Friday, 4 October 2013

Window of Salvation

After reading a recent Twitter exchange which began by discussing indulgences, the issue of the difference between temporal and external punishment was raised. When we sin, we incur two liabilities - that of guilt and that of punishment. "When someone repents, God removes his guilt (Is. 1:18) and any eternal punishment (Rom. 5:9), but temporal penalties may remain". [1] Christ paid the price for our sins before God but did not relieve us of the obligation to atone for them.

According to Catholic teaching, those who die who are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully accounted for their transgressions must undergo temporal purification in Purgatory because no soul would be able to stand in the glorious presence of God with any taint of sin. This contrasts with the Eternal punishment of Hell, permanent separation from God, for those unrepentant of sin. [2] When we first receive God's forgiveness, especially at our Baptism, we are forgiven. When we subsequently sin and receive forgiveness, we are likewise forgiven. This forgiveness however does not free us from the penalty of physical death, a temporal penalty as Christ has promised us resurrection.

That temporal punishment is a result of the fall is evidenced in scripture and the whole economy of Salvation. Wisdom 10:2, where man is condemned "to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow" despite being led out of his original disobedience and Numbers 20:12, where God forgives the incredulity of Moses and Aaron, but still keeps them from the promised land is often given in support of this teaching. In addition, throughout Salvation History, those who receive forgiveness bear fruit in their repentance in further acts of penitence - alms giving, prayer, fasting and good works. As the nature of indulgences (and their abuse) and the role of temporal punishment were major contributors to the theology of the reformation, the Council of Trent addressed the issue in depth, proclaiming that satisfaction for sins, is made to God through "the merits of Christ by the punishments inflicted by Him and patiently borne", the imposition of the church, and "voluntarily undertaken works of fasting, prayer, almsgiving" [and] other works of piety". [3]

I often think of these things with the analogy of a broken window. If I break a window with a football (sin), I incur the penalties of guilt before the owner of the window (God) and punishment (I must pay to have the window repaired). Even if the window is repaired, the memory of it being shattered still remains. Every time the owner, I or the neighbours look at the repaired the window, they may remember the shards of glass flying in all directions. I therefore give a bunch of flowers to the owner of the window (Christ's sacrifice on the cross) so that now, when the window is considered, it is the flowers that are remembered, rather than the shards of glass. All analogies break down at some point and this one may fail on some important theological
point (please point it out if it does!) but it may be useful in trying to explain what can be a difficult concept for non-Catholics to understand.


Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Liturgical Wars

It's all just a little bit of history repeating...

One of the most common themes which crops up in Catholic Blogs and on Twitter is that of Liturgy. As with most inter-ecclesiastical strife, the battleground is demarcated by the interpretation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the fault line between protagonists is invariably drawn along liberal and traditional axioms. If Sacrosanctum Concilium was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Pope Benedict's Motu Proprio on the Use of the Roman Liturgy was the Treaty of Versaille, we find ourselves living in the uneasy peace of the Weimar Republic as Pope Francis' ability to escape pigeon-holing leads to rumour and intrigue over the direction of his predecessor's reforms.

It is to be expected that any discussion of liturgical practice will evoke strong passions. Mass is after all a celebration which transcends space and time, making present to us Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and the heavenly worship of God as glimpsed by St John in the Book of Revelation. Though an "action of the whole Christ" and an expression of the unity of the body of Christ, as liturgy touches on man's capacity for art and expression, it necessarily embodies a profoundly personal experience, subject to an individual's own tastes and preferences. As the Catechism states, "integrated into the world of faith and taken up by the power of the Holy Spirit, these cosmic elements, human rituals, and gestures of remembrance of God become bearers of the saving and sanctifying action of Christ." [1] Liturgy actually contributes to our salvation, acting as a conduit of grace:

You have no need of our praise,
yet our desire to thank You is itself Your gift.
Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to Your greatness,
but makes us grow in Your grace,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. [2]

Colours of Swansea Bay

Before attending University, I had never really given the liturgy much thought, largely because most of the Masses I attended in Wales were rather generic. To this day, my experiences lead me to believe that there is no discernible Catholic liturgical tradition in Wales - when juxtaposed with my attendance of Mass in England, I am often left feeling spiritual impoverished. I suspect that the overwhelming success of the Reformation in Wales together with English determination to suppress Welsh culture is largely responsible for this phenomenon. Lacking metropolitan centres of ecclesiastical influence, Wales relied heavily on its monasteries for its Catholic identity and their utter destruction forever shaped our spiritual destiny. English Catholicism can freely peruse the back-catalogue of her High-Anglican sister for inspiration but the triumph of  Non-Conformism in Wales perhaps makes liturgical borrowing theologically onerous. It was only on leaving Wales to attend youth conferences or to go to University that I was exposed to the broad tradition of Catholic liturgy, including fundamentally basic practices such as the Divine Office.

This is not to say however I had no opinions on liturgy and music at Mass. As an alter server, I noted that our Parish priest was adamant that the defining characteristics of Mass liturgy should be dignity and appropriateness to the current season. The Easter and Christmas celebrations always filled me with wonder and awe and as I grew older, I began to appreciate how essential it was for liturgy, particularly with regards to music, to reflect the reality of the Mass. I had quite an eclectic taste in music which covered a wide spectrum of styles from rock to opera (excluding rap and R&B) but recognised that what I enjoyed listening to in my spare time would not always be appropriate at Mass. As for the form of Mass, I may have had a vague understanding that an "Old Rite" had preceded the existing form but I had no knowledge of how it differed other than the priest facing the altar rather (a fact gleaned from old prayer cards) and the language being Latin. I can't recall when I first attended an ordinary form Mass in Latin - it may have been arranged as part of my Latin studies when I was fifteen - but I do remember that I very much enjoyed the experience. Up until that point I was rather sceptical of the notion because virtually everyone I met who professed an affinity for the Latin Mass was either a schismatic or, quite frankly, rather odd.

Perhaps the single most informative liturgical experience of my teenage years came via a week long mission which the Headmaster had invited to our school. I'm not sure if the energetic mission team was Catholic or not but their razzmatazz, rock star presentation was everything I had come to loathe in "Catholic Youth Ministry". I felt rather than attempting to stimulate Faith, they fed us emotion and I am firmly convinced that is poor soil for spiritual growth. This was evidenced in the feedback session at the end of the mission - the Sixth Form complained the team were attempting to brainwash the younger pupils who in turn enthused that they thoroughly enjoyed the "performances" but wished there was less religion involved. The "show piece" Mass left me incredulous and deeply hurt as a priest who later claimed to be an expert in "liturgy for children" broke every rule in the book as he neglected set prayers, invented rites and gave the missionary team carte blanche in asserting themselves over the Mass. The recollection of  liturgical dance from the leotarded GCSE drama troupe, the rendition of U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (one of my favourite songs) and the third Offertory prayer beseeching God to "Bless this money" still makes me cringe. I left school with the conviction that guitars, tambourines, drum kits, beanbags and gaudy posters had no place in the celebration of Mass.

Attack of the Drones

One of great advantages of being a Catholic in Oxford is that Mass is readily available throughout the day, every day. I could attend Littlemore, Greyfriars, Blackfriars, St Aloysius Gonzaga (The Oratory), Holy Rood, Grandpont House or The Catholic Chaplaincy. During the week, I attended Mass where ever best fitted in with my studies but I had a preference for the Oratory because of the style of the Church and the opportunity to hear Mass in Latin. Aesthetically, the worst place to attend Mass was The Catholic Chaplaincy (the main hall is used for well attended Masses and it is a concrete structure more suited to a car park or aircraft hanger) but I always attended Mass there on a Sunday as it was the centre of Catholic Student life and where I met all my best University friends. The Chaplaincy could never compete with the grandeur of the Oxford College Chapels but the liturgy there was dignified whilst the chapel was also very peaceful, prayerful and perfect for post study adoration. Oxford also gave me the opportunity to attend Mass according to the Old Roman and Byzantine Rites, both of which I found intriguing, mysterious and beautiful.

It was within this environment that I first experienced the true vitriol and snobbery that can accompany liturgical preference. There was a not inconsequential group of students who attended The Oratory who would refuse to attend Mass at the Chaplaincy or be part of the Catholic Society. That was of course their prerogative but during meetings of overlapping societies such as the Newman Society which was often held in The Old Palace which adjoins the Catholic Chaplaincy, some would routinely disparage anyone associated with the Chaplaincy. Mass at the Chaplaincy they claimed was "barely valid" and anyone who attended it was clearly a "liberal". I suspect that for the most vociferous of this group, attending Mass at the Oratory had little to do with Faith - it was rather an extension of their class pretensions. Exclusivity is an extremely sought after commodity in Oxford and the Oratory, with its collection of academics, intellectuals, barristers and corporates and Catholicism in general created yet another clique for them to invest in.

Though it might be claimed that Oxford is microcosm and that these traits do not extended to the rest of the country, my experiences since suggest otherwise. A summary of the worst of these idiosyncrasies include:

1) Liturgical Fetishism - A concern for vestments and liturgical aids which borders on the profane
2) Determining Orthodoxy by liturgical preference
3) Questioning the validity of Novus Ordo Masses
4) Snobbish dismissal of the Faith of others
5) Hypersensitivity to poor liturgical practice
6) A propensity to judge spiritual progress on how Mass makes one feel
7) A tendency to link the Usus Antiquior and High Novus Order Masses with the concept of being English

In highlighting these idiosyncrasies, I do not mean to imply that everyone who attends an Old Rite Mass shares in them. The vast majority of people I converse with on Twitter who attend an Usus Antiquior Mass are thoroughly reasonable folk who do so for their own spiritual nourishment. Indeed, I sympathise greatly with their claims that a return to the Usus Antiquior eradicates the worst of the horrific liturgical abuses which occur under the novus ordo and that certain signs and symbols such as the ad orientem aspect of the priest better present the mysteries of the Mass to the congregation. Whatever the reasons behind a preference for a certain type of liturgy, the upshot is that protagonists are effectively creating a "church within a church", where local parishes are abandoned in favour of one where Mass is said "properly", thus polarising opinion and practice even further.

Gentlemen prefer Lauds

Throughout these musings, I have frequently used the term "liturgical preference" but I'm not sure this is useful terminology. Preference involves a subjective choice and though everyone is bound to find certain liturgical practices appealing or not, there should be a certain level of objectivity in all liturgy. Mass has an objective basis in the Sacrifice of Christ and takes its form from the events of Last Supper to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday together with what has been revealed to us in the Book of Revelation:

"A throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne": "the Lord God." It then shows the Lamb, "standing, as though it had been slain": Christ crucified and risen, the one high priest of the true sanctuary, the same one "who offers and is offered, who gives and is given." [3]

St John goes on to describe this liturgy in great detail complete with explanations of signs and symbols and accompanying prayers. The result is an act of worship which has been imparted to us by Divine Revelation, the prototype for every Mass.

I believe that there is objective line that can be drawn which determines if a Mass is dignified and appropriate or not; I'm just not sure how that line can be drawn and how relevant cultural norms are to the decision. I can say that I have a preference for the novus ordo Mass in Latin, with the readings in the vernacular accompanied by traditional hymns and the priest facing ad orientam but to what extent can I say that any of these things would be objectively good for the whole of the Faithful?

Out of Africa

I have already described my intense dislike of the guitar and drums at Mass and for a long time I thought there should be a universal moritorium in their use at Mass. My opinions however changed after attending a few Masses for African and Asian Communities and seeing how the expression of their culture in their liturgy was an immense outpouring of their Faith. I am sure they felt as bemused at what must seem very sombre Mass in Britain as I did at their energetic and lively Masses but at least we share the same conviction that no matter the circumstances, Mass is Mass, recognisable the world over. I'm not sure how these communities celebrated Mass before the novus ordo but I think it would be quite an injustice if the usus antiquior was forced upon them or if they were judged by British standards of appropriateness. 

Question Time

I suppose my views on the liturgy, shaped as they are by past experience, lead to more questions that answers. I believe that there should be an objective norm for liturgical practice at Mass but that it is culturally specific. Who is responsible for deciding where that norm lies and how do they justify their decision? Is it logically impossible for me to insist that what I consider to be cheesy pop music has no place in Mass but accept that the use of the guitar and folk songs is perfectly legitimate practice for different cultures? Should people who are irked by a particular liturgy just grin and bear it or are they justified in nomadic Mass attendance for greater spiritual benefit? Whatever the answer to these questions (please chip in if you have some!), I am convinced that good liturgy is of great importance and that the fault in the life of the Church along liturgical lines is a poor evangelical witness.

[2] Preface of Weekdays in Ordinary Time IV