Out of Egypt

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’?”


  1. This is very interesting. I believe that this is very close to what Andrew Greeley has been shouting from roof tops for years.

  2. Islam is flourishing and not because it has succumbed to the thinking of secularism. Catholicism since Vatican II has lost her bearings amongst the pseudo-euphoria that many embraced immediately after the Council, a still lingering euphoria that corrupts what the Council taught and corrupts our Catholic identity reducing to ashes any semblance of Catholic identity amongst a multitude of once strong Catholic communities. One only need look at the world wide Anglican Community to see what implementing Fr. Henri’s “dream” at best or “nightmare” at worst would finally do to Catholicism if Pope Benedict embraced this pseudo hermeneutic to “correct” the current path of the Church.

    1. Fr. Allan – I had a similar thought. The experience of some mainline Protestant and Anglican churches suggests extreme caution. But from the other side (traditional Islam), I think Fr. Boulad would say that they, like Christians in the Third World, haven’t yet confronted modernity. They will someday, big time. So they’re not our model. That’s our dilemma: neither accomodation nor rigid traditionalism work in modern (Western) culture, though the latter might seem to in the short term.

      1. “[Muslims], like Christians in the Third World, haven’t yet confronted modernity.”

        This is not true, especially not of the Egyptian Muslims. Egypt has in fact been inundated with many ‘modern’ trends and ideas – Socialism, consumerism, equality of the sexes, McDonald’s, Western attire, moral subjectivism etc. – but they are rejecting it in favour of Wahhabi Islam, which until the 1950’s was an entirely foreign concept in Egypt (and in some respects it is not even all that ‘traditional’).

        This is due to disillusionment with modernity and with their government and an idea that reaching back to more ‘original’ spiritual values will ‘set things right’ (plus Islam is about the only thing that is not banned in Egypt)

  3. After reading Pere Boulad’s letter in its entirety, one can only conclude that he, and not Pope Benedict, is living in a time-warp. Dated 18 July 2007, it reads exactly as though it were written in 1963. Holy Church has been doing for the past four decades precisely what this “mystic” now prescribes. One word sums up this letter — despair.

    Cher Pere Henri, n’ayez pas peur! (Be not afraid)! The Holy Spirit guides the Church; She is indefectible, She will never fail.

    Long Live Pope Benedict XVI, the Pope of Christian Unity!

  4. Greetings,

    We do need to walk with the culture, and the modern world, but we need to do this as Catholics. This does not mean we give up our ‘catholicness’ and be conformed to some sort of wordliness. The Youth ministry that seems to work is a ministry that gives a strong Catholic identity. Without that identity, the youth can get the ‘be nice’ message any place. They want a Catholic identity which gives an experience of the supernatural reality of God.


  5. I found his letter deeply challenging and prophetic, not in style but in substance. Especially when he quotes scripture I am reminded that the hard edge of the sayings of Jesus can indeed be directed toward us. William Henry’s comment above, about the Spirit, is precisely the “whitewash” that Boulad challenges.

  6. I too think it is worth reading the entire letter (and thank you, Rita, for giving us the link to the French original, which is a very strong statement).

    When he says that people will no longer accept magisterial diktats (“peremptory” rather than “pastoral” is the language he uses), and that for Catholics who have now learned to think for themselves the Church can no longer rely on being Mater et Magistra, I think he has touched on something which has to be faced. It’s no good remaining in denial. He asks us to find another way of evangelising. I therefore wonder whether Anthony is implying that imposing new texts while the Church is haemorrhaging is reminiscent of deckchairs on the Titanic?

    1. Paul – thanks for the comment. I honestly wasn’t thinking about the new texts (maybe I should have been), but about style in general – ritual and ceremonial and vesture and plastic arts etc.etc.

  7. Sorry for the length of my earlier comment. To summarize: Having lived many years in Egypt I can confidently say that Fr. Boulad’s insistence on the necessity of informality in religion simply flies in the face of facts, especially in the Egyptian context.

    The Coptic Orthodox Church is experiencing a massive renewal in these years despite not having made appreciable changes to their (very formal) liturgy (there is greater provision for use of the vernacular but no changes to the rituals themselves).

    Meanwhile, Wahhabi Islam with its strict codes of conduct and very formal ritual (in an unintelligible dead language) is taking over the Muslim part of society.

    Formality of worship is clearly not the dead end Fr. Boulad claims it is.

  8. The saddest thing here is that there has been no conversation, no news, no response, no anything in three years. The leadership continues to play “the politics of the ostrich.” (Great image!)

    The church, in tightening up it’s liturgical practices, pandering to the most conservative elements, retracing it’s steps to an imagined glorious preV2 state, is doing the opposite of Paul’s “all things to all people.” She is increasingly “few things to less and less people.”

    Those of you who want it the “old” way- I get it. I really do. A lot of the liberal, lackadaisical informality I see annoys me too. But you must… MUST… have eyes to see and ears to hear. People are losing faith.

    And it’s our fault.

    We make them “twice…

  9. The saddest thing here is that there has been no conversation, no news, no response, no anything in three years


    What exactly would “the leadership” (I assume you mean the Holy Father) say in reply to this? I would think, looking back on the events of the past three years and the actions of the Holy See during that time, that the reply has been quite clear.

    And why is it that anything that involves restoring the church’s traditions is “pandering to the most conservative elements” ? Why is it not possible that the Holy Spirit might actually want the Church to return to its traditions and heritage? I’m not claiming that is necessarily the case, but one has to consider the possibility, no?

  10. Did Vatican II wreck the Church, or is not enough of Vatican II wrecking the Church?

    My 14-year-old son and his contemporaries, not to speak of many grown-ups, find the Mass deadly boring, and is that because it is not the old beautiful Latin Mass with all the smells and bells, or because it is still too slow and stuffy and–liturgical?

    If our liturgy is boring, and if our religion is in general unnatrractive to people, that has most to do with the lack of the Holy Spirit working among us. If we have that, we have everything else–the love for each other that shows people the love of Christ, which is irresistably attractive, and other things too like the inspiration to make great liturgy, whether it be traditional or innovative.

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