In this time of crisis, renewal, and reform in the Catholic Church, various liturgical and devotional prayers are being promoted by church officials – for atonement, reparation, repentance, healing, and so forth. Are they the right prayer for the right people at the right time? Several questions can be raised.
First, who needs to repent? Who needs to fast? Who needs to pray more? Everyone? Or the clergy? Or the bishops? Asking laypeople (or priests) to atone for sins they did not commit, or to repent for actions they did not do, could well provoke bewilderment or even resentment. Any prayer proposed for groups of people has to be appropriate to their situation and respectful of their sentiments. If there is a place for fasting and penance by lay people because of the bonds uniting all members of the Body of Christ, that place has to be carefully thought through and its rationale compellingly laid forth.
Second, what are we praying for? The Atonement, reparation for all our sins, was won for us once-and-for-all on the Cross. What terms and titles rightly express our response to God’s gracious work and avoid falling into Pelagian self-reliance?
Third, which kinds of prayer are rooted in the common faith and practice of the people, and thus likely to resonate deeply in their hearts and unite them as the Body of Christ? Which prayers rather are partisan and narrow, reflecting one devotional school of thought or one ideological agenda? Imposing “traditional” devotions on people who are not accustomed to them could well impede the work of unification and renewal. At worst, it could reflect the top-down hierarchical insensitivity which has contributed in part to this crisis.
Fourth, when is prayer an encounter with the living God who moves us to righteous action? When, rather, is it a diversion or distraction? Spiritualization of deeply human and political realities is not always a good thing. Even heartfelt apologies, expressions of remorse, and public displays of repentance could be perceived as efforts to move beyond the difficulty too quickly without confronting it responsibly. At their worst, such things could be seen as strategies for officials to remain in power and avoid accountability.
Fifth, who best discerns what prayer the church needs? Bishops need to be close to their priests, and pastors need to be close to their people. Broad-based discernment is essential in discerning what prayer the Church needs. Impositions from above could serve to divide rather than unite.
Some of the prayers being promoted in various parts of the U.S. Catholic Church seem questionable to me.
Take the Prayer to St. Michael, which was recited after Low Mass from 1886 until 1964. Sure, we need the intercession of St. Michael and all the saints to resist evil. The Prayer to St. Michael is part of my prayer life. But the Church doesn’t need preconciliar devotional practices that could unwittingly reinforce the illusion that abuse by priests and cover-up by bishops was not a serious problem long before the 1960s. And given that the liturgical reforms of the 1960s correctly prioritized liturgy over devotions, could we not draw upon more central liturgical sources? Do we have nothing to show for more than half a century of liturgical renewal?
[And as Deacon Bauerschmidt writes in the comments below: “It might seem to imply that the public flogging that the Church is currently undergoing is itself a kind of satanic attack, rather than the Church having to lie in the bed that her leaders have made. The request to defend the Church might be taken as a call to close ranks and reject all criticism rather than uproot what is rotten in the Church.”]
Take Ember Days. Do these have meaning for many Catholics today? Has anyone under 60 even heard of them? I personally regret that Ember Days were not retained in the U.S. after the Second Vatican Council. But it is a fact that they were dropped. Why revive them now? Do they meet the needs of lay people? Or are they being reintroduced more for the sake of hierarchs? Do parts of the clerical establishment secretly long to escape to an easier, earlier time? Surely that is not the attitude needed by members of the hierarchy in confronting the real problems before them.
Perhaps what the pope and bishops most need from us right now is our fervent prayers to the Holy Spirit for them. They have the unenviable, seemingly impossible task of formulating institutional reforms in ways as yet unknown and unimagined. Members of the hierarchy need courage, wisdom, creativity, and sensitivity as they head into thoroughly uncharted territory.
It is precisely in situations such as this, when the way forward seems most unclear and confusing, that the Holy Spirit enflames hearts, enlightens minds, and loosens tongues. The Holy Spirit is, as the Veni, Creator Spiritus has it, the font of life, fire of love, almighty hand, light for the senses, love for hearts, strength in infirmity, and guide.
If the bishops were to ask us to pray that the fiery, impetuous, upsetting, re-creating, consoling, loving Spirit come upon them and guide them, it would signal several things to us: that they do not have all the answer and need divine guidance; that they need the support of the entire Church; that they are thinking of the future rather than dwelling on the past; that they do not know what the future holds; that they are open to anything that comes from the Holy Spirit; and that they place their hope in a God who is often surprising but always faithful.
Our liturgical life gives us many resources for calling upon the Holy Spirit: the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus and its translation “Come, Holy Ghost” (as well as other translations); the sequence and Taize mantra Veni Sancte Spiritus, Bianco’s “Come Down, O Love Divine,” and more. Perhaps one of these could be sung after the Prayers of the Faithful at Sunday Mass? Or as a closing hymn?
Or perhaps a Collect from the votive Mass of the Holy Spirit? The liturgical reform does not foresee the addition of an oratio imperata after the Collect of the day. But in these circumstances, perhaps the celebrant could say after the Collect, or after the Prayer after Communion, “Let us pray for the renewal and reform of the Catholic Church,” and then pray the prayer to the Holy Spirit.
Whatever the merit of these modest suggestions – and of course any such suggestions would need to be discussed by many people before moving forward – surely it is a good thing for all of us to pray for our church leaders. They need it, and I’m sure they would appreciate it.
Come, Holy Spirit.