Thursday, January 20, 2011

Opposition to Liturgical Renewal

Excerpt from Fr. Robert Taft, SJ's article
"Liturgy in the Life of the Church"
Eastern Churches Journal, Vol.7 No.2, Summer 2000
© Eastern Christian Publications 2000

Opposition to Renewal

Ironically, however, the Eastern Catholic liturgical renewal so strenuously fostered by the Holy See since Pope Leo XIII has been opposed every step of the way by those who should have welcomed it on bended knee as a great grace from God; I mean, of course, the Eastern Catholic hierarchy with a few notable exceptions like Andrij Sheptytsky (1865-1944), Archbishop of Lviv, Metropolitan of Halych, and primate of the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church.

Various reasons have been given for this opposition, but as usual in such matters, the real roots go much deeper. The real issue is not ritual practice at all. Many of the rubrical niceties that divide the clergy—the size and shape of the veil or diskos, the cut of a vestment, the amplitude of one’s sleeves, where to put the antimension—are of little or no significance in themselves. But these divergent ritual uses have become symbols of religious identity, much as the Ritualist Movement in late 19th century Anglicanism. At issue were not mere differences of rubric, but symbolic affirmations of the conviction that Anglicanism was not “Protestant” but “Catholic”.

At bottom, then, what we face is two different interpretations of a community’s past, two different historical visions. This is possible because history, of course, is not just a shared past, but one’s view of that past seen through the lens of present concerns. This vision is not a passive view of the past as an objective reality, but a pattern formed through a process of selection determined by one’s present outlook.

Some Eastern Catholic clergy see their history as a progress from schism and spiritual stagnation into a life of discipline, renewal and restored religious practice in the Catholic communion. For this group, the adoption of certain Latin—they would say “Catholic”—devotions and liturgical uses is a sign of this new identity. Such attitudes reflect an interior erosion of the Eastern Christian consciousness, a “latinization of the heart” resulting from a formation insensitive to the true nature of the variety of traditions within the Catholic Church.

Others, while not denying their commitment to the Catholic communion nor underestimating the obvious spiritual benefits it has brought to their Churches, see themselves as Orthodox in communion with Rome, distinguished from their Orthodox Sister Churches in nothing but the fact of that communion and its doctrinal and ecclesial consequences. They see the Latinisms that have crept into their tradition as a loss of identity, an erosion of their heritage in favor of foreign customs with which they can in no way identify themselves. For some, latinization is a sign of their identity, for others its negation, and both are right, because they perceive themselves differently.

Underlying these issues, of course, is the more serious question of Rome’s credibility: is the Holy See to be believed in what it says about restoring the Eastern Catholic heritage? The morale of some of the younger Eastern Catholic clergy has of late been deeply affected by this cul-de-sac: they feel mandated to do one thing by the Holy See, and then are criticized or even disciplined by their bishop if they try to obey.

The problem, as usual, is one of leadership, without which the hesitant or reluctant have no one to follow. What is needed is not just discipline and obedience, but also clergy education loyal to the clear policy of the Church on this question, and prudent pastoral preparation. This is the only way out of the vicious cycle that has been created: the proposed reforms are resisted because the clergy and the people are not prepared to accept them—yet some Church leaders do little or nothing to prepare the people for a renewal that the leaders themselves do not understand or accept.

Although I cannot pretend to read minds, I think there are two main reasons behind this deep-rooted reluctance to welcome the clear and unambiguous policy of Rome in its program of liturgical restoration of the Eastern traditions: 1) the restoration seems a pointless archaism; 2) its opponents are convinced in their hearts that some of the practices proposed are not “Catholic”, and hence, not “right”. That this directly contradicts the teaching of the Holy See is an irony that does not seem to dawn on them.

The first objection is easily dispensed with. The orientation of Catholic liturgical renewal is never towards the past but toward present pastoral needs. Of course, the liturgical scholar studies the past, but the purpose of such historical research is not to discover the past—much less to imitate it—but to recover the integrity of the pristine tradition which the past may well have obscured. The aim is not to restore the past, but to overcome it. For history is not the past, but a genetic vision of the present, a present seen in continuity with its roots. It is precisely those who do not know their past who are incapable of true, organic change. They remain victims of the latest clich√©, prisoners of present useage because they have no objective standard against which to measure it.

The proposed restoration, then, is not a blind imitation of a dead past, but an attempt, precisely, to free Eastern Catholics from a past in which, severed from the roots of their own tradition, they were deprived of any organic development and could conceive of growth only as sterile servility to their Latin confreres. Can one seriously propose this as a program to be preserved in our day?

Hence the irony of those critics of the Eastern Catholic liturgical restoration who accuse its promoters of fostering a return to the Middle Ages. As we shall see in the next section, it is precisely in the Middle Ages that the practices like infant communion in the Latin rite are first called into question for typically medieval motives that no one with any sense would heed today. So it is not the proponents of restoration but its opponents that are behind the times, stuck in a medieval rut out of which the major Catholic scholarly voices in this field have been leading the Church in this century.

A short list of issues where renewal of the Eastern heritage has met most resistance would include dropping the Filioque from the Creed, the consecratory Epiclesis after the Words of Institution, the unmixed Chalice in the Armenian tradition, the Byzantine zeon or teplota rite in which boiling water is added to the chalice just before communion, infant communion, and, in the Syro-Malabar tradition, proleptic language, eucharist facing East, and the restoration of the bema and the so-called Anaphoras of Nestorius and Theodore. On each of these points, the Holy See’s efforts at restoration have met with massive resistance, either active or passive, from within some circles.

Theological Thursdays brings you homilies, lectures, interviews, and biographies on diverse topics including history, theology, spirituality, and philosophy as they pertain to the Eastern and Oriental Catholic Churches. 


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