Does Persecution “Work”?

•March 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Amidst all the recent flurry of news regarding ISIS, the Islamic militant group, I had occasion to read an essay by Candida Moss, an historian of early Christianity at Notre Dame, at The Daily Beast website, which argued that ISIS brutal campaign of terror will undermine its cause.  In effect, she argues, persecution of this kind doesn’t “work.”  As she puts it, “making martyrs of one’s opponents never wins the battle for hearts and minds. It only intensifies opposition, polarizes the undecided, and provokes righteous and justified anger. The North African Church father Tertullian proclaimed that “the blood of the martyrs is seed” for the Church. His prediction turned out to be correct. Martyrdom breeds not fear and obedience, but more martyrs. The only contest that ISIS have a chance of winning is the race to be the most ignominious regime in history.”

I am pondering this because I am teaching a Tudor-Stuart history course this semester, and I am preparing a lecture on ideas of conscience and martyrdom for my class, and this is a topic I would like to include in my lecture.  Persecution is much in the news these days, largely because of ISIS, and I have tried to emphasize religion in my lectures so far this semester.

One wants to agree with Moss’s sentiments; certainly, a terrorist state like ISIS might be said to have violated modern canons of judgment on persecution—and by that I mean Machiavelli’s, who said when you take over a state you should get all of your killing over with right away, because if you keep having to do it that will ruin your reputation, and make you hated.  But on the whole I think the answer to the question of whether persecution works has to be more ambivalent than Moss allows for.  In the first place, I think it depends on what you mean by persecution, and what you mean by it “working.”  Persecution just means inflicting suffering, but then suffering is largely a matter of subjective definition, isn’t it?  Of course, we could limit it to the imposition of death or excessive violence, which is what Moss was talking about, but I don’t think that necessarily covers all we mean by the term.  But more importantly, what does it mean for it to “work”? I suppose part of what Moss means by this is that one can’t establish or prove one’s religion is the true faith via such means.  I think we would be on safer grounds there:  the persecution of the Donatists never settled the issue in North Africa, for example; only the Islamic conquests of the 7th century did that.  Certainly, the Roman persecution did not bring back the old religion, and it was swamped under by Christianity following Constantine’s conversion

But if this is the case, that one cannot establish one’s religion via violent persecution, I think a good argument can be made that it “works” in another sense.  That is to say, violent persecution may not establish the “true” faith as you see it, but it can destroy, or at least permanently marginalize, false ones.  One obvious case is the Albigensian Crusade, which destroyed a Manichean religion which had its own institutions, set beliefs, and many loyal followers.  It disappeared, never to return.  (Though, alas, its Manicheanism seems never to die for some reason.) Or take the Christian persecution of paganism following the edicts of Theodosius:  one might claim that it lingered on in the countryside, but it was effectively finished as an independent force.  Better still, take the case of Catholicism in England.  Catholicism survived, barely, into the eighteenth century, and eventually would flourish again thanks to the Emancipation laws of the 1820s, with a big assist from Irish immigration.  But as an institution with a prominent place in public life, it was effectively finished.  Perhaps better still, one should take seriously the reaction of the Christians to the conversion of Constantine.  Modern historians tend to pooh pooh the Diocletian persecution (including Moss, who made her name by writing book which essentially claimed that the idea that early Christians suffered extreme persecution a myth), but Christians at the time did not agree, and praised Constantine, who was a pretty ruthless, bloodthirsty figure, to the heavens (he is a saint in many Orthodox traditions) for having saved Christianity.  I seemed to recall having read somewhere that during the ten years or so of the Diocletian persecution there only a handful of martyrs were recorded in Palestine, indicating most must have sacrificed to the gods.  I think they better understood the precariousness of their position, perhaps, than we sometimes do today.

One might add other examples to that list as well.  I am thinking of former communist countries where religion was wiped out.  I know there is something of a resurgence in places like Russia, but I’m not convinced those places are necessarily hotbeds of faith.  And for my own time period, it might well have been the case the Mary Tudor’s persecution of Protestants might well have worked to eradicate Protestantism, had she lived as long as Elizabeth.  In any case, it might just be a bit optimistic to think that persecution can never work in any sense at all, comforting though it may be.  My own study of history leads me to  a more depressing conclusion:  though it can never “establish” anything, persecution combined with other forms of power, given time, can indeed work, at least in a destructive sense.  Alas!

Alypius Minor

The Papacy of the Media

•February 21, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The Pontiff Emeritus, Benedict XVI, gave a speech just before stepping down in 2013 in which he described how he thought the Second Vatican Council had been hijacked by what he called a “Council of the Media,” and which was the only council that anyone seemed to know about.  I was thinking about this the other day when reading an article in the New York Review of Books by Professor Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University, reviewing (ostensibly) three books about Pope Francis.  Professor Duffy wrote the famous work Stripping of the Altars, on which I have written previously on this blog.  His review essay is entitled, “Who is The Pope?” and in it, he appears to call for Francis to go easy on the Curia for, as he puts it, “no pope, however charismatic, can change the church alone.”

What got to me to thinking about Benedict’s speech is that Professor Duffy wants Pope Francis to reopen the question of women’s ordination; he also said, in as many words, that John Paul II’s apostolic letter on reiterating the Church’s teaching on the nature of the priesthood, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, was not sufficient to stop debate on such a question, since it didn’t take into account the sense of the faithful over time.  Duffy does not care for John Paul II very much, and routinely has accused both he and Pope Benedict in the past of “authoritarianism.”  This largely had to do with the disciplining of dissident theologians, but apparently it also has to do with the fact that Professor Duffy wants women to be priests.  He is very much wrong on this matter, and it saddens me that such a gifted historian has fallen into such an error.  But what intrigued me was his barely stated assumption that the primary purpose of the papacy was to, in his words, “change the church”–though only in a collegial, non-authoritarian way that Duffy approves of.

Many have noted how the introduction of television reshaped political life in the modern world, when it first became a constant presence in presidential elections in the US.  One of my old mentors wrote a book about how the regularity of news schedules began reshaping people’s mentalities about things like government and religion as early as the 17th century, and so it is not surprising that newer forms of technology have speeded up this process.  And what they have done, largely, is shaped people’s minds in the direction of change:   it is the duty of our leaders to make “news,” that is, to change things, to “get the country moving again,” as John F. Kennedy put it in the 1960 presidential election, the first TV campaign of modern times.  It’s a perfect phrase:  it means precisely nothing, but is all the more powerful for that reason; a president’s job is to “get the country moving again” in some positive yet vaguely defined sense, all the better to captivate people’s imaginations.

I can’t speak to the experience of Catholics in other countries, but I fear this same expectation has now become entrenched among Catholics in America.  I myself, I know, have fallen victim to it at times, the feeling that a “good” pope will somehow be able to “get the Church moving again” and correct all of its ills somehow.  And this is an ecumenical error, I believe, shared by all sorts of Catholics.  “Liberals” suppose he will ordain women and fulfill other desires of that sort; “conservative” or “neoconservative” Catholics hope he will somehow manage to baptize all those aspects of American society they that they think are “exceptional”; traditionalists hope he will restore the pre-Vatican II Church in all its splendor.   Whatever their particular design, each thinks that major changes in the Church should precede from the institutional papacy, as if that were normal and good.  This expectation is no doubt caused by the expansion of the papal bureaucracy that has taken place since the late 19th century, and the increasing tendency of popes to sound off on every “issue” under the sun is one outgrowth of this.  But it is more than this; it is  as if there is a general expectation that the pope has to be involved in every aspect of the Church’s life, even at the most local level, and I sometimes get the impression, especially under Pope Francis, that both he and most of the faithful have come to see the successor of Peter as some sort of Universal Catholic Life Coach (TM), whose primary task is to improve their self-esteem, to approve their personal projects as Catholics, whatever they happen to be.  The twenty-four hour news cycle, combined with a fairly extensive Catholic news presences on the web, no doubt is part of the reason for this.  I receive updates on my Facebook page all the time from Catholic new sources I have “liked,” much to my regret, relaying virtually every single homily and off hand remark that Pope Francis makes, as if every syllable were somehow crucial to the life of the Church at all levels, public and private, individual and communal.  All of this contributes to the impression that every single thing he says is somehow equally important, and leads to the illusion that the Pope’s authority is akin to that of the President of the Church of the Latter Day Saints–that he can basically decree anything he wants, no matter if it contradicts previously solemnly defined doctrines of what is supposed to be a divinely revealed faith.

This is a rather dangerous trend, I think, largely because it obscures what I take to be the primary charism and duty of the pope:  to say “no.”  The real purpose of the papacy as I understand it is to be a guard against developments that are incompatible with the faith.  This is not, I should add, a problem peculiar to Pope Francis but to pretty much every pontiff after Vatican II.  I am afraid that, having made the decision to try to appeal to the modern world more directly, most popes have not wanted to sound too “negative,” and wanted to emphasize the more pleasant aspects of the faith in order to make it seem more attractive to modern people.  Even Benedict XVI, who was beloved of some “traditionalist” Catholics, made the comment (I’m paraphrasing) that God’s message to us is ultimately a “Yes” and not a “No,” that Catholicism is not merely a bunch of negative rules, etc.  The problem with this idea is that it obscures the essentially negative character of papal authority, especially its infallibility (which is only granted that it might not teach error, not that it will teach any particular positive doctrine, at least as I have understood it).  Fr. Hunwicke at his splendid blog has posted some rather helpful quotations to illustrate this, which I reproduce here; one is from Vatican I, one is from John Henry Newman, and the last is from Benedict XVI:

“The Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter so that by His revelation they might disclose new teaching, but that, by His assistance, they might devoutly guard, and faithfully set forth, the Revelation handed down through the Apostles, the Deposit of Faith.”

First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus, Ch. IV, Sec. 21

“It is individuals, and not the Holy See, that have taken the initiative, and given the lead to the Catholic mind, in theological inquiry. Indeed, it is one of the reproaches urged against the Roman Church, that it has originated nothing, and has only served as a sort of remora or break in the development of doctrine. And it is an objection which I really embrace as a truth; for such I conceive to be the main purpose of its extraordinary gift.”

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, Apologia Pro Sua Vita (1865), p.265

“After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything … especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. … In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith … it is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

From now on, especially during this season of Lent, I will try to remember these quotes, when I am tempted to blame the continuation of some problem in the Church on insufficient action by the papacy, and remember that if there is something that needs to be done for the sake of the Church–corporal or spiritual works of mercy, re-enchanting the liturgy, defending its teachings on controversial issues, etc.–that I can always start such rectifications by essaying them myself.  And remind others that the answer to certain questions, like the ordination of women, will always be “no.”




Alypius Minor


Breaking Bad: A Catholic Appreciation

•January 26, 2015 • Leave a Comment


I have been meaning to post on this topic for some time. My thoughts on the show will not deal with what I think is the most common take away by Catholic writers I have read about the show–namely, that Walter White is a great example of what happens when someone gives into evil. Personally, that wasn’t what drew me to the show; I don’t need TV to tell me how and why someone is capable of going from good to evil. Real life is enough for that. No, my take on the show as a Catholic is that it is part revenge fantasy, part tragedy–a fantasy of power for the “beta male” section of society, that part of society in modern America that feels like it has lost out even as it has played by the rules, and part tragedy, for the story of Walter White’s obsessions really are at heart about the denial of legitimate desires till they become poisonous and self destructive.  And that this is very much related to the problems of the Christian Church in the modern world.

The set up of the show, for those of you who are not familiar with it, concerns Walter White, a high school chemistry down on his luck.  He has one child with disabilities, and struggles to support his family from his teaching salary, so he must work nights at a carwash.  His intellect is not really appreciated by his students or his family, and his wife basically runs his life. He is a passive, submissive character, with whom it is easy to sympathize, but then things change as he finds out he has cancer, and that it is likely terminal.  Walter takes up the offer of his DEA brother in law Hank (an alpha male who looms large in the series) to go on a ride along for a drug bust, and runs into one of his former students, who is a meth cook.  From there, he decides to partner up with Jesse, his student, and from their first attempts he begins his descent from mild mannered school teacher to murderous drug lord by the  show’s end.

And that was the very essence of the show; I read somewhere that its creator, Vince Gilligan, originally pitched it to AMC executives as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface,” and part of the shows brilliance is that it makes this transition feel so real, so lifelike.  I am certain that my love for the show is partly due to my own experience; whether one identifies with a protagonist or not sometimes turns on this.  I am a Ph. D, not out of work but underemployed, as is Walter White when the show begins.  Working at a high school with a Ph. D in a field other than education is usually cause for embarrassment, something the show makes clear in a couple of episodes (his brother-in-law Hank  refers to him as an “underachiever” at one point, if memory serves).   On the other hand, I’m not sure how black Americans felt or fell about the show, but I’m guessing the idea of someone becoming a drug dealer is not perhaps as shocking to them as it is to a white audience.

Be that as it may, the show sets up Walter’s character beautifully in the first couple of episodes.  We see him being disrespected by two of his students, forced to work a menial second job to support his family; his son, who has a disability, is picked on.  When Walt beats the hell out of the kid who does this, we are given a preview of what Walt will eventually become, but also why I think viewers found him likeable, even after he basically becomes a murderer (which is basically in the second or third episode of the series).  Walt is the quintessential decent, middle class white guy who has worked hard and played by the rules his whole life but who still winds up on the losing end of things.  He is brilliant and learned, but is underpaid and not really respected by those around him, perhaps including his wife Skyler at the outset of the series.  Walt is, basically, a likeable loser:  one of the things I think the show does brilliantly is portray how American society, for all of its sentimentality about the “little guy,” makes rather sharp and hard divisions between “winners” (those with money, power, prestige) and “losers” (those who lack these things).  This is why I think people still liked Walt even after he basically succumbs to evil:  he is the loser who sticks it to all those people who have made his life hard or otherwise not taken him seriously (his employers, the cops, his brother-in-law, his competitor Gus Fring, even his wife.)  That’s why Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was the perfect sidekick for Walt, since he was also a loser, a talented artist who bombed out of school and became a drug dealer instead.  The only major difference is that Walt had a brush with success but pulled out of the company he had helped found, which went on to make billions.  Perhaps not having had that kind of brush with success is why, as some commentators have pointed out, Jesse was the closest thing to a moral compass in the show; he often showed remorse and a sense of conscience where Walt seemed to lose his as time went on.

Where does Catholicism come into this?  Well, in a couple of ways.  One is that when Walt begins cooking meth, you can tell right away he is not really doing this for his family, even though he repeatedly says this is the reason.  He tells Jesse that he is doing it to make money for his family, but in one scene early in the first season when Jesse asks Walt how much he needs, Walt thinks for a moment, and responds with one word:  “more.”  Walt begins with good purposes, but begins pursuing his meth cooking for other purposes:  more money, more power, and even more prestige (he wants to be known as “Heisenberg,” the best meth cook around and the guy who knocked off Fring).  What is so interesting about this to me is that these are all of the things that Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologica (ST II. Q2) that we cannot substitute for our true happiness, which is only found in knowing God.  Wealth, honor, fame, pleasure, and power can never serve as our supreme happiness, and yet those are things that Walt craves.  But it bears noting that neither Thomas nor the Catholic tradition properly understood condemn those things; there is nothing intrinsically wrong with pleasure, or fame.  As Thomas says, those things can be either good or evil, but the supreme good–God–can only be good.  That is why it is so dangerous to pursue those things in an excessive way.

Now, God is almost completely absent from the show, but in this case, one can see lesser goods taking precedence over the good of family, but also of respect for life, as Walt becomes more and more inured to his criminal life.  In one memorable scene, Hank is at the dinner table with Walt and his family, and said something which stuck in my memory.  Hank, who pursues “Heisenberg” throughout the series notes that this Heisenberg is supremely talented, and rues how much good he could do if he turned his talents to better purposes.  With Walt sitting there, it is a powerful scene, not only because by that point he has become a drug dealer and murderer, but because we as an audience know what Hank doesn’t:  Walt had turned his talents to good, but was not really rewarded as he felt he should be.  Now, we know Walt is wrong, but we also know that experience:  in life, good is not always rewarded as it should be.  Given every man his due is the classical definition of justice, but in this life it never works that way.  Justice is incomplete in this life.  Men and women of virtue get taken advantage of; honest politicians lose to ones who lie and flatter; talentless hacks make millions while genuine artists scrape for a living; those who are abused are ignored and scorned, while their abusers go free.  Again, Walt’s problems are not that extreme, but are all the more relatable for that reason.  Walt’s grievances are not trivial in themselves, and even as he turns into a monster we still find in him someone whom we can sympathize because they are so universal.

At least as far as American society goes.  Our is an intensely aspirational society, one which makes a lot of promises about what types of goals its citizens can achieve, but has little room in its moral imagination for those who fail to achieve theirs.  And there is a parallel here, I think, with regards Breaking Bad and Catholicism.  Just as Walt loses himself in things that can be good in themselves but are not ultimate, Catholics often lose themselves in certain goods (social justice, liturgy, the approval of others) that block our experience of the ultimate good, overselling them and underselling God.  This is all the more poignant as the Catholic Church–with its exclusive claims, enormous dogmas, and outrageous rituals–has traditionally claimed to offer not any of those things, but rather the most audacious claim of all:  to offer God himself, that whom is most desirable, most able to satisfy all those disappointed yearnings.   And not symbols, mind you, not social substitutes, as if the community of the faithful or its charitable work were somehow equated with God’s presence, nor even the most magnificent liturgy imaginable–no, not in symbols, but in his very being and essence, to possess and be possessed by Him, and to be able to do that exclusively.

Breaking Bad shows what comes of pursuing those goods–and they are goods–to their ultimate end, without any thought for the ultimate end, in a way that should stoke our anger at Walt’s crimes, but also pity, not only at the loss, but at the unnecessariness of it.  Walt pursues his own “bliss” in modern terms (Joseph Campbell’s terms!) to the end.  In the last episode of the show, when his wife threatens to scream if he reiterates, as he does throughout the show, that he committed all of his crimes for his family, Walt finally comes clean:  “I did it for myself.  I liked it.  I was good at it. And…I was alive.”  The whole peril and promise of American individualism is on display in that scene, with all of its distortion and expansion of legitimate desires for accomplishment and personal achievement into an idol of self destruction.  The only answer to this most powerful adversary I think is to show the mystery of God to those who have been disappointed in life, to the “losers” in our society’s game, to show that there is more than wealth, power, pleasure, and honor to live for, that those things can never satisfy, but only the one who made them all.  And, as Catholics, who claim to have sole possession of those mysteries, cannot offer to the suffering of this world anything less, without taking the risk that we too might “break bad” for all of eternity.




Alypius Minor

A Liberal Theologian Agrees With Cardinal Burke

•January 24, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Sort of, anyway.  Recently, his eminence Cardinal Raymond Burke made some comments about how the “feminization” of the Church had led to men abandoning the Church since the Second Vatican Council.  Now, I have always admired Cardinal Burke, but tend not to like very “either/or” type prescriptions for problems like the ones facing the Church these days.  That being said, there is something to be said for the idea that the infantilization of the liturgy and other disgraces that beset the Church in recent decades have some relation to an overemphasis on what might be called “feminine” virtues, at least more so than his detractors seem to think.  Now, I put that word in scare quotes because I’m not totally convinced those virtues are purely feminine or masculine, but woman do tend to be better at certain things than men in general, if not absolutely.

I give as evidence for this a remarkable passage I came across the other day on the blog of Joseph Shaw, the chairman of the Latin Mass Society in the UK.  It is from a book by a late Catholic theologian named Patrick Arnold, who, according to Shaw, advocated the ordination of women and the abolition of clerical celibacy.  So, he was definitely a liberal in theological terms.  But apparently he was also influenced by Jung, and which may account for his insistence on the difference between men and women.  Be that as it may, I reproduce below most of the passage Shaw cites on his blog, in which Arnold discusses men and how they experience the liturgy.  Take a read:

Patrick Arnold: Wildmen, Warriors, and Kings (1992), p77-78
For many years liturgists felt that highly formalized worship services bored people and turned them off; “creative” liturgies were proposed as the solution. Unfortunately, the resulting Butterfly, Banner, and Balloon Extravaganzas severely alienated many men. The most saccharine outbreaks of forced liturgical excitement featured fluttering dancers floating down the aisles like wood-nymphs, goofy pseudo-rites forced on the congregation with almost fascist authoritarianism, and a host of silly schticks usually accompanied by inane music. It was exciting all right; many men felt excited enough to rise from their pews and walk right out the door. What was their problem? It seems that most men are instantly turned off by surprise spontaneity in ritual circumstances; moreover, ceremonies that are entirely nice, sweet, and happy usually strike men as phoney and completely unconnected with the harsh world they experience every day.

What attracts men to public prayer, then? Men need a certain regularity and consistency in their worship; spontaneity has its appeal for men, but not in the midst of ritual. The highly popular masculine traditions of Judaism and Islam, for example, encourage set times, places, and formulae for daily prayer and worship, and men respond to these demands very well. Ritually, men like to know exactly what is expected of them and what the rules are; religion helps men when it challenges them to clear, reasonable, and achievable goals, whether liturgically or devotionally. Men like to be able to succeed at something; their lives are filled with enough failure, real and imagined, as it is.

Even more central to masculine worship is the notion of the Transcendent. In deemphasizing in recent generations a concern with absolutes and ultimates, heaven and hell, and eternity and infinity, modern Christianity has taken a decisive turn towards feminine religion, which is typically interested in the immanent and the incarnational, in finding God in the small things, the everyday, and the mundane. These are genuine Christian qualities and mark the beautiful spirituality of a Therese of Lisieux or a Mother Teresa of Calcutta; without doubt, men also need such grounding emphases. These traits are not, however, essentially masculine in nature. As liberal religion stresses increasingly the immanent and “horizontal” dimension of faith to the exclusion of the transcendent and “vertical” reality, it inadvertently ignores the voracious appetite of men for the Great, the Wholly Other, and the Eternal.

A liturgy or a sermon that truly speaks to men will tend to “pitch” men outside themselves, confront them with the Absolute, and offer them an eschatological viewpoint on life. Admittedly, this is hard to do in the Mass or eucharistic liturgy, which is structured around the domestic motif of the dining table. Yet a service that simply emphasizes the sacredness and eternity of the eucharistic actions, the infinite value of the ceremony, and the worldwide solidarity of the prayer is already on the way to capturing the male imagination.

If we are to ask makes to take worship seriously, we ought to provide rites which are serious. A liturgy that appeals to men possesses a quality the Hebrews called kabod (‘glory’) and the Romans gravitas (‘gravity’); both words at root means ‘weightiness’ and connote a sense of dignified importance and seriousness. Ceremonies that are trivial or flighty don’t command male respect.


Yes, yes, yes–a thousand times yes.  This puts my concerns more clearly than I ever could have articulated them.  I don’t know that “feminization” explains all ills in the Church, but I do know that I avoid most parishes because I often feel, rather than encountering the mysterious, awful, and ineffable presence of God in the liturgy, that I have happened upon a summer band camp sing-a-long for middle aged women and pre-pubescent children, none of whom can actually sing.  And it is striking that someone like Arnold could understand this but most Catholics cannot, including many “conservative” types.  Thank you to Mr. Shaw for posting this most interesting of passages.




Alypius Minor

Technology & the Liturgy

•January 12, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Video Parish

I’m sure more subtle minds have reflected upon this subject, but I can’t help thinking about the role of technology in the liturgy these days.  We have just passed the official observance of the Feast of the Epiphany in the Roman Rite in America, and I have been visiting relatives in the South these past few weeks, attending the liturgy at a local parish mission near where my parents live.  I am a member of a tiny, fairly unique liturgical community where I live, and so I don’t get out much to normal Latin Rite parishes anymore, and I must say my experiences while I have been down here have reminded me why I do not go to such parishes if I can help it.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the use of power point slides and projector screens to help the congregation say the creed, or with the playing of a guitar at mass per se, but the use of these things at a parish where I stay when visiting my parents–a rural parish, in the southern edge of the bible belt, appealing to a mostly rural congregation–has been quite hard on me, harder than in the past.  Again, I would never look down on these goodly people, nor the priest who ministers to them, whom I much admire and who is a model of Christ’s love (and born on December 25 to boot!).  But the whole tenor of the service at this parish shows quite clearly the influence of Evangelical Protestantism, with whose influence any Catholic parish must reckon in this part of the country.  From the beginning of mass, in which both a reader and the priest address the congregation, and ask visitors to stand up so that they can be applauded, to the general atmosphere of the congregation, which talks loudly and noisily before, during and after mass, such influences are quite noticeable.  As most likely is, I should point out, the quality of the priest’s homilies, which are quite good, something that is not typical of most parishes.  But you had best have a good homilist here, if you want people to show up at mass, which they do at this parish.

Guitar MassII

But to return to my point de depart, the use of technology at this parish is not a strictly “Protestant” thing, if it ever was.  And of course, much of what is used in “traditional” liturgies (East and West) is a form of technology, however rudimentary:  incense, candles, and other items are very much technology of a sort.   And of course it was the Latin Christians who introduced the organ into the liturgy during the Middle Ages, so it is not as if one could point to some theological or historical objection in order to rule out things like guitars or power point screens during the liturgy.  But I have to believe not all types of technology are suitable for the “work of God” (which is one way to translate the Greek term from which “liturgy” derives).   There is something quite distracting to me about the use of power point screens, which take one out of the rhythms that ought to accompany the cadence of the spoken word in the liturgy.    There is also something to be said for not using microphones in liturgy as well:  the role of the spoken voice shaped the way churches were built and structured, and the introduction of the microphone altered this profoundly, as builders no longer had to account for the way sound carried.  These types of changes have had precisely the types of depersonalizing effects that many alarmists about technology have made over the years, but it seems to me in this case they are correct.  So much of what was taken for granted in the liturgy as it was celebrated before the 20th century has been changed at least in part to these technological innovations, and not merely to ideological shenanigans on the part of nefarious liturgists (although they were involved, no doubt!).

The most divisive types of technology have to do with music of course, and the little mission parish I attend near my parents home has a choir led by an older gentleman playing the guitar.  And not only for hymns, but for ordinary parts of the liturgy,  the Agnus Dei, the Sanctus, and most of the rest of the mass.   No doubt this is what takes place at most Protestant churches in the area, but it really does lend itself to making a hash of the liturgy and its rhythms.  Using instruments that are meant to accompany the human voice and lead it, like the guitar, and especially one that is associated in people’s minds with popular music, unlike the organ, it naturally leads one to sing the Gloria, for example, as my little mission choir does, like a popular song, repeating the phrase “Glory to God in the Highest and Peace to People of Good Will” as if it were the refrain.  You may ask, so what?  If that gets the people to listen to the words, what’s the difference? But that is my point:  it doesn’t lead people to the words, since that is not what such popular music is designed for.  Most lyrics in popular music are mere ornaments to the melody, which is not the case in the mass.  There, it is the words that are important, because they are sacred, and that’s why chant is so perfectly suited to sacred music, since it need not follow a strictly metrical melody but can be fitted to the words, to put emphasis on them.  Hence the universal use of chant–East and West–prior to the Reformation.

I am not saying it is a violation of any truth of the Catholic faith to use guitars in the liturgy.  But I wish people understood how changing the forms in which the liturgy has traditionally taken place–architecturally, musically, and visually speaking–almost changes the nature of the liturgy, and at the very least obscures what it is meant to convey:  the presence of the eternal God in time, made present to us in the Eucharistic sacrifice.  In practice, it is otherwise at many parishes like the mission parish I visited:  there I often feel that I am at a concert listening to people who don’t sing very well.

Guitar Mass

Again, I am not saying I want to go back to the Middle Ages here; rather like the comfort of central heating and air conditioning, as well as the amenity afforded by modern toilets in my churches (something I found out when I had to go to the bathroom very badly while in an Italian city, visiting a Cathedral which did not have one!).  But then those technologies don’t interfere with the main purpose of the liturgy, as some others do.  And all these examples are kind of beside the point anyway; it is not any one particular thing that bothers me about the way, it is the whole effect it has on me.  I find it difficult to concentrate on the words of the liturgy, and it is hard for me to concentrate my mind on God.  There’s no real help for it in most parishes these days, and it will be that way for the foreseeable future in the Latin Rite, outside a few enclaves like my home parish.  Somewhere, Newman wrote that some things can only be done slowly, over time.  I certainly hope so.  At least when I go to visit my parents, I know I will always be able to go to the bathroom when nature calls.




Alypius Minor

The Nativity of the Lord

•December 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment


“How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings glad tidings,
announcing peace, bearing good news,
announcing salvation, and saying to Zion,
“Your God is King!”

“And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.”

Isaiah 52:7-10

Gospel of John, 1:1-18

Readings for Liturgy During the Day

Nativity of the Lord

Today is the Nativity of the Lord, the Savior promised to Israel in its days of suffering, who himself was born to suffer on the cross.  This day, God took on our humanity, and became himself the sacrifice and the promise of our future redemption.  Let us rejoice, all who believe in this promise and this gift, and share it with our fellow men this day, in love and charity proclaiming, “Christ our Salvation is born, let us sing out and worship him, in peace and truth.”

Alypius Minor

An Artist’s Prayer

•September 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Continue reading ‘An Artist’s Prayer’

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