On 27 April last, the Revd Dr Richard McBrien published "The Grieving Church" in the online edition of the National Catholic Reporter. While I do not consider myself a fan of Fr McBrien, I do think he has something worthwhile to say here. Below is the text of the article, with my emphases and comments.
I received an e-mail recently from a lay pastoral associate, whose ministerial focus is on adult education and who possesses a graduate degree from a Catholic university. I have his permission to cite a portion of our exchange.
I have suppressed some of the details lest his pastor identify the source and seek to jeopardize the pastoral associate’s job. [This is most unfortunate, since the Code of Canon Law insists that the lay faithful have a right to make their opinions known to the Church's pastors; cf. canon 212.3.]
The e-mail came from a large suburban parish in which the pastor has apparently done everything that he can to remove most traces of the reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council. [It should not be ignored that like the 'conservatives' or 'traditionalists' who intensely dislike the the Second Vatican Council, so too were the Arians who were the 'conservative' party at the First Council of Nicaea; cf. Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1983), 33-76. It was an 'innovation' that the non-Biblical word homoousios would be used in the Church's progressing dogmatic vocabulary.]
The pastor has done away with all contemporary music at Mass, and has restored pre-conciliar devotions along with auricular confession. He even gives the impression that confession is the greatest of the sacraments.
Perhaps there is some misunderstanding here because the Council of Trent, back in the 16th century, made clear that the greatest of the seven sacraments is the Eucharist. [Correct-it's found in the Thirteenth Session, Chapter Two; but Fr McBrien's detractors do not concede that he has maintained Orthodoxy on this point.]
Under the pastor’s control, the parish has no youth ministry [The General Directory for Catechesis, nn. 181-185 mandates that special attention is to be given to the youth of the Church. This pastor should at least get a clue from the Holy Father's affinity for evangelizing and catechizing young people.], no parish council [If the diocesan bishop has mandated that each parish have a pastoral council, then this pastor is in violation of canon 536] nor any other consultative body [I wonder whether he has a finance council, which is mandated by canon 537]. According to my correspondent, “consultative is not in his vocabulary.” He also gave vocal support to the minority of U.S. Catholic bishops who proclaimed in effect that “Catholics could burn in hell” if they voted Democratic in the recent presidential election.
My correspondent reported that other members of the parish staff are hurting “terribly.” Indeed, they share the feelings of the woman who darted out of church recently during the homily – in tears. [This happens too often. Many of our younger priests seem to be ignorant of the fact that pastoral charity is the paramount priestly virtue--cf. Directory on the Life and Ministry of Priests, nn. 13, 20, 28, and especially 30. Despite the fact that the Directory is issued by the Church's supreme authority, I wonder how many seminarians study it.]
She informed the pastoral associate that she could no longer handle the situation, and that she had to leave the parish. She said that all that she ever hears from the pulpit is what sinners the parishioners are, and why it is so necessary for them to “go to Confession.” [The sacrament of Reconciliation has been called by the Church a "tribunal of mercy." But what often seems forgotten is that Jesus' gripe was always with the religious folk who passed themselves off as better than the prostitute, the publican, or the Roman soldier. I could easily fill this blog posting with citations, but if this basic fact of the gospel narratives is questioned, then it is likely that our ultraconservative or traditionalist is Biblically illiterate. In fact, I've been called a "neo-Protestant" for citing the Bible to one such traditionalist.]
That particular Sunday, with the old-fashioned church music, all the statues covered in purple as they were before Vatican II, and the usual severe words in the homily, the pressure was simply too much for her to bear. [Hello? The Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom, anyone?]
The woman poured out her frustrations, saying that the pastor had taken the parish back to a church that she knows nothing about and in a manner that showed no understanding of others’ feelings.
At the end of his first e-mail, my correspondent asked, “Are we expected just to get used to it?”
In my reply, I wrote: “No, you are not simply to ‘get used to it’. Parishioners need to go elsewhere, like the woman who left Mass in tears.” [I fiercely disagree. The parishioner should approach her bishop or better the vicar for clergy. The lay faithful have a right to make their needs known to their pastors; cf. canon 212.3; if the pastor in question is in fact violation of the norms of liturgical law, she can appeal to canon 214.]
I continued: “If there are no parishes or other worshipping communities in the vicinity where the pastoral leadership is healthy rather than driven by a narrow ideology, then one simply has to ‘take a vacation’ from the church until the skies finally clear and we are bathed in sunlight once again.” [Some commentators, refusing to give Fr McBrien the benefit of the doubt, assumed he meant skipping Mass and the sacraments. I think what he has in mind is a vacation from the Church as one's employer. I've done that before, and returned with even more gusto. Sound advice, Fr McBrien.]
In response, the pastoral associate noted that “the number of our parish families who are already on vacation from the church is amazing. It hurts to see it.” [This woman "hurts to see it"--a sure sign of her pastoral solicitude. If only her pastor had the same kind of pastoral solicitude!]
“It’s new territory, dealing with people grieving for their church,” he wrote. [Absolutely. All it took was a mis-reading of the Holy Father's motu proprio summorum pontificum and a hasty reading of his theology.]
The lead article in America magazine’s 100th anniversary issue (4/13/09) is by a Dominican who is justly admired the world over. It is Timothy Radcliffe’s “The Shape of the Church to Come.” [Master Timothy is a remarkable Christian, a superb pastor, and a beautiful human being. I had the honour of meeting him at the 2001 General Chapter at Providence College. No-one who works for the Church can afford to ignore him.]
What follows here is a continued commentary on the problem of the “grieving church” and not meant as a criticism of Timothy Radcliffe’s fine article in which he deplores the polarization that is “deeply wounding and inhibits the flourishing of the church.” [Stay tuned for my next posting, "Traditionalism and the Works of the Flesh." Suffice it to say that the active polarization of certain segments in the Church is lumped by St Paul into the same category as "fornication", "drunkenness", and "impurity"; see Gal 5:18-21.]
However, he does identify this polarization as consisting of self-defined “traditionalist” Catholics in open conflict with self-defined “progressive” Catholics.
My experience with the worldwide Catholic church is surely much more limited than Timothy Radcliffe’s, and I would defer to his experience if indeed he has come across a significant number of Catholics who actually identify themselves as “progressive.” On the other hand, I know of countless numbers of Catholics who proudly call themselves “traditional” or “orthodox.”
The pastor in the true story above surely would regard himself as “orthodox,” but the woman who left the church in tears would never have defined herself as a “progressive” Catholic. That adjective would mean nothing to her. [Indeed. These polarizations become more acute as one moves westward in the United States.]
She and other Catholics like her grieve simply for the loss of their church, a church renewed and reformed by Vatican II.
It is not polarization but the pastor of the story and many like him who are responsible for the grieving church. [No--I think Master Timothy is right. Stay tuned for my next blog posting!]