Monday, September 26, 2005

On the Strength of Christian Women

The other day I watched a documentary on the Catholic TV channel (EWTN) about the persecutions of Christians in ancient Rome. I will spare you the details of the various tortures which were practically beyond our imagination. I am also skipping over the fact that to avoid torture all one had to do was to renounce Christ and pray to the pagan Roman gods. I am also skipping over the fact that many of the martyrs were women. But, what I also felt very strongly moved by and deserves note was something else. Rome had a central sewer system which emptied into the various rivers. After the Romans killed a Christian, they dumped the dead, dismembered, burnt and disfigured bodies into the sewer system. Every morning, Christian women in Rome would gather where the sewers emptied into the river. They would reclaim the bodies of the dead, wash their bodies, and bury them in the catacombs. Can you imagine the strength of character, the faith, the belief in Christ, to have the fortitude to do even this? The documentary did not mention any men doing this, only the women! And that there were so many women who did his! Interestingly, one of the ancient Roman sewers ducts is still there. One can stand on the bank of the river where those Christian women stood, pulling the corpses of saints out of the sewage. For me the entire documentary was a VERY powerful meditation on Christian faith. There is nothing like the example of others to bolster one’s own faith.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Book Review: Feast of Faith, by Ratzinger

I’ve just completed reading, Feast of Faith, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. It is the first book that I have read that was authored by our new Pope. It is also the September book, for members of the Enzo Piccininni reading group which is a reading group for members of the movement Communion and Liberation.

Feast of Faith is a response to controversies, issues and differences of opinion regarding the proper forms of liturgical worship by Christians, especially of Mass, that have arisen since Vatican II. For myself, I found it to be an excellent introduction to liturgical tradition. I found Ratzinger to be flexible, reasonable, and down to earth. He is no ideologue; he has no agenda other than to be faithful to the taproot of Christian tradition. In several places, Ratzinger, who is a theologian, expressed strong criticism of theologians or theology, and that was very refreshing.

Ratzinger’s method of instruction is to take the controversial positions of other theologians as a starting point. He explains their positions quite well, but in a way, which shows them to be pathetic. He then follows through with sound catechesis, philosophy, history, and the lessons of scripture. The first half of the book is very cerebral, much more so than the writings of the late Pope John Paul II.

Ratzinger’s first argument is with an article titled, Have We Come to the End of All Religion? To me, it sounds like the death of God fad from the 1960’s. I don’t need this. I already believe, and I don’t sweat the small things when it comes to my religion or liturgy. I suspect that the market for this book is among only the more intellectually oriented lay people. Do we really need to know about these obscure, esoteric arguments between academics? However, there are a number of interesting points and instructive teachings here, many of which I shall be going back to re-read and re-read. I found his philosophical comments fascinating. While Ratzinger pulls no punches with respect to adversarial theologians, I was impressed by Ratzinger’s respect for the person of his adversaries.

One question I came to the book with was what is the Mass? What is it supposed to be? I mean how would you sum it up in one word or in a simple declarative sentence? From my childhood education, it was branded into my brain that it was a sacrifice. I never fully understood this. From the experience of attending Mass my entire life, I understood it to be many things. The word Eucharist, whcih is from the Greek, means thanksgiving. If you were to ask me, from my own experience I would describe Mass as a commemoration of Jesus. And after all, at the Last Supper, didn’t He say, “Do this in memory of me.” Ratzinger discusses the meal aspect of the Mass as well as the sacrificial aspect.

Of course, Ratzinger writes at length on the meaning, exegesis, and theology surrounding the Last Supper of scripture. The forms of liturgical practices are not to be fixed at a certain point in historical time, but nor are they to be changed willy-nilly based on mere human creativity and whim. He says that new liturgical forms should be derived and evolved from scripture and tradition. Sound liturgical practices and innovations result from a natural process over a long time. The adoption of purely pagan or earthly customs into liturgy is frowned upon. Practices which are incorporated must be of a transcendent nature.

Ratzinger expresses extreme frustration with the Traditionalist’s myopia with respect to liturgical tradition. “Hence those who cling to the “Tridentine Missal” have a faulty view of the historical facts. … We must say to the “Tridentines” that the Church’s liturgy is alive, like the Church herself, and is thus always involved in the process of maturing, which exhibits greater and lesser changes. Four hundred years is far too young and age for the Catholic liturgy—because in fact it reaches right back to Christ and the apostles and has come down to us from that time in a single constant process. The Missal can no more be mummified than the Church herself.”

Scattered throughout the book are many comments about human freedom and liberation, including how they relate to prayer, which are very enlightening. I ahsll be going back to study those. I found the three different meditations on Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ) to be spiritually enriching. The section on the Eastward- or Westward-Facing positions of churches was informative. All-in-all, it seems the book addresses the liturgical attachments, excesses and errors of both the right and the left, while giving an overview of the principles upon which good liturgy is based.

...together, beauty and love form the true consolation in this world

Next to the saints, the art which the Church has produced is the only real “apologia” for her history. It is this glory which witnesses to the Lord, not theology’s clever explanations for all the terrible things which, lamentably, fill the pages of her history. The Church is to transform, improve, “humanize” the world—but how can she do that if at the same time she turns her back on beauty, which is so closely allied to love? For together, beauty and love form the true consolation in this world, bringing it as near as possible to the world of the resurrection. The Church must maintain high standards; she must be a place where beauty can be at home; she must lead the struggle for “spiritualization” without which the world becomes “the first circle of hell”.

- from Feast of Faith, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), p124