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Mahony’s pastoral concern shows in liturgy letter

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony’s liturgical renewal efforts have spawned bitter criticisms from the Catholic right (NCR, Dec. 5 and 26, 1997, Jan. 30). Los Angeles is the most multiethnic archdiocese on earth, serving more than 3.6 million Catholics from 102 different ethnic communities. To say it is important to the future of the church is an understatement.

Many on the right obviously had thought that with the death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1996, any further visions of an inclusive, pastoral church from within the highest ranks of the U.S. episcopacy had been sent to a Chicago graveyard.

But it was not to be.

Mahony was deeply touched by the Chicago cardinal in the last months of his life. Bernardin’s dying experience bonded the two men. In the wake of the death, Mahony emerged with new spirit, renewed vision and healthy determination.

The Mahony-Bernardin link dates back to the summer of 1996. Bernardin, eager at the time to get the Catholic Common Ground Project off the ground before his death, went public with it. He called for greater dialogue with the Catholic left and right. The nation’s East Coast cardinals, however, in a rare move, publicly criticized the plan. Mahony, on the other hand, called Bernardin to offer his support.

Three months later, Mahony was again with Bernardin, but this time at the prelate’s bedside as his life ran down. It came as little surprise that Mahony was chosen by Bernardin to be chief celebrant at his funeral Mass. (Had Bernardin not designated a principal celebrant, protocol would likely have meant that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, now the highest ranking U.S. prelate, would have led the ceremony.)

In the wake of Bernardin’s death, many looked to Mahony and wondered if he would carry on the Bernardin legacy of articulating a pastoral vision of church. There’s nothing terribly radical about that vision, of course, yet it is out of step with the radically conservative senior ranks of the U.S. episcopacy.

Evidence of Mahony’s more moderate influence predates Bernardin’s death, and perhaps it is Bernardin’s absence that has allowed Mahony greater pastoral visibility. A strong sign occurred a year ago when the cardinal, responding to right-wing criticism that the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress had been harboring church radicals, personally stepped in. Mahony rebuked critics, citing the good intentions and “profound commitment” of the thousands who had turned out for the congress.

However, the clearest sign of Mahony’s growing pastoral voice can be found in the pastoral letter, “Gather Faithfully Together: A Guide for Sunday Mass,” issued last Sept. 4, feast of Our Lady of the Angels.

In the wake of protracted and dispiriting battles among the U.S. hierarchy over wording of the sacramentary and lectionary, the Mahony pastoral sparked new excitement and sent out a clear message to liturgists that not every member of the hierarchy had backed out of the liturgical renewal movement. Many liturgists desperately needed that lift.

“We don’t learn to be Catholics from the catechism, but from doing our liturgy,” said Gabe Huck, an editor at Liturgical Training Publications, which published Mahony’s pastoral in booklet form. “At a point where a major figure needed to be heard from, here he is. ... It was wonderful,” Huck said of Mahony’s letter.

Mahony’s pastoral is significant because it comes out of Los Angeles, because it expands the conversation and because it is utterly simple and pastoral to the core. Mahony also has placed care for his people over institutional politics. He well knows, for example, that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has spoken of the need to “reform the (liturgical) reform” movement, meaning to end it.

Ratzinger and others like him want to return the church to some kind of non-historical ideal. They advocate a one-size-fits-all liturgical norm that has simply not been the norm throughout church history.

Mahony, on the other hand, has liturgy responding to local need. Liturgy, Mahony’s pastoral states, should “take on the pace, sounds and shape that other cultures bring,” adding that “homogeneity and comfort are not gospel values.” Yet Mahony calls for pastoral norms.

The struggle over liturgy conceals deeper theological and ecclesial issues still begging for answers. The right fears lest active lay participation blur the distinction between clergy and laity, specifically the role of the priest in the church today. Ironically, Mahony’s emphasis on liturgical renewal has lifted the spirits of Los Angeles priests. The pastoral contained an emphasis on the priest as liturgical presider.

Mahony’s pastoral upset the Catholic right. Mother Angelica took the lead on her cable television network, EWTN. On her nationally syndicated television program Nov. 12, 1997, she sharply criticized the pastoral, saying it placed insufficient emphasis on the real presence of Jesus. She called on Catholics to practice “zero obedience” in the Los Angeles diocese.

Though later expressing regret for those remarks, Mother Angelica has continued to attack the pastoral letter. Mahony decided he would not sit back. He has taken his case to Rome, asking for changes at the controversial Catholic media outlet.

Silencing Mother Angelica is not the answer. That road never works. Instead, the church needs a healthy airing of the issues. It also needs bishops like Mahony willing to make room for thoughtful liturgical renewal.

Catholic liturgists understand that liturgy is core to renewal. We must get it right. And neglecting a rapidly changing world with rapidly changing parishes and parish needs will only assure that we will never get it right. Good liturgy is essential because it heals, inspires, unites and empowers. And people need healing, inspiration, unity and empowerment.

Bishop Donald Trautman, former U.S. bishops’ liturgy committee chairman, was on the mark when he said, in praise of Mahony’s letter: “If there is to be peace and justice, service to the poor and the elderly, Christian education and formation, schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, these will be fed by a meaningful celebration of the liturgy.”

The stakes are important. How refreshing to see such pastoral leadership.

Tom Fox is NCR's publisher.