This is a talk I gave Tuesday evening to a group of Cursillo leaders, who meet periodically to deepen their study of the Faith. I thought you might like to see it as well.
A lot of folks are reading things, hearing things, coming from bishops, coming from Rome, that raise questions, cause concerns, invite criticism from outside and inside. Some common issues of “change”:
Ø The pope issues a statement about who can be saved, who is fully Catholic, and are other “churches” really churches. What’s that about?
Ø Bishops keep talking about who can receive holy communion—there seem to be different answers. What’s going on with that?
Ø It seems like things keep changing at Mass. There’s talk about a new translation of the Mass itself, plus things about the readings; plus there was the decision by Pope Benedict to allow wider use of the form of Mass that supposedly went out with Vatican II. And other things. What’s up with that?
Ø We are the trends for the Church? In some places we hear parishes and schools combining and closing; other places are bursting at the seams. What does it mean that so many Hispanics are coming into the U.S.? What about vocations? Are we going to have married priests or women priests?
That’s a lot to cover—and I hope these will prompt questions on your part as well.
Zoom Out, Zoom In
If you use a computer, you know you can use a “zoom in/zoom out” feature in various computer programs. You hit a button, and you can zoom in on a map, or on a document you are working on—you can have a few words fill up the entire screen, or have a map of your own street! Then you can “zoom out” and see the entire country.
When it comes to our experience as Catholics, we live and operate most of the time in a “zoom in” situation. To show what I mean, let me do a little survey.
I’m going to ask some questions about Mass attendance—just to be clear, I’m not fishing around for whether you get to Mass every Sunday. I’m assuming you do; I’m not trying to embarrass anyone. Rather, I’m curious about where you usually attend Mass.
If you were at Mass outside your own, home parish anywhere in the last month, raise your hand. Keep your hand up if you did that twice in the last month. Keep your hand up if three times. Okay, hands down…another question. While I’m not going to, what if I were to ask you to get up and describe three different parishes, where you have routinely attended Mass in the last year—how many of you could stand up right now and have something to say?
How many of you attend Mass all or mostly in Latin? Spanish? Another language other than English? Okay, that serves my point.
I’m not saying this is good or bad; it just is how it is. Our experience of the Church tends to be our own parish, or a handful of parishes right around us, and the people we know from there. Beyond that, it’s the diocese, maybe Covington diocese if you’re from Cincinnati. But that’s pretty much it.
Even then, there are things that happen in our archdiocese I bet most of us aren’t part of. We have several parishes where there’s a significant African American membership. Same with Spanish-speaking Catholics. A few Asian communities. We have a number of parishes where Mass, either the old form or the new—is regularly offered in Latin. There are several Catholic churches in our own archdiocese that aren’t Roman Catholic, but they are fully Catholic. How many of us can name those churches?
(Answer: St. Anthony Maronite Church, Cincinnati; St. Barbara Byzantine Church, Springboro, St. Ignatius Maronite Church, Dayton.)
And this Archdiocese is one of six in Ohio; one of hundreds in the U.S.—and the 60-plus million Catholics here are less than 5% of the whole world’s Catholics!
The oldest person here—do you care to say how old? You were born in ____, meaning you can remember Archbishop ____, and Pope ____? You can remember some of what happened before Vatican II. Do you remember when the fast before Mass was 3 hours? How about when it was from midnight? Can you remember when Pope Pius X lowered the age of receiving first communion? That happened in 1910, almost 100 years ago.
That seems such a long time ago, for our usual way of living—but in the life of the Church? Not so long! We’re still being influenced by events well before that—for example, many of the “new” trends in Biblical scholarship were “new” before that; the “new” Social teaching of the Church was “new” in the 1890s(!); and “new” trends in liturgy go back to about that time as well!
Not only do we live in a “zoom in” situation as far as location and culture, we also live in a “zoom in” situation as far as time—we’ve experienced only a small slice of the life of the Church. That skews our perspective. On the one hand, we view some things as “permanent” because they’ve been around for a few decades—but that’s not permanent in the life of the Church. Yet on the other hand, we think the changes we’ve experienced are about recent history, when in fact they really go back centuries.
These are things we see better when we “zoom out.” See what I mean? So let’s “zoom out”…
Vocations and the Church: growth or decline?
We hear about a priest shortage. We’re experiencing it right now, in our archdiocese. If we zoom out, and see the bigger picture of the world, we discover that there are worse shortages in many other places, and there are far better vocations, in others.
In Central and South America, many Catholics see the priest, for Mass on Sunday, every several weeks. In between, they have no Sunday Mass, only having the Scriptures read and maybe a communion service.
Meanwhile, there are very few parishes in this country where you can’t have Sunday Mass, either in your own parish, or a parish nearby. For example, I am pastor of two parishes, but they are a half-mile apart, and each has three Masses for Sunday.
Our vocations to the priesthood have been down in this country for some time, that’s why we’re in this situation. Only they are trending up in recent years, for our Archdiocese. And in a number of dioceses in the U.S., they are way up, and have been up. In others, the situation is turning around.
Even though the situation in the U.S. is getting better, it’s not good enough yet. More older priests are passing from the scene than new ones coming on. The good news is, the worst is behind us, and things are slowly getting better. Depending on what we do, the situation could be getting a lot better.
The situation in Europe is terrible—but there are bright spots even there.
What color is the face of the Church?
Meanwhile, in Africa—vocations are exploding: up over 80% from 1978 to 2004! They are also way up in Asia. Of course, they’ve got to keep up with an even-faster growing Catholic population in those places.
You and I tend to think of the U.S. as the center of things; but while we’re less than 5% of the whole Church worldwide, for every American Catholic, there are almost 3 African Catholics. One of the top cardinals in Rome, in charge of liturgy and sacraments, is Arinze, from Nigeria. As it stands, only one in five Africans is Catholic, but the Church is growing there, same in Asia. The face of the Catholic Church, to us, may be European and white—but in reality, it’s more African and Asian.
So when we have these discussions about Catholic issues in the U.S.—about “decline,” “crisis,” celibacy and women’s ordination—how weird all that must sound to so many other Catholics, where they’re worried about: how can they build enough churches and schools? How can they have enough people to teach new Catholics? They have laypeople baptizing and witnessing marriages, not because of declines in priests, but because of a flood of converts! In Africa, they face ongoing persecution, as well as in many places in Asia. In Iraq, the Catholics are being persecuted, but vocations are up!
Our part of the Church in the U.S. is so healthy in some ways, and challenged in others—the sex abuse scandal was very much a U.S. and European crisis, and we’re wounded by it in ways other parts of the Church are not. Many of the things we’re wrestling with are special to us, because of that.
But again, when we “zoom out,” we see these things in perspective. The same is true if we “zoom out” as far as time is concerned.
Liturgy: Backward or Forward? Neither: it’s the Center.
This is where we can talk about the Mass, liturgy, and some other things that come up, where people get excited, and say, “we’re going backward”!
So, for example, we have the Mass.
Almost everyone attends Mass entirely in English. Another survey: how many of you, in the last month, heard anything said or sung, at Mass, in Latin—anything at all, that you remember? Did you, yourself, help sing it—I mean, was it a hymn or a prayer everyone prayed? Was that something unusual, or normal for you?
The Surprise Content of Vatican II
Most Catholics in the U.S., and I would bet most in much of the world, have gotten very accustomed to Mass being almost entirely in their own language. This is something that happened in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. It has become normal, and as I say, almost universal.
But how many know the following:
Ø Vatican II did not mandate that Mass must be said in the vernacular? Instead, it said that this could be an option?
Ø That Vatican II did not “abolish” or outlaw Mass continuing to be celebrated in Latin—even in parishes, on a weekly or daily basis?
Ø That Vatican II did mandate that, where the option for the vernacular would be pursued, that the people still learn to sing or say together some of the Mass in Latin?
I cite this because language is something very powerful and intimate for us all. This was a big change in the life of the Church. And a lot of folks think that the change is all “behind” us. But in reality, the change is not past, it’s present—we’re in the midst of change, as a result of Vatican II. Again, let’s “zoom out”…
The Liturgical Movement and the Council
The issue of using the vernacular long predates Vatican II. It was brought up at the Council of Trent, because the leaders of the Protestant movement brought it up, but at that time, the Church elected not to go that direction. No, they didn’t “condemn” it as something that could never happen—they said, in effect, “not now.”
In the century or so leading up to Vatican II, it was becoming routine to use hymns, in the vernacular, at Mass, instead of some of the sung prayers called for at Mass—which were in Latin.
You see, when you have Mass, in Latin, English or whatever, many people don’t realize that the music for Mass is not something “added” by the musician, chosen by a liturgy committee.
Rather, the Mass itself—I mean, the Missal, the book of all the prayers and readings to be used—already gives us the text of the music to use! Not many people know that—I bet not many here, knew that.
But what happens at most Masses is that we don’t use all that music; instead, we use hymns, such as “All Creatures of our God and King” or “On Eagles Wings” or what have you. This trend, however, did not begin with Vatican II—as I say, it goes back about a century before.
Are you curious why? Of course you are!
The reason is that the music that was being substituted for is Gregorian chant, in Latin. Why it happened we could talk about, but that’s more than we have time for. It started in Germany and happened in a lot of the Church—including in this country! It had become widespread into the 1800s, and various folks tried to respond to this.
This is when the “Liturgical Movement” got started, in the mid-1800s! This led to Pope Pius X calling for a restoration of Gregorian chant in 1903! And this “new” movement in the liturgy continued to work itself out, playing a major role in the work of the Second Vatican Council!
My point is, right or wrong, the goal of all this wasn’t to be rid of all that musty old chant, but to restore it! That is surprising, if you view the Council from too narrow a point of view. When you view the Council, instead, from the larger “zoom out,” then what the Council said takes on a very different meaning: In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Council Fathers called for Gregorian chant to be given “pride of place” (Paragraph 112).
What’s funny is that if you go to a parish, and they sing the opening Introit, in Latin chant, they are fulfilling Vatican II; but if you go to a parish—most parishes in this country—and you hear, “Glory and Praise to our God,” they are actually being “pre-Vatican II”!
And if we see that in this one point, we might wonder, how does this apply when we look at everything that came out of the Council? See how that works?
It’s not about Latin—it’s about the center
At this point, some will ask, what’s so special about Latin? The answer is, it’s not about the Latin per se. It’s about something else. To return to the question that I started with, “what’s going on in the Church,” the basic answer is, the Church is striving to get back to the “middle”—the mainstream.
The “middle,” the “mainstream” of what?
I mean the middle, or mainstream, of the overall direction of the Church, viewed not from the point of view of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Centreville, Ohio, USA, in AD 2007—but the center, the mainstream, of the Church worldwide, the Church in her 2,000 years of existence, in the context of God’s total plan of salvation back to the beginning of time!
How is that for a “zoom out”?
The most powerful portrayal of this idea—staying on the “mainline”—comes from G.K. Chesterton. On the back of your handout is a long quote by him, but it’s so good, I invite you to look at it with me, if you haven’t already read it. It’s too long to quote now; it’s too good not to quote at all.
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.
The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.
To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom -- that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. —G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 6.
Here’s a shorter quote, from the same chapter. He’s commenting on the scandal, to the modern mind, of “monstrous wars about small points of theology.” “It was only a matter of an inch,” Chesterton says; “but an inch is everything when you are balancing.”
This is the idea I have in mind when I say the Church isn’t so much going “forward” or “backward” but aiming toward the Center, the mainstream—staying on course; balancing. And that invites to ask: who’s setting the course, and doing the balancing?
The answer is, of course, by the Holy Spirit!
And the Holy Spirit has made it easy for us to find that: we find all this located in something we have a word for, it begins with a “T”…Tradition. A major “source” or repository of our lived Tradition is found in the liturgy!
The Church has music and prayers that go back so far, we don’t know how old it is—we can find evidence of Gregorian Chant, and the Mass itself as we know them, about the year AD 600. But we know they weren’t “invented” that year! So we know it all goes back well before 600—how far before? We can only speculate.
But notice, then, that we’re knocking at the door of the early Church! There is very good evidence that Gregorian chant has roots in, and is an evolution of, the chants of the Temple in Jerusalem! That takes it back to our Lord’s time, and beyond that, no one can say!
Gregorian chant, like the Mass itself, is something remarkable, that can only happen in the Church: something that developed, slowly, gradually, over what seems to us such a long time—but the advantage of this is that is cannot be described as the product of particular human beings, and their agendas; it can only be described, as Pope Benedict did, in his recent letter Sacramentum Caritatis, as the work of the Holy Spirit!
The pope makes this point very strongly—not so strong as to claim the liturgy cannot be changed, at all; but at least to say, we should be very, very humble in approaching liturgical change, because we’re talking about something God did, through the Church, and something we can only dimly claim to understand.
This is why it’s important, in the life of the Church, at least to try to restore and return to the use of chant—not because it’s the only way, but because it’s so much a part of who we are, that we conclude:
(a) God must have done something really great through it, because it was part of the Church for almost all of our history; and
(b) we are kidding ourselves if we think we really understand what that was, and therefore we can come up with a replacement. Therefore
(c), without it, we may be missing something really important in our liturgy. The Church never claims to know all the answers to every question—this is one of those places. So we tend to be rather conservative about “reinventing” something that has been given to us. That’s why we change slowly!
So this goes to all the liturgical questions that get people excited. Why Latin? Why the old form of Mass? Is it really true the priest might turn around again? (Yes, it’s true—because it’s not true that the Council said he had to turn in the first place!)
This is all about the Church trying to get Vatican II right—and to make sure we view what Vatican II had to say in the context of what God has done in the whole history of the Church; but not only how we view the Council, but to make sure we get the Council right—i.e., we carry out the right vision, and stay…in the center.
Who is Herman, and who said he knew ticks?
Our Pope has coined a very useful term and idea, but it’s an expression that needs some explaining. He uses the term, “hermeneutic of continuity.” Huh? Who’s Herman, and what’s that he knew?
Hermeneutic is a word that describes the way we interpret something. I am wearing glasses, I just started, since I turned 45 earlier this year. I see the world a bit different, looking through these glasses. For one thing, you are all a lot less fuzzy than you were the last time I saw you!
The “lens” through which we view our world, and events in our lives, is our “hermeneutic.” As Americans, we all view world events through a particular “hermeneutic”—or pair of spectacles—we call “9/11.” If that hadn’t happened, aside from how the world itself would be different, clearly we would also view the world, and even our own, particular lives, differently. See how that works?
So what the pope is saying is this. When we talk about the Second Vatican Council, or even this or that particular change or movement in the life of the Church, or the life of our own parish, he calls for us to use the hermeneutic, or lens, of continuity. He is suggesting that, as an alternative to what he thinks we’ve been using: a hermeneutic of rupture.
How many people have heard someone talk about “the old Church” and “the new Church”—the Church pre-Vatican II and the Church post-Vatican II? We all use language like that, don’t we? We, or people we know, have lots to say about how different things are, for our Church since Vatican II. For that matter, we can see that happening for our country and our world, apart from the Council, true?
See what we’re doing there? We’re looking at things through the lens of “rupture”—how things are different. The pope isn’t saying that’s altogether wrong or bad—but that it’s not enough. Particularly in talking about the Church.
Why? Because the Church is a living organism, right? We call it a…Body…the Body of Christ!
A lot of the things people are talking about fit well into this choice of “continuity” or “rupture”—and the ongoing task of trying to keep the Church at the “center”—meaning, in the mainstream of where we’ve been going, and are going, led by…the Holy Spirit.
So why did the pope “bring back the old Mass”? He himself said: it was not helpful to have people think there was something wrong with it; and he also said that if we think the Mass, since Vatican II, is something essentially new, there’s something wrong with that idea.
He said, in his letter announcing his decision about allowing widespread celebration of the old form of Mass, that he hopes the two forms of Mass will influence each other. Can you see what he’s getting at there? I would argue he’s trying to assure we stay…at the Center. On the right path.
Recently the Church issued a statement about Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and who is “the True Church.” I haven’t actually studied this document, so I can’t say much about it—but can you see this is all about the same thing: staying with the mainstream?
I.e., there’s been at one extreme the idea that views things very narrowly—only formal members of the Catholic Church even can be saved—and very broadly: it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, let alone Catholic! This document is simply trying to enunciate the “Center”—which happens to be the ancient teaching of the Church. And it is correcting the false idea that Vatican II departed from “the Center.”
And so it goes.
The changes we are experiencing—and we may find unsettling—aren’t as dramatic, in the life of the Church, as they are for us.
If you’ve been on an airplane, it can hit a pocket of turbulence, and you can shake, rattle and roll—and you remember a lot of prayers you thought you forgot! And yet, all that happens and you are still on course, heading for your right destination.
A lot of folks believe the Church is “off course”—and for all I can say, they may have very valid points. You can view that negatively, or positively: we can be bothered by the turmoil, and worry about the outcome; or we can be grateful for yet another way the Holy Spirit “writes straight with crooked lines”—i.e., this, too, is part of His “course correction.” The passengers in the plane may be in a panic—and the clergy and theologians—let’s make them the flight attendants!—may be confused too; but the Pilot—the Holy Spirit—knows what He is doing; even when passengers and the flight attendants try to grab the helm and make things even more unsettled.