Recently, my bishop ran an article in the local diocesan newspaper about divisions among Catholics about practices such as appropriate dress at Mass, music, and reverent silence. It was meant as a general exhortation to tolerance, patience, and inclusion; so naturally, this young upstart was inspired to offer a complementary note on depth and collegiality.
After I wrote the article, it was a full two pages long; the editor of the newspaper said that he liked it and wanted to publish it, but the limit for viewpoints was 350 words. So I butchered my own article down to size, and made enough modifications that it is worth putting both versions here.
I was pleased to read Bishop Kicanas's article in the August edition of the New Vision, which addresses the divisions among the faithful regarding worship in Tucson parishes. While matters such as clothing, silence, and music may be the Pharisees' “tithes of mint and dill and cummin” compared to the “weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity” (Matt 23:23), still it is good to know that Bishop does focus on the latter “without neglecting” the former. As a seminarian, I have some stake in the consensus of opinion within this diocese, so I wish to accept Bishop's invitation to comments and input.
Bishop Kicanas rightfully directs his article to the pastoral issues behind the disagreements themselves. How do we worship without alienating groups of the faithful, who hold their opinions in earnest and without blame? How can we recognize and honor the core truths that reside even within positions we may disagree with? No parish leaders, no matter their education, can dismiss these questions as illicit populism. A liturgy which ignores the cherished values of some of its participants risks either oppression, or worse, irrelevance—I say “worse” because an oppressive liturgy will at least strike indignation into the hearts of those offended (any passion is better than none at all). Irrelevance is the greater threat, because it stifles active participation and fails to nourish the subjective consciousness of the congregation. Irrelevant liturgy drains the community’s energy for “judgment and mercy and fidelity”. Moreover, no complaints will ensue, because one does not protest the irrelevant; he or she simply departs, or else attends out of sheer obligation, leaving the parish in silent discontent.
It thus hardly needs to be said that diversity presents pastors with a struggle: they must draw people into active participation in the mysteries of our salvation while inciting the least possible division. Yet there is also a priceless opportunity: for pastors, a community in controversy becomes a “school” of the human heart. It is true that listening to people (even the occasionally angry person) can be wearisome. But pastors who engage the laity and take them seriously will be rewarded with holy wisdom. This wisdom is no different essentially than that of Solomon—a depth of insight, informed from above and below, that can pierce the heart of controversy. How often have pastors felt that their parish's worship was like an infant being claimed by two mothers?
But this “school” cannot be a mere course in sociology. It is not enough to tally the numbers “yea” or “nay” regarding practices, and then rule accordingly. At best, this leads to unsatisfactory, 'middling' compromises and half-hearted tokens. The resulting truce will likely be uneasy and short-lived; and it also risks the problem of “Frankenstein” liturgies, tacked together from long-dead remains of past controversies. The liturgy should not be gambled with like the garment of Christ. No, this listening must be different from the “democratic” approach, or else it will risk (to extend the Solomon analogy) cutting the proverbial infant in two.
First, pastors should ask their parishioners not only what they want, but more importantly why. “Why?”—pertaining to theology, meaning, and experience; not just pragmatism—is the liturgical question. It is the door into depth; it brings the conversation to the level of values and understanding. Where politics seem to contradict, values are often shared, though in different orders and according to different presuppositions. “Why,” pushed to its limits, can turn a rehash of memorized arguments into a broad world of overlapping experiences and beliefs. In this respect, it behooves pastors and leaders to be Socratic in their approach; to be the “midwife” of the truth nascent in seeming contradictions. Yet the question “why” also links these things to the deepest “why” of the liturgy: the sacramental perpetuation of God's concrete saving act in Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of the promises of our Baptism. Even if pastors are unable to oblige certain external demands placed on the liturgy, they may still creatively honor what is good in the “why” of the original request.
Second, pastors should challenge the tendency of opponents to view their issues as opposite ends of a spectrum. Spectrum-thinking is not better than “black and white” thinking. They both methodically imply that competing perspectives have no nature independent of their negation of one-another. For example, with respect to proper dress during Mass, it is too easy to suppose that it is a debate between those who value internal holiness, versus those who prefer external observances. Yet this opposition is artificial. No one denies that God sees hearts before all else, for it is “the things that come out from within” by which we are judged (Mk 7:15). Yet if Jesus was stern with the Pharisees, the “whitewashed tombs,” he also warned those who “light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket” (Mt 5:15). Are we hiding our awe and thanks to God, underneath an outfit (willfully chosen) not even suitable for common restaurants? Are we not thereby weakening the cultural currency of worship itself, leading young adults to wonder, 'why bother, for something so trivial?' Binary thinking forgets that the interior heart and the exterior witness were never meant to compete; Christ preached the unity of both in love of the Father. And neither is this a “compromise” or a “middle” position, but rather, it calls for a personal renewal of the virtues on both “sides”.
Third, pastors should take the data of their listening and place it in dialogue with time-tested wisdom about worship and human nature—not only from Scripture and Tradition, but from all of the classics of literature, philosophy, or even popular culture, which can exhibit razor sharp perception into the human soul. Yet this is also where a priest's seminary training and continuing formation come into play. The local church is not a closed system, forming opinions and views spontaneously out of the recesses of private judgment. Through media and popular slogans, the local church is already 'plugged in' to a network that mixes genuine wisdom and genuine corruptions. Pastors must plug into that same network, while also and always drawing on the riches of theology and the tradition of the Church. Here, tradition offers a unifying function, but not in the sense of forcibly cramming received opinions into stale formulas. Rather, tradition brings those opinions into a light which itself is not stilted or even formulaic, but is rather the summit of centuries of controversy, meditation, and prayer—cultivated from the same stuff as modern controversies, only refined, like aged wine.
Yet all of the dialogue in the world will not mend all of the divisions within a parish. Bishop Kicanas is right to point out that “we still can acknowledge the different perspectives, respect those who hold them and find ways to call people to make wise and appropriate judgments.” Yet two values we have as Catholics—respectful tolerance and zeal for excellence—cannot survive apart from each other. A central insight of Vatican II—part of its “spirit”—is that excellence can and should be discovered in a collegial way. But collegiality, rather than becoming itself the ultimate value, should be placed in the service of excellence and beauty, which can then draw people out of themselves and into the presence of God.
C.S. Lewis, in discussing “democratic education,” distinguished between “the education which democrats like” and the “education which will preserve democracy” (implying that these are quite different things). In a similar manner, if we desire a humanistic liturgy, we should distinguish between the “liturgy which humanists like”—if that means a mishmash of political concessions, and a “liturgy that sanctifies the human”—liturgy rooted in the Incarnate Christ, uniting the depths of the human spirit (deeply understood) to the height of revealed truth.
How do Christians worship amid the mysteries of salvation without alienating groups of the faithful? How can we honor truth found even in ideas we find misguided? These questions are not mere populism: liturgy that ignores them risks division or irrelevance. But controversy can foster wisdom, not unlike that of King Solomon. How often have pastors felt that their parish's worship was like an infant claimed by two mothers?
The danger with consulting the faithful is that it risks becoming sociology, as if the liturgy were rooted in opinion polls. At best, this leads to disjointed “Frankenstein” liturgies, tacked together from long-dead remains of past controversies. The liturgy should not be gambled with like the garments of Christ. If liturgical consultation is not deeper than this, it will risk (per the Solomon analogy) cutting the proverbial infant in two. To mitigate against this risk, I have three modest suggestions.
First, pastors should ask their parishioners not only what they want, but more importantly about the meaning of what they want. “What does it mean?” is the liturgical question. Liturgy demands a Socratic approach; to seek the deeper truth nascent in seeming contradictions.
Second, pastors should challenge the tendency to view conflicting desires as opposites. It is too easy to suppose that the “Sunday dress debate” is about “internal holiness” versus “external observance”. This opposition is artificial—Jesus taught the union of both (read together Mk 7:15 and Mt 5:15).
Third, pastors should take the input and place it in dialogue with theology about worship and human nature. Popular culture already peddles both wisdom and corruption—no perspective comes from a void. Pastors must also consult the tradition of the Church. It helps to remember that tradition itself was harvested from controversies not unlike our own, only tested by time.
A central insight of Vatican II—part of its “spirit”—is that excellence should be discovered in a collegial way. But collegiality is not itself the ultimate value—it should serve excellence and beauty, which alone can draw people out of themselves and into the presence of God.