A Week To Remember

It’s been a week, hasn’t it?

  • Boston Marathon.  Two young Chechen males bombed the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. That’s bad. First responders in Boston lived up to the heroic archetype. That’s good. Many marathon runners crossed the finish line and kept running until they hit the hospital; so many, in fact, that the hospital had to start turning people away. That’s inspiring. Regardless of the subpar performance of the press this week, and setting aside a “we must do something, no matter how useless” response from federal leaders, Boston proves a point: You can bloody Americans, but you can never kill the American soul. God bless Boston.
  • Gun bill fails. Joe Manchin and Harry Reid proved incapable of getting a federal gun bill through the Senate. President Obama was mad about that vote — more angry, in fact, than he seemed about Boston, and he berated Republicans directly with victims of gun violence (Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and families from Newtown, CT) as stage props behind him. America’s gun laws are a mishmash of crazy; reform at both the state and federal levels seems necessary. But wrenching regulation ever-tighter isn’t the sort of reform we need, nor is using the grief of victims as a rhetorical ploy for strong-arming flawed bills the kind of tactic we need to advance the legislative process.
  • West, TX plant explosion. A fertilizer plant in Texas exploded. Many are dead, wounded or displaced. We send them our prayers, and we mourn the volunteer firefighters who lost their lives in the explosion.
  • West Michigan floods. The torrent of early April rain led to record flooding. The Grand River crests today, considerably higher than the previous record flood of 1904. Lots of prep work and lots of localized flooding, but no real sense of panic or disruption seems to grip the city. Infrastructure planning over the last few decades has undoubtedly paid handsome dividends now, even as we chuckle a bit as Mayor Heartwell counsels people to “shower with a buddy” to reduce stress on the water treatment plant.
  • New bishop in Grand Rapids. This week, we learned that Pope Francis has named David John Walkowiak, a priest from Cleveland, to succeed Walter Hurley as bishop of Grand Rapids. For local Catholics, this is a big deal. Many dislike Hurley, although they struggle at identifying why. Insiders within the diocese didn’t appreciate the clean break between Hurley — who aggressively pursued parish consolidations and cleaned the roster of abusive priests — and Robert Rose, who was significantly more lax and let a handful of lay people effectively run the diocese during his tenure. (Kevin Britt actually succeeded Rose, but he served only a year before dying unexpectedly in 2005.) I worked with Bishop Hurley as one of his masters of ceremonies. He’s a good man, and a far-sighted administrator. I will eagerly welcome Bishop-elect Walkowiak, but I will miss Hurley.

What to make of all of this?

First, the words of Blessed John Paul II should be declaimed from the rooftops: Be not afraid. Neither guns nor bombs nor wild floods should shake our cores. We will survive; we always do.

Second, we should remember just how lucky we really are. Even when our lives seem to suck, we still enjoy unheard-of levels of prosperity and freedom. Whether we’re cleaning up after a terror attack or sandbagging before a flood, we still are better off than so many others in the world. Truly, even our worst days are better than the best days of many people in North Korea or sub-Sahara Africa. Remember that.

Third, we should not allow tragedy — man-caused or natural — to serve as an ideological inflection point. Bad things happen. If we let those bad things turn us into a herd of panicked minds, shepherded by opportunist politicians, then we help the first evil to grow deeper and more corrosive than it otherwise would have been. So when you see victims on stage, using their tears to affect legislation, the only right answer is to stand athwart the legislative process saying Stop.

This week was one for the history books. Let’s work to ensure that our response to these events earns fair treatment in those history books.

Initial Thoughts About the Revised Roman Missal

This fall, the revised English translation of the Roman Missal — the big book of procedures and prayers used at Mass in Catholic churches — will take effect in most dioceses of the United States. The Missal has generated some small degree of controversy, but the translation protocols used in this document mark a substantial improvement in liturgical fidelity compared to today’s Sacramentary.

The fault lines in the Church that broke most cleanly over the revised Missal reflect the divide between inclusiveness and permissiveness, under the guise of “the Spirit of Vatican II,” and the more traditional elements who favored elevated language that reinforced orthodoxy and orthopraxis. 

Some historical context is in order. In the immediate years following Vatican II, the bishops largely abdicated their liturgical leadership to various lay liturgists who, more often than not, adopted the 1960s-era attitudes of “modernization” and “non-judgmentalism.” This led to the introduction of translation protocols from Latin into the vernacular that occasionally raised eyebrows. This left-leaning tendency of the liturgists reached its apogee with the 1970 Sacramentary, which used the “official” version of the Roman Missal as more a source of inspiration than a document to be faithfully and literally translated.

Thus, Catholics in the English-speaking world were subjected to additional Eucharistic prayers than the rest of the Catholic universe experienced. The language of various prayers, too, was changed.

The most significant, and most illustrative, translation deviation occurred with the Creed. The Latin version begins, “Credo in unum Deum,” which in English translates to, “I believe in one God.” The Sacramentary, however, lists the English as, “We believe in one God.” No one with more than two weeks’ Latin study would translate “credo” as “we believe” — and that’s the point. The liturgists who wanted to take the Church in a radically different direction took ample liberties with official Latin texts under the theory of “lex orandi, lex credendi” — “the law of worship is the law of belief.” If you make people pray using certain words and images, then they will eventually believe those words and images.

The tide against the Mighty Liturgists started to turn in the 1980s. Rome slowly and carefully started to require more orthodox modes of translation, which effort culminated in a document that set clear norms for liturgical translation. Given the hue and cry from left-leaning Catholics, you’d think the Church decided to reconstitute the Inquisition, bonfires and all.

But at long last, the Roman Missal was revised in Rome. The various liturgical conferences then shepherded the translation of the Latin version into the vernacular of the conference. The first go-around in the English-speaking world met with a rejection in Rome — even under the new translation rules, the liturgists took too many liberties. But at long last, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a translation that earned Roman approval.

The major points of departure from the Sacramentary to the newly revised Missal include:

  • Greater fidelity to the words and phraseology of the original Latin. For example, the current call-and-response greeting at Mass — “The Lord be with you”/”And also with you” — will more accurately reflect the traditional formula of “The Lord be with you”/”And with your spirit.” 
  • Various phrases in the Creed have changed. “One in being with the Father” is now more accurately, “Consubstantial with the Father.” “Born of the Virgin Mary” is now “Incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” Etc.
  • The rules about music have tightened, although whether this will have a direct effect on most parochial music from the outset is unclear.
  • The rubrics have been updated to reduce the temptation to lay clericalism that often derails parishes with weak priests.

From my perspective, these are welcome changes. They help to correct some of the abuses of a more permissive mindset that gave us the infamous “Wonder Bread Masses” of the 1970s and hokey folk-music repertoires for worship.

The changes may be hard for some, but they are a necessary and salutary corrective to an unbalancing of liturgy and theology that developed in the last half-century. AMDG.

Preferential Option for the Poor, Take Two

Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the Kingdom of God is theirs.” Jesus instructs his followers to engage in corporal and spiritual works of mercy, including feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. And Jesus warns his flock: “What you do onto the least of your brothers, you do onto me.”

In modern Catholic social-justice theory, good Christians must put the needs of the poor at the top of moral ratiocination. We must give a “preferential option” for the poor, as it were. Particularly in matters governing man’s relationship to man, protecting the poor and ameliorating their plight must always be paramount.

It’s a commonplace of secular contemporary socioeconomic discourse to ascribe various government-intensive solutions to address the plight of the poor. You see this in the “War on Poverty,” various social-welfare programs, the burgeoning diversity movement, anti-poverty activism and direct-transfer payments from the wealthy to support programs for the poor.

In “Preferential Option for the Poor,” new First Things editor R.R. Reno raises a salient point about this bedrock principle of Catholic social justice. He notes that we almost never consider poverty in anything but raw economic terms: No one seems much to care about moral and spiritual poverty. Reno’s conclusion is that a more holistic understanding of “the poor” will lead us to a conservative social agenda that favors stabilizing families, nurturing shared community norms and enriching public culture.

The problem, as I read Reno’s perspective, is that a secular “preferential option” focuses on economic conditions, leaving moral poverty to libertine impulses. “Who are we to judge?” after all. Yet this bastardizes a properly Christian conception of care for the poor; what good does it do to provide material benefits to a family without the the moral sense to make sound long-term decisions? For example, why should the state subsidize pregnancies among single low-income women without also teaching them the virtue of chastity?

Poverty of spirit is just as dangerous and just as open to repair as material poverty, yet left-wing activists encourage redistribution and big-government schemes to repair the latter while paying the former no heed. Is that virtuous? Or is it a bastardization of the full and authentic meaning of the “preferential option?”

Reno’s analysis is spot-on, and well-worth the read. Were I to add anything to his commentary, it would merely be this: Even if you do focus only on helping the poor in a material sense, the virtue that attaches comes from doing it yourself. There is no real spiritual benefit to paying higher taxes to fund a government redistribution of wealth. The spiritual and moral benefit to helping the poor comes from working the soup kitchen or rape crisis center. It doesn’t come from mere advocacy or from writing a check.

Jesus also said: “Woe to the rich, for they have already enjoyed their reward.” Woe also to the armchair liberal who would rather be seen to be virtuous among his peers while doing very little to help the poor in the ways that matter most. They have already enjoyed their reward.

God +20

On the 26th day of April, A.D. 1990, I stood before His Grace, the Most Rev. Robert J. Rose, bishop of Grand Rapids, and was Confirmed into the Catholic Church, at a special Mass held at St. Anthony of Padua church.

That was 20 years ago, tomorrow.

The Catholic sacrament of Confirmation is the final sacrament of initiation: It is the spiritual acceptance of a Catholic into full adulthood within the community of believers.

Much has happened to me, spiritually, over the last two decades:

  • I went to a Catholic high school and was lukewarm in faith, bordering on the agnostic;
  • I went to a secular university, discovered philosophy, and became a radical and committed atheist;
  • I made a series of bad judgements, rooted in youthful arrogance, that brought me a considerable amount of legal and financial trouble;
  • in desperation, I turned to God and (for reasons I never really did fully understand) went back to church, despite thinking it was a silly and superstitious waste of time;
  • I eventually re-embraced the Church fully, serving in my parish as a lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and sacristan — and eventually becoming the chief sacristan and long-running chairman of the parish liturgy committee;
  • I spent a few years in pre-seminary study and took a week-long retreat with the Legion of Christ in Connecticut to explore a priestly vocation (at which, I was blessed by a special encounter with the Divine);
  • I started volunteering through the diocese, eventually serving as a lay chaplain at a hospital and at a state prison, and contributing to the diocesan Office for Worship as a master of ceremonies to the bishop and lay coordinator for major diocesan liturgies;
  • and then,
  • acedia struck.

So I’ve pretty much moved full circle, from “cultural Catholic” to atheist to practicing Catholic to potential priest to non-practicing Catholic.

The spiritual journey has been curious.  I am not abandoning the Church; I don’t disagree with major teachings or think it’s silly superstition.  I will return to active practice.  Part of the issue may be burn-out — I was doing so much, so frequently, that I’d actually sit down to Mass with no “extra” obligation maybe only once per year.  That’s a lot; a person can spend so much time serving others that he loses the ability to service himself.

I am heartened by the path of the Church over the last two decades. I am a committed “Benedict XVI Catholic” — one who favors authentic liturgy, an inquisitive mind, and a charitable heart. I identify much more strongly with the academic/contemplative forms of prayer life than the evangelical/charismatic model, and I find some hope in the way the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments have taken a firm but gentle hand in correcting some of the liturgical abuses arising in the post-Vatican II chaos.

Like many Catholics, I regret the sexual abuse of some priests, even as I notice (in away the New York Times editorial board apparently cannot) that the worst of the crisis occurred in the generation immediately after Vatican II and that the abuse rate among Catholic clergy is still significantly below that of, say, Southern Baptist clergy, prison guards, or public-school teachers.

That said, I am presently in a spiritual rut that has lasted for nearly two years.  I am confident, however, that in due time, the rut will have run its course and I will once again be spiritually joined to the Church Universal.