Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Last Beguine

Amid the chaos in the Boston area, I sadly passed over this story. On April 14th, 2013, the world's last Beguine, Marcella Pattyn, passed away at the age of 92. I must echo the sentiments of a colleague of mine: the Beguines survived the tumult of Church persecution, the decline of the medieval period, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and two world wars...but in the end they could not survive the forces of secularization in Western Europe.

This should serve as bitter sign for Western Christianity. The Beguines were crucial to both the flowering of Catholic mysticism in the medieval period, providing the Latin West with something comparable to the theology of the Greek East. They were also among the many Catholic predecessors to the Reformation several hundred years later and were the first real representatives of feminine spirituality - perhaps in the history of the Western world. Perhaps most importantly, they were a dynamic force for the declericalization of Latin Christianity, creating a credible model of lay spirituality that has often been imitated but never equaled. With Marcella Pattyn's death, a noble tradition in the history of Western spirituality has suddenly come to its conclusion, abruptly, and without much noticed, wiped away from living memory and consigned to the pages of the past.

It is impossible not to feel that, on some level, the end of the Beguines is like a mini-apocalypse, in the most un-theological sense of the term. Six hundred years of tradition has come to an end - not due to a revival religion, but rather through an epoch of cultural change. It is a forerunner to the changes that will be seen in other parts of Western Christianity.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Benedict XVI: A Liturgical Liberation Theologian?

Not really. A writer over at The Chant Cafe` has got his spin on, however. He lifts a quote from one of Josef Ratzinger's early works - in this case, a reflection on one of the closing sessions of the Second Vatican Council.

The writer wants to make the point that the apparently "progressive" or "liberation" sounding excerpt came from a pope most persons would describe as "conservative" or "reactionary." Or, more precisely, the image his friend has in mind of Papa Francesco aptly fits Pope Benedict XVI.

Okay. Well, it's a neat trick but we need to recall three little words of caution: context is everything.

It's no wonder the writer's friend thought it came from the new pope (or some one other than Josef Ratzinger). Only the greatest of intellectual acrobatics can allow one to ignore the "shift" that occurred in Josef Ratzinger's thought after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. Josef Ratzinger, like most every theological superstar of the time, was firmly in the "progressive camp" in the years leading up to and including the Second Vatican Council. It's only in the late 60s/early 70s that the Josef Ratzinger known to most of his devotees today really emerges (in toto). There is no mistaking to the two periods of his thought - they are at times startlingly different. The Josef Ratzinger writing during the midst of the Second Vatican Council bears all of the marks of a progressive theologian and will easily appeal to those persons who find a bit of reprieve in Papa Francesco.

The fact is, look at Ratzinger's pontificat. Compare it to the quote from Josef Ratzinger the young theologian. Would that young Josef Ratzinger, the man taking a jab at the Roman Church's penchant for Baroque dress, been sympathetic to his older self's attempt at reintroducing baroque era triumphantalism and frilly lace?

Context is everything. Josef Ratzinger the young theologian is a man in a different time and place and intellectual space compared to Josef Ratzinger, the man who was doctrinal tsar then pope.

As I wrote earlier, there are many types, usually of a liturgical mindset, who are trying to handle the change in pontiffs and the accompanying shift in liturgy. Above all, they are trying to find some sort of social praxis to complement their liturgical theory - because, ultimately, its the promise of a social praxis that seems to have propelled Papa Francesco's momentum.

The challenge for those who would like to see some form of liturgical restoration is to firmly establish that the old missal is not only not contrary to social justice or political theology, but indeed the "source" from which such theology rightfully springs, it is the supernatural compliment to effecting change in the order of human society. Virgil Michel was able to see the connection as was Dorothy Day. If our generation is unable to comprehend the connection, then the onus is one us, not them. Ours is the generation that has lost something in its comprehension of reality. My prediction (for what it is worth): the future of the old Roman liturgy will be largely determined by how well our generation (and all those who are liturgically inclined) can re-establish the connection between the old missal and substantial social justice theology. If people stay lost in a world of "frilly" non-essentials, then the old liturgy has essentially had it...which would be a great shame.

The Resurrection of Virgil Michel?

The liturgical movement is dead and the attempt to prop up a comparatively shallow imitator as its successor has failed - although it is debatable if it ever had the forward momentum to begin with. Papa Francesco's liturgical ethic has many liturgical types that found some satisfaction in Benedict's pontificate struggling to find a point of orientation. It is in this contemporary context, it was with much satisfaction that a new write up on Virgil Michel has appeared online - and not from the usual suspects.

The article isn't a detailed treatment of Michel's writings - a project that, so far as I know, has not really been done. But it successfully inserts his name into the Latin, restorationist, and traditionalist forums. Traditionalist and otherwise Latin liturgy types must reconcile with a concept of social justice that exceeds pious works of charity. It is impossible to ignore the myriad of social justice theologies that emerged in the last century, be it the mystical political theology of Metz or the tumultuous annals of the Liberation Theology...or indeed the social ethos of the early 20th century liturgical movement.

Virgil Michel, OSB is a good figure to start with. Michel's writings influenced the early Catholic Worker movement. Michel, for his part, did not imagine one had to deconstruct the old Missale Romanum in order to have a liturgy that was "for the poor and marginalized." Yes, he probably would have voted in favor of discarding the effeminate baroque vestments. Nothing wrong with that, really. Michel, however, thought the old Missale Romanum needed to be studied, fully integrated as the dominant figure in one's prayer life and, if I recall correctly, sought to infuse a monastic ethos into the celebration of the Roman liturgy - at least that is the model of Christian thought into which I'd classify his thinking.

Is this a sign of hope? Depends. So-called progressive liturgists are good at mentioning Virgil Michel's name but very rarely deal with his concrete body of work. There is room to make use of his work. Yes, new liturgical movement types, it means possibly locking away the effeminate vestments, but that is a small price to pay for the old missal to suddenly ride a wave of new found credibility.