Friday, March 4, 2011

Is Vatican II in Danger? VII The Sacred and the Profane of the Liturgy

One of the questions we need to look at as we examine the new translation of the liturgy in the light of the question “Is Vatican II in Danger?” regards the relationship of the Worship of the Church to its mission in society.  Steven Millies, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina at Aiken wrote an article for America magazine this February past raising a concern about the new translation and its impact on the Church’s mission of calling society to Justice.  Now the first problem, of course, is that not all agree that the Church has such a mission, but it is clear from the Gospels, from the Decrees of the Second Vatican Council, and from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that working for a just society is a constitutive element of the Church’s mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  Striving for social justice is not a characteristic of Christian life that one can accept or reject.  Some months back Glen Beck warned his listeners “If your Church is preaching the Social Gospel—get out of your Church.”  Well, Mr. Beck is a Mormon and perhaps (and I only say perhaps as I am unfamiliar with Mormon theology) the Book of Mormon doesn’t believe in Good News for the Poor, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ does.  Stephen Colbert, in his testimony before Congress, testified that his passion to defend the rights of immigrants and migrant workers in particular, came from his conviction “that whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”  That is in the Gospel of Jesus and, Mr. Colbert, a devout Catholic, takes those words to heart.  Mormons are good people; Mr. Colbert is a good Christian. 
Dr. Millies in his article speaks of the late Monsignor George Higgins, the famous “labor priest,” who headed up the social action department of the Bishop’s conference for decades and then he goes on to cite Monsignor Higgins’ mentor, Monsignor Reynold Hillenbrand.  “The Mass helps us learn our oneness at the altar and to bring that oneness to the other relations of life.” 
As a historian, I have often wonder what brought about the tremendous shift in the American Catholic population from the social conservativism of the first six decades of the twentieth century where it drew back from the Civil Rights movement, open housing, the peace movement etc. to its current commitment to human dignity, rights for immigrants, and social justice?  The liturgy modeled for us the Kingdom of God.  We heard the prophets being read to us in the liturgy.  We prayed together, confessing to one another in the penitential rite our own sinfulness.  At the most sacred moment of the mass, as Christ himself lies on the corporal and in the chalice, we turned to one another and offered one another his peace.  We drank from one cup.  The horizontal dimension of the liturgy formed the cross-bar with the vertical and we understood that one cannot love the God whom we cannot see if we do not love the neighbor whom we can. 
Now those various rites—the prayers of humble confession, the sign of peace, the cup of consecration all remain, but the language surrounding them will be a very elevated language—not the language in which we speak to one another but a “God language, ” an artificial and somewhat stilted language that actually puts God a few steps further from us and leaves more room in our subconscious to divide the world between the Sacred and the secular as if all we must do is render unto God some segment of our lives for there is a firewall between heaven and earth.  Artificial it may be, and terribly dangerous it probably isn’t—but it does betray a mindset of restoring the ancient hierarchies that led to that blasphemous hymn
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
There is a subtle shift in these translations that removes God a few steps from the every day and permits us more room to play unsupervised by heaven in the economic and social playground of our modern world.       

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