call, playing with his IPad. His hand and fingers moved across the screen in flourishes which showed him to be an accomplished “IPadder”, capable of “opening all sorts of windows”, “turning pages”, and, well, you name it. In the old days my companions and I in the seminary would have labeled him as caught up in the material and in the possession of or possessed by a “semi-cult object”. How all of that differs from idolatry would require traveling back 35 to 40 years in time…
          I bring this up because of a heated debate in the “blogosphere” over a priest, who announced that he is setting up his IPad to substitute for the liturgical books: some of the commentators insisting that this “semi-cult object” has gone to his head.
          Also in these days, I was a bit surprised to hear from a friend that some priests are objecting to the new English language edition of the Roman Missal, appealing to the authority of Justin Martyr and citing the expectation of folks to be entertained of a Sunday, like in the Crystal Cathedral or in Joel Osteen’s covered stadium turned church. These priests understand that part of the change to the new Missal involves their adhering to the words of the text and the rubrics prescribed since forever ago for the celebration of Mass. To resist or object to the new Missal they go about piously quoting St. Justin Martyr’s Apology as grounds for their resistance to renouncing what they see as the natural or expected measure of liturgical improvisation: “and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, ὅση δύναμις αὐτῷ, and the people assent, saying Amen”. Let us hope and pray that any priestὅση δύναμις αὐτῷ, who finds the ultimate argument for liturgical improvisation in words written by St. Justin Martyr, to help a pagan emperor understand who this new group, the Christians, was in society, has not missed Justin’s more basic argument about Sunday Eucharist as a sine qua non, as the ultimate point of identification for Christians and the one thing necessary for our survival or existence as Children of God en route to the Kingdom.
How do you or dare you argue in favor of improvisation at the dawn of Christianity, before books, before printing, before publicly recognized places of worship, full well knowing that we’re not too much less than two millennia of experience, creativity and reflection away from building on Justin’s witness? We are bound by a very different set of historical precedents than was he. Argue ὅση δύναμις αὐτῷ if you will, but know that you are arguing in bad faith. Needless to say, my friend too was scandalized by this approach to the Church’s best effort in our lifetime to reestablish liturgical continuity with the Mass of the Ages. He asked poignantly: Isn’t the problem really the vernacular? If we want to exclude improvisation, don’t we have to return to Latin as our liturgical language? Good question! Interestingly enough, he was not advocating the suppression of the novus ordo, but of abandoning vernacular hymnody, the vernacular common parts and the vernacular propers for Mass, along with everything else but the vernacular lectionary. He was not pushing the usus antiquior, which was totally foreign to him given his age, country of origin, and experience of the world.
While the modern day school of improvisation impressed my friend (as it does me) as being a wrong-headed approach to Divine Worship, he classed the situation as hopeless, and not only in the face of opposition from “dyed-in-the-wool” improvisers. Because of a certain genius inherent in the use of the vernacular he despairs of being able to rein in improvisation for as long as the vernacular is afoot (I could not say why the argument that plays and movies follow a script, that opera has its libretto and that symphonies have sheet music does not seem to apply to the man behind the Altar!). Are improvisation and showmanship inexorably/ineluctably bound to the vernacular? Obviously not, as one only has to experience Pope Benedict XVI celebrating Mass to know that the renewed liturgy willed by the Second Vatican Council is possible.
My guess is that between now and Advent 2011 most bishops will make their best effort to convince their priests that liturgy is meant to be celebrated with a certain dignity (as I have said elsewhere, with a certain gravitas). Those same bishops and priests of good will may abdicate their responsibility to face the issue of liturgical music and what constitutes that music as what it should be, namely sacred in character, such that St. Augustine’s famous words might not be betrayed: He who sings prays twice. In biting the parish hymnal “bullet”, the bishop must face not only his priests, but the creatures of habit in the pews and the so-called music ministers, who have seldom been properly formed to the “ministry” they exercise and who often enough think that nimble fingers for plucking cords or tinkling the ivories doth the musician make.
All too many of those who love standing up front and to the side to make music are convinced that they are performers and facilitators, just like Ms. So-and-so’s leotarded and smocked bunch that are convinced that there is such a thing as liturgical dance, ὅση δύναμις αὐτῷ, even if they can’t find a proof text for it in St. Justin Martyr.
Because indeed Christ reigns supreme and the Holy Spirit blows where He will, it is hard to claim that the “moment of truth” is approaching and that unless we finally get a handle on liturgy and move decisively to heal the rupture which has desecrated so many churches and left the young especially without that recourse to God through the Liturgy and Sacraments which has always resisted in the past, even in the darkest of times. Even so, for all in Holy Orders, let it be said that we risk condemnation as hirelings if we do not succeed in reestablishing sacred space and Divine Worship as God’s action and not our own.
We will soon be gifted with a new English translation, a fine tuning of what has been ours. Thereby will we be given an occasion as celebrants to “clean up our act”, if you will. With July 1st on the horizon, I stand joyfully at the threshold of eleven months since I began to celebrate exclusively ad Orientem in my chapel. Each day I am more thankful for this blessing which allows me a more focused and I believe better focused celebration of these Sacred Mysteries. The chapel lends itself to this kind of worship, granted, but I see a positive difference in the way my regular daily Mass-goers pray and note the pleasant surprise on the face of the occasional visitor when I turn to ask them to pray, offer them the peace of Christ or present to them the Lamb of God with no Altar, no barrier between us as we are turned together toward the Lord.
In Rome two weeks ago, I encountered some liturgy specialists, who are doing their best year round in favor of dignified or sublime worship. To my surprise they had not heard of a great resource out there, namely Corpus Christi Watershed.  Although the name had my friends chuckling, I hope a look-see has them encouraged by the material available free of charge for enhancing sacred music.
Time is on the side of the reform of the reform. Each day brings new discoveries of what is possible as the cleverly or not so cleverly but stubbornly concocted myths (Woe to you, improvisers!) pass away. I’m still convinced that vernacular worship in Spirit and in Truth is possible.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

St. Paul and the Call

“Faith of Our Fathers and Mothers”
          Living in a country which celebrates Corpus Christi on the Thursday as a civil holiday and a Holy Day of Obligation, I find myself today (different from many folks elsewhere) on the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, looking forward to the Feast of the Sacred Heart, which marks the close of the Year of the Priest.
“The Good News I preached is not a human message that I was given by men, it is something I learnt only through a revelation of Jesus Christ… Then God, who had specially chosen me while I was still in my mother’s womb, called me through his grace and chose to reveal his Son in me, so that I might preach the Good News about him to the pagans.” (2nd Reading, 10th Sunday, Year C – Galatians 1:11ff.)
There can be no question that profound differences in quality and scope exist between my vocation and St. Paul’s vocation. No doubt if I were more cooperative with God’s grace it might be harder to distinguish us, but it goes without saying that St. Paul is an Apostle, and one of the foundation stones of the Jerusalem on High, whereas at best I hope someday to shine like a star reflecting the light flowing from the One upon the Throne and from the Lamb.
I think, however, at this juncture we should pose the question once again: Where do vocations to the priesthood come from? Is the clergy abuse scandal the principal impediment to full seminaries and a new flowering of Church life in our day and time?
Answer: God does indeed call us as He did St. Paul from our mother’s womb. If by “the clergy abuse scandal” you mean the static to be picked up on the media, then how could it be the “principal impediment”? No, selfishness and a lack of faith, two of the components involved in the makeup of any priest who takes advantage of adolescents or young men, are deficiencies not limited to certain priests, but quite widespread in the Church. It might be more accurate to say that selfishness and a lack of faith have “taken the fizz out” of family life and militate against God’s Will being done in the lives of many of the baptized. The scarcity of faith or a faith environment at home has more to do with the scarcity of vocations today than any other factor except maybe zero population growth (and is that not a selfish refusal of life as well?).
Why did God make me? To know, love and serve Him in this life, so as to be happy with Him in the next… It’s not happening as it should: the “know, love and serve” part! Even before the economic crisis, which is slowing most economies, causing others to shrink or contract, increasing unemployment and leaving lots of highly qualified people just graduating without a window of opportunity for gainful employ, as I say, even before these hardships there were parents keeping their child to home and fighting off major commitment (read: a religious vocation) in the life of a child, as if it were living death or a recipe for heartbreak as opposed to being buried in a network TV “reality show”, amidst the desolation of a modeling career, or hip-hopping your way into a “Crib” to be rated on MTV, with fridges full of pre-wrapped food platters for consumption in front of a giant flat, flat, flat screen. Think of the parents who have fed an adult child at home beyond obesity to the point where they have to come through the wall with a forklift to carry them off to the coronary care unit and the grave. Where is generosity and where is faith in the equation of more than you think which passes as family life in our day and age? Do parents really want their children to live?
My Sunday Missal subtitles or themes this 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time as follows: Christ Who Restores Us to Life.
The 1st Reading from I Kings 17: 17ff. was in this sense and in terms of my question about vocations, especially to the priesthood, enlightening for me:
“And the woman said to Elijah, ‘What quarrel have you with me, man of God? Have you come here to bring my sins home to me and to kill my son?’ ‘Give me your son,’ he said, and taking him from her lap, carried him to the upper room where he was staying and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, ‘Lord my God, do you mean to bring grief to the widow… Lord my God, may the soul of this child, I beg you, com into him again!’ The Lord heard the prayer of Elijah and the soul of the child returned to him again and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper room into the house, and gave him to his mother. ‘Look,’ Elijah said ‘your son is alive.’ And the woman replied, ‘Now I know you are a man of God and the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth itself.’”
During this Year of the Priest lots of crying out in intercession to God on behalf of our priests and for vocations has taken place. St. John Vianney and his example of how to shepherd a parish and save souls have become much better known. Today in Poland in Warsaw's Pilsudski Square that young firebrand of a priest, Father Jerzy Popieluszko (1947-1984), was beatified as a martyr. For these two very different and great priests, and for countless witnesses with less profile, I am ready to say with full confidence that the lamp is lit and shining for all to see; nothing really clouds our view of the city on the mountain top.
A priest friend of mine recounted his disappointment when, as the last of the seeming obstacles fell away, the young man he had hoped would opt for the seminary inexplicably turned away. I thought of Jesus’ sadness over the rich young man who turned down the invitation to leave all and follow Him (selfishness).
Personally, more even than lacking generosity, I think that the hurdle blocking the path for too many, the barrier turning too many aside is a lack of faith. Sigrid Undset analyzes the formula which brought so many talented and formerly worldly young men into the entourage of St. Catherine of Siena and who after her death all followed her individual counsel to join monasteries, cloisters, hospital apostolates or to become hermits. Most certainly her otherworldliness, her mysticism captivated them, but undoubtedly it was the power of God shining through our human weakness in the person of Catherine which caused their faith in the Person of Jesus Christ, perhaps only yet the seed planted at baptism, to sprout and grow at their first encounter with this woman. This all happened against the backdrop of corruption in all quarters of the Church and amidst the heartrending discouragement which even a person like Catherine had to face because of the Great Western Schism.
I read part of an interview with the Bishop of St. Pölten in Austria the other day, where he was asked his view on all the controversy that the Church is facing. He spoke of the history of his diocese, of the utter devastation there and elsewhere in Austria on the eve of the Counter-Reformation and of the wonder worked by young men, properly formed as Catholic priests, who went out and won back to Catholic Faith and practice one parish after another.
The distraught widow of the Book of Kings accosted Elijah and gained his intercession on behalf of a boy that maybe she had been smothering with attention and investing too much hope in. In giving up her child to the prophet she not only had him back full of life but she found herself living truly in God’s presence:
“And the woman replied, ‘Now I know you are a man of God and the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth itself.’”
St. Catherine of Siena drew some of the young men she called to sainthood in the service of the Church of her day despite the selfishness and lack of faith of their parents. She did it with patience and love, and with no amount of prayer on her own part for those parents. Join me in prolonging this Year of the Priest in an insistent prayer on behalf of mothers and fathers: Lord, that they would let go of their sons, that You might give the men life in Your service, and that their parents might have these sons back in faith in this life and truly share happiness with them together with You in Your Kingdom! Not cribs, not abs, not curves, not red carpets or trophies, Lord, but to know You, to love You, to serve You, and really be happy!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

In God’s Presence

Not A Moment to Delay
Idling is a terrible thing! Apart from my Google Reader list, which I try and trim down regularly so as not to waste time, however, I do occasionally seek things out of curiosity. Audio is challenging for me: it must really be good to hold my attention. I still prefer the printed word or its blogged equivalent.
          Those of you who follow my reflections on the debate as to where our “liturgical” salvation lies this side of heaven, whether in the reform of the reform or in a full restoration as the only means of picking up the threads and promoting a certain evolution or ongoing reform of the Sacred Liturgy, as willed by the Second Vatican Council, will know that I lean toward the reform of the reform.
          The piece cited below entitled “The Battle for the Ancient Mass” has not really swayed me on that account, but it has confirmed me in the urgent need of a reform of the status quo, let us say, for the sake of the children. The arbitrary, the capricious, the undignified must be banished from our churches such that small children, young children and young people might know these spaces for what they must be, namely as God’s House. Father Goodwin quotes the present Holy Father’s judgment that much of contemporary liturgy represents rupture, a banal, on the spot product. I am not so bold in my own pleas for faithfulness to rubrics and the cultivation of a certain gravitas in the way the priest approaches the Sacred Mysteries. While some might consider my adherence to ad Orientem worship as radical, I think if they were to try it for a longer period of time they would become as convinced as I am that this is how liturgy is meant to be.
Recent attempts on my part to involve others in reflection on sacred music have been fended off with appeals to the genius of any given people and the rightness of striving for a healthy measure of inculturation as a way to the people’s heart. Sadly, what my interlocutors spell as inculturation reads for me as little more than improvisation. I am reminded of a mother superior who roundly condemned the “offertory dance procession” of some local girls we had experienced as “too jiggly”, while acclaiming the rendition by her own postulants from Africa as genuine. I saw no difference except that the local girls preferred outfits with spandex and madras as opposed to the Africans’ full tunics. Both were “jiggly” to me and bringing up the Book of the Gospels in the fruit basket from the market on some gal’s head could hardly defend itself from Fr. Goodwin’s judgment “banal, on the spot product”, or to quote myself: “Say inculturation if you will, I am still reading improvisation.”
          As I say, I’m not a “restoration man” as such or as yet, but I fully understand what Fr. Goodwin is saying “for the sake of the children”. Save him for a quiet moment and decide for yourself whether we dare lose another moment to the arbitrary!

By FSSP on May 26, 2010
Father Calvin Goodwin, FSSP, discusses the history and struggles associated with the Traditional Latin Mass in this hour long talk.