In recent days I have been approached on two separate occasions by diocesan priests. Both wished to raise concerns. The first, related to the alleged desecration of a church in the diocese of Down and Connor. It was reported that the whilst the Church had been withdrawn from sacred use, no measures had been taken to protect relics and sacramentals from harm. In the events, the report suggested, that both had been desecrated.
The second, related to a conversation in which a parishioner had, in all sincerity, sought guidance as to the condition of the Church post Vatican II. Prior to making his approach, the parishioner had accessed a high volume of material on social media sites which suggested that the Church had, since Vatican II, fallen into error, and forfeited its orthodoxy. The parishioner was understandably both confused and concerned.
These conversations brought to mind an observation made by Richard Rohr in his "Why be Catholic". Rohr suggests that the Church has somehow lost an appreciation of its sacred vocabulary; a vocabulary which was, historically, so readily taken for granted that, he wonders whether it was in fact truly grasped and understood by many. Rohr's question is legitimate. After all, the seeming ease with which many have abandoned the faith might suggest that they did not in fact truly subscribe to its teachings or what it demanded of them. However, this same observation applies with equal force to many members of the clergy; most especially those who have for personal or ideological reasons sought to carve out their own existence; being within the Church, but not of it.
This may, at first blush, appear too harsh a criticism or a gross generalisation. However, it is borne out by the frequency with which one encounters the celebration of the eucharist in a manner which does not conform to liturgical norms. It is also evidenced where the cleric considers the office of priesthood as some sort of personal privilege, the performance of which is a matter of preference, rather than obligation. It may be thought that this mindset of personal preference has in turn, fuelled two further matters which are from from uncommon, namely: a) a blurring of the distinction between cleric and lay; and b) a detachment of priestly office from notions of obedience and accountability. What then of the desecrated church and the sincerely concerned parishioner? What, if anything, do these two matters have in common?
It may be thought that these issues are entirely unconnected. However, closer examination points to a shared influence.
The need for a rationalisation of parish structures (and indeed, the number of parishes themselves) within Northern Europe cannot be disputed. One may be forgiven for thinking, however, that the modification process is intended to enhance the ability of the particular church to preserve and more effectively transmit the faith; not extinguish it. This is, of course, fundamentally inconsistent with the idea that closure of a church as a principal place of worship simply involves turning off the lights and locking the doors. Any suggestion to the contrary constitutes not merely an abandonment of the structure, but all that is contained within it. To the external observer, such a level of disregard reduces past observance and liturgical practice to the level of meaningless ritual; one which such disregard declares as meaningless. In short: a practice of abandonment. What then of the concerned parishioner?
There can be no disputing the fact that in the years following the council, a number of groups within the Church invoked its statements as the basis for extensive liturgical "reforms" which were, as a matter of record, not mandated by the Council at all. By the same token, numerous commentators have written on the unfinished work of the Council and the extensive opportunities which have yet to be brought to fruition. Yet the words of St Paul VI present a different perspective:
"If we really seek to define this Council, which apparently has no other cause save its convocation by the Pope, since no one expected it...we must find the intent of the Council. What is its purpose? To stretch its hand out to those far away from us? Yes, but that too is subordinate. The hand would not be stretched out if the Church did not define the distance that separates us. And this is the point: in the Council the Church is studying itself for the benefit of all."
"The Church must know herself, must be aware of being the instrument of divine redemption that Christ brought into the world...May the Council in its authentic Christian faith make us true priests of the Church of God..."
Whilst directed to priests, these observations apply with equal force to all of the faithful. However, authenticity requires more than intellectual acceptance. It makes demands of our whole being. In simple terms. our hearts must be committed to the salvific mission of the Church as it is to Christ Himself. This necessarily requires that we relegate our own personal preferences and embrace that which the Church proclaims to be sacred. It may be thought that when we fail to honour this precept, we are, by default, more deposed to undertaking the closure of churches as though they were commercial retail outlets; more susceptible to engaging with the celebration of the Eucharist as a form of personal 'performance' or 'enactment'. Perhaps we would all do well to keep in mind that without a truly Christocentric understanding of the Church and our place within it, we run the very real risk of becoming people of 'the company' rather than 'people of faith'. This is not the product of ideology, but truth. The Gospel of Matthew records a discussion between Jesus, the Scribes and the pharisees concerning the tradition of the Elders. Jesus' response is stark in its simplicity:
"This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines, the precepts of men". (Matt. 15:5-9)