Thursday, December 11, 2003

Commentary on the Burbling Church (2)

The reasons for this series are explained here. This "installment" comments on a story linked by Mark Shea that deals with yet another iteration of the same theme -- the reduction of Christianity to something that asks no more of us than we're willing to ask of ourselves. It's called Repas de Fraternite. The story's words are in blue, mine in black.

How Quebec Catholics remember Jesus with bread and wine will change dramatically if more than 110 Catholics - from young adults to leading theologians and a few church bureaucrats - have their way. [ ] Intimate family-like meals, with hearty chunks of crusty bread, as well as wine, soup, other food, Scripture readings, singing and discussion, often in the absence of a priest, would largely - but not wholly - supplant the traditional mass.

"He took a hearty chunk of crusty bread and strewed crumbs all over the table. Then he ripped off chunks and threw them around to the guests (not forgetting the dog) and said, 'Take this, all of you, and gnaw it. This is good crusty bread from the trendy new bakery on the corner, it has caraway seeds, and doesn't it make you feel so delightfully peasantish, so unlike your alienated BoHo selves which have been tormented with infantile rebellion and cowardly self-pampering for so many years?' Then he took the bowl of soup and blessed it, saying, 'Take this, all of you, and blow on it. This is the bowl of Soupe D'Artichauts Perigourdine, the soup of the New Menu. It will be served to you and to all, so that you can affirm your own goodness and feel that you're faithful common people, plain working people of the earth, who are so simple and innocent (despite being on the fast-track for tenure, having a SEP and a 401(K), driving Volvos with heated seats, and owning a sexual pharmacopeia that would put a metropolitan hospital to shame) that you only need to sit around this warm and cheery room thinking about how delighted God must be that you've included Him.'"

A campaign to promote the "Repas de Fraternité" was launched at the end of October at the Relais Mont-Royal, a young-adults' centre sponsored by the archdiocese of Montreal at 500A Mount Royal Ave. E.

Another diocese which would rather be a nonprofit corporation working for children, the homeless, and any other serious cause and is, therefore, diligently trying to obliterate itself.

Actor Mario Bard, who co-founded the Relais seven years ago, said the intimate sacred meals were conceived as a way for the church to carry on now that fewer and fewer priests mean fewer and fewer masses.

Not that Masses are worth going to anyway -- no thick crusty bread, no pot a feu and no romantic reveries about our personal bucolic warmth and indubitable oneness with God.

But the motivation is far more profound than that, he said, aiming to build the kind of community that he has found "lets me become human again."

This is how depravity works. First, one spends a lot of time stripping away the elements of glorified humanity and trying to become just a "natural" animal. Doing this makes one feels naked, and cold, and frightened. So, rather than retrace one's steps, one searches for new goodnesses that can be violated and hid inside, like the dead-but-still warm corpse of an animal into which a freezing trapper will crawl to survive the night. The upwards turn at the bottom of this "V" is what makes sinners into antichrists. And antichrists always want to be human. Just human, all human, nothing but human. No theosis for them, nosir. Theosis means going back around the Horn, undoing the harm that's been done, ripping apart those scars that have grown up over one's spiritual self-mutilation and starting over. The deepest fear is that it can't be done, the winds of sin will be too strong at the Horn (haven't the winds of sin done so much damage already? Surely they must be unbeatable!), and so our antichrist goes on and on and on, violating more goodnesses, leaving more corpses in his wake, until there's nothing left but a wasteland, an abomination of desolation.

A manifesto signed by about 110 Catholics says the failure of the eucharist to fulfill its original purpose of building the church as a community poses a mortal danger to the church in Quebec and France, where vocations to the priesthood and attendance at mass have been dropping.

Where are the stories that would make the media consistent and allay suspicions that it, too, is haunted by a spirit that wants to eradicate the Church? "90 Americans sign manifesto urging repeal of the First Amendment." -- "105 Frenchmen Support Bush in Iraq." Of course, the difference is that those stories would be news if the groups were sponsored by the Bush Administration or President Chirac, which makes one wonder what spirit might be haunting the Archdiocese of Montreal.

"A church that no longer embodied community would run the risk of becoming a (mere) religion, providing ceremonies and other services to people who hardly know one another, if at all," the manifesto says.

And a movement of self-selecting fruitcakes is a community? No, guys, it's not a community. It's a movement of self-selecting fruitcakes who are so fruitcakey that they can't abide real communities -- where other people can be encountered, dirty street-people who have smelly and distasteful views about the Church as a hierarchy and the Mass being a holy representation of Calvary. Real communities have rules, and leaders, and winners and losers. Being hateful to all that crap, y'all have to invent the theological equivalent of your gated yuppie communities and tenured enclaves, removing yourself from the dark alleys of "mere religion" and shielding yourself from the filthy scum who would otherwise accost you and demand that you put money in their collection baskets. I mean, God only knows what kind of human trash would show up if you just had a parish-wide breakfast or dinner after Mass! And besides, the people who cook and clean up at parish functions don't have much time for signing manifestos and having their egos stroked by stories in a big newspaper that will no doubt be read in the faculty lounge! Much better to create a new movement where the perfecti can suck their Bouillabaisse, explain away Church teaching, and sing "We Are Church" or some other trendy self-affirming ditty.

The intimate meals, complementing large gatherings for traditional masses, would allow Christians to create communities on a human scale, it says.

Yeah, but that's not what you're about. You're about "supplanting" the Mass in favor of priestless guacamole-and-fondue parties. But, since we're on the upward swing of that "V", we have to start our new project by "merging" ourselves and some goodness to be corrupted, just like the freezing trapper "merges" his bullet with the bison. See, if these guys were in any way serious about Catholicism and community they'd just start having parish dinners. In fact, they'd start turning traditional Masses into social events as a way to get people to come to Mass. They wouldn't be signing manifestos proclaiming new dogma about the "original purpose" of the Mass, condemning the Church for "failing" that purpose, and then getting all excited about not having priests at their meetings as though they were teenagers being left alone for the weekend. And they wouldn't be simultaneously telling you why they're so new, different, and radical while also telling you that they're just doing what the Knights of Columbus or the Knights of the Immaculata are doing.

The signatories include more than 30 women and about 20 priests. Among them: Msgr. Paul Delorme, in charge of Laval for the diocese of Montreal; Deacon Robert Sauvageau, head of the diocesan office of education; Irénée Beaubien, Jesuit founder of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism; Gilles Routhier, vice-dean of theology at Université Laval in Quebec City and on the staff of the Institut Catholique de Paris; Guy Lapointe, director of the Centre culturel chrétien de Montréal and one of several Dominican priests among the signers; and Odette Mainville of the Université de Montréal, known for explaining theological issues to the public at large.

Head of the Diocesan Office of Education . . . Vice-Dean of theology . . . Director of the Center . . . faculty member . . . .yeah, it's a real grass-roots movement. These are the kind of people that, a century or so back, tried to live "the simple life" by having picnics in the country (complete with champagne, foie' gras and servants), putting silk leashes on sheep, and then pretending to be "simple shepherds."

Also among those who signed the manifesto was Roland Leclerc, the Trois Rivières priest whose mysterious, though apparently accidental, death just over two weeks ago shocked the many Quebecers who knew him from his appearances on religious television programs.

Ah, he must have been assassinated by operatives of Opus Dei (which is a fascist cult dedicated to reviving the ugliest aspects of the pre-Vatican II Church, dont'cha know).

Leclerc is interviewed on a publicity video for the campaign. "It is important," he says, "that the Christian community recognize lay people, lay people capable of inviting their brothers and sisters to join them around a table to share the bread of the Word and the (physical) bread. That bread becomes holy to the extent that it is shared. For the real presence is when we share bread together."

Yes, it's all for the lay people, those humble toilers of the earth who are so just like our good Head of the Diocesan Office of Education . . . founder of the Centre for XYZ . . . . Vice-Dean of theology . . . . . faculty member famous for "explaining" theology to the public . . . innocent labor, bucolic simplicity -- what could be finer! Of course they'll need to have it explained to them, those sweet and magnificent sheep, and so our Toiling Academics and Bucolic Bureaucrats will need some silken nooses leashes for their picnicking on the Body of Christ.

I wonder if syphilis and AIDS are holy -- I mean, to the extent that they're shared ‘an all? Better not go there. Simple Working Professor Odette Mainville might have to famously explain that they are while using a lot of qualifiers and misapplied truths like "in a certain sense . . . our Lord shared suffering with his loved ones." That might make the sheep nervous. It might even scare some of them into straining at the silken leash, pulling toward the thorny ground of "true / false" and "did Jesus found a Church?" Let's just focus on the crusty bread and the Soupe au Pistou shall we? Hmmm . . . they smell soooo gooooodddd!!!!!

I sometimes wonder if guys like the Head of the Diocesan Office of Education would be so enthused about these loopy ideas if they were responsible for hearing confessions (at the parish level) for six hours a week, or if the priestly faculty members of "Centres" would be so enamored of this BoHo bullcrap if they'd been on 24-hour, 7-day-a-week call for last rites and the distribution of communion to shut-ins for at least five years. Probably so -- radicals are generally inclined to ignore reality, which is why they become radicals in the first place. We'd probably still have ended up with Bucolic Yupster Theology, a lot of really bad "necessary-abortions-are-just-venial-sins" confessions, and sick people who went to their graves wondering why they'd been given chicklets with Tielhard de Chardin's picture on them.

Campaign organizers and the publishing partnership of Fides and Médias Paul have published a book of essays and worship suggestions, Le Repas aujourd'hui ... en mémoire de Lui, a booklet of commentaries on the Gospels, and a CD of songs for possible use at the meals. A conference on the Repas is planned for the weekend of March 27-28.

Medias Paul -- Paul's media, eh? I wonder if they'll put this in their booklet for possible use at these "joyful" communal meals of crusty bread and rich, hearty soup:
For first of all I hear that when you come together in the church, there are schisms among you. And in part I believe it. For there must be also heresies: that they also, who are approved may be made manifest among you. When you come therefore together into one place, it is not now to eat the Lord's supper. For every one taketh before his own supper to eat. And one indeed is hungry and another is drunk. What, have you not houses to eat and to drink in? Or despise ye the church of God and put them to shame that have not? What shall I say to you? Do I praise you? In this I praise you not.
-- 1 Cor. 11:18-23 (DRV)
Probably not.

In the book, containing contributions from Bard, Mainville and several other authors, Georges Convert, the Relais's priest since it was founded, writes that there would be a problem with today's masses even if the shortage of priests were not as serious as it is.

How serious is serious? According to statistics summarized in a review of the book Global Catholicism, in 1950 there was 1 priest for every 1,203 Catholics. In 2000 there was 1 priest for every 2,579 Catholics. That sounds like a 100% decrease in the number of available priests, doesn't it? But consider these statistics regarding the "deployment" of priests in 1950:
Europe had 49% of the world's Catholics but 76% of the Church's priests.

Latin America had 33% of the world's Catholics but only 9% percent of the Church's priests.

North America had 8% of the world's Catholics, and 6% percent of the Church's priests.

Africa had 3% percent of the world's Catholics, and 3% of the Church's priests.
The thing I notice about these statistics is that the higher number of priests in 1950 was largely concentrated in an "overserved" Europe, where the proportion of the Church's priests assigned was much higher than Europe's proportion of global Church membership. Here are the same statistics for 2000:
Europe had 27% of the world's Catholics but 52% percent of the Church's priests.

Latin America had 42% of the world's Catholics, but only 15% percent of the Church's priests.

North America had 7% percent of the world's Catholics and 15% of the Church's priests.

Africa had 7% of the world's Catholics, and 12% of the Church's priests.
Again, Europe claims both the majority of the Church's priests and a minority of the Church's membership. Things in North America have actually improved -- from an 8% : 6% Catholic/Priest "ratio" in 1950 to a 7% : 15% "ratio" in 2000. Latin America -- Latin America -- still has the most severe "priest crisis", with a 33% : 9% Catholic/Priest "ratio" in 1950 and a 42% : 15% figure in 2000. Are we really expected to solve this problem by junking the Mass in favor of crusty bread and Soupe au Potiron?

One solution is suggested by statistics on seminary populations. In 1950, Europe and North America had 92% of the world's Catholic seminarians. But fifty years later, Europe and North America only had 29% of the world's seminarians: Asia, Latin America and Africa had 70%. Europe and North America don't have a shortage of priests. What they do have, is a scarcity of men interested in the priesthood. Why is that? Too much nutmeg in the Creme de Chou-Fleur Iseult à la Bretagnet? Not hardly.

Consider a typical North American / European Catholic young man, moderately faithful, who feels some sort of gentle and hard-to-resist tug on his conscience to do and become more Catholic than he is. He looks around his community for men who have felt the same longing and tried to follow it. What does he see? Why, he sees Deacon Sauvageau praising La Soup au Riz à la Parisienne as better fare than the Blood of Christ, and Fr. Beaubien nodding appreciatively while Odette Mainville famously explains why the priestly life of the Mass represents the Church's failure to follow Jesus. In short, our young man sees the kind of idiot pusillanimity that he can easily accomplish on his own and without membership in the celibate Order of Melchizedek.

I suspect the difference might also depend on the elements that go to make up diamonds -- time and pressure. In Asia, Latin America, and Africa there are today martyrs, men and women who are murdered for following Jesus Christ. There is poverty, sickness, and war. There are demons who haunt the old religions (and some of the new ones) and use them to scourge humanity. There is no time for Christian weakness, ennui, and decadence because those things will get you (and others) killed to no purpose. In such circumstances the priest is an essential center, a living connection to the God-Man whose cataclysmic glory on the Cross is the only thing powerful enough to conquer the darkness. The priest must be strong and noble, not because strength and nobility are fine concepts that we praise because we don't know what else to do with them, but because they are essential survival tools which are more important than medicine, cookstoves, and a good knife. The priest in such circumstances doesn't have time to indulge the modern West's perpetual angst over human sexuality. He doesn't have time to natter and muse about alternative ecclesiastical modalities and biblical reinterpretations -- those things don't frighten Muslim armies, cow barbarian mobs, or help people whose children are dying of infections that get cured by over-the-counter medicine in the West. People are sick. People are starving. Life is lived on stark, hard terms that don't apply at the Universite de Laval, where the human mind has apparently become so emaciated that it can focus only on silly, insignificant things, such as whether Bisque de Crevettes is too rich for a self-worship services during Lent. In those troubled and frightful places, God is the only being who can possibly save men, in this life or in the next. It must concentrate the mind wonderfully on the need for priests who are strong and noble and self-giving because the people need strength, nobility and uncompromising love just in order to live (and die) as people.

The diabolical thing is that, spiritually speaking, our lives are just like the lives of Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans. The only difference is that here the lions and barbarians are flitting about in the air, pouring into our minds mind through the glass portals of television sets, haunting the pages of the books we study, and designing the toys we buy our children. From this standpoint, the West's material prosperity and political stability has done only one thing. It has stripped away the physical arena and its consolation of undeniable brutality and distilled our fight into the most essential and excruciating battleground of all, the battleground of the soul. The lions, evil empires, and barbarian legions are in our minds, but they are no less deadly on that fact alone. Why did the Nazis commit genocide? Was it because Germans were poor? Hungry? Physically threatened? No. It was because Germans gave their souls to Nazism, to the corruption that roamed through their culture seeking the destruction of souls. Why do we murder our own babies? Is it because we are hungry, attacked, or dying of disease? No. It is because we've been conquered by wickedness in high places, and given our souls to the Prince of the Air. As the evil becomes more concentrated, our minds become more diffuse, more easily distracted, less capable of apprehending the awful reality in which we live. That's why Western nations end up aborting babies -- their moral leaders are too busy fantasizing about Soupe de Laitue as a sacrament and encouraging young men to give their lives for coffee-klatches and sing-alongs. That's why young men aren't being inspired to join the enervated, inconsequential, and "presiding" preisthood. They can already lead lives of febrile insouciance without having to make the sacrifices that the priesthood would demand.

"Today, to the extent that the congregation assembled is an agglomeration of more or less anonymous individuals, the current form in which the mass is celebrated cannot create community," he writes.

Since we're being all "Emile Zola" about it, dwelling on the righteousness of imaginary peasants and fantasized factory workers, why don't we start by taking a page from the humble workmans' book and admitting that it's a poor craftsman who blames his tools. When a priest thinks that what he does cannot create community, will he not tailor his participation in the Mass to his belief? How can he expect -- or demand -- that his flock stop being anonymous individuals, when he himself admits that the central purpose of his life, the task to which all his energies are ultimately directed, cannot help his flock transcend that fate? Deep within this mentality is a denial of God's ability to create human unity by sovereign acts of miraculous kindness and nourishment, and a concomitant deification of man as the source and summit of the human family.

St. Paul understood differently. After rebuking the Corinthians for a similar distortion of community, he recounted that the real basis of the human family is a miracle:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread, And giving thanks, broke and said: Take ye and eat: This is my body, which shall be delivered for you. This do for the commemoration of me. In like manner also the chalice, after he had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in my blood. This do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me. For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come. Therefore, whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.
-- 1 Cor. 11:23-29 (DRV)
I think anyone who doesn't believe that the creation of a human community requires, not one miracle but thousands and thousands of them on a daily basis, knows very little about humans and human communities. I dare say he tends to think that the manicured campus is the ordinary environment of human events; that the polite maneuvering one sees on faculty committees is the human soul's default response to frustration; and that the whole elegant construct of civilization is just the spontaneous manifestation of "right reason" and human nature. He will go on thinking like that until his daughter-in-law shoots herself in the head, driven by guilt because she and he have been making the beast with two backs for nineteen years. Any man can put trousers on an ape, but only God can create the difference between an ape and a man. Unless we subordinate our lives to adoring that miraculous event it won't matter whether we're living the trendy-left romanticism of Relais or the trendy-right decency of Hillsdale -- our ignorance of the divine mystery will leave us with nothing better to do than sit around and pick nits off each other until our "community" goes up in an explosion of disordered passion.

"We become a Christian community when each member can speak after having heard the word of the gospel and can share his or her own manner of experiencing the gospel."

Yes, but without the thundering transcendence of God, encountered in awe and glory, there can't really be any good news. Where is the tumultuous miracle? Where is the divine power making us even greater than the things we imagine? Is it floating in a bowl of Soupe de Moules au Safran? Is that what the curtain will close on at the end of man's cosmic drama -- a group of marginally well-developed mammals sitting around a fire, munching animal flesh and soaked roots while talking about themselves? That's all these mild "let's-celebrate-our-ordinariness" schemes can really offer, and it's not enough. Once the frisson of self-congratulation has palled, and we've sucked all the Potage Parmentier into our greedy mouths, we'll notice that we're alone again, naked and cold. Then we'll look for another goodness to merge with, another spasm of dying warmth to enjoy, until that too palls and leaves us alone in the freezing night again.

Instead of expecting the cosmos to stop turning while we gulp soup and yap at each other, we ought to be looking for what we truly need -- a light that cannot die and warmth that never fails. The course into that holiness will have to battle back around the Horn. It will have to gloriously dare a miraculous journey straight into a searing blaze of blinding light that would obliterate an ordinary creature. That's where we have to go, and it's where the Mass takes us. It's the miracle we need, the miracle we must have, because a Christian community can't exist among ordinary creatures.
Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name . . .

Look with favor on your Church's offering, and see the Victim whose death has reconciled us to yourself. Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ . . . May he make us an everlasting gift to you and enable us to share in the inheritance of your saints . . .

Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor are yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.
We need the Mass, not a fashionable movement that wants to sell our Eucharistic birthright for a mess of pottage.

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