Terrorists and liturgists

Terrorists and liturgists

I am enjoying this liturgy conference immensely. Much more than I expected.

Each presentation has thrown up challenges and prompted insights which I’ll probably blog about in due time. Right now, though, I’m going to write about Bishop Peter Elliott’s presentation on “the new liturgical movement.”

The good bishop was provocative, as is his wont, which elicited fiery responses from sections of his audience. This is precisely what he wanted, and it was a refreshing change for everyone present, I think. Conversations on the subjects presented are more typically conducted between the like-minded, and against an imagined straw man.

The difference between terrorists and liturgists, so the old joke goes, is that one can negotiate with terrorists. The truth behind the punchline was twice alluded to in recent days. At the start of the conference, Australia’s papal nuncio Archbishop Paul Gallagher quipped that in his seminary days, only two issues drew fierce debate between students: the seminary food, and the Church’s liturgy. At yesterday’s workshop on the Liturgy of the Hours, a religious wag observed that the surest way to start a debate within a religious community is to voice an opinion on how long one should pause at the asterisks in the psalter. The point is, liturgy evokes real passion, and liturgical differences can become ferocious.

During question time after Bishop Elliott’s presentation, one of the conference organizers thanked the bishop for accepting the invitation to present a workshop. After all, a great many of the conference attendees would thoroughly disagree with his well-publicized liturgical opinions.

Why, she asked, are dialogues like this the exception rather than the rule? It was a good question, all the more pertinent in light of Bishop Elliott’s address. Several times during his talk he was interrupted by bellicose questions and comments. In every instance, Bishop Elliot agreed with his interlocutor, added his own anecdotes and insights to validate the questioner’s point, and then furnished a nuanced reply. By no means did people leave Bishop Elliott’s talk in agreement, but they certainly left more enlightened and better informed of opposing views. (This is equally true, I think, of those who are enthused by the new liturgical movement, and those who are dubious of it.)

So why doesn’t this sort of constructive discourse occur more often? Why don’t liturgists “reach across the aisle” more, to use the US congressional metaphor?

There are many answers of course, but Bishop Elliott proffered two at length. One problem, he said, is that official liturgists employed by the diocese can become part of an establishment. Any “Establishment” – whether it’s conservative or progressive – tends to declare and decree, rather than propose and dialogue. Another problem, the bishop suggested, is that the young too quickly write off the old. This observation – a good one I think – was elicited by his questioner’s lament that “the sins of her past” – regrettable innovations she promoted in the headiest days of liturgical experimentation – are still held against her decades later. (Bishop Elliott could only commiserate, and express his own Mea culpa for the liturgical vandalism he wrought in his contributions to The Catholic Worship Book.)

The tenor of Bishop Elliott’s workshop fascinated me because of its broader application beyond the confines of liturgy. It’s no secret – and indeed no surprise when one studies the history of the great reforming councils – that fierce ideological battles have been waged over the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. Liturgists aren’t the only ones who have often declined to “reach across the aisle.”

But perhaps things are changing. Pope Francis has repeatedly called for the rejection of ideology and the embrace of supernatural outlook. References to this call grace many of the pages of the latest issue of the NCP’s The Swag. Author after author expresses regret at the factional impasses of recent decades, and expresses hope in a future more typified by mutual respect and open dialogue. Sadly, there’s scant evidence of that in those same pages. The latest issue of The Swag is as ironically opposed as ever to the NCP’s mottos: “Sign of unity” and “Instrument of peace.” As a proud member of the NCP, I write that with sincere regret, not with smug satisfaction. However I invest real hope in this new rhetoric of dialogue. Eventually, I am sure, reality will match it. Sometimes, the desire to be is as important as becoming, and in any event it’s always the necessary first step.

(People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, I know. As editor of the ACCC’s The Priest, I have to attend to the same lofty ideals myself. I hope its readers will keep me to account.)

In the meantime, the Lift Up Your Hearts liturgy conference has given me an idea of what constructive dialogue looks like. People whose differences are passionate and even ferocious can share a room, talk openly about the elephant therein, and consequently leave the room better informed and more enlightened.

This is where grace works I think. This is where the Spirit is free to move.

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