Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Church closed in on itself

Freshers' Fair in Oxford: how do we reach these young people?
The Holy Father wants a Church which is not closed in on itself; he has said this many times in various formulations. In a General Audience on 16th October, he exclaimed:

Once again let us ask ourselves: are we missionaries by our words, and especially by our Christian life, by our witness? Or are we Christians closed in our hearts and in our churches, sacristy Christians?

A couple of images come to my mind when I think of a Church closed in on itself. One is the famous remarks of Pope Benedict (as Cardinal Ratzinger) on Mass celebrated versus populum.

The turning of the priest towards the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself. The common turning towards the East was not a "celebration towards the wall"; it did not mean that the priest "had his back to the people": the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together "towards the Lord." As one of the Fathers of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, J. A. Jungmann, put it, it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession towards the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle, they did not gaze at one another, but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us.

The stall of the Gregorian Chant Society, devoted to supporting the celebration of the Traditional Mass 
The phenomenon does not express itself only liturgically. These things don't; if they did, if liturgy had no connection with the rest of our lives, it wouldn't be so important. The closed circle in the liturgy reflects, teaches, and reinforces a closed circle in the Church outside the liturgy. So this is the second image, from Anthony Archer, the sociologist Dominican who did his study of the Church ('Two Catholic Churches') in the 1970s and early 1980s (before leaving the priesthood).

The [old] mass allowed people to engage the sacred in their own fashion, providing for a while range of religious demands and sensibilities and drawing people into the space where there was evidently something more to life. It provided a fixed centre to which people could relate their changing worlds. The emphasis given to the sacredness of the space itself enclosed within the precincts of the church reinforced this. Nor was there any need to belong to any particular community to take advantage of it.

(This is part of a longer quotation I posted and discussed here.) He goes on to say that the 'changes' were not as disastrous for the Middle Classes as they were for Working Class Catholics because with them came a series of opportunities for engagement in Church life, liturgically, spiritually, and administratively, which had some appeal for them. He discusses the rise of parish councils, house Masses, and charismatic prayer groups. We might add things like the rota for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, liturgy committees, and the like. The point about all of these things is that they are manifestations of an in-group, a group of specially 'churchy' people, what we might call 'sacristy Christians'. That's not to say that there is anything necessarily wrong with these people, nor is there anything wrong in principle with them wanting something extra spiritually or wanting to make a helpful contribution to parish life - on the contrary, these are good things. The problem is that having lost something which could draw in the marginal Catholic and the outsider, what was gained was of benefit only to the insider. The energy and focus of all these things was and is ad intra. At best this can make the parish church look cared-for and welcoming. At worst, and too often, it can turn a parish into a series of warring cliques of busy-bodies, surrounded by a much larger number of pew-sitters who haven't got a clue about all this internal stuff and feel they have been left out in the cold.

Singers of the Chant Society and the Newman Consort at a Traditional Solemn Mass in Oxford
It is an irony of course that progressives are always talking about making the Mass 'accessible'. The fact we have to face is that they have failed, and to the extent that the post-conciliar reforms were aiming at that they failed. The numbers of people being drawn into the Church today is between a third and a quarter of those drawn in in the Bad Old Days, and we know from a mountain of anecdotal evidence that the liturgy was very frequently a positive influence on conversions in those Old Days, and today is frequently cited as a negative one. One old chap who converted only a few years ago told me that guitars kept him out of the Catholic Church for 25 years. Many others who'd considered the Catholic Church have gone to the Orthodox instead

In relation to what the Holy Father has been saying, I don't suppose what I have said has occured to him, but if we are challenged about being inward-looking this is what we can say. It is not the supporters of the Traditional Liturgy who are inward-looking, we are promoting something which, in terms of liturgical symbolism, points outwards and upwards towards God, and in terms of evanglism has a genuine appeal beyond the core vote. This is in stark contrast to those, like Mgr Basil Loftus, who think the salvation of the Church lies in reviving the failed experiment Parish Councils, a constant theme of his Catholic Times columns. I sit on enough committees to know that, necessary as they may sometimes be, they are no way to evangelise.
Many of these singers also helped during the procession for the Oxford Pilgrimage, giving
witness to the Faith in the streets of Oxford.


  1. "they are manifestations of an in-group, a group of specially 'churchy' people".

    This is exactly what happens. The same handful of people control the parish and heaven forbid anyone encroach on their turf. This liberal approach does not increase participation or attract more people to church. In fact there certainly are numerous examples of the in-group driving away anyone who didn't comply with 'their' requirements.

    The progressive experiment has clearly failed. Let's return to the good old basics of our Catholic Faith and stop trying to create social welfare groups, which is really what liberal Catholicism is about - making ourselves feel good about we did!

  2. “The Holy Father wants a Church which is not closed in on itself”

    Yes. I’m sure the Holy Father wants a confidant, growing, secure Church, attracting many converts, comfortable with its liturgy, particularly the Mass. Well on the death of Pius XII, in 1958, it was there. But not anymore.

    It will be some time before the Holy Father, or anyone, sees such a Church again. The Church in the West, some fifty years on, what is left, is in a mess.

    I was brought up in a largely working class parish before Vatican II. The numerous congregation may not have been able to defend the finer points of their Faith, but they knew the basics. On the occasions they received Holy Communion, they did so properly and not “out of routine or vain glory, or human respect”. The majority of that congregation would be uncomfortable in today’s “inclusive” Mass, and indeed, I do not see them or their like anymore.

    The New Mass has been a failure. If we cannot retain our own, we cannot be missionaries.

  3. Well said! Our message is:

    Experience the Extraordinary.
    The Mass of Tradition is the Mass of the Future!

  4. "I sit on enough committees to know that, necessary as they may sometimes be, they are no way to evangelise."

    Amen to that!!! It is no coincidence that the greater the multiplication of committees in the Church of God, the more it comes to resemble the CofE and the more like savourless salt it becomes.

  5. Anonymous6:50 pm

    "The problem is that having lost something which could draw in the marginal Catholic and the outsider, what was gained was of benefit only to the insider."

    Waugh more or less predicted this in 1962 in "The Same Again, Please": "It is easy to see why some clergy would like us to show more consciousness of one another, more evidence of taking part in a social `group activity.' Ideally they are right but that is to presuppose a very much deeper spiritual life in private than most of us have achieved."

    It does seem to me that Pope Francis has mentioned, at least once, that worshiping God at mass is also a form of "going out of oneself" (in contrast to the more obvious approaches involving soup kitchens etc.). I don't know when or where he said that, though.

    -Ben Dunlap