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Liturgical police must not deter reform

Fast on the heels of Mother Angelica’s criticism of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony’s pastoral letter on the Sunday Mass comes a nine-page statement from Adoremus, covering much of the same ground but in greater detail and without the outright call for disobedience among Angeleno Catholics.

Adoremus, which has taken upon itself the task of monitoring liturgical “abuses” in the church, faults Mahony for a variety of theological and liturgical gaffes, but its bottom line is that the cardinal -- by placing more emphasis on the Eucharistic assembly than on the sacrificial character of the Mass -- has in effect denied the doctrine of the real presence.

Frankly, the idea that Mahony, the centrist’s centrist, would reject in writing a core Catholic doctrine is faintly ridiculous, noteworthy only as an indication of how far factionalization has gone in 1990s Catholicism, when someone with whom you disagree is not just wrong, but a heretic to boot. This kind of over-the-top criticism veers close to self-parody.

Unfortunately, we can’t laugh it off entirely, because however absurd, such quick-response attacks on liturgical reform can have a chilling effect on innovation elsewhere. This is so especially because the Roman curia has exhibited a predisposition to take right-wing criticism of officials and practices more seriously than complaints from other quarters in the church.

How many other bishops will be willing to publicly commit themselves now to significant liturgical reform, since doing so seems tantamount to drawing a big red bull’s-eye on themselves for an Adoremus and Mother Angelica-style smear campaign? How many dioceses and parishes will decide to play down liturgical change or put it on the back burner in order to avoid confrontation?

The question is especially urgent in light of the recent gathering of 14,000 Catholic teenagers in Kansas City, Mo., for the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCR, Dec. 12). These young people proclaimed in myriad ways how much they ache for a more vibrant, dynamic, energizing experience of church, how much they want to gather on Sunday not just for a theologically correct repetition of ritual, but for a true celebration. They want to feel the presence of God, both in outstretched human hands and in symbolism that invites them to enter into the divine mystery. They yearn for music that stirs the soul and moves the body and for roles in the liturgy that involve them in meaningful ways.

Moreover, these are not just the aspirations of the young. Most Catholics share the sense that our Sunday gatherings need more fire and passion, more celebration and more participation. The Sunday liturgy is the touchstone of what it means to be Catholic for most of us, and no cause has more ardent support among Catholics of all shapes and sizes than making our gatherings as alive as possible.

Of course, there’s room for tremendous disagreement as to what achieving that end entails. Those fond of pre-Vatican II forms of liturgical expression deserve to be heard as much as anyone else. To the extent that groups such as Adoremus want to play a constructive role in crafting liturgies that nourish and inflame the spirit, their contributions are most welcome.

Lamentably, however, that has not been their role to date. Instead, they have styled themselves a sort of theological police force, monitoring even the slightest deviation from approved norms for hints of heresy. One gets the sense that only the Tridentine Mass would satisfy their standards, and even then they’d follow along in their rubrics looking for deficiencies in pronunciation and/or execution.

One could, as Capuchin Fr. Gregory Coiro did in an interview with NCR (page 4), point out the hypocrisy of such legalistic criticism from followers of Mother Angelica, whose own televised Masses contain deviations from the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. Such a rejoinder is indeed justified by the facts.

But in this kind of tit-for-tat exchange, the broader point can be obscured. Catholics are crying out for liturgies that touch and inspire them. Designing such liturgies is a pressing and difficult task, one that must be carried out fully conscious of all the cultural, generational and practical exigencies involved. Whatever one thinks of the specifics of Cardinal Mahony’s pastoral letter, he has at least started the right conversation.

One wonders why Mahony’s brother bishops have not been more vocal in denouncing the divisiveness of the liturgical police. Mother Angelica’s own Bishop David Foley of Birmingham, Ala., for example, downplayed the significance of her remarks, saying, “I don’t think it’s the first time that bishops have been accused of heresy by people in the church.” Such timidity is the episcopal equivalent of a green light for more bullying to come.

Catholics, lay and ordained alike, should signal in whatever ways they can their rejection of narrow visions of liturgy that make any kind of flexibility or innovation suspect. We have centuries of tradition to guide us in ensuring that our liturgies are firmly grounded in sound theology. The more urgent task today is to carry that tradition forward in creative, affecting ways when Catholics come together to celebrate. May we not be deterred.

National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 1997