The National Catholic Register reports the tragic, heartbreaking story of a young priest and pastor, Fr. Edwin Dwyer, being removed by Bishop Hurley because his promotion of more traditional worship had divided the parish. According to NCReg, Fr. Dwyer introduced liturgical elements such as “incense and bells, the traditional black cassock and white surplice for altar boys, and Latin and Gregorian chant.”
You can read the sad details at the NCReg – but of course you know that NCReg puts a particular (right-leaning) spin to its reporting. Take that into account.
A Pastoral Challenge That Won’t Go Away
Stories like this are on the increase, folks. Some younger priests are pushing this kind of thing. Some seminaries are setting loose such clergy on the church.
How do we respond to such pastoral tragedies? How should we think about them? What is the most constructive way forward when this problem arises? What will build up the Church?
It’s important we deal with such questions, since they will keep arising in the future. We might as well start now at learning all that we can from our experiences, and refining our response.
How Not to Respond
From a Christian standpoint, the worst possible response is to pick sides, defend one’s own side, and attack the other side. That just pushes the other side to harden its position, and increases the polarization.
Worst-case scenario: the ‘liberals’ are hardened in their opposition to incense, Latin chant, and traditional ceremonial; the ‘traditionalists’ are more convinced than ever that the official documents and canon laws that they (selectively) cite are the voice of God.
Hermeneutical hell: ‘liberals’ support Vatican II, which was, you know, really about vernacular, inculturation, active participation, and generally lighting things up; but ‘traditionalists’ are convinced that Vatican II preserved Latin, gave pride of place to Gregorian Chant, and mostly affirmed the Council of Trent (until liberals hijacked it).
We all bring our biases to such situations. Here are some of mine.
I have a deep love for the liturgical and musical tradition of the Catholic Church, especially Gregorian chant. In the abbey I succeeded in getting incense added to the opening procession of Mass every Sunday, argued successfully against changing the acolytes’ vestures from cassock and surplice to alb, increased the Latin chant Masses in the daily Mass binder from one to four when the new Missal translation came in, and began having even the Sunday Mass congregation (with more guests) singing Mass parts in Latin chant some times during the year.
I’m also 100% committed to the Second Vatican Council. I’m more convinced than ever that the Council intended a salutary rupture – indeed, a paradigm shift – in Catholic worship. There’s no other way to make sense of a shift from a liturgy done essentially by clergy while laity prayerfully follow along (or pray privately) to a liturgy at which the entire congregation, of course under the leadership of the ordained priest, is the liturgical agent. I’ve become increasingly skeptical of the “hermeneutic of continuity” and the Reform of the Reform agenda, to the extent that it misses the deep structure of the Council texts which really does call for a sort of rupture and paradigm shift.
So What about Saginaw?
I have deliberately avoided commenting on the situation in Saginaw. I’m too far away. I don’t know the people or the history well enough to do so responsibly. I assume good will and good intentions on all sides. I assume everyone is doing what they think is best for the church. My comments must remain more general.
What about the Future?
This may sound overly optimistic to some, but I have to hope that the Saginaw skirmish, and all such situations, are the growing pains of a church moving toward a better understanding and implementation of Vatican II. I have to trust in the good pastoral sense of our bishops. If the disasters keep piling up and getting more unbearable, a reaction will set in, and the bishops will eventually intervene (individually and collectively) appropriately. If the Reform of the Reform / Hermeneutic of Continuity agenda does enough pastoral damage, in time the Spirit will raise up a better ‘agenda’ to supersede it.
Allow me to offer some initial thoughts on what this might look like.
There are tensions and seeming contradictions between the pastoral shift of the Second Vatican Council and the seemingly traditionalist tone of its statements on the preservation of chant and the Latin language and the pipe organ and traditional music and the like. This is the tension between my own biases, identified above, that are traditionalist but also admit that the pastoral shift is a real paradigm shift.
Here’s the key: the pastoral shift of the Second Vatican Council has priority over its traditionalist statements. Your starting point cannot be the traditionalist statements. You can’t turn them into an agenda. Your starting point has to be reformed vision of liturgy which puts people’s participation first, takes seriously people’s cultural context, respects their history and experiences of worship, and values their convictions as fellow members of the priestly People of God. And however much you esteem tradition, you have to acknowledge that the Council saw the preconciliar liturgy as inadequate and in need of reform.
Only when the commitment to that pastoral vision is in place can one begin to think about the traditionalist statements of the Council. At most, within a communal and participative mindset, there can be a sort of “preferential option” for Latin chant and traditional music and the rest. But those things are never ends in themselves. They are introduced only to the extent that they fit into the larger pastoral vision.
This is the only approach that works, in my experience. There is something kenotic and paschal about all this. Only when one has real detachment from one’s cherished things, only when one has let go of them, only when one has been purified of idolatrous attachment to them, does one develop a sense for how best to make use of them – lovingly, respectfully, humbly.
Let us hope that there doesn’t have to be too many more Saginaw disasters before we get to a better place. Let us hope that many voices will rise up and make their contribute to a better understanding of the Second Vatican Council.
Oh, and let us hope that our good bishops deal soon with the seminary problem. If our seminaries are not fit for purpose, if they are turning out too many “little monsters” (to quote the pope), then fix them. If seminary leadership is not up to the task, then get rid of it. Now.