Egyptian mystic and author Fr. Henri Boulad, SJ, was born in 1931 in Alexandria and studied in Lebanon, France, and the US. He has visited 50 countries on four continents, has published 30 books in 15 languages, knows every bishop in Egypt personally, and knows personally several cardinals around the world. He now leads the Jesuit College in Cairo, of which more than half the 1,600 students are Muslim. He wrote a private letter to Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 calling for a fundamental renewal of the Catholic Church, which he believes is in a worldwide crisis. Through no fault of his the letter was accidentally made public recently. On the web it is now available and reported on in various languages, but not yet in English as far as I know. My interest in the mystic’s letter is liturgical, though that is not the focus of his letter.
I am, by background, temperament, and monastic profession, rather traditional in my liturgical tastes. I was raised on no-jeans-in-church, and outside of church it was no-caps-indoors and pants-pockets-are-for-things-not-hands. The social codes, in church and without, are very different for those just one generation behind me. I think a lot about the traditionalism of our liturgy (and of monastic life, but that’s a topic for another day) and how well this works in our cultural context. I personally don’t have a problem with the Vatican’s increasingly traditional (and lacey) liturgical style. But I do worry about whether it is an obstacle to the credibility of the church and the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world. Our Catholic liturgy bears the marks, from top to bottom, of highly stratified and hierarchical and formal and aristocratic cultures of past centuries. Many of the resulting aesthetic artifacts are quite lovely. But… I think you know what the “but” is, if you care at all about inculturation for the Gospel’s sake.
I don’t much care for today’s casual informality. But wouldn’t it be so like our God to call me (again) to something I think I don’t like or doesn’t fit my preconceived notions? Today’s informality could be a sign of a culture in decay. But it could also be the blowing of the Spirit bringing us to egalitarian and inclusive ways of relating to one other. You see why the letter from the Jesuit mystic, with its call for a new style in the church, so interests me. Take a look at a few excerpts below, and then tell us how you think this would apply to liturgical renewal today.
“Holy Father, I make bold to address you directly because my heart aches when I see how our church is in the process of sinking into an abyss.” The church needs a “new language.” The language of the church is “obsolete, anachronistic, boring, repetitive, moralistic, and utterly outmoded.” It is “by no means a matter of swimming with the tide and engaging in demagoguery, for the message of the Gospel must be presented in all its demanding objectionability. What is much more needed is the ‘new evangelization’ to which John Paul II invited us.” For this we need a new language “which speaks of the relevance and importance of faith for people of today.” One notes “that our faith is very intellectual, abstract, and dogmatic, and speaks little to the body and heart.” “One cannot solve the problems of today and tomorrow by relying on the past and gathering together its ruins.” “The apparent vitality of the church in the Third World is deceptive. In all likelihood, these young churches will have to encounter sooner or later the same crises as in the older Christendom of Europe.” Today’s church badly needs “a pastoral reform in order to rethink inherited structures from the bottom up” and “a spiritual reform in order to … understand anew the sacraments, give them an existential meaning, and integrate them into daily life.” The church of today is “too formal and too formalistic. One gets the impression that the institution chokes off charisms and ultimately only cares about external stability and respectable superficiality. Are we not in danger of one day being treated by Jesus as ‘whitewashed tombs’?”