THINE BE THE GLORY
In a letter to Online Catholics last week, Bishop Saunders of Broome raised the following question:
"The issue of Catholic identity is a most telling challenge for catholic health and catholic education in today's Australia. The quest to be clearly identified as 'Catholic' is most certainly evident in our schools. Church leaders and school operatives continue to work on this urgent issue."
The issue of what it means to be Catholic is indeed a pressing one, and one which extends beyond health and education. What does it mean to be Catholic today? What is the special charism that binds Catholics and makes us distinctive in the world?
"The glory of God is a human being fully alive; and the life of human beings is the vision of God." These words of Iranaeus in 185 CE resonate throughout the ages; it is as good a definition of our Catholic hope as any one may find.
The "vision of God" for the Christian is made manifest in the person of Jesus. Catholic Christians encounter Jesus when we 'fully and actively participate' in the Eucharist, renewing our vision of God. Thus the Eucharist is the beginning of our essential Catholic identity.
Indeed, it would be extraordinary to find a Catholic of any hue who would argue that the Eucharist is not critical to our self understanding, that the sacrament was anything less than the 'source and summit of the Church's life'.
It is therefore genuinely puzzling that so few real resources are placed at the service of the Liturgy. Compared with that which is directed at Catholic schools, or toward Catholic health care services, the Liturgy is very much the poor relation.
Yet it is in worship that the numbers really matter. The Bishops' own research shows that those who are frequently attend Mass are also those who tend to retain Church teaching. Moral and ethical formation, then, is contingent on the routine and regularity of participation in the Mass.
However successful at an educational level, the Catholic School cannot boast that it produces bums on pews. Between 1996 and 2001, 13% of mass goers abandoned the practice, more than any other denomination. Amongst younger Catholics the figure was higher. Given the financial and other resources that have gone into Catholic education in recent years, greater attendance - or at least the retention of existing worshippers - at Mass might have been an expectation; but this has not proved to be the case. (Not that it is reasonable to expect Catholic schools to achieve what the family and the parish do not.)
It can therefore be argued that the way to ensure that Catholic thought and values inform the wider society is to ensure that Catholics keep going to Mass.
Furthermore, if numbers attending Mass continue to decline at the current rate, the ability of the Church in Australia to fund its activities, as well as large numbers of retired clergy and religious, will be dangerously compromised.
The Roman rite has a spare beauty and an inherent insistence on bringing God's justice to the world. It is also frequently executed with little concern for the aesthetic; with poor preparation; and without connection to the real world of the worshipping community.
Denominations which spend real money and effort on their liturgies attract adherents, even where there is precious little else to attract them. By contrast some Catholics appear to believe that the embrace of a new "rubricism" will assure validity and orthodoxy, when all it produces is a liturgy without heart and meaning.
If the Catholic Church in Australia were prepared to really embrace the liturgical vision of the Second Vatican Council, it would have to commit to liturgy in which all participants - priest, assembly, deacon, musicians, lectors and others - celebrate together, each with their special responsibility in the service of the Liturgy. All these ministers should have at their disposal sufficient time and resources, provided by the Church, to execute their roles with as much skill and intelligence as they can, in the liturgical traditions of the Church.
Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if every Mass was beautiful, prayerful and professional? Wouldn't it encourage the people to share the Eucharist and re-find the vision of God? And, seeing the vision that makes us fully alive, would that not give glory to God?