The Iconoclasm of Truth?
Yesterday, my attention was drawn to reports of a disturbance during the celebration of Mass at the Church of "Assisi Parish", Portland, Oregon. Given the reports, one would be forgiven for presuming that the incident was due to anti-catholic sentiment; orchestrated by those who do not profess bonds of faith and communion with the Catholic Church. Closer reading revealed that the protagonists were - it is said -"parishioners". The article stated that a dispute had arisen between members of the parish and the pastor; reportedly triggered by the discovery of vestments, endorsed with rainbow design, within a skip. When questioned on the matter, the pastor had indicated that he had in fact consigned the vestments to a storage container and a third party had mistaken the item as destined for disposal without identifying the contents.
Objective observers might conclude that this is hardly the stuff of riot and protest. After all, mistakes do occur. Experience has shown that such mistakes extend to occasions when those concerned in the closure of churches and religious houses fail to preserve sacramentals and temporal goods. Was that the sole cause of the dispute?
Closer examination reveals that following his appointment, the pastor had been required to end certain practices which had trespassed into the liturgies. These included, it is said, the restoration of adherence to the liturgical texts and the use of gender specific language. In short: a case of the pastor doing that which the law of the Church required of him. As reported, these reforms were said by one interviewee to have as their purpose: 'the ruin of the parish'.
In order to appreciate the scale of the issue, and its significance, additional detail is required. According to the reports of the incident, the protest took the form of a group of female parishioners entering the Church bearing placards, shouting their protests to the priest. If accurate, this demonstration took place during the celebration of Mass and was timed, and performed, during the Eucharistic prayer. If reports are correct, the priest continued in the celebration of the Eucharist amid the protests which - it is said -discomforted other parishioners. Immediately following the Mass, one of the 'protestors' entered upon the sanctuary and declared their purpose from the lectern.
Those raised in the Catholic Tradition in these islands will have been schooled, to some degree, in aspects of Church history. The ambitions of Henry VIII, the torture and murder of those who maintained the faith and the longstanding political resistance towards, and prejudices against Catholics; maintained throughout the re-establishment of the hierarchy and well into the 20th Century. All staple fare. The common denominator was, of course, that the source of the hostility was external to the Church. The protagonists have invariably been those who sought to pursue their own agenda; seeking to fashion the Church and its teaching into a creature of their own making. Insofar as their ambitions caused them to enter into the fabric of the Church, their purpose was to deface that which was contrary to their beliefs. Of course, since the 1970s, each and every parish has witnessed the outworking of various agenda and opinions will differ as to the consequential innovations, their desirability and impact. Is the Assisi Parish more of the same?
In the Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) the Council Fathers observed:
"2. For the liturgy, "through which the work of our redemption is accomplished," most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church." [emphasis added]
It can fairly be said that the Council Fathers also expressed the desire that the liturgy be revised in order to accommodate both Tradition and the needs of modern times. They did so in clear terms:
"11. But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain  . Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects."
What has this to do with the pastor of Assisi Parish? The reports do not provide any indication as to how the practices countered by the Pastor were allowed to take hold in the first place. It is nonetheless clear that his office requires him to take measures to restore the parish and its liturgies to a faithful understanding and acceptance of the Church's teaching. To do otherwise would represent a gross-neglect of duty and indeed, render his own ministry inauthentic; reducing it to parody. Equally, to permit practices of the type reported to remain in use, would be to endorse them as a legitimate expression of participation in the Church as the people of God and its mission. It cannot be gainsaid that the mission of the priest must be and remain the conversion of those entrusted to him. It is neither popularity nor other forms of social endorsement.
Some readers may receive these words with more than a degree of scepticism. They might even retort that these sentiments fail to take account of the gross personal cost- and sometimes daily challenge- of communicating to those who have no wish to listen, a message that the faith demands that they hear. In the Instruction "The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community" the Congregation for Clergy observed:
"What determines this ecclesial centrality of the priest is the fundamental relation he has with Christ, Head and Pastor, as his sacramental re-presentation..."
The proper engagement of the laity in the liturgy requires a clarity of understanding. This is no mere intellectual comprehension. It is the realisation which is borne of conversion. A realisation which recognises - above all - that the Mass is the source and summit of our belief because it is the occasion when Christ becomes incarnate for us in the here and now. Taking the form of the Blessed Sacrament, Christ time and again reaches out to His people. In this respect, it is important to keep in mind that - as the Gospel narratives affirm- Christ did not once attempt to dilute the Truth which he represents. In each encounter, he provided his listener with the information needed to make their own election; consistent with the exercise of free will. The transmission of Truth as the means of conversion is an irreplaceable component of the priestly ministry. The ordination rite affirms it; the dignity of the sacrament demands it. As with any parent, the role of the priest is to engage with the needs of those in his care; not their personal wants.
The timing and form of the demonstration in Assisi Parish leaves little room to doubt that the parish as a whole would benefit from a renewed engagement with the real presence and the nature of the liturgy. These are, universal issues. Most demonstrations encountered by pastors elsewhere will be less dramatic and enjoy less publicity. Others may be silent in character; manifest by the refusal to receive communion from the priest through the switching of aisles, or, a persistent determination to disturb the liturgy in more subtle ways (e.g. arriving late and making a dramatic entrance). There may also be more direct personal challenges. a recent example was of a photographer who prior to the commencement of a wedding was gently and quietly requested by the pastor to remove his hat. The request was met with a flat refusal. A refusal for which there was no legitimate basis.
The report of Assisi Parish serves as a reminder of how much has been lost and still more, how much there is to be done. The solution lies in the proper education and evangelisation of the faithful; not appeasement. Contrary to those who would wish to make the Church more accessible, user-friendly, and more acceptable. The commodity of Truth is not susceptible to manipulation. The mystery and mission of the Church must be presented as such; a complex reality for which there is no paradigm. In simple terms: the mission of the Church must be and remain to re-awaken an awareness of the sacred and engagement with Christ as The Way, The Truth. The Life. First and foremost this must come from the priests who are - after all - our fathers in faith. There is no greater demonstration of the sacred than when a priest in his celebration of the Mass affirms the mystery of which he is the celebrant. In the words of Cardinal Müller (The Power of Truth):
"As workers in the vineyard of the Lord, we all have a responsibility to recall these fundamental truths by clinging to what we have ourselves received. We want to give courage to go the way of Jesus Christ with determination, in order to obtain eternal live by following his commandments"
We would do well to bear in mind that if we do otherwise we endorse a form of social iconoclasm; one which seeks to distance the Church from the Truth with which it has been entrusted and defeats its mission and purpose. As Christ reminds us: we must not be afraid.
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom - pray for us.