Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Catholic Without Apologies 9: The Easter Vigil, Bad Hymns, Saint John Paul II, and Clerical Celibacy

The Drama of the Resurrection

I doubt whether there is anything more impressive in the whole world, from the point of view of drama, than the Easter Vigil liturgy.

I have only attended three of these in my whole life. Back when I was a non-practicing Catholic (or, it might be more accurate to say, a highly sceptical agnostic), I was entirely unaware of their existence. And even when I did start to practice, I never attended Vigil Mass (always preferring morning Mass) so I continued to miss out. It was only when I heard the Easter Vigil liturgy described as the highlight of the liturgical year that I made it my business to go. And I was swept away.

Of course, the full impact of the thing is only really achieved if you’ve made some effort to observe Lent. The atmosphere of death and rebirth, of emerging from the darkness of the tomb to the glimmering and then splendid dawn, depends on having journeyed through a season of austerity. The contrast is greatly heightened if you’ve also participated in the Stations of the Cross and the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, those incomparably sombre rituals.

The Easter Vigil is an example, I think, of those elements of Catholicism which a whole generation of Irish people took for granted, but which are rediscovered with surprise and joy by a younger generation. Even though I attended a Catholic school and come from a solidly Catholic family, and even though I have done a huge amount of reading on the Faith in the last few years, I am often surprised by how much I don’t know about Catholicism, compared to older Irish people—and I mean non-religious people, just as much as religious people.

Every Irish person over the age of fifty seems to have a kind of inbuilt awareness of holy days, devotions, pilgrimages, Irish Church history, saints, prayers and other aspects of Catholicism that puts my own knowledge to shame. Only very recently, I was rather presumptuously explaining to a friend  (who is a good bit older than me, and not especially religious) all about Gaudete Sunday when she promptly quoted the first few lines of the Latin Christmas carol of that name—with as much ease as she would have recited “Twinkle, twinkle little star”. That certainly put me in my place.

Beauty Ever Ancient, Ever New

In one way, this loss of cultural Catholicism is a tragedy, and I feel it vividly when I stand in silence at Mass while the rest of the congregation (mostly older people) sing some traditional hymn or prayer that I don’t know. But there’s a good side to it, too. Many aspects of Catholicism are fresh to the post-Vatican II generations. They never became blasé about them, as many members of an older generation have.  And it makes the beauty, integrity and profundity of these traditions all the more apparent to them.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone ever becomes blasé about the Easter Vigil. It’s spine-tingling from start to finish; from the paschal fire to the darkened church, from the sweeping tour through salvation history in the Scripture readings to the ringing of the bells at the moment of consecration, from the litany of the saints to the renewal of baptismal vows (“do you renounce Satan and all his works, and all his empty show?”). And personally, I don’t think that the Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s, or in any of the great cathedrals or basilicas around the world, would be quite as impressive as the Easter Vigil in an ordinary suburban church, which is how I’ve always experienced it. The contrast between the everyday life outside, going about its business as ever, and the blaze of glory inside, is very powerful.

Unfortunately, there was one particular stain on the Easter Vigil, this year and every other year that I’ve attended. In fact, it’s a stain on every Sunday liturgy I’ve attended in this particular church (I won’t name the church), and it’s a widespread problem elsewhere.

From Majesty to Mediocrity

I’m talking about the hymns; the banal, insipid, lifeless modern hymns that are such a feature of worship in Catholic Churches today.

One of the hymns that was sung in the Easter Vigil I attended is so bad that it has a kind of Monty Python hilarity to it. The refrain is “How great is our God, how great is His name, how great is our God, forever the same”. This is bad enough, but its verses are comically awful:

He rolled back the waters of the mighty sea
And He said, 'I'll never leave you, put your trust in Me'.
And: He sent His son Jesus to set us all free
And He said, 'I'll never leave you, put your trust in Me'.

Compare this to the Scripture reading that preceded it, from the Book of Ezekiel: “I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

Ezekiel. Don't you recognize him?
How can anyone fail to see the ludicrous incongruity between these two texts? The reading from Ezekiel is grandiose, magisterial, resounding. But “I’ll never leave you, put your trust in me” is the equivalent of a nudge, a wink and a ‘Bob’s your uncle’. (It reminds me of the ‘Buddy Christ’ statue that appeared in the religious comedy movie, Dogma.) Such ludicrous nonchalance is completely at odds with the tone of Scripture, and is like a bucket of cold water thrown on any ordinary person’s yearnings for the divine and the sacred. How could it have ever appeared on a hymn-sheet in a Roman Catholic church?

This is the worst example I have ever encountered, but it’s far from isolated. There are examples almost as egregious being sung in churches all over the land, and probably all over the English-speaking world, and further afield. Surely something can be done about this, if enough people speak up? How can congregations ‘lift up their hearts’ when their hearts are being dragged down by such banal jingles? I find myself dreading any Mass that 
involves hymns.

Two New Saints

The entire Church (and perhaps much of the entire world) is rejoicing at the canonization of the two Popes, saints John XXIII and John Paul II. Very fittingly, there have been torrents of articles written on the two saints’ lives, their different but complementary approaches to the Papacy, their legacies, and so forth. The canonisations (which will have taken place when this article appears) are even going to be shown in certain cinemas here. All of this is cause to be thankful.

I was only a year old when St. John Paul II was elected Pope. My earliest memories of school include the sight of his photograph on the classroom wall. I was in my late twenties when he died. All through my childhood and teens, he seemed as much a fact of nature as the Dublin Mountains.

For most of my life, he was simply the Pope, and that was that. Later on, in my late teens, I became aware that he was considered ‘conservative’. It was several years after his death before I became aware, with considerable surprise, that he was in fact extremely radical in the unprecedented number of saints he canonized, the distances he travelled, his approval of the New Charismatic Movements that he might have been expected to abhor, his apology to the Jewish people for ill-treatment at the hands of Christians through the centuries, and in many other ways. Orthodoxy is not always the same thing as conservatism, though sometimes it has to be.

Two Simple Phrases

Of course, it’s impossible to evaluate St. John Paul’s legacy, less than a decade after his death. But one aspect of his achievement that I think has been underplayed is his coining of two phrases that have attained more and more importance in the life of the Church; ‘the New Evangelisation’ and ‘the culture of death’. (As far as I can discover, he coined both these phrases. But even if he didn’t, he certainly popularised them.)

Let us take just one of the phrases and examine it. Think about how those three little words, ‘culture of death’, disarm all the justifications and prevarications and plausible lies that have attached themselves to the sins of abortion and euthanasia, and to other sins whereby the sacredness of human life is compromised. We are constantly told that these matters are complicated. But in essence they are not complicated, and those words ‘culture of death’ express with perfect clarity why they are not complicated. A culture of death can never be a healthy culture.

Such powerful phrases have a crucial role in clearing the mind, in capturing the imagination and in firing the spirit. It won’t do to identify them with ‘our era of spin and sound bites’. Our Lord himself did not disdain to use pithy phrases—you might even say that he used slogans. And his servant Karol Wojtyla, in coining those two wonderful terms ‘the New Evangelisation’ and ‘culture of death’, was simply following in his footsteps—and leaving a wonderful gift to his Church.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
Should Father Get Married?

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin says that he is “open to dialogue” on the matter of married priests, following the lead of Pope Francis. His words, as reported by the Irish Independent, were: “The Pope said he is open to the question, he wants to listen to local churches. But he said no local church, no national church should go on its own”. He added that he would “wait and see” what Pope Francis decides on the subject.

Dialogue can only be a good thing. And everybody knows that mandatory clerical celibacy is a matter of discipline rather than doctrine. It is not even universally applied in the Church (for instance, in the case of married Anglican priests who become Catholic priests). And it’s certainly the case that we are staring into a serious shortage of priests in the Western world, and in Ireland in particular, and that opening the priesthood to married men is one possible way to address that.

In spite of all that, I think that changing the current policy on clerical celibacy would be a terrible mistake for the Church to make, for a whole host of reasons.

Perhaps the biggest reason is that it would be a giant step backwards. Most Catholics would be aware of St. Paul’s stipulation, in his first letter to Timothy, that a bishop should be ‘only married once’. From this, and from other sources, it’s obvious that priestly celibacy was not the universal practice in the earliest centuries of the Church.

But the important thing is that celibacy was the ideal—as St. Paul also said, “I would that every man were even as myself”. Popes, councils and synods long recommended the ideal of clerical celibacy, and increasingly sought to enforce it, despite much opposition and many reversals. The Catholic Encyclopedia  describes the “long final struggle” to establish celibacy as coming to an end in the First Lateran Council in 1123.

What Would Really Happen?

GOOD Church!
Allowing all priests to marry would not be a ‘progressive’ measure, therefore, but the opposite. We have all become familiar with the term ‘the pilgrim Church’. What kind of pilgrimage involves a U-turn? How can the Church be growing in holiness if she retreats from an ancient ideal?

Besides, I don’t even think that the abolition of celibacy would have the desired practical results. The ‘unique selling point’ of the Catholic Church in the modern world is its fidelity to tradition. No matter how much the distinction between discipline and doctrine is drawn, the world would feel in its bones that the Church had compromised on a matter of great importance, and would accordingly lose a huge deal of its respect for it, if the requirement of priestly celibacy were abolished. Instead of a flood of new vocations, idealistic young people would find themselves asking if they could really give their lives to an institution that seemed to have backtracked on such an important part of its own tradition. Isn’t this exactly what happened after the reforms of Vatican II were applied so clumsily?

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