Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rearranging the Landscape of the Sacred, II

Roman Catholicism, much like Eastern Orthodoxy, places emphasis on tradition. When one examines how Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy operates, tradition is a concept that is inclusive of more than doctrine or ecclesiastical custom. There is always an undercurrent, ever so subtle, of tradition by blood. When one participates in the religion, one participates with in continuum with one's blood, past and present.

There is some truth to this. The United States supplies us with a perfect case study. The Church of Rome played a unique and perhaps unrepeatable role during the immigration boom of late 19th and early 20th century. The Roman church provided cultural cohesion, ethnic strength, and ancestral connection to numerous groups immersed in the process of diaspora. If one takes the time to seek out second hand liturgical items, one finds evidence of the Roman church fulfilling this role. One can, for instance, find a Missale Romanum from the 1920s with numerous supplemental insertions reflecting the devotional culture of French Canadians. One may also examine the contents of various vernacular hand missals published in the from the 1940s to 1960s and note the influence of Italian Catholicism upon cultic observance in the United States via the various optional saints feasts that received full textual treatment. For instance, the inclusion of Saint Rita's feast propers, alternative mass sets for St. Anthony and, on rare occasions, the inclusion of such figures as St. Rocco or Leonard of Port Maurice.

Liturgical texts, whether they are in heavily supplemented ritual texts or popular vernacular texts, often reflect the experience of the sacred for a people. They are, even if only in parts, witnesses to an culture, an ethnicity, and, in fact, an ancestry. They are pieces to the most profound depths of an identity. Southern Italian Catholicism is not known for its frequency of Mass attendance. Nevertheless, the waves of Southern Italians who arrived upon these shores brought with them the unique manner of ritual observance they shared in the old country. In the mass sets for certain feast days, I can peer into my own ancestral past, observing the cultic observance my ancestors brought with them from Calabria and Sicily, knowing that on the relatively rare occasions when they would have (especially the men) attended a Mass, it was likely in conjunction with these observances. When I turn to the pages of the post-conciliar liturgy, I can see much, if not all, of my family's spiritual inheritance has disappeared.

If there is one truly lamentable loss from the reforms of the Roman liturgy, it is the streamlined reform of the sanctoral calendar. The sanctoral reflected the local cultus of many parts of "Catholic" Europe and as such it provided an important component in the identity of an immigrant generation. And be it with regard to "Catholic Europe" or the numerous immigrant waves, I do not believe there has ever been a considerable study documenting how drastically the purging of the sanctoral has adversly effected the conception of ethno-religious identity.

The revision of the sanctoral was carried out based upon the conclusions of scholarship at that time and with ecumenical interests abounding. Yet, there was more at stake than liturgical revision; the experience of cultural and/or ethnic identity was by the that time intimately bound with the sanctoral. The liturgical reform opted to wager the results of liturgical scholarship against the experience of the cultural or ethnic self. The reform, I believe, lost said wager and is still paying back its debt. What has been lost is the experience of local cultus as it impacts a given community's sense of collective identity and history. The sanctoral was once a vessel for connecting oneself to something transendent of one's own immediate reality, yet also comparitively tangible. One was connected to an experience, often had by one's own blood, that predated one's own existence and would likely survive the closing of one's own mortal life. The sense of a transcendent reality is the beginning of the sacred.

If we accept theories of ritual liminality as being, at least in part, true, then we must acknowledge the precarious situation in which the church of Rome finds itself. The Roman church finds itself in a state of corporate liminal dissonance. Markers of liminal transition, be it liturgical text or former church grounds, are often accorded significance in virtue of their ability to establish a coherent religious identity. This is often at the neglect of the means by which "sacred" space and liturgical texts formulate self, ethnic, and cultural identity. These are perhaps more visceral senses of identity than religious identification. It is to Catholicism's credit that it can claim to have had superseded religious identity and extended to cultural and ethnic identity. It provided the means and context for the transition and growth of self. However, much of Catholicism's cultural and ethnic force is lost in the contemporary liturgical context through the purgation of the sanctoral calendar. Yet, one can readily argue that purgation of the sanctoral calendar and the loss of ethnic and cultural identity was inevitable, not on account of scholarly data or even principles of liturgical revision, but rather due to the massive cultural shift in which the Roman church finds itself. It is not just a transition from the north eastern United States to the southern United States. Globally, Catholicism finds itself as an increasingly "non-western" religion, that is, the bulk of its numbers and density of its practice are found in cultures traditionally considered outside of the Euro-American culture. Roman Catholicism faces the challenge of transcending the west, yet, it must do so without severing its connection to western culture. Indeed, if one were to raise a red flag against the "Catholic identity" motif, it would be that the concept of "Catholic Identity" risks being acultural in so far as it conceives of Catholicism as having existed in either a cultural vacuum or have been the dominant influence on (western) culture without being influenced in return.

The purgation of the sanctoral calendar represents, however accidental, the expulsion of local culture (largely European) from the Roman rite. The contemporary liturgy must restore the cultural base. The next installment in this series will examine the recent attempts to reengage the Roman liturgy with culture.