Asia

CUSTODIANS OF WHAT TRADITION?

# chhotebhai

 

The magician was dressed in .flowing robes. He had his back to the audience. He claimed to be an alchemist that could change lead into gold – transubstantiation. In between his secret mumbo-jumbo he would suddenly turn around to face his audience, raise his arms, with his index fingers touching the thumbs, as in a yogic posture. “Abracadabra” he said. “So be it”, said the audience, in awe struck admiration. With a flash of his fingers, a la Sai Baba, he brandished a shiny gold object. Nobody dared question the magician’s claim of transubstantiation!

I was just seven years of age when I was packed off to a prestigious boarding school in the hills. Since my voice was a tad better than that of a croaking frog, I was never in the choir; so I was often assigned to be an altar boy, a role that I cherished. As such, I was really up close to the school chaplain, a hoary old Italian Capuchin. There he was in his flowing robes, with his back to all of us. He would occasionally whirl around to say a hurried “Dominus Vobiscum”, to which we altar boys would dutifully reply, “Et cum spiritu tuo”. We did learn a few more Latin responses that have now faded from memory. Then came the finale – the transubstantiation; bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. Amen (so be it).

These thoughts came to me as I read the vociferous objections of retired Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong and American Cardinal Burke, to the latest Motu Proprio (of his own accord/volition) by Pope Francis, having the Latin title “Traditionis Custodes” (Custodians of Tradition). What is the hullabaloo all about?

Pope Francis issued this on 16th July, imposing restrictions on what has been incorrectly referred to as the Latin Mass. This is a gross distortion of truth. The restriction is not on celebrating the Mass in Latin. He probably does so everyday in Rome. It is on the version known as the Missale Romanum that had been edited (revised) by Pope John XXIII in 1962 (MR62). This was possibly at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Post Vatican II, Popes Paul VI and John Paul II had revised the liturgical books in conformity with Vatican II teachings, coming into effect in 1970. These venerable popes had banned the use of MR62 and had to face stiff opposition from the likes of arch conservatives Abp Marcel Lefebvre and his Pius X Society.

Opposition to change is intrinsic to human behaviour, and the Catholic Church is no exception. Jesus himself had forewarned that his words and actions would result in division/ polarisation (cf Lk 12:51).

Unfortunately, as in several other spheres, the Eurocentric previous Pope Benedict XVI chose to turn the clock back. In 2007 he had issued a document “Summorum Pontificum” that snatched away the authority of bishops/ parish priests, stating that they were obliged to comply with requests from the laity for the celebration of MR62. This resulted in arch conservative and well-heeled parishioners in the USA, France etc demanding the celebration of MR62; and even the establishment of separate parishes for the same. This was not just a piquant, but a potentially dangerous, situation.

Pope Francis has merely sought to restore parity consequent of the blunder committed by his predecessor. He has not “banned” the MR62, as is loosely being reported in the Catholic and mainstream media. He has merely imposed reasonable restrictions on the same.

In the Vatican II spirit of collegiality with bishops, he has delegated this authority to the diocesan bishops, to be exercised at their discretion. So what are the likes of Zen and Burke grumbling about? Do they have some other sinister agenda?

Pope Francis states that consequent to Benedict’s document, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent out a questionnaire seeking a feedback on the celebration of MR62. The present Motu Proprio is a result of those findings. Besides delegating authority to the diocesan bishops, Francis specifies that even where MR62 is permitted, the scripture readings should be in the vernacular, not in Latin. Can any sensible person find fault with that? Let us also remember that Jesus himself, at the Last Supper, spoke the language of the people. He would not even have known how to speak in Latin! Francis also warns bishops to not allow any more groups or parishes for celebrating MR62.

Pope Francis, as also earlier Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, had discontinued MR62 as it was not in consonance with the ecclesiology and liturgical reforms of Vatican II. I contacted a senior theologian, but he expressed his ignorance on the subject. I then contacted a senior liturgist. Unfortunately, he neither responded to my email or phone calls. As a layman I am therefore unable to enlighten my readers further, nor can I fathom the opposition to this act of Pope Francis.

But we get a hint of it from a learned writer in the journal La Croix International, published from Rome. Rev Jean-Francois Chiron, professor of theology at the Catholic University of Lyon, France, in his article “The church is not an archipelago” on 22/7/21 says that “There is nothing more bitter than liturgical controversies … With just the slightest bit of irrationality things can go to extremes”. In layman’s language this means going off on a tangent. For a space scientist it would be like a space craft losing its elliptical orbit, and going off into outer space!

Chiron says that “by changing the rules of the game, Francis intends to limit the proliferation of celebrations that do not comply with the post-Vatican II liturgical reform”. It seeks to curb those people who “are in a militant, if not proselytizing frame of mind”. Francis is unequivocally stating that the “Vatican Council II is not optional”. Benedict tried to indicate that “an entire part of the work of an ecumenical council could be optional”. In contrast, Francis asserts “that attachment to the unreformed rite is a challenge to Vatican II”.

Chiron further says that in his native France proponents of MR62 “often include hymns from the 1880s such as – Catholics and French Forever”; a form of militant French Catholic nationalism. This echoes Donald Trump in the USA, and the BJP in India. It is right wing nationalism garbed in religion. It is an open secret that several cardinals, bishops and priests in the USA are dyed in the wool Trump supporters who are inimical to Joe Biden, despite him being a devout practicing Catholic. (This issue merits a separate article).

The MR62 is often referred to as the Tridentine Mass, deriving its name from the Council of Trent (1545-63). This Council was in response to Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation in 1517. This 18 year long Council spanned the terms of three popes – Paul III, Julius III and Paul IV. Paul III convened the Council of Trent in modern day Austria. Notably, none of the three popes actually attended the Council. Worse still, Cardinal Fernesse, aged 66, who took the name of Paul III, had an illicit family of five children, the product of concubinage in his early years!

In his recently published 900 page tome “Seven Baskets Full” on the evolution of the Holy Eucharist, Dr Subhash Anand, professor emeritus of the Papal Seminary, Pune, makes some pertinent observations on the Council of Trent. He says that in its thirteenth session held on 11/10/1551, the Council discussed the Eucharist and transubstantiation. He writes that “the Council claims that its teaching on transubstantiation has ever been a firm belief in the Church of God”. However, “It will be almost impossible for historians to critically substantiate this claim of Trent”. He compares it to looking for a needle in a haystack.

Anand goes on to say that there were hardly sixty signatories on important legislation. Two thirds of those present were Italian, and the rest were mostly Spanish. He therefore avers that “Given this poor attendance, there are very serious reasons to question its teaching authority in matters doctrinal”. He claims that Trent was “not an ecumenical council … but a provincial council of the Latin Catholic church”. He goes on to say that “provincial councils do not have the competence of defining dogmatic truths. This is the prerogative only of ecumenical councils”. Most church historians are of the view that Vatican II was probably the first true ecumenical council of the universal (catholic) church.

Perhaps this will help us better understand why Pope Francis has clamped down on the Tridentine Mass MR62, and is pushing ahead for the reforms of Vatican II. All those who profess to be “Catholic” should support this wisdom and action of Pope Francis who is only following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. This includes Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the CBCI President and a member of Pope Francis’ charmed inner circle.

Let us too, in turn, be the proponents of truth and not blind adherents to infructuous traditions. The liturgy, after all, is not a magic show, but a reflection of our life and faith in Jesus who celebrated the Last Supper, sitting (not standing), facing his disciples, his betrayer included, after having humbly washed their feet. Coming to think of it, if the Eucharist is not preceded by the washing of the feet (humble, unconditional service) then it gets reduced to the magical mumbo jumbo of the alchemist. How can the bread and wine be transubstantiated if we are not simultaneously transformed?

  • The writer is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum

 

JULY 2021

A PENTECOSTAL CATHOLIC

# chhotebhai

 

Does this sound like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? Is it possible to be both a Pentecostal and a Catholic, when there is so much animosity between the two? I have another question, as we prepare for celebrating the feast of Pentecost. Where was the Holy Spirit before Pentecost?

Let me answer the first question. A Pentecostal is usually described as a person who gives more importance to the Holy Spirit and its actions, and has a predilection for saying “Halleluiah” at the drop of a hat. A Catholic, on the other hand, is perceived as a person steeped in liturgical traditions and pious devotions, living a straight jacket spiritual existence. Catholics are also wary of Pentecostals when they poach on their members. Both sides believe that the “other” is in serious error.

Let me clarify what I understand by the words Pentecostal and Catholic. Pentecostal usually refers to those believers who emerged about 120 years ago giving special importance to the Holy Spirit and its gifts like praying in tongues, prophecy and healing. These are all rooted in scripture, and are not, per se, contrary to Catholic beliefs. In the Catholic community this spiritual movement is usually referred to as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, duly recognized by the Catholic hierarchy. It began in the USA in the late 1960’s.

The word Catholic means “universal”, belonging to the whole world, and by its very nature embracing all. In its organized form it has papal leadership, a hierarchy, set norms and practices, with strong clerical control. Some of these aspects, like “clericalism” are acquired traditions that are at variance with its own Dogmatic Constitution as laid down by Vatican II. When I say that I am Catholic, I mean that I subscribe to the teachings of Vatican II and not the many aberrations and excesses that the hierarchy and clergy conveniently revert to. For me, being a Pentecostal Catholic is a Christian whose life and values are rooted in sacred scripture on the one hand, and the teachings of Vatican II on the other. I have often said that the wished for renewal of the church as envisioned by Pope John Paul XXIII, who prayed for a new Pentecost, is still a long way from achieving its goals. Recent moves of Pope Francis on synodality, accountability and fraternity are according to the mind of Vatican II.

Now let me address the second question. Where was the Holy Spirit before Pentecost? It is actually a stupid question, but it merits a cogent response, because there may be some who are inclined to believe that the Holy Spirit got activated only at Pentecost. A scriptural journey of Jesus’ own life shows the all pervasive presence of the Holy Spirit. Let’s start at the very beginning, my favourite event, the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel tells Mary “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most High will cover you with its shadow” (Lk 1:35). So the Holy Spirit is present and active from the moment Jesus is conceived/ incarnated. It also covers Mary with its shadow. Translations do not always covey the exact meaning. I would prefer to say that Mary was enveloped by the Holy Spirit.

The next major epiphany/ manifestation of the Holy Spirit is at the baptism of Jesus. “The Holy Spirit descended on him in a physical form, like a dove. And a voice came from heaven “You are my son; today I have fathered you” (Lk 3:21). Notice that all three persons of the Holy Trinity are mentioned in the same event, and the message to Jesus is personal, not generalised – YOU are my Son. This is how the Holy Spirit works, forming a direct personal relationship between God and man.

In his final discourse Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to his disciples. Jesus defined the role of the Holy Spirit as the ability to discern between right and wrong, and to arrive at the truth. It is not just a Paraclete (helper) but one who leads from the front and shows the way forward in various situations. “When he comes he will show the world how wrong it was about sin, and about what is right, and about judgement” (Jn 16:8). And again, “When the Spirit of the truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth” (Jn16:13). There are three important take aways from Jesus’ promise. The Holy Spirit gives us the gift of spiritual discernment, something strongly emphasised by the Jesuits in their Ignatian Exercises. It also teaches us morality, what is right or wrong in God’s eyes. And finally it leads us in the path of truth.

I see this as the true role of the Holy Spirit, as promised by Jesus himself. This is a sin qua non for all Christians, especially those in leadership roles. This requires both humility and openness. Unfortunately, most religious leaders are so full of their own power and pelf that they block the working of the Holy Spirit; thereby often mistaking traditions for faith; or rules and regulations for the path of truth.

The Resurrection adds another dimension to the role of the Holy Spirit; that of power and authority. “Receive the Holy Spirit, If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained” (Jn 20:23). This authority cannot be seen in absolute terms or in isolation from other texts. It presupposes the correct disposition, as stated herein above.

How do we recognize the working of the Holy Spirit? St Paul had earlier cautioned against external manifestations like prophecies, tongues and knowledge (cf 1 Cor 13:8). They are subjugated to the three cardinal virtues. “As it is, these remain; faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love” (1 Cor 13:13). St Paul goes on to say that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22). I find that all the fruits are gentle and not aggressive, in contrast to the approach adopted by many who claim to be led by the Spirit.

I see some interesting events that are indicative of how the Holy Spirit spurs us to action. In his first discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had exhorted his disciples to walk that extra mile (cf Mat 5:42). He was stirring the pot, asking us to emerge from our comfort zones. This is manifested in the rich young man who had kept all the commandments. He was good, but not good enough for radical Christian discipleship. “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mat 19:21). A big task. Basically, Jesus is telling us not to rest on our oars, but to make a personal sacrifice, to walk the extra mile.

The second instance of not being good enough is the oft repeated episode of Martha and Mary. Here again Martha was a good person, doing good things, but at that point of time Jesus expected something else of her – to listen to what he had to say. Like Martha we too are often so busy, that we have no time to listen to Jesus in prayer (cf Lk 10:38-42).

The most poignant example of Jesus inviting us to take the extra step is his encounter with Nicodemus. He too was a good man, but needed to take another step forward. “You must be born from above. The wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from, or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). Jesus was speaking before the advent of weather satellites that can quite accurately predict the eye of the storm and the course of a cyclone.

This does not dilute Jesus’ message. Are we solid, liquid or gas (wind). Something in a solid state, like a piece of metal, remains in a state of fixity. It does not change, unless some external force is applied. A liquid either runs off or assumes the shape of the receptacle into which it is poured. Gas (wind) as in Jesus’ time, did not have airtight containers. So the reference to the wind is something that is not restricted, chained or bogged down. It is constantly open/ receptive to what God wants of it.

This is never easy. A more poetic translation of the Bible, like the Kind James version, ends the Sermon on the Mount with the words “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mat 5:48). In contrast, The New Jerusalem Bible that I use ends the discourse much more prosaically, “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his”. I would like to believe both translations, that limitless love is the perfection to which we are called. This Pentecost may the Holy Spirit lead us in the path of perfect love, and show us what extra mile we now need to tread. This is because the “good” is invariably the greatest enemy of the perfection to which we are all called in Christian discipleship. Happy feast of Pentecost.

  • The writer has written several books and articles on spirituality.

 

MAY 2021

Questions and Answers - Feminist Voices 1

1. Virginia Saldanha (India/Right) on Need of Dialogue between Asian Bishops and Laity for Renewing Asian Churches including FABC.

2. Martha Heizer (Austria/Middle) on The Urgent Agendas of "International Movement of We Are Church" for Church Reform as of Today.

3. Kochurani Abraham (India/Left) on "Bold for Change" in Addressing Misogyny and Patriarchal Culture in Asia.

Asian Theology Forum
31 July 2017
Yogyakarta, Indonesia