Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Transcending the 20th-Century's Liturgical Consensus

The ever erudite (and hence always thought-provoking) Fr. Hunwicke has devoted several postings recently to what he has called “The Communion Procession in a New Dark Age.” 

(For his series of posts on this topic, go to

Hunwicke starts with some (what could be called) "traditionalist" anxiety about the liturgical innovation of referring to a “communion procession” at Mass. Personally, I have long liked that particular concept – innovation or not. In fact, when I taught classes on the Mass in previous assignments, I often employed the idea (by no means at all original with me) of there being 4 processions at Mass – the Entrance Procession, the Gospel procession, the Offertory procession, and the Communion Procession, the last being notably the only one in which most of the congregation physically participates.

But, unlike the other processions which have actually existed for centuries – at least vestigially (obvious examples that come to my mind are the procession of Deacon, et al. with book, candles, and thurible before the Gospel reading at the old Solemn Mass and the subdeacon bringing the chalice to the altar at the offertory) – the “communion procession” is something rather new in the life of the Church. It is new for the obvious reason that, until the 20th century, very few people went to communion at most Masses.

Thus, Hunwicke rightly traces the concept of a "communion procession" to the  thoroughly novel practice of frequent communion encouraged by Pope Saint Pius X at the beginning of the 20th century - and now so widespread as to resemble what Anglicans used to call a "General Communion." Hunwicke traces the antecedents of this back into the 19th century when “Catholicism in many countries was reformed very radically in its social manifestations. … a revolution which eliminated the centuries-old peasant Catholicism … and finally imposed the discipline ... of the Counter-Reformation. … The old Catholicism, in which one went to confession before Easter so as to be in a state of Grace and ‘fit' to receive at Easter the Holy Communion which most people did not receive during the rest of the year, was laudably replaced by a new Catholicism in which the clergy were encouraged to strive to ensure that their people were normally, and not just for a few days each spring, in a state of Grace.” Hunwicke proposes “that a connection could be found between this and the general increase in disapproval of adultery, and other sexual sins, in both Protestant and Catholic contexts.” (In this connection, he recalls the cultural expectation that kings should have mistresses – an expectation still in evidence, for example, in France up until the 18th-century reign of Louis XV and in Britain as late as the early 19th-century reign of  William IV.)

Hunwicke’s thesis “is that the moment when S Pius X started encouraging frequent communion is the moment at which the mass cultural Catholicism of post-Constantinian Christianity, in which mass conversions led to a situation in which most people and most societies were not radically 'converted', had been superseded." Thus, he argues, that. by Pope Saint Pius X’s time, “things were ripe for a new Catholicism in which frequent Confession and frequent Communion could be encouraged. The Dark Ages had finally come to an end. Their ritual marks remained; … But, with a more trained and 'sacramentalised' laity, the situation had become ripe for change.”

I think Hunwicke’s analysis of the underlying circumstances surrounding the 20th-century Pian revolution in popular piety is largely on target. I think it is a helpful reminder of how different - at the popular level - 20th-century Catholicism had become in many ways from what had gone before. 

What to make of his conclusion - that (Western) society has since regressed to another moral and spiritual “Dark Age,” which requires some ritual restructuring of the ecclesial sacramental culture we have inherited from Pius X. and the 20th century – is, of course, another matter altogether. People of good will will certainly disagree about to what extent Western society has morally and spiritually declined and will likewise disagree about what (if anything) should be done about it. Like many others, I myself am much conflicted about both questions.

Hunwicke’s practical proposals are quite radical, and it is hard to imagine their being broadly accepted anywhere at all (except perhaps in some extremely "traditionalist" circles). But it does actually remind me a little of a suggestion I remember hearing from someone who is much farther on the other - i.e., "progressive" - end of the ecclesiastical  spectrum. An episcopalian priest, who was at that time also a seminary professor, suggested that the Episcopal Church might be making a mistake in moving toward a predominantly eucharistic liturgy (as opposed to the former model which often privileged Morning Prayer as the principal Sunday service). He argued that for many contemporary people who may be somewhat more marginal ecclesially a service of scripture and preaching might be more accessible and suitable. I myself have often wondered whether weddings and funerals, for example, would benefit from being detached from Mass (as, in any case, many weddings still were as late as 50 years ago). 

Anyway, Hunwicke in his final post on the subject argues for "a liturgical culture, not (Heaven forbid) of turning people away from the Christian synaxis; not of implying by word or gesture that they should not be here: but of accepting them, welcoming them, as they are and where they are, without a judgement which it is not ours to pass, so that within the Christian community they can grow in love and understanding. As the Irish did more than a thousand years ago, we need to provide for the subchristianised in our congregations a culture in which it is the universally understood thing that a lot of people don't receive communion; that there's nothing odd or unusual about 'not going up'; it is thoroughly natural and normal not to communicate at Mass; nobody will wonder what's 'wrong' with you. (And it's not their business anyway.)"

As if brainstorming on the subject, he throws out some rather extreme (by the standards of what would be accepted today) suggestions: "the distribution of Communion from the tabernacle before or after Mass; or, in big well-staffed churches, continuously during Mass in a side-chapel with a tabernacle. And with a presbyter permanently in the Confessional at the same time."

As I said, I can't see such proposals getting any traction anywhere. They go completely against the whole movement of the past 100 years. But that is, of course, his point. 

What both Hunwicke and my episcopalian priest friend - coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum - seem to be telling us is that the cultural and religious assumptions underlying the 20th-century's liturgical consensus no longer hold. It may be time for some "out of the box" thinking. And, as is usually the case in matters religious, that may require looking back in time to earlier answers.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

Earlier this month the world remembered the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the victory that marked the end of the Second World War in Europe. A few weeks earlier, we celebrated the sesquicentennial of the end of the American Civil War. My own generation grew up in the aftermath of World War II, the impact of which permeated that world in ways both good and bad. And we celebrate Mass today, a stone’s throw away from a Civil War cemetery, on a holiday that owes its origin to that terrible conflict.  We celebrate this Mass today in a neighboring cemetery, one established on this sacred ground barely four years after the Civil War’s end – a cemetery established by Knoxville’s first Catholic community, committed and devoted to doing their Christian duty to all the dead of the parish.

Cemeteries are special places for us – special not just because they are blessed and consecrated by the Church and marked by beautiful and noble monuments. They are special places for us, first and foremost, because it is where we remember one another, where we remember those who have died, who have gone before us in life, our cherished past to whom we owe our present. Remembering is one of the things that especially makes us human. To remember those who have died, as our nation does today and as we do whenever we visit a cemetery, is to acknowledge the importance of their lives - and the common humanity which we share with them in life and in death. Remembering is also one of the things that especially makes us Christian. To remember those who have gone before us in faith, as we do especially here today but every day at every Mass, is to celebrate the multitude of ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them in life - and the hope we still share with them in death.

So it is good that we gather together today, to remember and pray for our brothers and sisters whose bodies lie here in this holy place. It is, as the author of the book of Maccabees has reminded us [2 Maccabees 12:43-46], a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be purified from their sins and welcomed among the saints, as we too hope someday to be welcomed with them forever. 

Homily for Memorial Day at Calvary Cemetery, Knoxville, TN, May 25, 2015.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


Three weeks ago, we celebrated the confirmation of 8 of our young parishioners. Before conferring the sacrament, the celebrating Bishop (in this case, Cardinal Rigali) and the concelebrating priests extended their hands globally over those to be confirmed. This coming Saturday in Chattanooga, Bishop Stika will ordain one of our diocesan seminarians as a deacon The central act of that ordination rite is the ancient ritual of the “laying on of hands.” In total silence, the Bishop will lay his hands on the head of the one to be ordained. At the end of June, he will do it again, ordaining four deacons to be priests of the diocese of Knoxville. On that occasion, after the Bishop silently lays his hands on those to be ordained, the other priests present will then follow him and also lay their hands one by one on those to be ordained. This “laying on of hands” is an ancient gesture. We find it in the Acts of the Apostles, and in his letter to Timothy St. Paul refers to it – to having himself done it to Timothy. It also occurs in every Mass at the Eucharistic Prayer. It is a symbolic gesture which signifies the Church’s prayer for the Holy Spirit to come down upon those being confirmed or ordained or (at Mass) on the bread and wine to be consecrated. It is a very solemn and powerful gesture, the importance and significance of which is inherently evident, just from seeing it.

That is how the presence and power of the Holy Spirit are ritualized in the Church’s sacraments. But at the very beginning of the Church, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit were even more dramatically on display, when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind and there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And the 120 disciples gathered in that Jerusalem Upper Room were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Many people, if they think about the Holy Spirit at all, often picture him as some sort of bird. A strong driving wind and tongues of fire may be a bit more exciting, but may still seem somewhat elusive as an image of who the Holy Spirit is.

God, of course, is, by definition, difficult to describe. Who the Holy Spirit is may be hard to pin down, but what he does is another story altogether. What he does at Pentecost is nothing less than to kick-start the mission of the Church by getting it out of that Upper Room!

When Britain’s Queen Victoria, whose 196th birthday, by the way,  is today, celebrated 60 years on the throne in 1897, she was too frail to walk down the long aisle of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. So the Thanksgiving Service was held outside. That prompted a scowling comment from the Grand Duchess Augusta Caroline of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who complained about the Gospel being proclaimed out in the street – apparently forgetting (or ignoring) the fact that the street was where the Gospel had in fact first been proclaimed!

Thus one of my favorite Easter hymns, Michael Ward’s In the Breaking of the Bread, recalls what happened that first Pentecost: they ran out into the street to tell them, Everyone that they could meet, to tell them.

Indeed, it was just as Jesus himself had promised: When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.

So, filled with the Holy Spirit, the Church left that Upper Room, never to return. Instead they ran out into the street to tell them, Everyone that they could meet, to tell them.

And just who was there to tell out in the street? In Jerusalem that Pentecost were devout Jews from every nation under heaven. So the second thing the Holy Spirit did at Pentecost was to break down barriers, beginning with the basic barrier of language. When the apostles spoke, each one heard them speaking in his own language. To those who knew their Bible, the meaning was clear. The Holy Spirit was undoing the evil of multiple languages in the world, the damaging inability of people to communicate that had come about as a result of human beings’ sinful attempt to construct a tower to get them to heaven on their own. Through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, however, the Church undoes the disunity of the human race, reuniting it in something new, the kingdom of God.

Artistic renditions of that first Pentecost frequently focus on the 12, typically depicted as grouped in a circle around Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the Mother of the Church. In a famous mosaic in the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice, however, each of the 16 nationalities that are mentioned in the story is represented by a pair of figures, thus representing the universality of the Church. The point of the Pentecost story is not society’s diversity, which is just a human fact, but the Church’s unity and universality, which are among the accomplishments of the Holy Spirit.

Both before and after the Tower of Babel, of course, the damage done by human sinfulness has taken many destructive forms. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul listed at least 15 of them. Too many Christians sometimes seem to have gotten into the habit of singling out this or that vice for special opprobrium – as if, for example, the only sins that matter were the sins against the 6th commandment, as if idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, fury, selfishness, dissensions, factions, envy, etc., weren’t just as important. Paul’s list is a long one, and we need to take it all to heart.

Thanks, however, to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, there is another list. Thanks to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the damage can be undone – in the lives of those guided by the Spirit, who live in the Spirit, and who follow the Spirit. In a world, which still seems to resemble the Tower of Babel more than the Kingdom of God, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit are also evident in the fruit of the Spirit – in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Way back when, probably in Confirmation class, we were taught - and told to memorize – the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We cannot repeat them too often:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

We need no more precise picture of who the Holy Spirit is, when we witness what he does, when we witness – and live – the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Homily for Pentecost Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 24, 2015.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Another Lost Vigil?

In the last pre-conciliar liturgical reform - reflected in the 1961 calendar and the 1962 "typical edition" of the Missal - the Vigil of Pentecost was still observed as a liturgical day of highest rank (and a fast day), and it still retained its ancient vigil Mass, although without the ancient vigil service itself, which had been abolished in the 1955 reform of Holy Week.

Apparently, ancient Roman practice permitted baptisms at Pentecost as it did on Easter (perhaps as a make-up date for those who weren't ready or for whatever reason missed getting baptized at Easter?) A Pentecost Vigil thus developed that closely paralleled that for Easter (minus the blessing of the new fire, etc.) Like the pre-1970 Easter Vigil, this Pentecost Vigil was celebrated in penitential purple. It began with a set of six "prophecies" - repeated from among the Easter Vigil's 12 - followed by the blessing (again) of the baptismal water and font (on this occasion re-lighting and re-immersing the Paschal Candle that had been extinguished on Ascension). Then, after the Litany, came the festive Mass (in red vestments) which exhibited some of the same liturgical peculiarities that the Easter Vigil Mass did. Unlike on Holy Saturday, however, other Masses were also permitted that day, with the addition of a proper Introit but otherwise with the textual peculiarities of the solemn Vigil Mass. The Mass (minus the Paschal Candle but retaining its other Easter-like features) survived the 1955 abolition of the prophecies, font blessing, and litany, thus rendering it into a real historical curiosity. Given the disappearance of Pentecost baptisms and the antipathy of the liturgical reformers to penitential practices in general and vigils in particular, its eventual demise in the Paul VI rite really should probably have come as no surprise.

Still, it obviously possessed some residual appeal - reflected in the preservation in the new Missal of not just a separate Saturday evening Mass but of an alternative longer form for it which, like the older Pentecost Vigil, again mimics that of Easter.  My guess would that that longer form is seldom celebrated in parishes. The whole psychology of the Saturday evening "anticipated" Mass - let's get Sunday over with as early and quickly as possible - militates against seriously reviving vigils. Still, the attempt is commendable and (given the constraints imposed by the current model of a vigil as essentially just a longer than usual Mass) not badly done.

So, after introductory didactic lecture that has become customary on such occasions, four readings are proposed (following the standard reading-response-prayer format). The readings are well chosen selections that relate to Pentecost - Genesis on the tower of Babel, Exodus on God's appearance at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the first Passover, Ezekiel on God's Spirit animating the dry bones, and Joel on the outpouring  of the Spirit - actually a more fitting set of selections in my opinion than some of those proposed at the Easter Vigil.

The Christian Pentecost is to Easter what the Jewish Pentecost (Shavuot) is to Passover. The old post-Pentecost Ember Days included Old Testament readings from Leviticus and Deuteronomy that recalled that connection. But, with the demise of the Ember Days, where is that remembrance to be found in the liturgy? Likewise, I'd personally like to see something from the Book Ruth, which is read on Shavuot (because its central event takes place - like Shavuot - at the time of the wheat harvest and also because of the belief that King David, Ruth's grandson, died at Shavuot). Perhaps such linkages are now too arcane for a post-modern mentality. But Ruth is a beautiful book on several levels and definitely deserves more attention than the liturgical cycle gives it. Perhaps in Advent?

Pentecost connection with Shavuot is especially relevant this year when they occur on exactly the same day. This Saturday night, observant jews all over the world will be keeping an all-night vigil. How fitting it would be if we were doing the same!

Anyway, alone among all the many suppressed vigils, the Vigil of Pentecost survives slightly and in some still recognizable form. The challenge is to find a viable context for using it that could be perceived by people as beneficial rather than just being burdensome.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Father Brown

The past few weeks, I have been enjoying watching Father Brown on PBS - a British television drama which began airing on BBC in January 2013. It is based on the original Father Brown character, created originally by G. K. Chesterton. Some of the early episodes are supposed to be loosely based on some of Chesterton's actual stories, but many of the stories seem to have been newly composed for this series. It is set during the early 1950s, in a fictional Cotswold village, where Father Brown is the parish priest at St Mary's Catholic Church, while solving crimes on the side. Father Brown’s vocation as a priest affords him a unique perspective on human nature and insight into human behavior.

Many of the original Father Brown short stories were required reading in my high school in the early 1960s. I can remember reading them and maybe an odd scene or two, but for the most part I don't remember and so probably wouldn't really recognize the stories themselves, although I certainly do remember the character Chesterton created and can readily recognize him in the new series. The new series seems to be trying to be faithful to what was so distinctive about Chesterton's Father Brown - the unique way in which his priesthood equips him to be such a good detective. It is always nice to see television that portrays religion in such a positive light. 

According to something I saw somewhere, the contemporary series was set in the 1950s in order to allow Father Brown to solve crimes using his knowledge of human nature and insight into human behavior in a period prior to our contemporary crime-solving technology. The Chesterton character clearly wouldn't work as well in a world in which criminal investigations are heavily scientific and technological.  his distinctive skills would either be redundant, or else their superiority would discredit contemporary science and technology. 

Personally, I rather like the 1950s ambience. It nicely evokes a simpler time - not just in terms of crime-solving technology, but in human and social relations. And a priest detective certainly seems much more credible in that era than would be the case today. But I wish they had been more completely consistent about the 1950s setting. Father Brown is sometimes heard to use the plural possessive (their) to refer to a singular antecedent, when an authentically 1950s speaker would likely have used the masculine singular (his). And, whether due to ignorance or inattention, Father Brown's liturgical vestments - for example, the ugly white chasuble he wore in the first episode and the purple funeral vestments he wore in the second - look much too contemporary (as, even more inappropriately, is the use of purple instead of black for a funeral Mass in the second episode). Nor is it very likely that a real Lady Felicia would have sung Amazing Grace at a Catholic Mass in the 1950s. These are, I suppose, somewhat minor quibbles that do not radically undermine the drama, but they do detract from the 1950s ambience, contaminating it with an out-of-place contemporary sensibility.

That said, Father Brown is quality drama, evokes chesterton's original character well enough, and is good fun.