Tuesday, 26 October 2010

"We don't need to preserve anything, except the truth."

It's a long running tradition amongst my friends to go to the local pub after our mid-week Mass and Adoration. The time at church itself is meant to be a "haven in the middle of the week", in the words of our priest, and it really is. Likewise, the time spent together afterward, catching up, telling jokes, and making fun of ourselves, is the perfect compliment to the contemplative hour of prayer.

Being passionate and fairly well educated types, as the real ale flows (or strawberry beer for the philistines), these sessions sometimes turn into what I like to call 'Theology on Tap', after the actual 'Theology on Tap' events which started in Chicago. Unfortunately, our 'ToT' can get a bit fractious without the structured agenda, and when you throw in the cold beers, it can be a recipe for hot tempers. I'm getting better at recognising the effects of alcohol on me, and on others, and am not so easily baited as I once was, but generally, someone will say something that piques my critical interest.

So...the last time we were at the pub, one of the girls was talking about worship and liturgy, comparing traditional liturgy with praise-and-worship, and concluded with, "We don't need to preserve anything, except the Truth." I have heard similar remarks before, such as another friend telling me that we need modern praise-and-worship music in the Catholic Church because young people won't be drawn in by traditional music like chant and polyphony.

It does have an appealing simplicity about it, doesn't it? Blessed John Henry Newman said of the Popes that, "a great Pontiff must be detached from everything save the deposit of faith, the tradition of the Apostles, and the vital principles of the divine polity." Bl. JHN specifically lists "Basilicas and Gothic cathedrals" among the things upon which a Pope "will not rest his cause." Surely, such detachment from earthly things like liturgy, traditional sacred art and music and architecture, makes us freer to pass on the Truth in a manner more suited to the age?

Upon further reflection, there are a number of difficulties with this philosophy. As we shall see, it is almost impossible to separate the fullness of the Truth which is preserved in the Catholic Church, from the way in which it is preserved i.e. in its traditional liturgies.

The key principle here is Lex orandi, lex credendi "The law of prayer is the law of belief." At heart, this means two related things. First, the way we worship reflects what we believe already. Secondly, the way we worship informs what we believe. Liturgy "is therefore the privileged place for catechizing the People of God," - it is the premier way of teaching Christian Truth. So, it's reasonable to ask what effect doing away with, or changing, our long liturgical tradition would have on what we believe.

If we look at the whole of Christianity with Catholicism in the centre, and moving out from there to the churches with absolutely no liturgy at all, like the Salvation Army, passing Lutherans, Methodists, and Pentecostals on the way, do you notice anything? The further away you get from the tradition of liturgy, the further away you get from the fullness of the Truth which is presented to us in the liturgy. On this scale, we go from a church which believes what the Apostles were taught by Christ about eating His flesh, and expresses and teaches that belief in the Holy Mass, to one which disregards that ancient belief, and completely ignores the command to "do this in memory of me," and instructs its followers to do the same.

An example from history will also illustrate the point. During the so-called Reformation, the liturgy in England was vandalised - crucifixes were burned and empty crosses set up in their place, icons of angels and saints on the walls were white-washed, Latin chant outlawed. Now, growing up in a church like that, would you be likely to believe in the true importance of Christ's Passion, the communion of saints, or the universality of the Church? At a friend's wedding this summer, an Anglican friend of the groom told me that it was very clear that his church believed in an "English, middle class, right-handed sort of God." Not surprising, given their liturgical environment.

Another difficulty with this way of thinking is that it smacks of a common problem in modern Catholic circles - reductionism. This says that we should view as expendable everything except the bare necessities. Yet another Catholic friend was once a few sentences away from declaring that a priest in jeans and T-shirt, with any ol' wheat bread and grape wine, would still be a Mass, and all the other stuff was somehow optional.

I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like we're getting what we were promised by Jesus i.e. "life to the full". The juicy steak which is the fullness of the Truth comes with all the trimmings as standard. That's what makes it into a meal, rather than just plain rations. We might compare the reductionist attitude to asking, "What's the minimum amount I can love my wife and still be married?"

I like to think of it this way. The liturgy we have (i.e. Holy Mass and the Divine Office), is the 'pill' in which the Church delivers the 'medicine' of Scripture & Tradition (i.e. the Truth) to us. You can't take the medicine out of the pill and have the pill still work, and you can't get the medicine into the system without putting it in something which can be digested. The liturgy we have received from the Church, and the truth it communicates, are inextricably linked - the medium is part of the message. If you mess with the medium, which has happened a lot in the last 40 years, you can't help but alter the message.

Last, but not least, there is something to be said for preserving our Catholic culture for purposes of evangelisation: "In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art." [§12] Our mission as lay people is to bring people to the Faith, into the visible Body of Christ which is the Church. Their first encounter with that Faith will be the things they can experience, and the ancient practice of liturgy has a unique beauty about it - when they come into a Catholic church to witness Holy Mass, they should know that this event is like no other, and they can't get it anywhere else. Further, its beauty should have a definite 'vertical' quality about it - and there truly is something about the faint smell of incense and melted wax, richly embroidered vestments quietly rustling as the priest makes his way around the sanctuary, all to the other-worldly sound of chant washing over us from the choir, which makes us think of Heaven. (See Scott Hahn's book The Lamb's Supper for a wonderful analysis of how much like Heaven the Mass really is.)

If we change the Catholic way of worship to look more like Pentecostal, Baptist, or other evangelical worship, what are we telling the people we bring to Church? That all Christianity is the same, so it doesn't matter which one you go to, because they all basically believe the same (because they worship the same way - lex orandi, lex credendi). But we don't. To use horrible business language, if people can't distinguish our 'brand' from everyone else's, or even mere entertainment, then we're bound to be met with the reasonable objection, "What's the point of going to church?" Preserving, and to a certain extent rediscovering, a way of worshiping which is distinctly Catholic would be a great first step in fulfilling our evangelising mission.

Monday, 18 October 2010

"But no-one understands Latin!"

Yesterday I was enjoying dinner with four Catholic friends (Chicken and ham pie - awesome). I can't remember how we got onto this topic, but one of the girls mentioned that at her parents' parish, they have a Polish Mass, a Spanish Mass (for the Phillipinos), and an Italian Mass on a Sunday, not to mention the English Masses.

Before I go further, let me say I love Mass in the vernacular, and the Novus Ordo. I think in time the NO in the vernacular will prove itself as having tremendous missionary value, thinking especially of Pope Benedict's concern for re-evangelising Europe. I do recognise the distortions which have plagued (yes, plagued) the Ordinary Form, and hope to see in my lifetime a fuller realisation of what the Vatican Council Fathers wanted for the New Mass, in continuity with the great Catholic tradition of liturgy.

Ergo, upon hearing that one parish felt obliged to have four different Masses for four different communities, I was troubled. Is this one parish, or four? Is this Catholic, or even catholic, keeping the different nationalities separate by having separate Masses? Would it not be more Catholic (and catholic) for them to worship together? One solution to this is obviously for them to go to an English Mass; they are all living in England. Having had a glass of wine, though, I was feeling bold, and so what I said was...

"Well, they could have one Latin Mass, and everyone can have a Latin-to-whatever Missal, and then they can pray together. After all, Latin is the first language of the western Church." To this, the girl sitting next to me hit me on the head (which really annoyed me) and said in a patronising tone, as if I was stupid for having missed such an elementary problem, "Which no-one understands."

Have you ever encountered this before? It's an attitude which is wide spread, and crosses the generations; this girl is 20. My Mum said something similar when the family came to visit and went to Mass with me - "All that singing in Latin will put people off." Given that she said this about a congregation which has been singing the 'Holy, Holy' (the 'Sanctus') and the 'Lamb of God' (the 'Agnus Dei') for two years, I can only assume she meant, "It puts me off". Which leads us to my first observation about the rejection of Latin.

The first thing to understand is that the objection isn't about the fact that it's a different language. It's not that the people who object don't understand Latin; they just don't like it. How do we know that? First, I literally got hit in the head for suggesting its use at *gasp* Mass. Secondly, countless adults take language courses or buy phrase books, so that when they go on holiday to France, or Brazil, or Austria, they can speak the lingo. They don't instantly object to the difference in language, and then refuse to learn it as if it was unlearnable and will hear no more about it. Neither do children in secondary school react this way when they do foreign languages. Yet this is exactly what people do with Latin in the liturgy - they throw up their hands and say that people won't understand it, as if it was impossible to teach people a language they didn't already know, and refuse to listen to reasoned explanation. And it's not as if we're proposing testing them on the grammar.

Further, I'm sure those who object to the Latin Mass (I'm specifically talking about the Novus Ordo here), have a strange image in their head, of a Mass which is, from start to finish, incomprehensible because it's in Latin, or Greek for the 'Lord Have Mercy' (the 'Kyrie'). So, ask them how well they know the Mass in English. Do they know the I Confess? The Gloria? The Creed? Do they know the Our Father and the Hail Mary? And do they know when these occur in the Mass? If so, what difference does it to make to their active (i.e. interior) participation in the Mass if it's in Latin? None - they can still pray them. They might not know the words, but these can be learned easily, just like you learn a song - by listening to it and looking up the lyrics. This really only leaves the short opening prayer (the Collect), one of four Eucharistic prayers (the Canon), the short Post-communion prayer, and the readings which change week-on-week. And that's what Latin-to-whatever Missals are for. The people at my parish spend enough time looking at the weekly Mass sheet, so reading along during Mass can't be a problem either.

It is not entirely clear why Latin Rite Catholics would object to Latin in their Catholic rites, though I imagine there are complex reasons for it, ranging from the societal background radiation of 'dislike of old things' to the simple fact that multiple generations of Catholics have now reached adulthood without experiencing it, let alone being familiar with it. What is clear, however, is that the Second Vatican Council did not intend for Latin to become the exception. Indeed, the conciliar document about the sacred liturgy explains that the "Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites." [SC, 36.3]* For now, though, with patience and charity, we can help people get over their Latin hang-ups and recover some our lost Catholic heritage. Here, I think, building up familiarity is key. I've yet to hear anyone who protests the use of Latin similarly argue against the use of words like "Amen", "Alleluia", and "Hosanna" which have remained in the English translation of Mass. They don't reject these because they're used to them, and have come to understand them simply through that continued use.

*As an aside, I'm sure I'll have plenty of opportunity to write more about Vatican II, the malady of 'the spirit of Vatican II' and the remedy of actually reading what Vatican II wrote.