God or Mammon: Benedict XVI’s Twilight Reflections on the Church in Germany

This past Autumn Last Testment in his own words, an interview of Benedict XVI by Peter Seewald was released in its English translation. It is full of fascinating and tantalising, almost teasing, tidbits. Scattered through the book are several passing comments on the Church in Germany, Benedict’s native land. Put them together and one finds a sobering reflection on this powerhouse of European Catholicism.

First, a quick reminder of the German Church. It has proved aggressively liberal, not least in some of its most prominent prelates, such as Cardinals Marx, Lehmann and Kasper. They cam into their own at Vatican II when they successfully pushed their liberal agenda onto the Council by means of their wealth and organisational savvy. The title alone of the classic (and approving!) contemporary history of the Council, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, reveals that perfectly. Continue reading “God or Mammon: Benedict XVI’s Twilight Reflections on the Church in Germany”

Purgatory Revisited

This morning I was down to celebrate the conventual Mass, and on this day every November we offer Mass for the deceased relatives and benefactors of the English Benedictine Congregation. It got me thinking on purgatory, and I was propelled a little further along by something I read in the latest (and last?) from the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI: Last Testament in his own words, translated by Dr Jacob Phillips (one of those bright young things at St Mary’s University, Twickenham) and hot off the press and into our mailboxes this past week. Continue reading “Purgatory Revisited”

Diaconal Cheap Shot

Pat Archbold over at Creative Minority Report (CMR) has a knack for tracking down the best and the worst in ecclesial life, usually in his homeland, the USA. Recently he re-blogged a video put up by Deacon Sandy of Good Shepherd parish,  Menomonee Falls, in the diocese of Milwaukee. In one of the cruel twists of this fallen world’s disorder, he has been appointed to lead this parish. In this video Deacon Sandy provided an introduction to the parish, and despite his PC enthusiasm it was a depressing experience. He was upset when his video gained negative attention, not least on CMR. Having conceded that he would need to rethink his approach Pat agreed to take down the video, taking Sandy at his word. That appeared to have led to a resolution that looked positive for both parties.

So now Pat at CMR, with the help of Ben Yanke, has found a homily from only 10 days ago in which Deacon Sandy gratuitously insults Benedict XVI. And I mean gratuitously. It is the zenith of the genre of the cheap shot, focusing (as all these people do) on the papal red shoes (as if Benedict was the only pope ever to have worn them). He gets a fact wrong too – they were not Prada. So it is a cheap shot with a seasoning of untruth and lashing of injustice gravy. The video from Ben via Pat is below – the relevant bit starts at 9 minutes 55 seconds (in case the embedding code does not work!):

The egregious Sandy clearly implies to his co-religionists that Benedict XVI is not one of the tolerable clerics who dresses finely “for good reasons” but some, like Benedict XVI, wear “finery” because, “unlike us secular folks”, for him it is an “issue of self-esteem”.

Sandy got one thing very much right – he, and those who joined him in snide and mocking laughter, are certainly “secular folks”. I can only hope that others sitting in that church were equally as appalled as Pat, myself and others at Sandy’s abuse of the pulpit and his mandate to preach God’s word. He, and his co-religionist mockers, show themselves to be the smug, self-righteous little crew that has ever been a danger in the history of Christianity. Oh, how insightful they are, these wise ones. Yet I wonder if that Powerpoint projection system is really necessary, or just an extravagant (and ugly) way of camouflaging the vacuity of Sandy’s preaching? After all, he told Pat that the parish cannot afford kneelers (and thus they never kneel. What a surprise.)

Mockery is rarely appropriate. Unjust mockery, the cheap shot – never. In fact, I doubt it is ever just to mock any pope, even the ones who were personally or morally flawed, even the ones we just do not like. Their office demands they be given a level of respect since they act as Christ’s Vicar. However, since Sandy has revealed his true colours Pat has re-posted the original video (also found on Ben’s page with other Sandy horrors). If you look at it, it would be no injustice or cheap shot to mock Sandy and the perversion of Catholicism he espouses. Given his abuse of his preaching office, such mockery would be just indeed. What a nasty little man. What on earth is he doing running a parish?

One might suspect that any self-esteem issues lie more with Sandy than they ever would with Benedict XVI. Benedict XVI was humble enough in his own self-assessment to step down from an office, the gravest and most solemn office, which he felt unable to continue to fulfill. While I am not convinced that Benedict XVI was totally accurate in his self-assessment, yet Sandy would do well to imitate the pope he mocks and step down. His parish deserves better than it seems to be getting.

Sorry if anything above sounds intemperate. This Sandy appalls me. Immensely.

TIME does right by Benedict XVI

How refreshing it was to read an opinion piece on TIME’s website (admittedly by a Catholic) that pays due regard to the achievements of Benedict XVI. Christopher Hale makes several excellent points in his op-ed which you should go and read (in part to encourage secular media such as TIME to be as balanced in their coverage in the future). But a few deserve highlighting:

If the Church is indeed undergoing a revolution, it is important to note that Francis himself did not fire the first shot. That feat belonged to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who a year ago today announced his stunning decision to voluntarily renounce his office.

By renouncing the throne of Saint Peter, it was Benedict — not Francis — who performed the greatest act of papal humility in 2013, and perhaps the greatest act of papal humility during the two millennia history of the Catholic Church.

Benedict’s lesson for his Church and the world was clear: I love you. I choose you. You matter to me more than anything else…

…Benedict came into office during a strange and difficult time for the Catholic Church. The introvert pope had to replace the rock star Pope John Paul II during a time of great trial for the universal Church, which had been rocked by the sex abuse scandal in the United States and throughout the world.

Amidst the difficulties, Benedict attempted to re-center the Church around Jesus Christ. And when the dust settled, Benedict appeared to do the job well…

…To the surprise of many, Benedict’s teachings came back again and again to the central theme of God’s love…

…But of course, Benedict’s greatest act for the Church was his last action. In a world obsessed with the cult of personality and power, he reminded us that the greatest among us are the ones who give it all up for the sake of others.

Mr Hale also exposes the opinions on Benedict expressed in Rolling Stone for what they are: bilious, “mean-spirited antics”.

Even though the author is a guest writer for TIME, we can at least acknowledge that TIME has done something positive, allowing the record to be balanced on its website and allow a voice that goes against the libels that plague the reputation of Benedict XVI in the secular wilderness.

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Perfect papal timing

[updated]

Yesterday Pope Francis sent a message to the symposium recently concluded in Rome, entitled “Sacrosanctum Concilium: Gratitude and Commitment to a Great Ecclesial Movement”, and held at the Pontifical Lateran University. So far there seems to be no English translation of the Italian text, but we can still delve into it a little. There are a couple of interesting moments. Acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s first document and its manifesto for liturgical renewal, Pope Francis declares that the anniversary,

…inspires gratitude for the profound and widespread renewal of liturgical life, enabled by the teaching of the Council, for the glory of God and the building up of the Church; and at the same time urges a revived commitment to accept and implement this teaching more fully.

This might sound like the beginning of another paean of praise for the post-conciliar liturgy: we’ve heard the formula before. However, maybe all is not quite as it might seem. “More fully” might imply in the eyes of some a desire for even more changes and modernizations. Yet it could also mean that the full meaning of the text of the document itself is yet to be implemented. The Missal of 1969/70 has but a tenuous link with what the Council Fathers actually wrote.

The Holy Father continues a little later by affirming the crucial truth that “Christ is the true protagonist at every celebration”. Neither the people, nor the priest, are the subject of the Mass: it is Christ, gathering His people together and leading them, through the priest, in His perfect worship of the Father.

It gets better. Pope Francis restates the truth expressed by St Paul in Romans 12:1 that “to celebrate true spiritual worship is to offer oneself as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God”. A liturgy without this element of spiritual worship risks being empty of true sacredness and becoming “quasi-magical and an empty aestheticism”. That might sound like a shot across the bows of those who value the old Mass or more solemn worship, the Reformers of the Reform for example. No doubt the pope has little time for those who obsess about lace or the depth of bows (if such still exist in any numbers). Yet aestheticism works in more than one direction. It is also a type of aestheticism that seeks to manufacture an atmosphere of community, an emotive and artificial sense of togetherness, mutual-affirmation and acceptance. The rainbow stole is just as affected as an obsessive use of lace.

He goes on to say that “being the action of Christ, the liturgy from its innermost moves us to put on Christ, and in that dynamic all reality is transformed”. The liturgy should transform us into Christ, and since we are the salt of the earth and the yeast that leavens the bread, through us Christ transforms the world. It brings to mind Fr Z’s tag line, “Save the liturgy, save the world”. What Pope Francis is pushing here again is the centrality of Christ, not ourselves, in the liturgy.  He elaborates this dynamic of transformation by quoting Benedict XVI, which is surely significant. More on that in a bit.

His conclusion is also worthy of noting carefully:

To render thanks to God for that which has been possible to carry out, it is necessary to unite in a renewed willingness to move forward along the path set by the Council Fathers, because much remains to be done for a correct and complete assimilation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy on the part of the baptized and of ecclesial communities. I refer in particular to the commitment to a strong and organic initiation and liturgical formation, as much in the faithful laity as in clergy and consecrated persons.

Pope Francis, so fond of the off-the-cuff, is here using very well measured words indeed. In fact, it takes no great stretch at all to see this encouragement for those who yearn for a renovation of the liturgy along the lines discussed in a previous post, one more obviously in line with the 1965 Missal. That certainly is closer to a “correct and complete assimilation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”. Correct (in the Italian, corretta) – not normally a word we might hear from this pope. But here he uses it, in relation to worship. He emphasizes the need for a “strong and organic… liturgical formation” for both laity and clergy. As Arhcbishop Gänswein said of Pope Francis, he seeks to change not the Faith but the faithful; or here, by transference, he locates the more urgent need as in the faithful and clergy to understand, correctly, the Council teaching on the liturgy, rather than to change the liturgy at will.

And as if to provide a lens, or a hermeneutic, by which to view and interpret his short teaching, he quotes only scripture and Benedict XVI. It is hard not to see this as an implicit affirmation of the liturgical theology and praxis of the Pontiff Emeritus.

The two popes today
The two popes today!

Given that Pope Francis is not overly concerned with liturgy, having other fish more urgently in need of frying, his message can reasonably be read as an encouragement, indeed a mandate, to the Church to recover the “correct and complete” understanding of the conciliar teaching on the liturgy – not least that it is the work of Christ not man; that the people’s most essential role is to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice in union with Christ’s –  our spiritual worship; that all the faithful might be actively engaged in the mystery of worship so that the mystery of worship might permeate their lives (the nub of Pope Francis’ quotation Benedict XVI). This is wholly consistent with Francis’ repeated emphasis on a faith that is expressed in daily living; that putting on Christ in the liturgy our whole life might be transformed.

Pope Francis clearly wants doers of God’s word, and here he affirms that we must first hear God’s word, or Word, and that we hear Him in the most privileged way when we turn from ourselves to Him in the liturgy. This is the timeless teaching of the Church, and not least of the Second Vatican Council. If the current liturgy as very often celebrated does not correctly express that teaching, we need urgently to embrace a liturgy that does before our churches are totally empty. The 1962 liturgy has the centuries of proven achievement; and the 1965 Missal enhances that liturgy, correctly interpreting the Council Fathers’ express desire. Is it too late to give it another go?

Revive ’65. It is not such a silly hope. This pope has shown himself adept at breaking moulds, and surprising us in our complacency. It could well be, for example, that the Vatican bank, or IOR, might not be around in its current form for much longer. Is it impossible that Pope Francis might do something bold and dramatic with the liturgy? He might if he hears enough of us clamouring for it, especially the young. Moreover, he seems to surf the net and read papers for himself. To quote Pope Francis, go out and make a noise!

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On the matter of the interim liturgy, between Sacrosanctum Concilium and 1969, Michael at St Bede Studio plans to do a series on this process of imposed liturgical change and acceptance, which he introduced briefly today. It should prove very interesting indeed.

**Caveat: my Italian is not brilliant so when the official translation comes out it might not be in precise agreement with my rough and ready one. However, mine hopefully captures the essential meaning of Pope Francis’ message.**

The Problem of Vatican II

**Warning – controversy alert. Read at your own risk.**

Currently during lunch in the monastic refectory we are listening to What Happened at Vatican II by John W. O’Malley. Privately I am reading The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story by Roberto de Mattei. These books represent the two predominant trends in the assessment of the Council: the one sees it as the great liberation from a rigid and stifling neo-Scholasticism that dominated the Church as a result of an over-reaction to the Modernist crisis, giving power back to the bishops from the hands of a narrow curia clinging desperately to its power exercised from with an ivory tower; the other sees something disturbing in the the forces leading to the Council, the forces that prevailed during the Council, and the forces that prevailed in the subsequent implementation of the Council.

You will recall that Benedict XVI in his last days as pope expressed his understanding of the Year of Faith as an initiative to help the Church re-discover the “real Council”, and to move beyond the “virtual Council” erected by those who knew best how to manipulate the media according to their own agenda. The Australian theologian Tracy Rowland has written a fine piece on the subject, detailing particular areas in which such a rediscovery needs to be pursued – revelation, ecclesiology, liturgy, as well as a re-assessment of the weakest yet disproportionately popular conciliar document, Gaudium et Spes.

So far Pope Francis has not seemed overly concerned with the Council. His preoccupations seem to lie in structural reform of the Church and the daily Christian living of the faithful, often at is most basic level (eg the need to avoid gossip, to recognize and resist the works of the Devil). Speculation on the Council seems so far to be a luxury he has no time to indulge.

Of course, it is not a luxury. Since the modern Church is, one way or the other, the product of the Council, the trials and failings in many parts of the Church that have attended the post-conciliar reforms require that we revisit the Council in order to assess with some degree of objectivity the legacy of the Council. To a great extent this will require us to look beyond the documents of the Council, which were so readily disregarded in practice except as unexamined talismans for the reform agenda (eg the “spirit of Vatican II”). What needs greater attention is the Council as event.

The event of the Council involves not only the documents of the Council, its official legacy, but also the context in which it occurred. Consciously or otherwise this is what more recent histories of the Council are doing. Thus we find that the Modernist crisis and the neo-scholastic reaction against it initiated by St Pius X is being re-examined, as too the unease with this reaction that informs the rise of the nouvelle théologie and which gave new impetus and direction to the liturgical movement. After the announcement of the Council, the preparations made especially by northern European theologians and liturgists  – the so-called Rhine alliance – need more careful examination, as does the careful strategic planning they employed in order to push through their agenda at the Council. De Mattei especially shines a light on the sometimes almost cynical method by which the Rhine minority won over the moderate majority in the Council. This feat was only fostered by the relatively vague pretext for the calling of the Council, an un-focused, idealistic and even naive desire for breathing ‘fresh air’ into the Church rather than (as had always been the case) any pressing need to meet a doctrinal or political crisis in the life of the Church. Lastly the event of the Council continued beyond the conciliar sessions, in the process of its implementation by the very same minority that had prevailed during the conciliar sessions themselves. This process saw the conciliar documents overtaken by the “spirit” they were said to have embodied and set in motion. No less a part of the conciliar event is the global context of the 1960s, a period of fast-paced revolutionary change as man turned to himself in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War and God’s apparent failure in the face of it.

We have seen this expressed in so many ways. Liturgists focused on pleasing man rather than God. Theologians sought to write out of existence any difference between men, especially religious difference, so as to remove any pretext for future conflict – the brotherhood of man replaced the primacy of the Church as God’s chosen people. The Church was de-militarised, as it were: spiritual combat and vigorous evangelization of the world with the truth of Christ gave way to accommodation to the world, and affirming its alleged intrinsic goodness. Those who remember the 1960s American sitcom Bewitched will recognise in this process an example of baby Tabitha’s “wishcraft”: if we close our eyes and say that everyone is good and that we are all equal, then it will surely come to pass.

History, if we choose to examine it, gives the lie to this wishful thinking that lies at the heart of the event of the Council. Repression in communist countries and in nations newly freed from the “yoke” of colonialism waxed rather than waned; terrorism emerged as a new phenomenon, bringing the violence of war to the streets of nations otherwise at peace; an intolerant and repressive Islamic fundamentalism emerged as the great threat to the peace of the world, reflecting a mindset that clearly rejected the new dogma of universal equality within the brotherhood of man; and as the Church accommodated herself to the supposed desires and aspirations of the world, the world grew even less interested in her, and so too even her members who, ironically, drifted away in great numbers from a liturgy deliberately re-designed to please them.

To say all this is to open oneself up to attack from those who still see in the event of the Council their great liberation. There are still many who have pinned their colours to the standard of the Council, and for many of them there can be no going back. That would be too unsettling, too disappointing. Who, after all, likes to admit they were wrong?

Pope Francis’ failure so far to engage with the Council is, perhaps, not such a bad way to proceed. The Council as event has overtaken the Council’s own understanding of itself in its documents. So perhaps the whole thing is best left to the side. The young have very little interest in the Council, if any at all. It does not figure in their vocabulary or their conversation. They are far more interested in popes and bishops who have a message that resonates with their deepest, often unarticulated, intuition. Somehow, in the midst of all the confusion, the Church’s perennial message has got through to them and they have embraced it. Christianity is for them a way of life that makes real demands personally and socially. It informs and bolsters their identity. It gives them a cause and mission in life. Christ is seen not so much as friend as powerful saviour intimately concerned with them, yes, but also with his Church into which he calls them. Liturgy is seen less as a vehicle for self-expression and more of a privileged place in which they might lose themselves in God, who can then give power to their lives. For the younger generation, the battles and preoccupations of the conciliar generation are no longer relevant, and indeed, no longer desirable. So the Church must move on with them, not by accommodating to them as such, but by addressing their legitimate needs, needs for truth, transcendence, the experience of God and its necessary expression and validation in daily life. The Church, insofar as it offers a real alternative to the world, will attract the young from the world with relative ease.

So perhaps the Council is best left on the backburner for now,  as we rediscover that there have been other, and more important, councils than the most recent one. Reclaiming the entire treasury of doctrinal, liturgical and spiritual wealth in the Church, we can get on with the inescapable duties of being Christian: loving God and neighbour in deed as well as in word; worshipping God in spirit and in truth; fighting evil with the weapons of the Gospel; making God the foundation of our lives 24/7, and not just for an hour on Sundays. The young will look to their elders above all to model this authentic way of Christian living, and not to peddle the world-conditioned obsessions of their own, long distant, youth. In doing so some of these elders have already re-discovered the splendour of the Faith.

For all that, the event of the Council will have to be dealt with, if only so that we can embrace what is good in it, discard what is defective and reorient ourselves back on to the way of salvation. Specialists will do so, and have begun that mission already. For now, Pope Francis bids us commit ourselves to Christ who ever abides with his people, the Church. If God be for us, who can be against?

Benedict XVI back home – two interesting photos

A couple of days ago Benedict XVI, Bishop Emeritus of Rome, returned to the Vatican. His dower house, Mater Ecclesiae, has been made ready for him, and Pope Francis toddled down from the big house to welcome him. Some have suggested that it is awkward for Pope Francis to have his predecessor living in the garden. If so, he hides it supremely well.

Perhaps I am reading too much into the angle of the photo, but Benedict seems much gaunter in the face, and slimmer in the body. Age seems suddenly to have hit him. Is he well? If not, is this possibly one small reason why no live coverage of his return was allowed by the Vatican? It adds an ominous undertone to a lovely picture.

Another picture has emerged from the day. It shows Pope Francis and Benedict at prayer in the dower house chapel shortly after Benedict’s arrival.

After struggling still to absorb the remarkable sight of two live popes at prayer together, my eye wandered around the chapel. It’s lovely.

The chapel is utterly simple and un-ostentatious (it is not only Pope Francis who can be so, though he certainly is). Yet, for all its simplicity, it is utterly Catholic. To my poorly trained eye, it looks as one might have hoped for a chapel to look in the wake of Vatican II’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctun Concilium. The focus is exclusively on the altar, the place of the Sacrifice, symbol of the Cross and of Christ himself. It is a symbolism boldly affirmed by the imposing yet elegant crucifix above the altar. The altar faces East, the direction of the rising sun and the Returning Son, the ancient and now so tragically neglected direction of Christian prayer and worship. The altar is dressed simply but worthily. Christ abides in the small tabernacle directly behind the altar. The big six are there too, appropriately sized.  The Paschal Candle is the only other object to compete with the altar for attention. However, one might reasonably suspect there is an image or statue of our Lady in there as well. St Joseph too? The Sacred Heart? St Benedict?! Hopefully we will be allowed a few more glimpses into the dower chapel.

It strikes me that this chapel is undoubtedly fitted out according to Benedict’s desires, shows Benedict’s commitment to the liturgical vision of Vatican II. That is not quite the same as a commitment to the liturgy as it is most often celebrated around the world. Cloistered with the Cross though he now is, Benedict still witnesses to the liturgy the Church treasures and deserves, even if only God and the angels might see it day by day.

Still, now we too have had a brief and privileged glimpse. It is enough, let us pray, to remind the Church of Benedict’s parting call to rediscover the “true Council”. Just as the Council’s decrees began with the liturgy, so may the Church look again to the Council’s liturgical reforms as they actually decreed them, and confirm whether it is these reforms we were given. If so, let us rejoice. If not, let us waste no time in reclaiming them.

May the Lord protect and defend Pope Francis and Benedict; may they both bear much fruit to God’s glory and our good.