Friday, January 12, 2018

The Perennial Problem of Salvaging Sunday in an Anti-Sunday Society

I seldom agree with Fr. Hunwicke's opinions, but I do enjoy reading his blog because of his erudition - a quality so frequently missing in so much contemporary commentary - secular as well as religious. Earlier this week, however, he wrote a reflection on the problem of Sunday Mass - is not only well worth reading but also sufficiently nuanced by the realities of pastoral experience that it really should be possible for people coming from different places on the current spectrum of opinions to appreciate what he is getting at, whether or not they agree with all his assumptions and priorities. (That itself is something, since - in our totally politicized and polarized contemporary discourse - it is increasingly normal for those who favor something to refuse to recognize any possible unintended negative consequences to what they favor and for those who oppose something likewise to refuse to recognize that there could possibly be any good consequences to what they oppose or that those who favor it do so with honorable motives.)

In his column, Fr. Hunwicke acknowledges the obvious advantages of the contemporary British Catholic experience of large parishes: "One priest with one Church and a decently sized carpark and faculties to trinate can serve a large area, and do so economically. Rural Anglicanism, on the other hand, often functions with one priest serving six or more congregations the size of which may vary."  Recognizing the "resilience" of the Catholic model, he nonetheless recognizes its potential weaknesses: "It means that you might well not know the worshipers with whom you so cheerfully 'exchange the peace'."

"The old culture of the community church, the Church of a community which worshipped regularly together," Hunwicke contends, "had a beauty as well as a theological strength to it. And one of the things which has weakened it is the Vigil Mass."

I have written previously about the ambivalent legacy of the now 50-year-old practice of Saturday Vigil Masses - its well-intentioned intended benefits and its undoubtedly unintended unfortunate consequences in terms of society's loss of Sunday's specialness. From across the ocean, Fr. Hunwicke here does the same, both acknowedging the benefits (and maybe even the continued necessity at this point) of the practice, while lamenting what has been perhaps irretrievably lost in the process:

"Only God knows the tally; how many people the Vigil Mass culture has retained in the practice of the Faith; how many it has lost because of the weakening of communal links. No sane person would want to step back from it, however much we may sense a certain dreariness in the sight of all those people 'getting it out of the way' so that they can be 'free' on Sunday. And, however much we explain to ourselves and to others that the Liturgical Day begins with the Eve, we all sense that Saturday Evening is not ... really ... instinctively ... Sunday. ... The experience of a whole community, wearing 'Sunday Best', strolling down in families to their Parish Church as the bells ring on a Sunday morning in which secular pursuits have been set aside has, I am convinced, much more value to it than mere romanticism, or (as you are probably intending to explain to me) nostalgia for an irrecoverable social order."

Of course, if it were merely a matter of "nostalgia for an irrecoverable social order," then there would be little point to it. There can be little doubt that that past social order is indeed "irrecoverable" in our current secular, consumerist, capitalist culture, which will always value private profit and convenience over other seemingly more esoteric concerns, such as those represented by religion. 

The dilemma Churches have been left with is not to try to recover some transient past social order (which in its own way may have been as morally flawed as any other social order) but how to salvage the religious and spiritual significance of Sunday - the admittedly temporary setting aside of secular pursuits - from the ravages specifically inflicted upon it by of our contemporary love affair with commercial, consumerist capitalism and its manifold material benefits

In his 1998 Apostolic Letter Dies Domini, Pope Saint John Paul II recalled the famous response of the early 4th-century African martyrs of Abitina on the necessity of celebrating Sunday Eucharist. In his homily at the 2005 Italian National Eucharistic Congress, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, similarly recalled that story recounting in greater detail the famous response of the martyr Emeritus to the proconsul: "Sine dominico non possumus, Without the Sunday Eucharist we have no power.  We cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb."

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