MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame
Hope Boettner points out in her recent post that the liberal/conservative dichotomy comes into play all the time, whether one is dealing with liturgy, evangelization, or even assessing the pontificates of Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Benedict, for example, is often portrayed as the out-of-touch pontiff of a pre-Vatican II Church, whose only concern was restoring the Latin Mass and tweaking translations of the Missal. Francis, on the other hand, is portrayed as the champion of social justice, whose mission is to undo the damage wrought by his predecessor and to implement the agenda of the political left by casting aside the traditions and doctrines of the Church and making Catholicism more ‘relevant’ to today’s Catholics. Benedict is the supreme pontiff of the conservative Church, Francis the humble leader of the progressive Church.
Indeed, liturgical reform is an especially divisive topic among contemporary Catholics. This was evident back in 2007 when Pope Benedict XVI promulgated motu proprio his Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, which allowed greater access to the traditional Latin Mass. But the divide was especially visible in 2011 with the implementation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal (the new English translation that gave us “and with your spirit” and “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…”). November 2011 saw many Catholic “conservatives” pumping their fists in triumph, anticipating a return to the “glory days” of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, while more “progressive” or “liberal” Catholics questioned what they saw as a distraction from the many social and cultural problems the Church faces today.
Tim Padgett over at Time, for example, writing several months before the implementation, lamented: “It’s sad when Rome’s cassocked scholars subordinate their intellectual gifts to church expediency.” For Padgett, the new missal was nothing but “petty semantics” aimed at “taking the Mass back to the Latin of the more rigid and remote Tridentine tradition.” It is “foolish” and “not very Christ-like,” therefore, to devote the Church’s precious time, energy and resources to “semantics” rather than to “all the really weighty [social] issues Roman Catholics face.”
But how opposed to each other are liturgy and the social question, really? A legitimate question for BOTH Catholic “conservatives” and Catholic “liberals” to consider is this: does attention to one necessarily undermine the other?
Liturgy—Source & Summit
It seems to me that the seemingly insignificant changes in diction found in the 2011 Missal sought to remind the Church not only of its responsibility to the world’s poor, outcast and marginalized, but also of the place liturgy holds in the Church’s own identity and ministerial outreach: the Church cannot step into the world as missionary until it understands its identity as being rooted in the person of Christ, and its mission, most fundamentally, as being the presence of Christ in the world. Understood this way, the Church’s liturgy becomes the foundation of such an identity, as it is the first and most potent source of Christ, and the “source and summit” (CCC, 1324; cf. Lumen Gentium, 11) of the Church’s activity in the world. It is the primary locus in which the Church experiences Christ, broken and poured out for the world in the Eucharist.
In his Light of the World, Benedict XVI calls the Eucharist “the most intimate heart of the Church […] It is not just another social ritual where people meet in an amicable way; rather it is the expression of being in the center of the Church” (148). And if the liturgy is “the place where the Church is actually experienced most of all,” then both Benedict and Francis have a stake in upholding it as the Church’s primary function and the source of all ministerial activity. The Church exists to call the world to liturgy, to the Eucharist, to Christ – which both popes have done in his own way: Benedict primarily through his attention to the rubrics of the Mass and his many written works, and Francis through his charismatic personality and insistence on being poor among the poor. Benedict reminds us of the beauty and importance of liturgy as the source of the Church’s activity in the world and as the heart of the world’s encounter with Christ , and Francis reminds us of the charge to now bring this Eucharistic love of Christ out into the streets.
If we are going to oversimplify the messages and impacts of the previous two popes in this way, then we must at least be attentive to how Benedict’s mindfulness of liturgical reform and Francis’ emphasis on the Church’s activity in the world can go hand-in-hand in furthering the divinely-instituted enterprise of bringing Christ to all corners of the earth (cf. Mt 28:19).
If we are to uphold lex orandi and lex credendi, then lex vivendi must follow. If what we believe is what we pray, then the way we pray ought to determine the way we live and move in the world.
An earlier version of this post originally appeared in Crisis Magazine on July 11, 2011.