Pressing Church Issues

From Gerald Vigna:

To Reform the Liturgy, Reform the Church

I remember the last straw. Hurricane Sandy was coming in. The Gospel was an episode of Jesus healing a blind man, or so I recall. What I recollect most vividly was the presider talking about how he disliked going to his mother’s shore house the day before and covering the windows in preparation for the storm. If the homily lasted ten minutes, the first eight were dedicated to his complaints masquerading as confession of wrongful filial aloofness. It closed with an indolent allusion to the Gospel. Homily. I guess.

Okay, so that seems truly too minor an incident to trigger as strong a reaction as I had. But there are straws and there are camel’s backs. So what led up to Labor Day weekend 2012?

I very much like the prayers said at mass, even the ones that are the same or nearly the same every week. The Gloria, the Creed, the entire Eucharistic canon of the mass. And when I go I find the mass satisfying because I listen carefully to those prayers and repeat them conscientiously when required (although I still sometimes say, “And also with you”). These prayers have a certain intrinsic spiritual value. They also acquire, however, a certain transactional value that accrues from the quality of the entire liturgy. Thus we have the emphasis among those who care about the mass on the homily, among other elements such as the music and even the quality of the lectors. As the final blessing and dismissal direct, however, the Eucharistic Liturgy must also connect to the rest of one’s life, and here was the sticking point.

I felt let down in all the areas surrounding Church. Pastor, bishops, employer, bishops again, homilies. I am one of those rare birds whose life is entirely surrounded by the Catholic Church. I was quite active in the parish. I work for a Catholic institution. My job leads me to pay particular attention to the bishops’ statements, especially as they relate to Catholic universities. Although not a victim, I am closer to the sex abuse scandal than most. Unfortunately, the sacraments cannot be a shining, bright light untouched by all these things. If rites are undergirded by a sacramental imagination that sees God’s grace in all things, then the converse is also true. It can be difficult to separate God’s grace from the muck of human misbehavior.

Allow me to gently name some of the specific issues that at first annoyed me and then became much more onerous. None of these settled matters in themselves, but cumulatively, well, they led up to Labor Day weekend 2012.

A new pastor arrived. Quickly it became clear that he was a bit of a careerist and that his method, in the words of a fellow parishioner and old friend was, “My way or the highway.” He immediately dissolved the parish council, as was his right under canon law. Unfortunately, he did so dismissively rather than pastorally and offended some members, including me. Realizing that I did not want to work closely with him, I dropped off committees. Meanwhile, the bishops were aggressively resisting the consequences of the sex abuse scandal and threatening state legislators who might favor lifting the statute of limitations imposed on sexual assault allegations. The university began to go through the corporatization that has been transforming higher education in the U.S. in recent years, including the damage to shared governance and the reduction of tenured positions. And salaries are low. The bishops again stepped in it with criticisms of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and Sr. Margaret Farley. The first statement, a subtle threat to academic freedom, was directed at Sr. Johnson’s work and suggested that we not assign it to undergraduates because it might confuse them in their faith. I bristle at nothing more than someone recommending what I should not teach in a classroom. Around this time, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, whom I had admired for his stand on immigration, was implicated in a cover-up of the sex abuse scandal in Los Angeles.

And then there was that homily.

Vatican II issued a document on reforming the liturgy. It also issued a document on reforming the Church and yet another on reforming the world. The faith is organic, truly a seamless garment. The complaints I have put forward seem to have their origin in a desire to control rather than shepherd prudently, a certain cowardice, too much careerism, and bad homilies. The last results from shaping them in the direction of a personal piety of the laity and rarely if ever pointing to the Church’s concern for the world’s systems and their sinfulness. The liturgy must embrace the fullness of the faith; the faith must fully engage the promise of the liturgy. Thy Kingdom come. 

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