Pray Tell visits with Timothy Radcliffe, OP

Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP is former master of the world-wide Dominican order and professor at Oxford University. He is author of several books, including What is the Point of Being a Christian, which received the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing in 2007. He is widely sought after as a speaker. Recently he gave the annual retreat to the monks of Saint John’s Abbey, and Pray Tell took the chance to visit with him.

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You’re a Dominican. What is it like to worship with Benedictines all week?

I have enjoyed it vastly! I love how you vary the way in which each psalm is prayed, and the generous amount of silence that is part of your liturgy. We Dominicans take a lot of care about the divine office as well, but generally it moves along at a brisker pace! I expect that after a month at St. John’s Abbey I might begin to be nostalgic for the Dominican way!

You were educated by Benedictines in England as a youth, so you have direct experience of Benedictine monasticism. But what strikes you about American Benedictinism at St. John’s? Any observations about liturgical inculturation, for good or ill?

I felt at home in St John’s immediately. It breathes the same ‘Catholic humanism’ that I loved at Worth and Downside and which I also discovered at Glenstall when I gave the community its retreat a couple of years ago. I spotted that the monks who prepared your liturgy have a sensitivity about gender issues, for example Sarah has been invited to join Abraham in  the canticle! This is probably a more sensitive issue in the US than in the UK.

Your retreat for the monks this week has focused on “life in abundance.” You joked about religious who drearily recite Psalm verses such as “my heart is filled with joy.” Do you think Catholic liturgy needs a shot in the arm to express the abundant life which is ours in Christ? What would that look like?

I am sure that our worship must find more physical expression. St. Paul said, ‘Glorify God in your bodies.’ Our Israelites ancestors expressed their joy in God by leaping around, dancing, weeping and laughing. We are too Cartesian, and give the impression that prayer is just mental! ‘I think therefore I am.’ St. Dominic’s nine ways of prayer involved a lot of movement, bending, genuflecting, bowing. In the Dominican Order we have begun to recover a little bit of this. When I go to Africa I am bowled over by the vitality of worship. A celebrant has to know how to dance. Of course I am far too English and shy to actually want to dance myself, but I can see that we need to let our joy and worship overflow more. Maybe African Catholics can come and teach us how to pray!

For a variety of historical reasons, English and Irish Catholicism aren’t exactly known for liturgical singing and chanting (I’m of half Irish extraction myself, I should say). Catholic liturgical folks in the U.S. these days are talking a lot about sung liturgy, about priests chanting the liturgical dialogues and orations and preface and so forth. Is this a good way to move forward? Would you like to see more of the liturgy sung?

Yes I would. I would like to see the Eucharistic prayers sung, for example.  But we need to find ways of singing which are not stodgy, and wearisome. In my community we always sing the Latin Te Deum. I have nothing against singing it in Latin, but it does drag on. The brethren often refer to it as the Tedium. I am not convinced that singing the gospel is always a good thing, since if the words are conformed to a pre-established pattern, as it were, then it can make the dynamic of the gospel text harder to understand. Often the gospel texts are offer conversations between Jesus and others, and we do not usually sing our conversations!

Pope Francis has caused somewhat of a sensation by doing away with many trappings of court ceremonial, in striking contrast to the elegant, traditional style of his immediate predecessor Benedict. What do you make of the contrast? What do you think Pope Francis is saying to the Church?

Pope Francis often speaks of our need to be close to the people, and for priests to ‘have the smell of their sheep.’  When I was in Rome for nine years, much papal liturgy was monarchical in style. The papacy became like a monarchy in its struggle to remain free in the face of monarchs, emperors and strong states attempting to deprive it of its freedom. But now history has moved on,  and we need to liberate the Church for that monarchical style if she is to make visible the good news for a new generation.

Everything happens for a reason. Why do you think some young people, including a good number of younger members of the Dominican order, are drawn to the pre-Vatican II “Tridentine” rite of Mass these days?

I think that it is only in the West that some younger members of my Order are drawn to the Tridentine rite. Actually more would hope that we could recover some elements of our old Dominican rite, which was abolished after the Council. I have more sympathy with that aspiration.

I think that the attraction of the old Tridentine rite was obviously its sense of mystery. We are taken out of the everyday secular world with its banality and triviality,  and reminded of our ultimate destination, the vision of God. We must always honor people’s aspirations, and this is one that I understand and share. But I really wonder whether the Tridentine rite is the best way to meet this right hunger for beauty and a sense of mystery. Really beautiful music and song can do this even more powerfully, I believe, in the vernacular. Not that I am opposed to occasionally singing in Latin. We are drawn into the mystery by poetry and the best musical creativity. I attended the Tridentine rite for the first twenty years of my life and I am not convinced that it really offers what these young people seek. This is why in England, the attempts to revive the rite have not met with the expected success.

We’re fifty years away from the Second Vatican Council. How do we advance the Council’s vision today?

The major unfulfilled aspiration of the Council was for a reformation of the government of the Church, and especially of the Roman Curia. This is not a criticism of the Curia; just the recognition that we needed a new form of government to respond to a new time. The great majority of the bishops believed that we must move from the government of the Church by the Pope and the Vatican, served by the bishops, to the government of the Church by the Pope and the bishops, served by the Vatican. They believed that it would be right and good for the Bishop of Rome to be more deeply embedded in the college of bishops. This seems to be the aspiration of Pope Francis.

I would add that Pope Benedict has articulated a beautifully Trinitarian understanding of the Church. Perhaps there is less discontinuity between these two Popes than the press would have us believe. Much of what Francis is doing can be seen as an attempt to put flesh and blood on a theology which Benedict had already at least in part articulated.

During the retreat you’ve alluded to sharp divisions in the U.S. Catholic Church, which of course is also true in the area of liturgy. What’s going on, and what do we do about it?

I feel a little nervous about leaping in and commenting on the Church in the U.S., when I am just a passing guest. But you asked and so here goes! The Enlightenment insisted on a fundamental dichotomy between tradition and progress. Freedom lay in our liberation from tradition which was represented above all by the Catholic Church and its dogma. But this dichotomy is essentially alien to Catholicism. For us, progress always implies a return to tradition, and tradition pushes us forwards towards the Kingdom. America is the country of the Enlightenment and I suspect that some Catholics have bought into a way of thinking that is alien to our tradition, and so identify themselves as traditional or progressive. I refuse to accept to be placed in either box. I am just a Catholic, which means that I am both deeply conservative and utterly progressive! A Lutheran theologian who teaches at Oxford told me, when we met in the street recently, that he feared that American Catholics were becoming Puritans. They were losing the good old spaciousness of Catholicism.

Pope Benedict was known for his emphasis on beauty in music and vesture and liturgical ceremonial, but also for his striking ability to express central Christian mysteries in clear and direct language. Did his style get in the way of his message? Are artistic artifacts and masterpieces of European Catholicism able to speak to people in our day – in Europe or elsewhere?

Pope Benedict’s emphasis on beauty in liturgy was wonderful and to be welcomed. It is true that the return of some forms of vestment, the red shoes, and some curious hats did put people off! They certainly did not turn me on! There was a cherishing of the Baroque. I must confess that I have never enjoyed the Baroque style of painting or worship. I am much more drawn by the soaring dynamism of the Gothic of the High Middle Ages or the simplicity of the Cistercian Romanesque.

But we need artists to offer us a new aesthetic for a new age. The renewal of the Church has usually gone with aesthetic creativity: the Vatican exhibition in Venice at the moment shows us the way forward, with the Church commissioning really creative people, and trusting them to use their talents well.

You may well be right in suggesting that the style of Pope Benedict blinded many people to the depth and beauty of his theology. He was a true teacher. This did not impinge much in England, at least. I heard a politician saying after his resignation that she hoped that the next pope would stop banging on about sex and talk more about Jesus. This is bizarre given that Benedict hardly said anything about sex but published three fine books on Jesus!

Organized religion is in difficulty, certainly in the West, with troubling signs of institutional decline and downsizing. Are you hopeful about the future of the Church? What gives you hope?

I am hopeful because I find that the young people whom I meet everywhere in the West, but especially in universities, seem to be moving beyond the polarization of the Church. The young friars who are now joining my Province are wonderful, combining an open mindedness with a proper nuanced love of tradition.

I derive immense hope from my frequent visits to Asia. In the last few years I have preached and taught in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. I have been really encouraged by the dynamism of the young Catholics whom I have met. Asian Catholics may well inject a great vibrancy into the Church.

I derive great hope from the election of Pope Francis, a wonderful man. I first met him in June 1999, when I was visitating the Dominican Province of Argentina, and I noted in my diaries that it was a joy to be with a man of such evangelical simplicity. It would be foolish to look to one person as the source of our hope, but we can thank the Holy Spirit for this encouraging election.

Anthony Ruff, OSB, conducted the interview.

One comment

  1. Thank you for posting this. It is surprising that this had no comments. Perhaps there were too many other hot topics.

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