January 05, 2006

On Catholicism and catholicism

Sunday I was in Urbana, and rather than going to St Pat's as usual, I attended St Mary Magdalene's, the Church of Antioch congregation that Chris has joined. They are, as they put it, an "independent catholic church".

Thinking about it in advance, I had understood that this was the culmination of a conversation from months previous, about the Nicene Creed and its individual parts—and whether in fact we believed them. A phrase near the end caught particular attention:

Et unam, sanctam, catholicam, et apostolicam ecclesiam.
We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church ....
In this context, “catholic” refers to the universality of the church (note that it is not usually written “Catholic”, and non-RCC churches use the phrase too), and “apostolic” to its continuity from its founding. And I do find these important. So much so that it seems to me that the exclusivism of the RCC is a little inconsistent; if there's only One Church, and all the different congregations aren't just manifestations thereof, then what are they? It was easier when people believed that members of other sects didn't believe in the true God, of course. But we acknowledge now that, say, Catholics and Anglicans worship the same God, and participate in a larger community of Christian faith. This seems to me to be the very meaning of there being one catholic church.

The prohibition of the RCC on Roman Catholics participating in Communion in non-RCC Masses is based on the following parts of I Corinthians 10:

20 But the things which the heathens sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils and not to God. I would not that you should be made partakers with devils. 21 You cannot drink the chalice of the Lord and the chalice of devils; you cannot be partakers of the table of the Lord and of the table of devils. ... 27 If any of them that believe not, invite you, and you be willing to go; eat of any thing that is set before you, asking no question for conscience' sake. 28 But if any man say: This has been sacrificed to idols; do not eat of it, for his sake that told it and for conscience' sake.
“But wait,” you say. “Heathens? Idols? Devils?” This is a passage about sacrifice to other gods. Using it to justify a closed Communion and forbid Catholics to take Communion with others seems like a relic of the bad old days, not exactly in tune with the modern ecumenical sensibility.

So on Sunday, I attended the 10am Mass at St Mary Magdalene's (hosted at the Channing-Murray Foundation at the UIUC campus). I feel that the liturgy got a lot wrong, but it got a lot right, too; Father Gary is trying to work in Gregorian chant call-and-response formulae and generally make congregational sung participation a larger part of the Mass. Would that more RCC congregations did likewise; it's actually called for by all the relevant Vatican documents, but most priests just plain ignore it.

The downside of the St Mary Magdalene liturgy was that it just doesn't go far enough to take a stand, and works very hard not to offend anyone. The “Our Father” was barely recognisable, and it was kind of a joke for the priest to introduce it as praying “as Jesus taught us”. There was a Sanctus and a Benedictus, but rather than the traditional

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of [power and might],
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
there was some self-congratulatory thing that I don't remember and bore little relation to the original other than following the form “Holy.... Blessed is he who....” It wasn't even good as liturgical poetry.

That was probably the biggest single problem with their liturgy (one that the RCC is not entirely innocent of itself): in their mad rush to make everything modern, they have entirely lost any poetry, so that you're left just saying a bunch of stuff. Which makes it a lot less effective. (For an RCC example, consider which is a more poetic and effective phrasing: “This is the Lamb of God, ...”, or “Behold the Lamb of God, ...”? That's what I thought.)

The consecration approached, and it became quite clear through the liturgical prose that this church has a sacramental Communion with the Real Presence, though not totally clear whether it was conssubstantiative or transsubstantiative. (That particular theological debate is a lot more subtle than most people realise, anyway; it's mostly a sectarian political thing.) I've complained before about the bells some RCC churches ring at the consecration, but in this Mass it definitely added to the liturgical power of the moment. Communion itself was self-serve (as in, walk around the altar and take the host yourself, intinge it, then eat it), which was feasible because of the small congregation, but they really need to rethink this because it makes it feel a lot less personal and a lot more like a cafeteria.

Certainly an interesting experience all around. As Reverend Jack would put it, this priest definitely had the mojo to perform the sacraments. He and his congregation were clearly worshipping the same God as Roman Catholics, if perhaps according to a somewhat different liturgical norm. He, and they, participate in a long and continuous path following scripture and tempering it with tradition.

And that is what it means to belong to the church catholic.

"I believe it would be much healthier for society, for the poverty situation, and for the effectiveness of social welfare programs if instead of all poor people having a shitty job and a miserable life, half of those poor people had decent jobs and the other half were on the dole." --Zach Miller

Posted by blahedo at 3:08am on 5 Jan 2006

Curiously, before I read your blog entry, I was recently musing about some similar subjects over on Kimmit's blog. Here's the link:

An Athiest Manifesto


Posted by ansible at 9:21pm on 15 Jan 2006
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