Sunday, November 30, 2003

Caveamus, Patres, caveamus!

Dwyer again. I am still savoring "Ecclesiastes: The Book of Archbishop Robert Dwyer". This essay was first published thirty years ago last October. It is still very, you'll pardon the word, relevant. Since I find a mass of italics tiring to read, and I presume you do, too, I have forsworn them here. Instead, just note that everything between the lines of "+" signs is from Archbishop Dwyer.

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What happens when an institution, be it a religious body or a nation state or what you will, deliberately cuts itself off from its historical and cultural roots? Rarely according to the record have such institutions been able to survive, the shock being too great, the trauma too devastating. They may seek in desperation to renew those roots, by some legerdemain to recover them, or to substitute some seeming equivalent, but unless any such an institution has some sort of divine guarantee, the chances of its success are, as the airline stewardesses never fail to assure us in soothing tones, exceedingly remote.

Toward the end of the Second Session of the Vatican Council, late in November, 1963, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was triumphantly voted in by an overwhelming majority of the assembled Fathers. As we trooped out of St. Peter's basilica that day, spreading our amaranthine stain over the great parvis, a palpable euphoria thrilled through the entire body. Something at last had been accomplished, one item of the business which had called us to Rome had been nailed down. The members of the Commission which had hammered out the Constitution and guided it through the gruelling tests of debate and modification, were obviously elated, and the most prominent American member, the late Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta, was the glowing recipient of hearty and even gleeful congratulations.

It was all in good fun and no one, least of all perhaps the drafters and proponents of the Constitution in question had the slightest notion, not to say intent, of tampering with the cultural life-lines of the Roman Catholic Church. Nor was there, on candid reading, anything in the text or in the spirit of the document which would suggest the least deviation from the historic past of the liturgy, its sacred traditions, its venerable usages. There was, of course, a loosening of certain restrictions. The vernacular was to share with the Latin the role of liturgical communication, not by any means to replace it. Greater simplicity in ritual was to be introduced. Though the term had not yet swung so prominently into orbit as it was to do a year or so later, the liturgy was to be made more "relevant" to contemporary man, with his increasingly secular preoccupations. Who dreamed on that day that within a few years, far less than a decade, the Latin past of the Church would be all but expunged, that it would be reduced to a memory fading in the middle distance? The thought would have horrified us, but it seemed so far beyond the realm of the possible as to be ridiculous. So we laughed it off.

As a personal footnote, we had been visited by some misgivings in regard to the vernacular, by way of certain apprehensions that it could lead to invidious comparisons between those prelates and priests who read well and have all the arts of elocution, who have the gift of acting their part with dignity and conviction, the Suenenses and the Sheens, and those not so happily endowed, all the way down to the poor fellows who can only mumble as unintelligibly in English or Swahili as in the ancient language of the Church. With the difference that nobody expected to understand them in Latin, whereas the whole point of the vernacular was to make the liturgy, once again, relevant. But having voiced this unworthy fear, and told to go to the corner and hide our head for very shame for entertaining such an anti-democratic notion, we lapsed into chastened silence. And when the vote came round, like wise Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, "We always voted at our party's call; we never thought of thinking for ourself at all." That way you can save yourself a world of trouble.

Well, here we are 10 years later, and what results do we see? The result, plainly and bluntly, is that the Western Church has just about completely cut herself off from her cultural roots, the Latin tradition of the West. Latin is practically banned from the liturgy and banned as well from the courses of study required of candidates for the priesthood. Fewer and fewer Masses in Latin are sanctioned or approved by local ordinaries, and fewer and fewer seminarians and young priests have now more than a nodding acquaintance with the language which nourished the devotion of countless generations of Christians and gave to theology and the other sacred sciences a common tongue, so that, even though imperfectly, communication was possible. A Church which for so long had preserved Latin consciously as a bond of unity, had quite suddenly decided to discard it as a useless encumbrance.

With this rejection, and as an almost inevitable consequence , went out the window also the whole magnificent musical heritage of the Church. For when you change your language you also change your song. The Jewish exiles hanging their harps beside the waters of Babylon, so long ago, made that discovery. Pope Paul VI, the other day, made an earnest plea for the revival of some parts of the Mass in Latin, the Kyrie, the Gloria, etc., with the obvious hope of salvaging something of our immense musical treasure, one of the glories of the Christian accomplishment; but whether his words will carry weight, whether his cri de coeur will be heard, is anyone's guess. Not, surely, until realization dawns on many minds how drastically we have robbed ourselves of our cultural wealth.

And the same rejection, not merely of our cultural and esthetic roots, but of our philosophical and theological foundations, is the reaction and the reality of the moment. Who would be caught dead today citing a theologian older than Karl Rahner or a philosopher more antique than Bernard Lonergan? The substitution of Teilhardism for Thomism, if not complete in our schools, our seminaries and universities, is within an ace of carrying the day.

But before we commit ourselves farther, and if there is still time for reflection, might we not do well to catch the echo of a great and now almost forgotten Father of the Council, the late Cardinal Michael Browne, who, at a decisive moment in the debate on the Constitution of the Church, raised his voice in warning with all the richness of the Irish brogue in Latin: "Caveamus, Patres, caveamus!"— "Let us take heed, Fathers, let us beware!" We thought it amusing then; we might take it a little more seriously now.

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Those of us whose spiritual solace is found principally, if not solely, in the traditional liturgy of the Roman Rite are often told we must change "as the Council intended". It's interesting to read what one of the Council Fathers claimed was the intent of the Council.
Who dreamed on that day that within a few years, far less than a decade, the Latin past of the Church would be all but expunged, that it would be reduced to a memory fading in the middle distance? The thought would have horrified us, but it seemed so far beyond the realm of the possible as to be ridiculous. So we laughed it off.