11 June 2009

Liturgical Abuse: what to do about it

OK, so your pastor, Fr. Hollywood, has decided to co-opt your parish's Sunday Masses as his time to show all of your pew-sitting mouth-breathers what a hip guy he is. He changes the wording of the prayers to fit his political agenda. He writes the prayer intentions to reflect his pet-peeves and social projects. He uses the homily to berate you for not recycling, for opposing illegal immigration, and for standing outside the abortion clinic praying the rosary. Then, just to rub a little salt in the wound, he ends each Mass with the exclamation, "Go be Church!"

Had enough?

Any sensible Catholic would have exploded by now. Unfortunately, most Catholics are either shell-shocked by the inanity of these DIY liturgies or comfortably numb with the monotonous hum of Father's self-serving political haranguing.

Let's say you decide "to do something about it." What do you do?

First, here's what NOT to do: do not fire off an angry letter to the bishop demanding that this heretic be removed from the parish or else. Unless Father is doing something horribly illegal (molesting children, stealing money, selling drugs out of the rectory, etc.), there's almost no chance he's going to be replaced. There's simply not enough priests to go around. Also, firing off an angry letter to the pastor himself will likely end with him filing the letter for further reference in the trash can.* Angry doesn't work.

The next thing to do is to honestly examine your conscience about your motivations for wanting these abuses to stop. Do these abuses cause me serious spiritual problems? Am I wanting to be a cultural warrior and take sides in the battle? Am I being scrupulous about rule-following, or wantonly careless about following the rubrics? Do the abuses seriously damage my understanding of the faith? Am I just being a liturgy Nazi just b/c I can be? Am I pushing my personal political agenda? Am I thinking with the Church on these issues? Keep in mind: you cannot speak for anyone but yourself. You cannot complain that the inclusive pronouns or the exclusive pronouns are hurting other people's faith. It might be true that Father's liturgical goofiness is hurting other people, but you can't know that; therefore, you can't report it. And even if half the parish tells you it's hurting them, you can't speak for them. You can speak for you alone. I am not trying to discourage you from talking to Father about these issues. I'm encouraging you to know your motivations for wanting to do so. Be clear about those motivations lest you are tempted to pride.

Here's what you need to know before you speak up. . .everyday (probably several times a day), Father is besieged by parishioners who know how to run the parish better than he does. They are all self-appointed experts in liturgy, finance, personnel, scripture, theology, canon law, and politics. And all of them together are pulling the pastor in a hundred different directions, all making contradictory or contrasting demands for action. While you loathe the use of inclusive pronouns that reduce God to a Platonic Parent, there are three people in the parish complaining b/c he doesn't throw out the USCCB-approved lectionary for being sexist. While you're outraged that he uses homily time to bark at you about the evils of carbon emissions, five people are complaining b/c his last homily canonizing Al Gore forgot to elevate The One to sainthood as well. If he makes you happy, he adds eight more complaints to his calendar. Also, keep in mind that Father might actually have justifibly good reasons for what he is doing. I have very bad knees from working for five years in a violent adolescent mental hospital. It is very difficult for me to genuflect. A U.D. student respectfully asked me why I didn't genuflect at the consecration. I explained my weird situation, and she was satisfied. Case closed.

Now, if Father thinks it's his job to make everyone happy, well, that's his problem. He's taken on an impossible task and caused himself nothing but misery. If he choses to bow before the loudest voices in the parish and do as he is told, again, his problem. My hope would be that the pastor would lead. Stand up front and follow the Church with his parish supporting him along the way. That happens quite frequently but nearly often enough. Regardless, we are all responsible to one another in this Body, so if you are clear on your motives and well-aware that you might be the lone oppositional voice. . .speak up!

Having persuaded you that Father is haggarded with competing demands and unlikely to be moved by an angry letter, what do you do to persuade him to change his goofy liturgical ways?

Talk to him. Make an appointment and charitably express your concerns. Tell him why his goofiness upsets you. Do so respectfully with every fiber of humility you can muster. Approach him with what you see as abuses by asking open-ended questions. For example, "Father, I've noticed you avoid using male pronouns when speaking about God. Can you tell me why this is important for you to do?" Listen to his answer without judgment. Actually hear his answer over the clamour of your need to correct his interpretation of canon law. When he finishes, see if you can repeat to him what he has said. Then, move on to the next question. Save your objections for a later appointment. If he asks you what you think, tell him that you just want to know why he does the things he does b/c you are unsure of his reasons for making the changes. You will be tempted here to launch into a broadside against liturgical innovation. Resist it!

When you go to Mass next take notice of his "abuses." Is he still doing them? Are you still upset? If so, ask for another appointment. This time go back through your questions and tell him how each abuse upsets you. Again, do so respectfully and without accusation. Just report your feelings and thoughts, leaving canon law and papal documents out of it for now. If he's a good pastor he will pull more out of you than you would imagine there is to pull.

Go back to Mass and take note. The abuses are still happening. Ask for another appointment. This time note your disappointment that the abuses are still going on and ask him what you should do about it. Remind him of your objections and how he responded to them. But honestly ask, "I understand now why you think your changes are necessary, but they are disrupting my prayer in Mass. I find them very distracting. What do I do?" Listen carefully to how he answers and ask appropriate questions. He may tell you to get over it. He may apologize and keep on doing what he's doing. He may suggest some reading to "enlighten" you. Or, he may shrug and say, "I dunno. What do you want to do?" Tell him.

Tell him whatever it is you think you need to do. But don't think for a moment that threatening to leave or withhold donations is going to change his mind. He's got three folks in the outer office waiting to push him even further along the road of liturgical experimentation. Or maybe, you are expressing what dozens have express to him already and the pressure to change is mounting. The one thing that will dissipate all that pressure most effectively is anger. If you get mad and spout off, you're credibility is gone. No one wants to listen to a madman, so the ravings of a madman are ignored. Don't threaten. Don't quote canon law. Or liturgical documents. Don't wave Ratziner's Spirit of the Liturgy in his face. Chances are he knows that what he is doing goes against prevailing law and custom. I've never seen the legalistic approach work. Never. There's simply no way to tell someone that they are violating the rules without sounding like you are accusing them of a crime. In fact, that's exactly what you would be doing. "Father, here are the 37 canonical crimes you have commited in a month of Masses. . ."

At this point, sit down and write a very charitable letter detailing what you see as abuse in the Mass. Whatever you do: NOT NOT QUOTE canon law or papal documents. Pastors who tend to be goofy in the liturgy are constitutionally allergic to rules, so quoting rules to them only reinforces their sense of being "hip" and "edgy." They will simply respond my invoking "pastoral considerations" and keep on truckin'. What these guys will respond to favorably is an honest, personal assessment of what you believe their abuses are doing to your prayer life. If you are sincerely adversely affected by the abuses, say so. And be specific about it. For all their calavier attitude about The Rules, most pastors loathe the idea that anything they would do could hurt someone. You could be the first, the tenth, or the one-hundredth person to tell him that his goofiness is detrimental to your fruitful experience of the Mass.

Tell him in this letter that you feel compelled to write a similar letter to the bishop. As the Pastor of the Diocese, your spiritual health is his responsibility. You are not tattling or going over Father's head. If your letter is motivated by genuine angst, written from a personal experience, and doesn't pretend to teach the bishop his business, you will be heard.

Last but not least, prepare for nothing to be done. Prepare for the fact that no changes will occur. Prepare for hearing nothing back from the bishop. Why? Becasue if Father has 800 people pulling at him about this and that, the bishop has 80,000. Not hearing back from the bishop doesn't mean that nothing was done. All it means is that no one told you that something was done. If your pastor has a history of liturgical abuse, the bishop has a file. Your letter will join others and eventually the weight will tilt the bishop into action. But don't expect the bishop to drop everything he's doing, drive to your parish, and blast the pastor in front of the congregation before Sunday Mass. If that's what you want to happen, then you need to do some seriously soul-searching.

So, let's say that you have done all that I have suggested and you arrive at Mass on Sunday morning confident that Fr. Hollywood has been straightened out. He processes in and begins, "In the Name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifer. . ." What do you do?

Like the shampoo bottle says, "Rinse, lather, repeat." If you tell me that you don't have time for this sort of protracted conversation, I am tempted to say that you aren't serious about the abuses hurting your spiritual life. If Father's goofiness is damaging you spiritually, nothing should stop you from addressing the abuse. It might take years to convince him to change. How important is it to you to have the Mass celebrated with the universal Church?

*When I was a deacon at Holy Rosary Church in Houston, I was unexpectedly recruited by one of my elderly brothers to help him distribute communion. Unfortunately, I was dressed to go on a work project with my U.H. students. We were there for the Mass b/c our project supervisor was running late. I was wearing shorts, a tee-shirts, and sandals. When I objected to the priest that I was not properly dressed, he insisted I help him with the unusually large crowd. He didn't even give me a chance to put on an alb! So, there I was at the very traditional Holy Rosary Church giving communion in shorts and a tee-shirt. A few weeks later the pastor got a thick envelope that he passed on to me. Inside were about thirty pages of copies of canon law, papal and conciliar documents going back to the ninth century! All yellow highlighted and decorated with exclamation points and underlines. The point of the letter: clergy should not participate in the liturgy dressed in anything but proper vestments. Duh? Really? I didn't know that. The author of the package was furious with me for my disrespect, etc. and demanded that I be fired. Had he taken 30 seconds after Mass to talk to me personally, he would have discovered that I agreed with him! Instead, he chose to go home fuming and spend hours collecting and copying documents that fit rather nicely in my trash can.

10 June 2009

Error, Heresy, & You

My Dominican service for the day: making distinctions and telling lies. . .

All too often these days we hear that This or That theologian or priest is teaching/preaching heresy. It's been a problem from the beginning (cf Paul's letters) and it will be with us until The End.

Most of time those teaching/preaching heresy draw a heavy line between Evangelization and Doctrine, meaning they separate the Work of the Church from Word of the Church. This separation allows them to do all the "feel-good" Work without being too terribly bothered with the Word. For example, "What does the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception have to do with feeding the hungry, making peace, and helping the poor find affordable health care?" The underlying assumption here is that they can do the Work of the Church without reference to the Word of the Church. This is false.

This last Trinity Sunday, we read in Matthew's gospel Jesus' charge to his disciples to go out into the world and "teach all that I have taught you." Christ irrevocably binds together evangelization, works of mercy, and truth-telling in our teaching and preaching. Strictly speaking, a priest who teaches heresy cannot evangelize the world by doing good works. His works may indeed be good, but an atheist or a Muslim or a Wiccan priestess could do the same work and do so in the absence of Catholic doctrine. The point of helping the poor is to honor God by honoring the creatures whom He made in His image and likeness and remade in Christ. In other words, we help the poor in order to worship the Triune God.

Now, we must draw a sharp distinction between error and heresy. The temptation to charge a fellow Catholic teaching error with the crime of heresy is nearly irresistible. We want it made perfectly clear that this guy is not teaching with the mind of the Church. Though all heresy is erroneous not all error is heresy.

"Error" is exactly that: a mistake, "getting it wrong," flubbing a statement of the truth. You forget to carry the "1" when subtracting. You switch letters when spelling out a word. Error, by definition, is unintentional and therefore blameless. Error can be corrected and instantly forgiven.

"Heresy" is something else entirely. Heresy is error stubbornly taught as truth; it is a mistake one holds as a truth. It's the banking equivalent of forgetting to carry the "1" and then obstinately refusing to admit the mistake, demanding that your calculation be accepted despite having been shown your error. Heresy is insisting that your spelling of a word is correct even after your reader uses several dictionaries to show you your error. Heresy is intentional, obstinate, and arrogant.

Let's say your pastor on Christ the King Sunday preaches a homily in which he says, "Christ our Lord was created by the Father to give us eternal life." The idea that the Son is a creation of the Father is part of the heresy called "Arianism." The Son was not created but rather eternally begotten. The Three Persons of the Trinity are co-eternal; there is no temporal or ontological priority within the Trinity. You point this out to your pastor: "Father, you were teaching heresy this morning!" Strictly speaking, this is true. He did indeed teach the heresy of Arianism. But is Father a heretic? It depends on how he responds.

He responds to you, "I know! I realized it later in the Mass, and I should have corrected myself. I'll put a note in the bulletin. How embarrassing." Though he has taught heresy, he is not a heretic. Let's say he responses, "Oh yes, I know. Basically, I think the idea of the Son as begotten of the Father is baloney. Jesus is one of us, a creature. We shouldn't think of him as God." You, a bit shocked, remind him that the Council of Nicaea condemned Arianism in the Nicene Creed. Again, he says, "I know, I know. But that council was one big political mess. Besides, all that Greek philosophy should have never been allowed into the Church" and so on. Is Father a heretic? Not yet.

So far, no one with magisterial authority has attempted to correct Father. If you contact the bishop and the bishop contacts Father and corrects him and he refuses to budge on the issue, then he compels the bishop to determine his orthodoxy. Maybe Father simply misunderstands what the Creed teaches. Maybe he has a mistaken notion of what "begotten" means. Maybe he is somehow intellectually impaired or in a fit of misplaced compassion, he has given one doctrine (Jesus' humanity) priority over another (his divinity) in a false move to make Christ accessible. The bishop corrects all of these errors. And Father still refuses to budge.

At some point in the exchange it becomes clear that Father is a formal heretic; that is, he actually believes his error to be the truth. By refusing to be corrected by a competent ecclesial authority, Father places himself outside the communion of the Church and remains there until he recants. Even if he faithfully teaches every other doctrine of the Church correctly, he is teaching heresy on this issue. Of course, it's simply impossible to teach just one heresy. Like the game of Jenga, when you remove one support from the structure, the whole thing starts to wobble and eventually it collapses. A heretic who wants to be wrong on one doctrine faces the daunting prospect of either abandoning the faith altogether in an effort to be theologically consistent with his heresy, or figuring out a way to teach his heresy as consistent with all other doctrinal truths. I do not believe the latter is possible. Heresy corrodes one's faith by compelling you to reject one truth after another in order to remain consistent with the initial heresy.

So, feeding the poor as an act of Christian mercy while believing that Jesus is simply a creature just like one of us is not possible. Though the act can be merciful, it is not Christian. We do good works AS Christians. An atheist can do good works, but he does not do them in order to evangelize. A Buddhist can do good works, but she does not do them to honor the poor in their dignity as creatures made and remade in the likeness and image of God. Everything we do as Christians is principally about giving glory to God. Any material good that comes from this spiritual duty is welcomed and wonderful, but it's hardly the point of being a Christian.

Do not let anyone tell you that orthodox belief is irrelevant to orthodox practice. One cannot exist without the other.

07 June 2009

Coffee Bowl Browsing time!

Sad but necessary: Australia's adolescent attention-seeking Fr. Hollywood suspended

Don't mess with R.N.'s (Real Nuns)!

HA! And the Catholic Lite Left accuses us of "keeping God in a box"

Lefty media meltdown. . .couldn't happen to a better bunch

Newsweek editor deifies Obama
. . .but the MSM has no idea why it is dying. Duh.

Good analysis of last week's center-right victories in E.U. elections

Sticking it to the ACLU's soft-fascism

The inevitable and entirely predictable slippery-slope of same-sex "marriage"

For the grammatically challenged!

Podcasting the Church's saints

What's the Church teaching on the theory of evolution? You might be surprised!

Can we ever say that a particular war is just?

Har-har. . .B.O. meets the Saudi King (a cartoon)

Lots of excellent articles on Catholic theology and science

American postmodern malaise: wanting, getting, and still having nothing

How dead philosophers died (warning: a philosopher attempts humor. . .OY!)

I have met many priests of Dudeism. . .some of them claim to be Catholic priests!

Albert Einstein's "Credo"

I believe that people who talk during movies should be summarily executed.

Answers to all those questions that nag you at 3am

Platonic kiss? Other kinds of philosophical kisses (NB. his definition of an Aristotelian kiss is flat wrong)

"Shut up, brain, or I'll stab you with a Q-tip!" The wisdom of Homer Simpson

Her Majesty and B.O.'s iPod
(B.O. gave the Queen of England an iPod a few months ago)

David Mamet (playwright), "Why I am no longer a 'brain dead liberal" (language warning)

Suffering for Mystery

Most Holy Trinity: Deut 4.32-34, 39-40; Rom 8.14-17; Matt 28.16-20
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

The wooden box just sits there. Closed. Locked tight. Brass hinges tempt the curious with the possibility of discovery, the odd chance that the grained, varnished top might be coaxed into releasing the box’s treasure. A snooping heart wants to know. Must know! But the key hole is a door that will not open; the hinges, like clenched teeth, stubbornly grit against their created purpose. And as if to annoy and frustrate further, an aroma seeps through the only splinter in the box’s safety, pushing an inquisitive mind to the very edge of patience. Rose, cinnamon, a hint of lemon, a little musk and dust. And something unaccountable. Aged paper? Ancient ink? Olive oil and wax? The origin of the box is mentioned in family stories told at Easter and Christmas. It was a wedding gift from a stranger. Never opened because the bride died too soon. No, it was sent from the Middle East by a monk who wanted it kept safe during war time. The key was lost. No, it was purchased at a flea market in Peru from a shaman generations ago by a friend of the family who gave it to a servant in secret, hoping to one day retrieve it. That day never came. The box just sits there. Closed, locked, and decorating the room with its infuriating incense. It is a mystery. Wholly unknowable unless you are willing to force it open and risk destroying what’s inside.

Without the least bit of hesitation or shame, the Church proclaims the Holy Trinity a mystery. Incomprehensible, baffling, and curious. And even as she declares the ineffable nature of the Trinity, the Church exhausts every resource—philosophical, theological, and magisterial—to unlock the puzzle of the Divine Persons and to describe the mystery of the Godhead as Three-in-One. One God, three Persons. Three distinct Persons with one divine nature, one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What is knowable and known about the Holy Trinity is knowable and known as a gift, freely given to creation by God Himself. Whether we come to know what we know by reason or faith, we know it in virtue of God’s desire that it be known and to the degree that He wishes us to know it. Both reason and faith are gifts. Both lead to His truth. Both operate by His grace. And because we are limited creatures and receive His gifts imperfectly, both reason and faith are misshapen keys that cannot fit the lock that holds the fullness of His mystery tightly away from us. For us to know His mystery perfectly we must be perfected in the mystery; essentially, we must become the mystery in order to see Him face-to-face. This journey will require more than curiosity, more than intellectual prowess, and than pious determination. It requires us to suffer.

Paul writes to Christ’s Church in Rome, no doubt telling them what all Christians at the time already knew by long experience. He writes that if we will become the children of God, joint-heirs of His kingdom with Christ, “we [must] suffer with [Christ] so that we may also be glorified with him.” To look forward to glory with Christ in heaven, we must look no further than how we suffer with Christ right now. If we foolishly believe that heavenly glory comes without earthly suffering, we foolishly believe that we can go to the Father without Christ. We go to the Father with Christ by becoming Christ and to become Christ we must follow him along his suffering way. We bear a cross. We walk the way of sorrow. We are crucified in the flesh. And we cry out in despair even as we are given up for the love of our friends. If we want to know mystery, we must become mystery. Standing aside and away from Christ’s suffering, avoiding at any cost the troubles that come with dying and rising again with him, we return his gift unopened; and not only do we remain in ignorance of the mystery, we tempt an eternal life without his glory.

We may wonder why the promise of eternal life is to be believed. What is the worth of a promise given by an unseen god? Why should we come to understand our pain, our loss, and our mourning as necessary parts of God’s plan to make us His heirs? Moses challenges God’s people, saying: “Ask now of the days of old, […] Did anything so great ever happen before? Was it ever heard of? Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?” Even as they suffered in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, God spoke in fire and smoke to His people, showing them the way to their salvation. Even as they suffered, God was with them. Even as they suffered, God chose them to be His people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood. As a nation, they were His prophets and kings and for this they suffered. He took them out of slavery and into the desert on a promise, on a covenant-oath never to abandon them, never to forsake them to final godlessness. In response to this gift, Moses acclaims, “This is why you must now know, and fix in your heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other.” If this piece of the puzzle, this truth of the mystery is fixed in our hearts, a truth we now know, why do we shrink from suffering?

Look at the disciples. Jesus orders them to a high mountain in Galilee. Matthew reports in his gospel that “when they all saw [Christ], they worshiped, but they doubted.” What did they doubt? Did they doubt the veracity of his teachings? Did they doubt their own strength? Their piety, their determination, their intellectual prowess? No! They doubted the true nature of the one who stood before them, freely offering them the Kingdom of his Father. Knowing the reason for their doubtful hearts, Jesus says, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” With all the power of heaven and earth, Jesus fulfills the covenant as his Father promised He would. With all the power of heaven and earth, Jesus reveals the Father and His Son and promises the coming of the Holy Spirit. With the power of heaven and earth, Jesus sends his disciples out as apostles to baptize, to teach and preach, and to make disciples of the whole world. And these newly anointed apostles are to do all this in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in the name of the Triune Mystery; and as they preach and teach and baptize, they become more and more fully sons of God. They doubt no longer.

When their Lord is arrested and convicted, scourged, crucified, and raised from the dead, the apostles witness their way to heaven: to glory through suffering, to the fullness of the mystery through earthly trial and persecution. And so they walked behind him with their crosses all the way to heaven. Each one taught, preached, made disciples, and spent his life doing what Christ did so to become like Christ for those who would follow after them. We are those who follow after. And whether we suffer in small ways or grand, in jail or exile, at home or far away, so long as we do all things for the greater glory of God, Christ says to us, “[…]behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Therefore, our suffering can never be useless misery; it brings us nearer to the Triune Mystery we were made to adore, that we were made to become according to His will for us.

Word and images, concepts and logic, ancient wisdoms and new, none approach the unapproachable light that blinds the holiest human eye. The glory of God at once seduces and repels, draws in and pushes out. And whether you are reeled in or run away reeling hangs on the clearest of Christian truths, one key truth: have you suffered as Christ suffered—for the love of your friends in name of the One Who made you? This key fits any lock, opens every door, lifts any lid. This key, the Key of David, the only Son of God, opens the treasure house of the Father’s Kingdom and makes us heirs to the fortunes of heaven. The Good News of salvation is that there is no chain so tight, no cell so strong, no sin so binding that the key of the cross cannot free us. Yes, we must suffer to follow Christ, to join him in his glory. But this no burden. It is a blessing. “[We] did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but [we] received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, "Abba, Father!’"