Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Beef stroganoff and whine

There’s a reason I prefer writing out my opinions: it’s easier to control the flow of an explanation when you’re writing than when you’re discussing the matter with a clutch of contentious Irish-Americans after a heavy meal and three glasses of wine.

Sunday night was a case in point.  I was cast in the role of defending the responses in the revised liturgy against the complaints of my mother and older brother, with kibitzing from his wife (Methodist) and daughter (lapsed).  Such discussions never take place according to the rules of Lincoln-Douglas debate, and sometimes barely observe Marquess of Queensbury rules.  You can’t even get a good foundation for the affirmative case going before you’re dealing with the negative team’s objections and cross-ex.

Well, at least the beef stroganoff was good.  And the wine was a ’10 pinot noir (Hob Nob).

So it was with a rueful smile that I read Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s savage fisk of Fr. Richard McBrien’s crab-fest over the revised liturgy.  People who write to be read by the general public — including Your Humble Blogger — set themselves up for equally public spankings, and Fr. McBrien’s errors of fact and logic practically beg for ridicule.  But wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall if ever the two had to share dinner at a rectory?  Not knowing either priest personally, I have no idea who would come out on top should the topic of the Mass revision come up.

At the end of the day, though, my brother’s grumbles come mostly from being put off his stride.  He’s a very educated and intelligent man, an engineer and a corporate executive, but church is one of a couple hundred things he does in a given week; he’s not driven to follow all the latest developments in the Church’s intellectual life.  In five or ten years, the changeover will be little more than a slightly tender spot in his memory.

By contrast, Fr. McBrien’s life is the Church.  More to the point, he’s cast himself in the role of a “thought leader” of the Church in America.  But if the Church is changing direction, then he’s no longer in front.

In many ways, Fr. McBrien’s screed reads like a PAC leader trying to buck up the organization after a bill has been passed into law despite heavy opposition:

… [The] changes were inspired and promoted, not by liturgists, but by traditionalists in the hierarchy and a minority of ultra-conservatives [not just bad guys … really bad guys!] within the Catholic church generally.
Such Catholics were never supportive of the liturgical reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council: turning the altar around so that the priest would face the congregation during Mass, receiving Holy Communion in the hand, celebrating the Mass in the vernacular, having altar girls as well as altar boys, and so forth. [That’s partially because these “reforms” were neither initiated by the Council nor called for in the documents.]
To be sure, the advocates of the “reform of the reform” have won only a partial victory with this new translation (for example, “I believe …” rather than the more communal “We believe …” in the Credo).  But the Mass is still in the vernacular; the altar is still turned around; the great majority of people receive Communion in the hand; and there are more likely to be altar girls in the sanctuary than boys.

But it’s like the anti-Christians who get lathered up over Tim Tebow’s overt Christianity: the first defeat, be it ever so minor or “partial”, implies that other, future defeats are possible.  People like Fr. McBrien and Sr. Joan Chittister no longer own the playing field.  And thus Fr. McBrien warns his readers that he’ll be returning to the subject, because it represents a more substantial reversal than he’s willing to admit.

Only some of the younger (or not-so-young), conservative priests, ordained during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, would more likely be in favor of the changes than opposed to them,” Fr. McBrien postulates. The last class of seminarians ordained in the pontificate of Paul VI was the class of 1978, and these priests are now coming into their sixties.  After over thirty years of declining seminary classes, the numbers are starting to rise again, precisely because of the influence of Bl. John Paul and Pope Benedict.  The future very much belongs to the “young fogeys” being ordained now, and beneath the rah-rah Fr. McBrien realizes it.

Moreover, the simple fact is that an undefined yet significant number of people, both lay and religious, aren’t ideologically committed to a particular ecclesial agenda.  To them, the Mass revision is just not that big a deal.  Whether they’re conservative or liberal, in effect they’re part of the “mushy center”.

It’s unfathomable to Fr. McBrien that a liberal priest could praise the new translation; he must be either dissembling or a “stealth trad”.  This is the kind of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” whine that alienates the mushy center.

The revision is a big deal, of course, a bigger deal than many people realize.  As Tom Hoopes recently said, it represents a “tectonic shift” in catechesis whose full bloom will be realized within the next generation.  It’s the kind of victory that sets up further victories well beyond the foreseeable future — especially as the “biological solution” further reduces opposition.

Most of the people who attend Mass weekly have already incorporated the changes in their parts into their routine.  By Easter morning, “And with your spirit” will be as natural to most people as “And also with you” was … and as Et cum spirito tuo was before that.  Five years from now, the Eucharistic prayers causing priests to stumble today will be spoken naturally, almost from memory.

By then, if God gives us so much life, my brother and I will be having other dinner-time arguments.