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Good Friday’s can of worms

NCR Staff

Each year Good Friday opens the memory of the suffering and death of Jesus to renewed Christian contemplation.

For many Catholic liturgists, it also opens a can of worms.

Among the most difficult judgments for those planning Good Friday liturgies is whether to use the so-called “Reproaches,” a litany of accusations placed on the lips of Jesus and directed at “his people.” Also called the Improperia, the reproaches are part of the rite for the veneration of the cross. They are customarily sung or chanted.

For some, the reproaches recall the troubled history of Christian anti-Judaism, especially the accusation of deicide -- blaming all Jews for the death of Christ. While that position was officially disavowed at Vatican II, some believe the reproaches (elements of which date back to the ninth century) are a holdover of that ancient prejudice.

The question has both historical and contemporary relevance. On March 7, the Vatican released a long-awaited document on the faults of the church. It suggested that readers should consider “whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts.”

Liturgists who defend using the reproaches say the problem of anti-Judaism has to be handled through education, not by deleting or bowdlerizing traditional texts.

At an even deeper level, some critics believe the reproaches undercut the spirituality of the Good Friday liturgy. Good Friday, they say, is about the “joy of the cross” -- a paradoxical celebration of Christ’s crucifixion that points forward to Easter and the resurrection. It is not, they say, a time to wallow in sinfulness and sorrow.

This position, too, is a matter of debate; other observers say a sense of “healthy guilt” is exactly what Good Friday ought to inspire. Perhaps, they suggest, discomfort with the reproaches is part of a broader current in the post-Vatican II church in which the concepts of sin and guilt, to put it bluntly, went out of style.

Trepidation within the liturgical community is reflected in the fact that while the reproaches appear in the sacramentary (the official prayer book approved by the U.S. bishops), they are not part of the worship aids put out by the J.S. Paluch company, whose missalettes are widely used in American parishes.

The reproaches set events in the Hebrew Bible alongside charges of responsibility for Christ’s suffering and death. Though phrased as statements by Jesus, they do not appear in scripture.

“My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me! I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but you led your Savior to the cross,” the text in the sacramentary reads.

“For your sake I scourged your captors and their first-born sons, but you brought your scourges down on me … I led you on your way in a pillar of cloud, but you led me to Pilate’s court. … For you I struck down the kings of Canaan, but you struck my head with a reed. … I raised you to the height of majesty, but you raised me high on a cross.”

No one keeps a count of how many parishes use the reproaches, but liturgists contacted by NCR said practice varies widely. Some parishes use them as they appear in the sacramentary, some use edited versions (though doing so is not officially approved), some use approved alternative songs or psalms, and many omit them altogether. Some diocesan liturgical offices have discouraged their use.

Dennis McManus, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ liturgy secretariat, said he estimates 40 percent of American parishes use the reproaches on Good Friday.

There is a “really strong potential to read these texts as being anti-Semitic,” said Alan Hommerding, senior editor at J.S. Paluch. Bart Merella, a deacon and director of student affairs at the Washington Theological Union, agreed. “I would strongly caution against using them without proper reflection or catechesis in advance,” he said.

Keith Pecklers, who teaches at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at St. Anselmo’s in Rome, said the reproaches do not have to be read as anti-Jewish. He takes them as “directed at all of humanity.”

Others argue that even if there is some residual anti-Judaism in the text, omission is not the right way to cope with it. “Anti-Semitism is met by honest, caring catechesis and education,” said James Wilde, author and editor for Oregon Catholic Press, a publishing company in Portland. “It is not addressed -- just ignored -- by deleting the approaches or ‘sanitizing’ gospel language.”

“We do not want to compromise our identification as God’s people Israel,” Wilde said. “[It would be] a sad and needless impoverishment to lose that.”

Hommerding said that even setting aside the question of anti-Judaism, the reproaches don’t fit the spirituality of Good Friday.

“The language of the prayer is celebratory,” he said. “It’s not a celebration the way we popularly understand it, with balloons and clowns, but Good Friday is part of our celebration of the passover from death to life. In that context, an examination of conscience is not appropriate.”

Wilde disagreed. “It seems arbitrary to me to limit a liturgical spirituality to ‘worship, veneration, praise and the joy of the cross’ on Good Friday, in the sacred triduum or on any other day,” he said.

McManus said that especially in the Jubilee Year, when John Paul II has invited the church to an examination of conscience, the reproaches may be helpful.

Merella said he believes the renewal of the triduum launched by Pius XII, intended to restore the intrinsic unity of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, has not taken root in many Catholic parishes. “Lots of people still think of them as three separate days,” he said. Merella argued that Good Friday cannot be understood apart from Easter, and in that light the reproaches strike a false note.

As for worries about an impoverished sense of sin, Merella noted that such fears wax and wane throughout church history. “For a time, the sacrament of penance was celebrated only once a year, and for many people only on their deathbed,” Merella said. “One could look at that and say, ‘Whatever happened to sin?’ ”

Monsignor Francis Mannion, head of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, said concerns that Good Friday emphasizes suffering too much by and large reflect First World experiences. Suffering looms larger in the religious imagination of the Third World, as it did in Europe during the plague, he said.

Pecklers said it’s important on Good Friday to “sit with the despair and emptiness of suffering and the cross … especially in a culture which downplays sacrifice, tries to cover over sadness and to avoid pain.” He said recent studies on the Order of Christian Burials are also rediscovering the role of grief, even returning to the use of purple rather than white vestments.

Frank Henderson, a liturgist in Edmonton, Canada, said the reproaches reflect an “older theory of atonement” that regards Jesus’ suffering as necessary to satisfy God’s justice.

“That’s one theory, but contemporary theology has given us many others,” Henderson said. “The question is, does Good Friday justify suffering, or is it against it? Was it good for Jesus to suffer, or did he suffer because suffering is part of the world but that doesn’t make it good?” If one opts for the latter understanding, Henderson said, the reproaches are not helpful.

McManus said Good Friday is less about the joy than the glory of the cross. “It’s the exultation we experience once we embrace the suffering of Jesus as the only path to God,” he said. The reproaches -- which McManus described as a “broad and deep” attempt to find meaning in suffering -- complement Good Friday very well.

McManus noted, however, that the U.S. bishops do not require the reproaches and said the question comes down to “an individual pastoral decision.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000