Monday, July 9, 2012

Goodbye Holy Trinity...

Boston Catholic Insider has posted the most recent status update on Holy Trinity Parish, the historically German parish in Boston's South End. The parish was also the original home church to the Tridentine rite after Vatican II in Boston. The story surrounding Holy Trinity's placement upon the parish chopping block has been replete with numerous odd occurrences. Around the time the initial list of church closings was announced, Holy Trinity had a parish committee review the books and establish that the parish was financially stable and self sustaining, contrary to the determination of the Archdiocese. Later, it was discovered that the former pastor of Holy Trinity had transferred funds from Holy Trinity to his other church, St. James the Greater, which contributed in no small part to the discrepancy between the parish's accounting and that of the Archdiocese. You can read additional stories detailing the Archdiocese's questionable handling of this church here and here.

I will not go into further details surrounding the history of this particular church closing - you can find that elsewhere. I only write about it because of Holy Trinity's place in my own formation. Holy Trinity was there when I realized there was an alternative to contemporary Catholic worship, whether done high or low. For several years, that parish had become my spiritual home, so to speak, and was the first and thus far only time I made it a priority in my life to attend liturgy every Sunday at that same parish. I learned much there, much that was irrevocably formative for me. I learned the old rite, I discovered the joy Latinists are prone to, I learned a new approach to prayer, liturgy, and silence. It was the first and last time I ever perceived liturgy as capable of occasioning contemplative prayer.

Times change. The church was put on the chopping block and suddenly the impulse for survival became most palpable. Pope Benedict lifted John Paul II's restrictions on the older rite and suddenly the Tridentine movement lost much of its original dynamism, becoming the preferred Mass-fashion for those conservatives who previously approached the rite with reserve and, at times, suspicion. And, of course, I've changed. I'm not the person I was then and I don't pray the way I used to, although there are times I feel an acute homesickness for it. Much as I may often think I've left that spirituality behind, the story of this church brings me back to that time, that experience, and invokes the pang of loss.

The church will likely be subject to the redevelopment plans for the South End. Demolishing and paving over sacred ground, rearranging the sacred landscape irrevocably. Meanwhile, the sterile suburban churches remain standing.

Goodbye, old friend. You, parish and stone, were there during the long formation of my soul and your image still lingers.

Introibo ad altare dei...

Sunday, July 8, 2012

New Translation of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Well, we were bound to get an official announcement from the USCCB at some point:

"Among the many liturgical books affected by the implementation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, none has generated more questions or interest than the Liturgy of the Hours. Numerous inquiries from clergy and religious have prompted the Committee on Divine Worship to begin to develop a plan to produce a revised edition of the Liturgy of the Hours (and related texts such as the one–volume Christian Prayer). This revision would incorporate updated and already–approved translations of many elements, including the Revised Grail Psalms and the orations of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, as well as new additions to the Proper of Saints, some of which still need to be translated and approved. The Committee reviewed the current state of each element of the text, including the Psalter, the orations, antiphons, and Scripture readings, to determine which elements can remain intact, which elements require replacement with updated texts, and which elements require retranslation. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has been consulted regarding its role in producing draft translations of certain elements, including an expanded collection of proper antiphons for the Gospel canticles for Sundays and solemnities, which were added to the Liturgia Horarum, editio typica altera, published between 1985 and 1987. The Committee hopes to present a proposed scope of work to the body of Bishops for their approval in November 2012, and then work can commence to assemble the necessary elements. At this time there is no estimated timeline for this project."

 It is worth noting that, by the statement's own admission, the actual production of the retranslation of the Liturgy of the Hours is still some years off. We're talking about approval to begin the project in November 2012. A new translation was inevitable and has been so for some time. The New American Bible, the often maligned but nevertheless typical Bible for the USCCB, has been fully revised, including the Old Testament as of last Autumn. Of course, the proper collects of the divine office were all revised as part of the new translation of the Roman Missal. Thus, two considerable portions due for retranslation have already been completed. The same goes for the revised grail psalms, although, if the project is a serious endeavor there should be some discussion on whether or not to replace the text of the psalms. Alas, the above quoted statement does not indicate such a discussion is on the agenda. Our text of the Liturgy of the Hours is horribly out of date; aside from the new antiphons and feast days mentioned, John Paul II's pontificate restored previously excised feasts as well as provided a proper office for other feasts that had previously lacked everything except an oration. 

While the project is some years away from fruition (assuming it receives the green light), I highly doubt the twenty year process involved in producing the new translation of the Roman Missal should be used as a time gauge for the Liturgy of the Hours. The percentage of persons who pray the divine office is comparatively small and a retranslation of the breviary is unlikely to cause as much controversy and consternation as that of the missal due to the decreased exposure. Additionally, the more controversial texts (the proper orations) have already been translated. It would be highly unlikely for there to be an occasion for debate and I hardly doubt any bishop would ring his hands over the translation of an antiphon. Assuming the project gets the green light, I would imagine within five years we could see a new edition of the English Liturgy of the Hours.

Is there anything that could delay a new translation? Oddly enough, yes. Though the grunt work has essentially been done it remains to be seen if the bishops will deem a retranslation a priority. That the project has no timeline indicates there's no rush to get this out there. Even during the early rounds of the vox clara committee and the reorganization of ICEL, there was talk of getting the new translations out in five years. It didn't happen that quickly, but at least there was some sense of an ideal timeline. In addition to the statement's admission that no timeline exists of the project, one must consider the above mentioned fact that exposure to the divine office is limited when compared to the rite of the mass. The numbers may not seem to justify either the production of a new translation in the near future or, worst case, the production of a new translation at all. 

If you'd rather not wait on the new American edition of the Liturgy of the Hours, you can order the South African edition here. From what I can gather, it uses the previous edition of the orations, however, it also makes use of the revised grail psalter, new antiphons, new feasts, etc. Also, you get the South African calendar.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book Review: The Rule of Saint Benedict (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library)

With the feast of Saint Benedict days away, it seems only appropriate to review the most recent Latin-English edition of Benedict's rule. Translated by Bruce Venarde, the latest edition comes to us as an entry in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series and this volume holds the distinction as both one of the strongest entries to date in the series and the best overall edition of the Rule of Saint Benedict widely available.

Vernarde has produced a fine translation. While there are a few things I might translate a little differently, overall, his translation works well. Although, for those persons linguistically inclined, the real prize is the Latin text presented in this edition. The Latin text used for this edition is that of the St. Gall manuscript, thought to be the most representative of Benedict's actual style of all the extant copies of the rule. Written in a manner that largely reflects the spoken Latin of the sixth century in central Italy (outside of Rome), the St. Gall manuscript provides Latin and Italian scholars the delightful opportunity of examining some of the conventions of spoken Latin and comparing them to the earliest examples of Italian or the central dialects. This is one of those rare instances where one has an actual text that helps trace the rise of Italian vernacular from the tongue of the vulgus.

For the monastic, this edition gets you closer to Benedict's most subtle intentions. For the linguist, this is another piece in the transition from Latin to Italian (dialects and all).

You may purchase the book here.

Without Roots...

The sacred landscape is changing. I've written on this subject before. In an age of decline, the holy topography of the Catholic Church suffers through a radical revision, one which may have been overdue but is at times disheartening nevertheless.

As someone of Southern Italian descent, specifically Sicilian and Calabrian, I have witnessed the tail end of a once great ethnic experience of Christianity on American shores. The parishes that were once the hubs of Italians and Italo-Americans are either shuttered up, bereft of the their former ethnic inheritance, or reduced to certain cultural strongholds in the U.S., such as St. Leonard of Port Maurice in Boston's North End.

It wasn't too long ago that I could go to my great-grandparents' former residence in East Boston and walk the circuit of Italian parishes. Suddenly, in this past decade, one such parish has shut down and Holy Redeemer (the parish oral tradition has situated my great grandparents in, although Mount Carmel was closer) has largely lost its Italian identity. Certainly the language is scarcely heard. The tethers to my ancestry are slipping away ever so gradually and, when I think about it, it occurs to me that I ought to straighten out the matter of parish records sooner than later. It's only a matter of time until bureaucratic inefficiency looses those books in the process of transporting them from one parish to another. Such changes, be it acknowledging demographic shifts or just plane shutting down once viable parishes is inevitable. The Italians, like many ethnic groups, were only too happy to move to the suburbs and abandon their language as a demonstration that they had, after generations of poverty in the old country, finally made it. To be truthful, we've never been the most stringently religious observers in history - quite the contrary, really. So, it was only a matter of time before the parishes that were primarily cultural or ethnic centers entered a period of decline. Still, it is nearly impossible, from my vantage point, to gaze upon those lingering hallmarks of a era since passed and not cleave to them with the fervent hope they might not only resist the tide of attrition but indeed enter a new era of flourishing relevance. At some point, however, you have to accept things for the way they are and will likely continue to be. The wave of a uniquely Southern Italian Catholicism on American shores crested a long time ago - this is merely its wake settling back into calm water. Mount Carmel in Worcester, Massachusetts brings home the point.

Mount Carmel was once a hub of local Italo-American culture. It has now been subject to the ravages of ethnic dispersal and religious disintegration. The parish still advertises itself as Italo-American in origin if not essence, however while attending liturgy there one is struck by the noticeable lack of Italian language utilized in any liturgical context. The baroque facade and interior of the church has been deformed by ill-advised and artistically insensitive reforms following Vatican II, like walking into the Church of the Gesu and discovering it is now a McDonald's on the inside. Mount Carmel has not one trace of what made it unique and notable; it is now a typical anglo parish with the same godawful high church anglo hymns and organ accompaniment. The change in pastors further brings home the point. The now retired, and sadly walking off into the sunset of life, Fr. Bafaro was the proverbial "bull", a force of power who galvanized the Italian heritage of the parish and succeeded in engage this ethnic heritage with the social justice issues of Worcester, Massachusetts. To this day, if you speak with anyone who was active in the parish over the last ten to twenty years or if you speak with anyone familiar with the Catholic advocacy for the poor in the city over the same time span, Bafaro's name elicits respect, if not admiration. The current pastor lacks the dynamism of Bafaro which, to be sure, isn't to be unexpected. Typically, a strong persona is replaced by someone a little more tempered and one can only guess if parish finances have necessitate a new approach. There is some suspicion, mind you, that Mt. Carmel is a hypothetical candidate in the event further parish consolidations in the city are necessary.

In the history of Mt. Carmel and the decline of ethnic Italian parishes, Fr. Bafaro's time may well have been a last gasp, a brief resurgence before the tide of cultural assimilation fully washes away the parish's memory. It's any one's guess what happens after that. Best case scenario: another ethnic group makes the parish their own, thereby leaving persons of Italian descent an opportunity to at least visit a location of cultural importance. Worst case scenario: it continues in the direction of becoming your standard issue American parish; at that point, Mt. Carmel loses the unique qualities that justify keeping its doors open.

A Few Notes on a Fortnight for Freedom.

I have avoided, as much as possible, entering into the ideological wrestling match in Catholic circles ignited by the USCCB's position on president Obama's Health and Human Services mandate and the subsequent actions of the bishops' conference. Although, after having read this it seemed appropriate to make a few observations.

The US Bishops' Fortnight for Freedom "rally" is many things, but arguing for it is based upon "out dated" theology demonstrates how irrelevant the Catholic "left" has become. The article argues against the position of the US Bishops towards the HHS mandate based upon John Courtney Murray's writings and, in particular, Dignitatis Humanae. Written in 1965, Dignitatis Humanae is a declaration (declaratio de libertate religiosa), not a constitution as the article's author states. The difference in classification is substantial. A constitution carries more weight and demands enforcement - a dogmatic constitution goes further and carries still more authority and demands ascent. A declaration, though promulgated by the authority of the council, does not have the same formative authority over doctrine or dogma. There was, then, a distinct caution taken when it came to promulgating Dignitatis Humanae - having no constitutional force, it was not intended to be a definitive statement of belief or a "game changer." That subsequent Western theologians have made it such is not sufficient for doctrinal revision. I would also add, Western interpretation of the document is not the only one out there - the author, in other words, betrays his provincialism.

The notion that theology can become dated is a typically Western idea, in fashion among certain sectors of Western intellectualism. If true, what theology, if any, is off the table for revision? None, they would say. In turn, every point of Christian creed would be subject to revision - the theology of Nicaea was, after all, proper for the fourth century. Theology isn't defined by being current or dated. It is defined by being either true or false and that is about it. If, however, the author was correct and theology can become "dated", then Dignitatis Humanae is fair game for obsolescence. It was written nearly fifty years ago in a difference social/political/cultural climate than today. Much as I disagree with all parties, the Catholic anarchists inspired by Dorthy Day's Catholic Worker movement and the Traditionalist rejection of the modern state inspired by Archbishop Lefebvre AND certain positions held by restorationist thinkers has advanced propositions opposed to the position of Dignitatis Humanae. These are far more recent arguments than those of nearly fifty years ago. Which theology, then, is outdated?

As I alluded to above, the fortnight for freedom was many things, none of which are particularly impressive. The fortnight for freedom represents a perpetually incoherent position of the US Bishops in relationship to the state. The Bishops want all of the benefits of being a servant of the state without any of the required obligations that come with such privileges. The Fortnight for Freedom represents an additional fear of loosing such privilege - the Bishops have no model of the Church in mind other than one that reaps benefits from the state. A Church that pays taxes or looses civil institutional clout and has to rely on its own strength and efforts to advance its causes is off the table, although, historically, its such circumstances that make the Church the most credible. Although perhaps most importantly, and most terrifying if you're a bishop or otherwise cleric who has signed off on the USCCB's neo-conservative moment in the wake of President Obama's election, the fortnight for freedom represents a nearly incontestable proof of the Bishops' irrelevance and their loss of moral authority. When a mere 2,000 people show up in support of your ideological agenda, you know you've become marginal. Unless there are some very delusional leaders among the US Bishops, the paltry turnout ought to be a wake up call.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Nice has never been a virtue (the shifting conception of God)

I have noted the development of para-theology in several related posts. I do this neither to justify or criticize such a development, only to, I hope, provide some narrative of the changing popular conception of God in the West as well as offer a description of a very real religious moment in Western culture, for better or worse depending upon one's perspective. This shift may or may not be of some consequence - it is impossible to say if the conceptualizations floated about have any staying power or probability. However, they are here; they are very real and, I believe, seriously reckoned with, be it from a religious, philosophical, or theological point of view. As some of you may know, I am in the process of researching a book (well, series of books) on this subject. What follows is an observation that will likely not make it into any manuscript but it is worth jotting a few lines on the subject nevertheless.

One of the reasons behind the popular metamorphosis of God in the West is our changing presumption of what God must be based upon our experience of what human beings are. The experience of humanity has colored our perception of God in the past. The experience of medieval Christendom and its distant monarchs in whom resided absolute authority gave rise a conception of Jesus as the distant celestial judge, as can often be seen in medieval iconography of the celestial Christ. This in turn gave rise to the cult of the saints as it is popularly thought of in the West, by Catholic and non-Catholic alike. That is, an assemblage of heavenly patrons with awesome powers of intercession who plead one's case before the seat of divine judgment regularly. Most imminent among them is the matron of heaven herself, the Virgin Mary, the Mater Dei whose role as the birth giver of God, though still, paradoxically, subject to God's judgment like the rest of us, yields immeasurable influence in the Creator's decisions.

Times of course change. The popular piety of the middle ages underwent a long decline as the West moved into the Renaissance and succeeding eras of culture. While the concept of saintly intercession remains, the context in which it is believed to happen, thought entirely celestial, lacks the imagery of petition before the throne of judgment. God is no longer seen as a Deity constantly watching his earthly subjects and decreeing a daily judgment upon their lives. In the Roman liturgy, the effects have been notable. Whereas the previous Missal was littered with collects in the sanctoral that did not hesitate to ask God for the efficacious intercession of a given saint (in contradistinction from the cult of the saints in popular piety), duly noting our lack of merit for such intercession, the present Missal tones down such language. Saints are approached as models or exemplars of divine caritas and their intercession is conceived of as a function of said divine caritas.

This shift can be seen when comparing a number of collects currently in the sanctoral to their counterparts in the 1962 Missale Romanum. This is not to say that the concepts of intercession before the seat of divine judgment has been entirely or of God as judge of humanity has been removed from the Roman liturgy. It remains, though like many medieval accretions it has been greatly redacted in the revision of the liturgical books following Vatican II. The comparison I am going to draw, therefore, while typical, is not uniform in the contemporary form of the Roman rite. For this comparison, though many more prayers could be used, I am going to examine the proper collect from the feast of St. Rita (May 22nd).

Deus, qui sanctae Ritae tantum gratiam conferre dignatus es,
at inimicos dilligeret, et in corde ac fronte caritatis et passionis tua
signa portaret: da nobis, quaesumus, eius intercessione et meritis;
inimicis nostris sic parcere, et passionis tuae dolores contemplari,
ut promissa mitibus ac lugentibus praemia consequamur. (Missale Romanum 1962)

Largire nobis, quaesumus, Domine, 
sapientiam crucis et fortitudinem
quibus beatam Ritam ditare dignatus es,
ut, in tribulatione cum Christo patientes,
paschali eius mysterio intimius participare valeamus. (Missale Romanum 2002)

The most obvious observation to make is that we have two distinct collects, both composed (to the best of my knowledge) in the twentieth century. The prayers exemplify how the change in theological paradigm has influenced even the Roman rite - which should not be surprising as the Roman liturgy (and the Latin liturgy in general) has always born influences from the culture, including popular theological beliefs. The original collect demonstrates the tendency to appeal to the merits of the saint and, it seems, subtly correlates the saint's intercessory "power" with her merits in the eyes of God. The prayer does not necessarily appeal to the Deity's nature as reason the prayer's efficacy. God does not do this or that because it is in the divine nature so to do. Rather, God does or could do the desired action of the prayer on account of the merits of the heavenly counterpart making the case for the earthly supplicants. This is, admittedly, a very old concept in the history of religions. The prayer from the 1962 Missale Romanum follows the assumption of a heavenly "pantheon" a successive degree of "lesser" heavenly beings who are closer in proximity to human supplication on account of having been human and to divine efficacy on account of having been transfigured into celestial being (read: saint) following the cessation of physical existence.

By comparison, the collect of the 2002 Missale Romanum follows certain biblical presumptions about the nature of the Deity and his relationship to humanity. The evocation of the paschal mystery simultaneously alludes to Jesus' life as parallel to the Pasch as well as the concept of God presented in the paschal narrative of the Old Testament. God is the transcendent who may become immanent at any given moment and there are definitive actions God undertakes in the moment of immanence in favor of the people in covenant with him. This collect does not presume a distant divinity for which we need a heavenly counterpart of special merit. The collect presumes our merit to receive the divine action on account of the covenant between us and God; the divine action could/would occur in a context of relationship with the Deity itself. Aficionados of the older liturgy will correctly remark that this collect is somewhat at odds with traditional Catholic piety. However, such persons should reckon with the fact that the concept of the divine nature intimated by the prayer and the relationship of the Deity to humanity is quite biblical and, if the gospels have any credibility, is in reasonable proximity to Jesus' own concept of God.

This is not to say that the older liturgy is less biblical in its orientation or more enchained to medieval tendencies. It is not; there are indeed many prayers in the Missale Romanum of 1962 that readily betray a pre-medieval influence and are closer to certain strains of biblical thought - the secret from the seventh Sunday after Pentecost and much of the Roman Canon are two fine examples of this. This is to say, however, medieval presumptions eventually found their way into the old missal and regular Catholic prayer.
A consequence of the theological orientation of the prayer from the 2002 Missale Romanum is the abandonment of God as conceived in the medieval period. However, as Christian liturgy has continued to be revised among all denominational lines the rejection of God's judgment has become more expansive. It is not merely the medieval concept, but indeed the notion that God would judge a human being at all that has become anathematized in Western culture. We can see this in the revisions of many funeral rites among Western Christians. The idea that the soul requires a period to be judged by God has largely been redacted out of many funeral rites and indeed there is the presumption that the human soul is immediately transposed into heaven. To the best of my knowledge, the conservative backlash against this development has been largely limited to a few eccentric voices.

The common retort one encounters in reaction to these developments, both in Christian liturgy and in popular theology (or para-theology) is that such persons ignore the scriptural instances or the logical conclusion that God does indeed judge. It seems that contemporary Westerners, especially in the States, desire a divinity of niceness as opposed to justice. The compassionate Jesus, more conservative voices would retort, ignores the Jesus who picked up a whip in the temple, warned his followers that he could conceivably deny knowing them to the Father, etc. True, the God of eternal niceness and anti-judgment is a bit too facile; however, to reject this conception of God outright would ignore the cultural necessity that has inspired this palpable theological notion.

If one were to take a popular survey and asked what characteristics mark a person as holy, one would find that there is a popular belief, even in more conservative camps, that a holy person is fundamentally nice - even tempered, not prone to anger, always seeking a way to help. This popular presumption is in reaction to the at times unyielding cruelty, if not inhumanity, of our contemporary culture. How many interactions does the contemporary American engage in during which he or she feels his or her humanity has been ignored if not denied? It seems our society is constructed in such a manner that institutional protocol triumphs over individual interaction, policy trumps all things and quashes the normal impulse to treat another humanly. Our society appears geared in such a way so as to totally dehumanize, both the person facilitating the active dehumanization and the person receiving such treatment. It is easy enough, and probably more common, to forgo an in depth societal analysis of the situation and simply boil it down to receiving cruel or indifferent treatment and desiring the other party to be nice. We desire some form of reprieve from policy induced maltreatment and we note, almost as a godsend, when we receive such reprieve. It is the difference between being stopped by a state police officer who follows policy to the detail without any affect and the one who will try to engage you on a somewhat personal level, at least to the point of discerning the context of the offense. We will likely go away from that cop who cuts us a break with a sense of gratitude. We'll view the other with no degree of sympathy, reeling from the blunt force of policy and rarely recognizing that as dehumanized as the policy renders us, it has already render the officer - and rarely does it give him a reprieve.

We live in a society in which institutional policy and procedure affords us precious few chances to be human. Our society in turn, I believe, seeks a God who is polar opposite of the society we increasingly experience. For lack of philosophical or theological depth, what we're seeking in God receives a rough and ready description as kindness or nice. This is our contemporary definition of holy; this is our popularly held cure for the wounded soul. Indeed, there are many wounded souls. Sometime back I was invited to attend a Lenten church mission in a suburb of Long Island. It was led by a priest-nun pair from a religious order and placed a good deal of emphasis on tactile experience. This particular day included the use of oils and reminded me of aroma therapy. At one point, they conducted a healing ritual and present an "oil of human kindness," the purpose of which was to facilitate reconciliation. You would forgive your enemy and the person who wronged you would become open to conversion of heart. To be blunt, the whole thing was rather tacky and left me wondering if this very wealthy area of Long Island couldn't afford something of more substance and better quality. That was during the event. It still seems tacky to me now, however, it has, in retrospect, demonstrated that there is a pervasive need in our culture for kindness and compassion. There are many people, even among the affluent, who feel hurt, wronged, or wounded and the desire is for something more than healing, it is for a total change of behavior. In a context such as a Lenten mission, this is a change of behavior that s believed to be accomplishable only through some divine intervention, a miracle believed to be possible because regardless what God is, God must be kind - because this seems to be the one thing our culture isn't.

Does this theology float with me? Not really - there may be a need to be nice, but for the extremely oppressed there is a need for a God of vengeance. However, I think a thoughtful look at our culture can tell you where this theology comes from. We always seek to receive from God things we otherwise cannot have. I do not, as a matter of principle, endorse the concept of God as "divine human kindness." It is far too limited and stifles the dynamism of the Deity as presented in the canon. Furthermore, such limitations on human behavior are likely to drive the development of religious inspired neurosis. This being said, I do believe all persons prone to observing religion or the developments in theology should take note - it is a very real process that has left a strong mark on the popular conception of the Godhead.