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Posts Tagged ‘liturgy’

When we were on retreat recently I was reading Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, OP. It sets out to be a historical reconstruction of his life, based on a huge number of historical studies over the last few decades. It’s not written with a destructive spirit, as if Thompson were trying to debunk the often beautiful mythology that has grown up around St Francis over the years. But it is trying to discover the authentic heart of the man, and the life that is presented here is both simpler and much more complex than the standard biographies that are based uncritically on much later and less reliable sources.

assisi

Many things struck me and stayed with me: How Francis’s conversion was inseparable from his first-hand experience of war, violence and imprisonment when he went to battle as a young man; the relationship between psychological trauma and spiritual awakening and healing.

Those beautiful stories about Francis walking into a church and hearing the gospel call to poverty and radical discipleship are true. But they were not the scripture readings of the liturgy of the day. There was a tradition of Christians coming to the priest for guidance, and asking him to him to open the scriptures three times at random, and in this way picking three passages from the bible that would somehow cohere and provide direction for the one who asked. This is how the Lord spoke so powerfully to Francis about the call to evangelical simplicity and obedience.

How difficult his gradual conversion must have been for his family. His father comes across not as a worldly tyrant but as a concerned father who doesn’t know how to react to his son’s apparent psychological disintegration and the consequent implosion of his family business.

How unsure Francis was about his new way of life. It’s very clear from this reconstruction that when he first went to see the pope to have his ‘rule’ approved he had no intention to preach. The preaching mission came from the pope, and he followed it obediently.

It’s true that poverty was a central theme in Francis’s vision and lifestyle. But according to Thompson it was not the theological key. Francis, according to the historical sources, spent far more time preaching and teaching and sometimes writing about the Holy Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood than he did about poverty. He was captivated by the idea that Christ was present in our midst in the Mass and in the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacles of every Catholic church throughout the world. He showed the utmost respect to Catholic priests, fully aware of their weaknesses, because he believed that they represented Christ sacramentally for the Christian faithful.

He was horrified when he came across a church or chapel that was in a state of disrepair. It he found any altar linen that was dirty he would take it away to wash it. If he found any sacred books that contained the scriptures discarded on the floor he would put them in a more worthy place. When we hear that Francis was called to rebuild/repair God’s church we often think that this was a metaphor for a spiritual renewal of the church, which of course it was in many ways. But we forget that Francis’s first concern, which never left him, was to make the actual church buildings into sacred spaces that would be worthy for the liturgy and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

And I learnt how much Francis suffered, especially in the last years of his life through sickness. I knew this already, but the extent of the suffering comes across in this biography: the discomfort, the heartache, the sheer agony that Francis often lived through. He was a broken man at the end, but a man fully alive. The joy and the simplicity are there, but in this book they shine out of a very earthy humanity.

I’m not saying these are the central themes of the book or of St Francis’s life. They are just some of the ideas that made an impression on me that hadn’t come across so strongly in other biographies I’ve read. It’s a fascinating book – do read it yourself.

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Many Catholics are already getting used to the new English translation of the Mass; and the beautifully produced altar missals have been around for a few weeks now. The official launch is the beginning of Advent.

We are in a strange transitional period where most parishes are using the new translation, but some are not. This caused liturgical chaos a few weeks ago when I went to a funeral in a parish that is still using the old translation, with visiting mourners (including a number of priests) from parishes all over the country who had already switched, and didn’t know whether to revert back or acclaim even more loudly ‘And with your spirit’ and ‘It is right and just’.

The transitional missal texts on top of the old missal

I gave a talk on the new translation this week, which gave me an incentive to look into some of the online resources available for catechesis and general understanding of the process and the end results. One of the best sites is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website, which has an extremely helpful section dedicated to the translation called Welcoming the Roman Missal: Third Edition.

There are articles, FAQs, sample texts, and a host of multi-media resources and downloads. Definitely worth a look.

One of the most helpful sections simply puts the old translation and the new one side by side, and highlights the changes so you can compare them easily. Here are the People’s Parts and the Priest’s parts, with commentary boxes.

When you see it like this, it becomes very clear, very quickly, how many words and phrases of the Mass were not just interpreted or re-phrased or even paraphrased, but simply cut out for the old translation. Some of this, I’m sure, was motivated by a desire for a noble simplicity; some of it was an attempt to find English phrases that could carry the meaning of the Latin without needing to map each word literally (this theory of interpretation was called ‘dynamic equivalence’). But some of it, unfortunately, perhaps stemmed from an unhappiness on the translators’ part with some of the sentiments and theology of the prayers themselves. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that we have a richer translation that brings us closer to the heart and mind of the Church’s liturgical prayer.

One nice factoid I discovered in my research (not on the USCCB website – I can’t remember where). In the debate about the dialogue ‘The Lord be with you… And also with you / And with your spirit’, it’s commonly pointed out that this is not a symmetrical dialogue, as if the prayers are interchangeable. The priest or bishop (and sometimes the deacon) is praying as an ordained minister for the people: ‘May the Lord be with you’. And in response, the people pray for their minister: ‘And with your spirit’. It’s only ever addressed to the minister, because it’s a specific prayer that the spirit given to him at his ordination may be strengthened and renewed, so that he may serve his people more faithfully and worthily, especially in this liturgical celebration.

The factoid was this, that Ronald Knox translated the response as: ‘And with you, his minister’, so that the theological meaning of the prayer would be built into the translation. I wouldn’t use this myself, but I like what it’s trying to do.

[But see Jack Mahoney’s article here, about the non-significance of ‘thy spirit’ and the significance of ‘with’ instead! Thanks Tony and Katherine]

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The Power of Prayer by Loci Lenar.I gave a talk recently about vocation and life in the seminary, to a group of people mainly in their 60s and 70s. One of the questions that often comes up with people of this age is whether the present generation of seminarians is more conservative than in the past. My answer is to say that these categories (‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’; ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’) don’t apply any more.

If you are trying to define yourself against other members of your church or religion, then these kinds of categories, however crude, might be necessary. But the key moment of self-definition for young Catholics today is simply whether to continue calling themselves Catholic or not; whether to deepen their Christian faith, or to reject it.

In a thoroughly secular culture, where friends, colleagues, and even family members are formed by secular values, the decision to hold onto a Catholic identity is the crucial one. Having made that radical decision, these young Catholics, quite naturally, want to deepen their interest Catholic teaching, in Catholic worship, in Catholic morality, etc. This is why they seem ‘conservative’. But they’re not really — they are simply Catholic.

Here is my sociological take on all this: Most older Catholics, say in their 60s or 70s, grew up secure in their Christian identity, with a culture that for the most part supported and reaffirmed that identity. The challenge for them was to get out of the ghetto and into the world; to become immersed in a secular culture they hardly knew, in order to influence and enlighten it. The secularisation of religion was perhaps a necessary part of this movement outwards.

But if you grow up in a culture almost completely devoid of any Christian influences, as young people do today, then the challenge for you is to find a Christian identity and lifestyle that will guide and sustain you. This is not about retreating into the ghetto or turning the clock back. It is first of all a matter of preserving your Christian roots, and nourishing your own faith. And then it’s about building up the self-confidence that allows you to engage with the secular culture from which you come (and which you never actually left).

This is why, it seems to me, the priority for young Catholics today is to create a strong Catholic identity and Catholic culture for themselves — which then allows them to dialogue with their peers and engage with the wider culture. They might seem to be conservative, but they are simply trying to be Catholic.

Remember that in darker ages it was the monks who made the best missionaries; it was those who stepped ‘inside’ and showed so much concern for the liturgy and the tradition who were then the ones with the courage to step ‘outside’ and embrace the world.

[After drafting this post I came across an article by John Allen entitled ‘The next generation of Catholic leaders’. We seem to be thinking along similar lines…]

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