Liturgical cosmetic surgery is far removed from the major attention needed on the critical issues that divide and alienate in a crumbling church.by Fred Jansohn
Are the Pope and senior Vatican officials fiddling while the Church burns?
From articles appearing in various US media during June 2006 it would appear so. Bringing us up to date on the issue of changing the liturgy of the Mass we are told that US bishops, yielding to Vatican pressure for an English translation that is closer to the original Latin, voted overwhelmingly (173 to 29) to change the wording of many prayers that Catholics have recited at daily Mass for more than 35 years. By all accounts more than 100 amendments to the Mass are involved. One commentator has said it could lead to “liturgical disorientation”.
“Lord I am not worthy to receive you” will give way to “…I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”; “The Lord be with you/And also with you” now reads “…/And with your spirit”; “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of power and might” changes to “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God of hosts”.
But are changes like this really necessary during a time of critical importance to the Church, when it desperately needs to reengage with an increasingly alienated membership?
The three tenets of our faith “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” are proposed to be replaced with “Dying, you destroyed our death, Rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus come in glory”. While the substitute words themselves are not objectionable, gone is what was to me at least a deeper and significant meaning, proclaimed in simple, yet clear language. This would be lost on an outsider.
Moreover what merit lies in the change from the invocation of a creator of “all things seen and unseen” to the rather leaden “all things visible and invisible”?
Over the past 30 years church attendance everywhere has fallen dramatically; the call to the religious orders and to the priesthood is a mere trickle; some bishops and priests react with unchristian-like hostility to proposals for the ordination of women or at suggestions that priests be allowed to marry; married couples are officially forbidden from using the contraceptive pill; no concessions are made on the issue of abortion; and in certain quarters good people who are gay are denied holy communion, publicly humiliated and branded as Godless sinners.
These are the critical issues that will make or break the Church. And yet it seems, in this instance at least, the focus of the Church in Rome consists of nothing more than window dressing.
By way of refresher, the word “catholic” means “of interest to all”; “universal”. Is this now what Catholicism is all about? Is this how the Church prioritises its agenda in the name of “universality”? It would appear the Church places greater importance on changing the wording of the Mass than to reflecting somewhat more critically and realistically on issues that alienate huge numbers of its congregation.
With the greatest of respect to my Church, its response to those issues is tantamount to pretending that nothing is wrong, fiddling while all around burns and crumbles. In its quest to connect or to reconnect, the Church is devoting attention to the wrong kind of detail, the detail that will cost it dearly, in further reduced Mass attendance, credibility and relevance in the contemporary world.
The tone is set controversially in a letter sent by the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Francis Arinze to the president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, Bishop William S. Skylstad. Cardinal Arinze writes, in part: “It is not acceptable to maintain that people have become accustomed to a certain translation for the past 30 or 40 years, and therefore that it is pastorally advisable to make no changes”.
Cardinal Arinze would probably be surprised if he knew the issue as a whole were of marginal concern to the many millions of Catholics around the world who despair at the directions in which the current Church leadership is guiding the Church into the 21st century. These are the valued members of its disengaged community, the very members Church leaders by their routine arrogance and intolerance blithely ignore. Christ was about making change to an existing order. But was His attack not directed at the very core of prevailing thought and practice, rather than superficialities?
In addition to papal edicts no doubt we, the flock, are to assume the Church is acting from a platform created in the Catholic Catechism. For example at Paragraph 1202 the Catechism recites, inter alia:
Through the liturgical life of a local church, Christ…is made manifest to the particular people and culture to which that Church is sent and in which she is rooted. The Church is catholic, capable of integrating into her unity, while purifying them, all the authentic riches of cultures.
And again at para. 1204:
The celebration of the liturgy…must be proclaimed, celebrated, and lived in cultures in such a way that they themselves are not abolished by it, but redeemed and fulfilled.
Personally I find it hard to imagine what purification is achieved and how a culture is enriched, redeemed and fulfilled by what might kindly be described as an exercise in liturgical cosmetic surgery.
It is staggering to think of the many hundreds, if not thousands, of man-hours spent in deliberating these changes. Equally mind-boggling is the cost of making them a reality.
At a time when poverty is rife; civil unrest and war tear countries apart creating oceans of refugees; homelessness and alienation among many is the tragic norm; discrimination against those from a different culture is encouraged; unemployment is high despite the statistics that appear to say otherwise; welfare services are in cost cutting mode because Governments, richer than ever, pretend to cry poor, the Church diverts its own resources to editing prayers.
Frankly, as a parishioner I would think twice before putting money in the plate knowing that a percentage is destined to help fund this extravagance.
No doubt change is necessary within the Church, as Cardinal Arinze so rightly maintains. But surely it is a change of heart and policy in respect of the critical issues described here and above. Change of that order would indeed reflect a movement with and redemption of our present culture. Unfortunately the prospect is remote. With the appointment by Pope Benedict XVI of an archconservative Cardinal, Tarcisio Bertone, to the number two position within the Church, Catholics salivating for some meaningful change will be sadly disappointed.
Fred Jansohn lives in Sydney.