Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Meaning of Christian Priesthood

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and God created man in His own image, and God saw everything He had made, and behold, it was very good.  Yet in spite of such glorious and auspicious beginnings, man could not carry on more than a brief moment before the terrible ignominy of sin had torn asunder his relationship with the loving Creator to whom he owed his very being.  Since that time, the life of every human being has been driven by the great, often misunderstood longing to cross the threshold that sin has wrought and return to the loving embrace of Our Father.  The means to this reconciliation, somehow revealed by God to those first transgressors, has been handed down since the time of Cain and Abel, and so all men everywhere have always known that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus has the priest always been the constant fixture in all cultures, punctuating every period of human history.  He – or in those places where men had exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images, she – has, in every place stood daily at service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, until, in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son to become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

Therein lies the distinctiveness, the dignity, and the importance of the priesthood of Christ, which is the priesthood of the Church of God.  Men have sought since time immemorial to turn to God, and have employed the services of the priest for just as long.  However, only when God Himself became a priest in the person of Jesus Christ could such a ministry achieve its intended end.  Jesus Christ is our high priest, and He now continues His ministry through the hands of those men whom He calls to serve in His person at His Altar.  While Christ serves in the Holy of Holies of Heaven, the men of the ordained priesthood perpetuate His ministry on earth, making present to the people of God His one, eternal offering to the Father.  They serve not as priests in their own right, but by participating mystically in His one eternal priesthood, and as such, a true appreciation, and any real understanding at all, of the ordained priesthood can only be found in an appreciation and understanding of Christ Himself.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception Review - 3 Stars out of 5

Inception is director Christopher Nolan’s latest big budget summer blockbuster, following on the heels of what is widely regarded as one of the best films of the past several years in his The Dark Knight.  In that case Nolan went to work on a previously existing property, but Inception has been regarded as an original, albeit inspired work.  While this is not entirely true (the main idea of the film is taken almost wholesale from Star Trek Deep Space 9’s 1999 episode Extreme Measures), as a whole it’s fair to say that Nolan has put together a concept that hasn’t yet been given the opportunity to tickle the main stream public’s minds.

This concept can perhaps best be described as a cross between Ocean’s 11 and The Matrix, a sci-fi caper film about an all-star team of dream-thieves trying to pull off an unthinkably large job.  Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is, by his own claim, the best extractor around, which means that he’s really good at infiltrating people’s dreams to “extract” information from their minds.  The film gives the impression that this is normally done on the payroll of large corporations trying to gain a competitive edge, and owing to some initially unexplained legal problems, living abroad and performing these kinds of jobs is the only thing Cobb can do at this point in his life.  When powerful energy tycoon Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers to take care of his problems so he can return home to finally see his children again, Cobb agrees to undertake what all of the other extraction experts repeatedly tell him is impossible: planting an idea in someone’s mind (technically termed “inception.”)

So is the setup, and so begins an Ocean’s 11 style round of team building and heist (or in this case, anti-heist?) plotting.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt of Third Rock from the Sun fame is already onboard as Arthur, Cobb’s sidekick and details-man.  Added to the crew are Tom Hardy, who absolutely shines as Eames, a type of in-dream disguise expert, and Dileep Rao, who puts on a very enjoyable performance as the chemist Yusuf, who must create a sedative strong enough to keep the victim (Cillian Murphy as energy-monopoly heir Robert Fischer Jr.) under while the team attempts to incept his mind.  This leaves one critical role open, one which would in the past have been filled by Cobb himself if some heavily-guarded personal issues didn’t prevent him.  Instead, fresh young grad student Ariadne (Ellen Page) is recruited to design the landscape of the dreams they’ll use to pull a fast one on Mr. Fischer.

And herein lays both Inception’s greatest asset and at least one of its greatest stumbling blocks: to accomplish their task, Cobb and his allies will have to enter into layer after layer of dreams, dreams within dreams, so as to plant the idea deep in Fischer’s mind and make it seem to develop on its own.  This is a fantastic concept, and one which is the foundation of a very exciting and intriguing second half from Nolan.  At one point, there are as many as 4 different simultaneous action sequences taking place, each a dream contained within another dream and influenced by what’s going on in the next one up the chain.  It’s not only thrilling, but it’s also tremendously coherent, which so often the critical, missing element that ruins films attempting to be so intricate.  In fact, Nolan has here put together an altogether coherent work, with even the most intense action appearing on screen in an understandable way (a major problem in some of his previous work, for example the almost unintelligible combat scenes in Batman Begins).

Unfortunately, where this weave of narratives hits in excitement and lucidity, it misses in continuity and consistency.  As the story moves along and our heroes enter into deeper layers of dreams, things inevitably don’t go as planned, which is of course the kind of conflict that plots are made of.  The problem is that over and over again what is at one moment an improvisation to deal with the change of circumstances is in the next scene and from then on foreword treated as though it were a part of the scheme in the first place.  It’s difficult to explain exactly why this is so damaging to the story without giving away spoilers, but suffice it to say it has the end result of taking any real importance away from the dramatic conflict that is supposed to be driving the story.  The conflict never builds; it just remains flat, with many details being introduced at various points in the story to introduce tension which ultimately prove not to be of any consequence when the time comes at which they should make things more difficult.

This may not be such a problem were it not for two things.  First, Inception isn’t meant to be in the mold of other summer blockbusters, where the audience is offered some fantastic visuals and exciting action in exchange for turning off their brains for a few hours.  Fantastic visuals and exciting action Inception does offer, with almost perfectly pulled off effects and plenty of good chases, fights, and race-against-the-clock moments.  However, it’s also meant to be a thinking-man’s film, asking us to pay attention and to try to figure it all out.  This is refreshing.  Unfortunately, spending any time thinking about it rapidly leads one to see these inconsistencies.  Second, the layered dream-within-a-dream second half is really all the film has to offer.  The first hour is a slow moving, predictable collection of bad plot conventions.  It’s also far too expositional, with Page’s newcomer character asking all the right questions to set up long explanations of how dream-sharing works.  Good films show while bad ones explain, and there’s an awful lot of explaining in the first half of Inception.

All that said, Inception was an enjoyable ride, once it got going.  It kept my mind engaged, and as it neared the end I found myself more and more approaching the edge of my seat.  I’d certainly recommend it to anyone looking for an exciting couple of hours to spend at the movie-house, and it will give most people at least some interesting thoughts to dwell on as they walk into the lobby.  I was very open to the possibility of this being a great film, and in some ways it does deliver.  Unfortunately, its problems won’t let it be anything more than average – not great, terrible.  Perhaps the greatest drawback is one which, ironically, the film points out itself.  “Everybody needs a catharsis,” Cobb says at one point.  Ultimately, Inception just never gives us one.

(If you'd like some examples of the consistency problems I mentioned, click the link below.  Warning: Spoliers)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Her Universal Call

Today we celebrate Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is a very big deal to me.  She is my favorite expression of the Blessed Mother, and I have at many times in my life recognized a very special call from her.

As particular as this may be to myself, the fact is that as Our Lady of Mount Carmel, our mother has a very special call to all of us.  Of course, she is the patroness of the Carmelite order, but she's much more than that.  There is a universal quality to her message. The most obvious evidence of this may be that the Brown Scapular, which is of course a gift of hers, is one of the most popular devotions in the Church.  All kinds of people from all kinds of spiritual backgrounds go about their days with the Scapular draped over their torsos.

Less well known, but perhaps more intriguing, is that Mary has chosen to invoke Mount Carmel in some of the other prominent messages she has given to the world.  It was on July 16th, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, that Mary made her final appearance at Lourdes.  When she made her final appearance to the three children of Fatima, Mary appeared as Our Lady of Mount Carmel.  It would appear that the message of Mount Carmel is one that the Virgin wants to leave us with.  What, then, is this message?

I can do no better than to quote, via Wikipedia, Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi, OCD, in saying that she offers us:

a special call to the interior life, which is preeminently a Marian life. Our Lady wants us to resemble her not only in our outward vesture but, far more, in heart and spirit. If we gaze into Mary's soul, we shall see that grace in her has flowered into a spiritual life of incalcuable wealth: a life of recollection, prayer, uninterrupted oblation to God, continual contact, and intimate union with him. Mary's soul is a sanctuary reserved for God alone, where no human creature has ever left its trace, where love and zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of mankind reign supreme. [...] Those who want to live their devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel to the full must follow Mary into the depths of her interior life. Carmel is the symbol of the contemplative life, the life wholly dedicated to the quest for God, wholly orientated towards intimacy with God; and the one who has best realized this highest of ideals is Our Lady herself, 'Queen and Splendor of Carmel'."
This coming Sunday, we will hear the Gospel reading of Mary and Martha.  Upon receiving a visit from Jesus, Mary (not the Virgin Mary) sits at His feet and listens to Him, while Martha runs about trying to prepare her house for Him, to feed Him, to clean up, to serve Him.  As we know, Christ concludes this story by explaining that Mary had chosen better.  This is one of the most important Scriptural texts about the importance of prayer, and it is precisely this message that Our Lady of Mount Carmel gives us: listen to Jesus.

Interior prayer is that "one thing necessary" that Christ speaks to Martha about.  This does not of course exclude action, for Christ in fact commands action, but all of our action must stem from this life of interior prayer.  So many people want to serve Our Lord, and this is so laudable a choice.  Especially in this day and age, it is in many ways a heroic choice simply to serve the Lord.  However, so few people actually take the time to listen to Him so that they might actually know what He wishes them to do!  I cannot claim to be at all innocent of this.  I, like many, go about making great efforts to serve the Lord while in reality doing nothing more than what I assume He would want.  Ultimately, we are only asserting our own wills as the Lord's when we do this.

If we wish truly to serve the Lord and to do His will, then we must commit ourselves to a deep life of interior prayer.  For some, this is a call to enter into the interior life in a radical way, by joining a contemplative order or even perhaps ultimately entering the eremitical life.  For most of us, it means - at first - simply taking the time out of our days to engage in silent prayer for some period of time.  (Do not fear silent prayer - it is not at all complicated or difficult.  As a convert, I was very intimidated by the idea of mental prayer as it seemed like such a nebulous concept and I didn't quite know anything about it.  I will shortly post an explanation of how to get started with it for those who may feel the same way!)

Later, this should blossom into the great gift of recognizing one's living in the presence of God at all times.  This can sound frightening, challenging, necessitating greater sanctity than one feels he possesses, or even as though its "going overboard," but it is none of these things.  Each of these objections can be answered simply by pointing out that the Lord is everywhere and everything.  If God is what awaits us when we end this life and Heaven truly is the final goal of all people, how can it be suggested that living in constant relationship with Him now is somehow overzealous?  Those who do not wish to have God a part of every moment of their lives now will have a very difficult time when they find that He is all that there is in the life to come! Beyond that, if God is everywhere, then what difficulty can there be in allowing Him to be a part of each moment of our lives?

Fear not, for this goal is not one that is beyond you.  To live in His presence at all times simply means to recognize what is already a reality.  We do not need to bring God into our lives at every point, but rather simply open ourselves to seeing Him where He already is.  Once we begin to realize this it is and incredibly natural experience to live one's interior life at all times, turning to the Lord in our hearts for each and every moment and decision and letting Him direct every action.  It is well within our grasps, for this Our Lord calls us to and He grants willingly us by His abundant Grace - and of course! - we have Our Lady's constant loving  help at our sides.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Do You Understand the Good Samaritan?

The parable of the good Samaritan is quite possibly the most well known of all Jesus' parables, the only other likely to challenge it in notoriety being of course the parable of the prodigal son.  So ubiquitous is this parable that the phrase "good Samaritan" has come to stand on its own as universally recognized part of the English language.

It came as a great surprise to me, then, when upon listening to the parable during this past Sunday's Liturgy I realized that I did not actually understand the parable!  Of course, as I walked into the church to prepare for Mass I certainly thought I understood it - even recognizing that in all of the Scriptures there are depths of meaning in it that I have yet to reap.  It seems like a rather straightforward parable, doesn't it?  Having been told that he must love his neighbor, a lawyer asks Jesus whom his neighbor is, which the Lord answers with His tale of the good Samaritan teaching that our neighbors whom we should love are the poor, the suffering, the needy, and by extension, everybody.

There's only one problem: the wounded, dying man isn't the neighbor in this parable: the Samaritan is.

It was this thought that occurred to me as I listened to the Gospel being read and which at first led me to some degree of confusion.  Jesus concludes the parable by getting His questioner to recognize that it was the Samaritan who was the neighbor of the dying, penniless man on the side of the road.  I had always understood Jesus' message to be that the dying man who was in need of help was the neighbor, people like whom we as His disciples were called to love.  From the conversations I have had with others, this seems to be how most folks interpret this Gospel at first hearing.

The realization that the Samaritan is identified as the neighbor the lawyer asked about leads to a variety of new questions.  Most significantly, it seems as though Jesus is teaching that our neighbors - those we are called to love - are those who do good to us, those who help us and show mercy to us.  The message of the parable is, after all, that the priest and Levite (whose indifference Jesus juxtaposes with the Samaritan's compassionate help) are not neighbors.  Should then we only love as ourselves those who do good to us, and not those who do not?  Following upon this, what do we make of Jesus' instruction to the lawyer to "go and do likewise?"  In fact, it is by considering this instruction that we can come to understand the greater depth of what Jesus is in fact teaching here.

First, we need to consider what exactly Jesus was telling this lawyer to do.  The instruction comes in response to the man's statement that the neighbor was "the one who showed mercy," that is, the Samaritan.  Christ then says that he must imitate the Samaritan.  Here we find an important aspect to this parable that has been lost to history: Jews and Samaritans at this time held bitter hatred for one another, similar - if not even in greater measure - to the hatred that currently exists between Jews and Muslims.  So strong was it that this man could not even utter the answer "the Samaritan," but had rather to convolutely admit that the neighbor was "the one who showed mercy" That this Jewish man would be asked to imitate a Samaritan would have been both shocking to him and a very difficult pill to swallow.

In fact, this hatred is at the very heart of the lawyer's question.  Christ's teaching to "love thy neighbor as thyself" was actually not a new teaching.  It was found in the book of Leviticus, which in the 18th verse of the 19th chapter commands that "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."  The understanding of this existed was that one's fellow Jew was one's neighbor.  That the man asked who his neighbor was "to justify himself" indicates that he asked Jesus this so that the Lord might affirm him in his practice.  Jesus offers the parable so as to help the man see that all people - even a Samaritan - should be loved.  Rather than simply saying as much and being swiftly rejected, He presents the story of the compassionate Samaritan so as to appeal to this man's sense of decency and compassion.  

On this note, it's secondly important to consider that Christ actually changes the lawyer's question around on him.  He had asked who he should love, and while Christ in a roundabout way gives him the hard answer that he should love all people - even Samaritans - His more direct answer teaches who it is that loves.  The man wanted to know who his neighbor was, but Christ taught him that it is more important that he himself should be a neighbor.  The Greek text of Jesus' question actually carries the sense of "who became the neighbor" of the dying man? This lawyer - and all of us - are called to become neighbors to those around us, whether they love us or not.

Yes, then we are called to love all people, not only those who do good to us as did the Samaritan to the victim on the road.  My initial confusion emphasizes the very purpose of Jesus' parable and His decision to answer the lawyer in the way He did.  I, like the lawyer, should be less concerned with who to love than simply with loving.  We need not worry who our neighbors are, but rather, we should worry about how to be neighbors.

Sometimes, our focus is misdirected so that we do not even ask the right question.  Christ, in His Wisdom, often chooses not to answer our misplaced questions but rather to give us the answer to the questions that we should be asking!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Courage Christ Calls Us To

This is a short video of the 2010 public high school graduation of a young man I know named Truman.  He was the valedictorian of his class and, more importantly, a person of faith in Christ.  In a world where faith is taboo and Christian morality is considered the greatest evil of all, he used his graduation day speech to stand up for Christ, and for life.  The risks that he took and the ire he has no doubt received are staggering, and so I'd ask you all to pray for him.  Yet more than that, take his as an example of what we are called to.  I know that I would be hard  pressed to match his courage - yet it is the very courage of the apostles and martyrs which first built the Church.  It is the courage of the Holy Spirit.  I am inspired by this - I hope you are as well.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Saint Maria Goretti - the Real Story

Today, the Church remembers Saint Maria Goretti, the young 12 year old girl who was martyred when she refused to submit to the sexual advances of Alessandro Serenelli.  The young man, on whose family's property Maria and her mother lived, had propositioned her for sexual favors on several occasions.  She had denied him each time until finally, he set his mind to have his way with or without her cooperation.  When she said no to him even after having been threatened at the end of a dagger, Alessandro stabbed her over a dozen times.

Typically, Saint Maria is remembered for purity and chastity.  Her most well known patronage is that of rape victims.  There is on occasion discussion as to whether or not she presents an ordered image of purity, with some expressing concern that her story would seem to place a burden of impurity on rape victims, who are of course victims rather than moral agents themselves.  This is certainly an understandable concern.

 On this subject, it is important to note several things.  First, when she was attacked, Maria expressed as much concern for Alessandro's purity as for her own, and certainly the act of rape would constitute an offense against his purity. Second, whether Maria had the right understanding of purity or not - recall that she was in fact only twelve years old at the time and can hardly be blamed for having an imperfect concept of it - there is certainly a great deal we can learn from considering just how greatly she valued purity. Even if she erroneously thought to impute to herself that affront against purity which would be found in a rape, the point is that she understood that her purity was more important than her physical life.  This is a tremendous lesson which we  must take to heart.  Now, could there ever arise a scenario in which one would need to sacrifice his life to preserve his purity?  I cannot conceive of one myself.  However, the concept itself is true: ultimately, our purity does have more value than our lives, for our earthly lives will cease while our souls - in which is found purity - will subsist forever.

All of this said, I do not think that purity is the real message of Maria Goretti.  Rather, it is forgiveness and compassion, and respect for the dignity of every person that Saint Maria and her story teach us more than anything, and in my opinion the single most important message she can give to those of us who are already dedicated Catholics.  While her lessons of purity are sorely needed by most of our current culture, for the dedicated, practicing Catholic purity is a given - a struggle, perhaps, but not something about which we need a great deal of convincing.

Forgiveness and compassion, on the other hand, seem to be sorely lacking amongst even the most sincere of Catholics.  To forgive was perhaps Christ's most frequently spoken teaching, and yet it is something we so frequently fail to do.  All the worse is this as we have been taught that we would be forgiven based on how we forgive others!

The photograph at the top of this post may seem rather out of place for a post on the subject of a twelve year old girl, but it is in fact at the very core of all that Maria can teach us.  It is the photo of an aged Alessandro Serenelli, kneeling in prayer before an image of Maria Goretti, whom years before he had sought to rape and ultimately brutally murdered.  After Maria appeared to him in prison, he had a conversion of heart which led him to be one of the most sincere of Christ's followers.  He spent the last 33 years of his life in a Franciscan monastery as a lay brother.

There is so much that we can learn from Maria and Alessandro.  While dying in the hospital of her wounds, Maria is said to have spent the last 20 hours of her life praying for her attacker and asking the Lord to forgive him.  As has already been said, she appeared to him after her death to bring about his conversion.  That she would wish to do this was not only a matter of her heavenly perfection, for during those hours in the hospital she also told people that she wanted to have Alessandro in Heaven with her.  How many times have we been angry at others - so often for things which are morbidly insignificant compared to rape and murder - and not been able to consider being with them in Heaven?  Consider the person the person who has done the most evil to you and caused you the most pain.  Indeed, as a follower of Christ, you are called not only to be willing to spend eternity with him or her, but indeed to desire it and even - yes and even this! - to work for it.  Oh, how terrible this can seem - yet Maria Goretti provides us with a tremendous example to follow.

Even Maria's mother forgave Alessandro - and attended Mass with him.  There are no limits to forgiveness.  How many of us could grudgingly - or even easily - forgive an offense against us yet could not approach forgiving something done to one we love?  Yet we must, and with the grace of God, we can.

I leave you with the testimony of Alessandro Serenelli, written about 9 years before his death and ultimately born from the compassion and forgiveness of that person whom he had hurt the most:

"I'm nearly 80 years old. I'm about to depart. 
"Looking back at my past, I can see that in my early youth, I chose a bad path which led me to ruin myself. 
"My behavior was influenced by print, mass-media and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking. And I did the same. I was not worried. 
"There were a lot of generous and devoted people who surrounded me, but I paid no attention to them because a violent force blinded me and pushed me toward a wrong way of life. 
"When I was 20 years-old, I committed a crime of passion. Now, that memory represents something horrible for me. Maria Goretti, now a Saint, was my good Angel, sent to me through Providence to guide and save me. I still have impressed upon my heart her words of rebuke and of pardon. She prayed for me, she interceded for her murderer. Thirty years of prison followed. 
"If I had been of age, I would have spent all my life in prison. I accepted to be condemned because it was my own fault. 
"Little Maria was really my light, my protectress; with her help, I behaved well during the 27 years of prison and tried to live honestly when I was again accepted among the members of society. The Brothers of St. Francis, Capuchins from Marche, welcomed me with angelic charity into their monastery as a brother, not as a servant. I've been living with their community for 24 years, and now I am serenely waiting to witness the vision of God, to hug my loved ones again, and to be next to my Guardian Angel and her dear mother, Assunta. 
"I hope this letter that I wrote can teach others the happy lesson of avoiding evil and of always following the right path, like little children. I feel that religion with its precepts is not something we can live without, but rather it is the real comfort, the real strength in life and the only safe way in every circumstance, even the most painful ones of life."

Friday, July 02, 2010

How the Confiteor "Really" Goes

You know the Confiteor, right?  The prayer in which we acknowledge our sins in preparation for the Liturgy at the start of Mass?  Of course you do:

I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and words, in what I have done and have failed to do, and I ask the blessed Mary, ever Virgin, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
But wait - did you know that that's not really the whole thing?  This is actually only a shortened version that was introduced into the Liturgy with the release of the reformed Missal in the early 1970s.  The version of it that is said in the Extraordinary Form (the "old Tridentine Mass") is longer, richer, and in my opinion more beautiful.  It also really makes you feel guilty for your sins - in a good way.  In other words, it at least makes me recognize more fully that yes, my sins are in fact bad - they're sins - and not simply flaws or imperfections.  Of course, the point isn't to be riddled with guilt or to become scrupulous, beset with anguish over my many tiny sins.  Rather, the point is to realize that I am responsible for my sins and that I have a true need for repentance. This is the "full" version - go ahead and try to recite it without starting to recognize that, hey! - I should take repentance more seriously:

I confess to almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to all the saints, and to you, my brethren, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed (strike the breast 3 times), through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore, I beseech blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, all the saints, and you, brethren, to pray for me to the Lord our God. Amen.
 Wow!  Here's another question for you: have you ever gone home and actually prayed for the congregation's sins after Mass?  Have you ever even made a quick mental prayer for them all in the moment after the Confiteor is recited?  If so, then very good for you indeed!  I would suspect, however, that most of us have not.  I confess to personally never thinking about it again after this part of the Mass has moved on.  After all, praying for an entire congregation of people we don't know is not only hard to remember, but if we wanted to pray for everyone individually, as we ask in the prayer, it would take quite a while.

The original form of this was actually a little different, and it may shed some light on this whole subject.  You see, originally this Confiteor above was said only by the priest.  He asked the congregation to pray for him, both in general, and as he began the holy work of offering the Mass.  Then, after this, a second Confiteor was said asking the priest to pray for the people, this time replacing "brethren" with "Father."

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Comparing the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite

As we move forward into the second decade of the 3rd millennium, there is, in the midst of discouragement, a lot of hope for the Church. The primary sign of hope is an ever growing - even rapidly growing - mass of dedicated, orthodox young people seeking to live for Christ and His Church. It is also the case that many of these are found to be more traditional in their approach to prayer and Liturgy. This has prompted a good deal of discussion over the Liturgy and how it is best celebrated. In particular, with Pope Benedict's Summorum Pontificum authorizing more widespread use of the "traditional Latin Mass" or the "Tridentine Mass" as it is variously called, it's not uncommon to find oneself in a discussion over the merits of this "older" Liturgical rite. I thought it worthwhile to take the time to try to bring a little bit of light to the subject. Before I begin, there are a few preliminary points worth mentioning.

First, it's very important that we speak of both rites of the Mass with the reverence and respect due to the Holy Sacrifice. Whichever rite is celebrated, it is still the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the greatest act in which a human person can participate. It would be grievously problematic to speak contemptuously of either.  It is my belief that part of this involves what we call these various rites. While no disrespect may be intended in using terms such as the "Traditional Latin Mass," the "Tridentine Mass," the "Novus Ordo," or the "Pauline Mass," they are not consistent with the way the Holy Father wishes us to view these Liturgies. He has declared that from henceforth the "Tridentine Mass" is to be referred to as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, and the "Novus Ordo" as the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Pope Benedict's reasoning for this is very important: both of these Liturgies are fully and entirely an expression of the Liturgy of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, differentiated only by their form. This is critically linked to a key concept that Benedict has stressed throughout his ecclesiastical career: that the Church's traditions and Liturgies exist in a unbroken continuity and that we must view things through a hermeneutic of continuity rather than one of rupture. When we give the Mass a name like the "Novus Ordo," we are speaking of it as if it were something new and thereby do not give it the full respect it deserves as an authentic development of the Liturgy instituted by Christ. Similarly, when we say something like "Traditional Latin Mass" about the Extraordinary Form, we present it as though it is something old and replaceable, or indeed, replaced.

Second, in no way do I consider the Ordinary Form to be superior to the Extraordinary Form - nor the other way around. It is my belief that each is superior in its own ways and inferior in others. All people considering this question should keep in mind that the decision to reform the Liturgy in the first place was made in an Ecumenical Council under the mantle of the Holy Spirit. The decision was not made for no reason, but because to at least some degree, a reform was necessary. This does not in any way imply that the Liturgy in use at the time of this decision was bad. Rather, it simply means that 500 years of doctrinal development and cultural change - some for the better, some for the worse - left the Liturgy in need of some adjustments. Indeed, these two factors have prompted the reform of the Liturgy at various points throughout history, some reforms being more substantial and others more of the character of minor tweakings.

Catholics are certainly free to debate whether a major reform was necessary in the 1960s. Some may believe that it was not. Personally, I am of the belief that a reform may well have been necessary for one simple reason: the world changed more in the 50 years leading up to the Second Vatican Council than it had in the 1,000 years preceding that. While the Church must not change in its substance with the world - truth is not defined by culture - It does need to update some of its external approaches to better proclaim the Gospel in the individual ages in which it may find itself - the way truth is received by persons does change with culture. This is nothing new, of course; the Church has been updating it's approach based on the contemporary culture for 2,000 years. While this article is primarily focused on the Church's Liturgy, it is helpful to point out that I firmly believe that the Second Vatican Council was the antidote to many of the things that have plagued the Church for the past 40 years. John XXIII - now ranked among the Blessed, let us not forget, believed that some changes were necessary in order for the Church to effectively save souls in the 20th century. My belief, which may be the subject of a later discussion, is that without those decisions made at the Council, the Church would find herself in a far worse position today than she does. The Council's saving effects are, in my belief, only now becoming manifest because on the one hand, it takes time for any changes to bear fruit, and on the other, unfortunately the Council was not properly implemented.

I happen to be one of the results of this Council. I wouldn't be Catholic if it weren't for Vatican II and it's reforms of the Liturgy. I would suggest that many others, such as the well known scholar Dr. Scott Hahn (himself responsible for countless conversions) wouldn't be either. All that being said, it is time to bring this aroung to the Liturgy and to examine some of the different aspects of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Liturgy.

Latin versus the Vernacular

It is important to recognize the value of having a sacred language. Indeed, to this day the Jewish people cling to Hebrew as a tie to God Himself, and it is considered by many to be one of the reasons that the Jewish race and culture has survived to this day. A Sacred language also helps to add an important sense of mystery and holiness to Liturgical celebrations. It helps people to realize that what they practice and experience in the Liturgy is tied to the transcendent, and that it is set apart from what they do in the rest of their lives. This is related to the importance of having a common language. With a common language, it doesn't matter where one gos in the world, as the Liturgy will be the same. God is universal, and His Church is universal, and so there is great benefit in being able to attend Mass anywhere in the world without needing to speak the local language. It also ties the people of God together. For these reasons and others, I think that the use of Latin as a sacred and a common Liturgical language is wonderful and critical to preserve.

However, I also think that the restriction of the Liturgy to Latin alone is harmful. In the first place, this was never really the intent of the Church. Latin was originally introduced into the Liturgy precisely because it was the vernacular language at the time. Everybody knew it. It was the English of the first millenium. Latin was made the language of the Church so that everybody could understand the Liturgy. As the centuries went on, the Church expanded and the collection of languages used by Catholics became more diverse, it was helpful to maintain the use of Latin as a common language, and indeed, that sense of the sacred became imbued in it.

However, something can also be lost in excluding the vernacular from the Liturgy. When there is only Latin, the only option for most is to follow along in a missal. Not only can this be distracting (I know college professors who don't want students to bring their textbooks to class for just this reason), but more importantly, "faith comes through hearing" (as St. Paul wrote). This is why in we're not supposed to be reading along in a missal or missalette. It's one of the most common (albeit minor) Liturgical abuses today. It's better for people to hear all of the prayers, acclamations, and so forth than for them to have to read along with them. Now, prayers and acclamations can be learned. The chief problem lies in the reading of the Scriptures in Latin. Traditionally, the readings were read only in Latin with no vernacular repetition. Eventually the Church granted permission for the Gospel to be repeated in the vernacular (and this is what most older Catholics today likely remember from their childhood), but this is clunky and seriously detracts from the prayerful flow that is so important to the Extraordinary Form. One of the tremendous advantages of the Extraordinary Form is that it has the sense of a single, uninterrupted ritual of prayer, an advantage which is hampered by being unable to present some of the more appropriate portions in the vernacular.

The Ordinary Form permits all, part or none of the Mass to be said in either Latin or the vernacular, and so Masses can be offered entirely in Latin for those who would most benefit from it, entirely in the vernacular for those who would most benefit from it, and for the vast majority of us, as a combination of each, allowing the advantage of attention and hearing to be complimented by the advantages that Latin has.

Problems with the Presentation of the Sacrificial Nature of the Mass

Theologically speaking, this is one of the most areas in which I believe the Ordinary Form has the greatest advantage. The basic problem here is that the text of the Extraordinary Form can be somewhat confusing and/or ambiguous when it comes to the fact that the Mass is a Sacrifice. This may come as a surprise as this is usually the very opposite claim that is made against the Ordinary Form! To illustrate my point, consider this text (translated into English) from the Extraordnary Missal:
Accept, O Holy father, Almighty and Eternal God, this spotless host, which I, Your unworthy servant, offer to You, my living and true God, to atone for my numberless sins, offences, and negligences; on behalf of all here present and likewise for all faithful Christians living and dead, that it may profit me and them as a means of salvation to life everlasting. Amen
The problem with this otherwise profoundly beautiful prayer is that it takes place well before the Consecration of the Host. In other words, at this point the priest has bread and wine on the altar - not the Body and Blood of Christ. Certainly, there is a sense in which we do offer the unconsecrated bread and wine to God not unlike the offerings of the firstfruits in Levitical law. The Ordinary Form more explicitly refers to this point in the "Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation" prayer (which many people may be unfamiliar with if they have not attended a daily Mass), and in fact this is the point: the Ordinary Form makes it clear that at this point in the Liturgy, we are making a secondary offering to God, one of the bread and the wine, whereas the Extraordinary Form can easily give the impression that that more important Sacrifice is taking place with unconsecrated bread and wine. The language is very strong for bread and wine, with references to offering it in atonement for sins, for the dead, and so on. Bread and wine do not take away sins: the body and blood of Christ do.

This is of course only one example of the larger difficulty. In the Extraordinary Form, the concept of sacrifice appears 16 times. 12 of these occur before the consecration. In other words, the fact that what is going on here is a Sacrifice is mentioned 3 times more when bread and wine are present than when the Body and Blood of Christ is.

In the Ordinary rite, a much less confusing ratio can be found. Eucharistic prayer I is an almost identical copy of the Extraordinary Form's, and so the same problem can be found: a total of 12 mentions with only 3 coming after the Consecration. However, if one uses Eucharistic prayer IV, there are 4 mentions before and 4 after the Consecration. Eucharistic prayers II and III are less desirable, but the former of these is directed to be used only for daily Masses.

This may seem convaluted to some, but t I honestly think is a real problem. We don't offer the Father bread and wine in the Mass. The Mass is the Mass because we offer the Father the Body and Blood of Christ. Consider that many of the great spiritual writers have taught us that there is a far greater danger in presenting truth mixed with falsehood or ambiguously than in presenting pure falsehood. Pure falsehood will be recognized and rejected, but mixing truth and falsehood or presenting truth in a confusing manner can often leave a question as to just where the truth lies. In view of this, I see a real potential danger in presenting the truth that a Sacrifice is occuring in such a way that it can leave a question as to just what is being Sacrificed.

In fact, this is precisely one of the reasons that the bishops at the Second Vatican Council asked for a reform of the Liturgy. Even prior to the Council (as early as the 1950s), one very well respected Liturgist lamented that it was "well known" that the people of that time had lost the idea that the Mass was a Sacrifice, citing some of the problems mentioned here. Correcting these was one of the goals of the Liturgical reform.

Some of these prayers are worse than others. For example, another part of the offertory reads, "Come Thou, the Sanctifier, Almighty and Everlasting God, and bless + this sacrifice which is prepared for the glory of Thy holy Name." Clearly, the intent of the prayer is good and proper. The problem is that it sounds (or reads) to the average Mass-goer as though the Sacrifice has already been prepared - even while it is merely bread and wine. Whatever the intent, the way it is presented is problematic.

At the same time, the Extraordinary Form has a lot of tremendous material in the Mass of the Faithful (what is known as the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form). it is much longer (in a good way), more beautiful, more rich in symbolism and and conveys the majesty of what is taking place. The extended invocations of the saints are much appreciated.

Lectionary and Liturgical Calendar

This one's pretty simple. Catholics get to hear a lot more of the Scriptures in the Ordinary Form. The Calendar is also much more clearly organized, with clearer delineations between levels of Liturgical celebrations. In the pre-Vatican II calendar, there was hardly a day without some kind of special celebration.  In the current calendar, memorials and feasts of saints seem to carry more meaning because they are not an everyday occurrence.


First and foremost, the ability of the people to hear the Consecration is, in my opinion, of tremendous importance. In the Extraordinary Form, the Consecration is to be said silently. While it's easy to think of what would hopefully rare and unusual problems with this (e.g., some have complained that they want to be able to hear the Consecration to ensure that the priest is doing it properly and that they truly are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ), I simply think it is right for the people to hear it. Christ gave His Body and Blood for all, not for the apostles only. The words "This is My Body" should be heard by all, in my opinion. In fact, this is tied closely to the fact that the priest offering Mass acts in persona Christi - in the person of Christ. It is Christ who offers the Mass, and the faithful should be ever aware of this, realizing just what they are watching and, hopefully, deriving great spiritual benefit from it.

Another concern is that of the way that each form engages the participation of the faithful. There are two sides to this issue. On the one hand, all of the time the celebrant spends "on his own" in the Extraordinary Form lends itself wonderfully to silent prayer. This is very profound, and certainly greatly desirable. On the other hand, that prayer is a prayer which is in a certain sense detached from the Mass itself. The greatest prayer of all is taking place at the altar. The faithful should be engaged in this, treating it with the greatest of all reverence.

Of course, the participation called for in the Ordinary can be taken too far or overdone. At times, there is almost no room for one to join his or her personal prayer to the intentions of the Mass. This is, of course, more of a problem with the way the Mass is celebrated and not with the Ordinary Form itself, which calls for times of silence. I believe that at its core, the idea of bringing the faithful into a more "focused" - for lack of a better term - worship in the Mass is a good thing. It must simply be done in the right way.

Some Miscellaneous Points
The ad orientem celebration (when the priest offers Mass facing "away" from the people) is, in my opinion, by far the single most important difference one is likely to see when attending the Extraordinary Form. It cannot be understated what benefits come from this. First and foremost, it rightly orients the mind of the priest, bringing him to recall at every moment that each word he utters is in prayer to the Almighty and not as a statement for the faithful to hear. Second, it rightly orients the congregation, bringing them to recognize that the priest is praying to God and, indeed, offering sacrifice to Him. Of course, this can be done in the Ordinary Form, but almost never is. It is beautiful, it puts the Sacrifice, the transcendence of God, and the role of the priest all in wonderfully striking perspective. I believe it should be the exclusive posture for celebrating Mass.

The Extraordinary Form also has many other beautiful prayers, symbols, and actions that help to express the depth of what is actually taking place. More than that, because the Mass is an objective reality and not merely a collection of symbols, these truly accomplish what they represent. For example, the Extraordinary Form contains a tremendous amount of preparation. Before the Mass even begins, the priest stops before approaching the altar to ask forgiveness for his sins and to prepare to approach the altar. How wonderfully this demonstrates how serious an action he is about to undertake, and indeed, how important is it that the priest truly does prepare himself for the holy things he is about to do. It really is very beautiful and theologically profound.

In the end, I would love to see a Liturgy that combines the great elements of each of the two forms we have now. Nonetheless, we must always remember how great what it is that we do have. Whatever form of Mass you find most spiritually enriching, go!

God bless!