Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Meaningful Ritual Is An Experiential Event, Not An Exercise In Cerebral Theology

 I understand that as a Cardinal, Cardinal Pell is entitled to wear more lace than a mere Archbishop.  That is some serious lace.  But I wonder if it makes him a more powerful experiential leader, or is just more distracting eye candy.

In catching up on some blog reading early this morning I was really taken with a two post series written by Australian priest Fr. Daniel Donovan for Catholica Australia.  In them he takes apart Cardinal Pell's understanding of the function of the Mass as catechesis.  Pell admits that the new translation is an attempt to re catechize Catholic faithful through the Mass.  The first short excerpt is from a longer article written by Tess Livingstone published this past May in The AustralianFirst a couple of explanations,  Tess Livingstone is known in Australian progressive circles as a Pell Cheerleader, and the Mr Elich mentioned in the first sentence is the Director of Brisbane's Liturgical Commission.

....When interviewed, Elich is unenthusiastic but more circumspect: "This is what the church has produced for us at this time and it is now up to us to make it work."

He cites a section of the new third Eucharistic prayer as an example of his concerns. It reads: "Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your church and, recognising the victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself, grant that we, who are nourished by the body and blood of your son and filled with his holy spirit, may become one body and one spirit in Christ."

Pell is unconcerned if people initially find such wording, with its emphasis on the sacred and the transcendent, a bit daunting. He compares the mass text to a good children's book in the sense that it will stimulate thought and broaden mass-goers' knowledge. (Notice how his operative terms are thought and knowledge.)

This, he says, will lead to a deeper understanding of theology as people encountered the occasional unfamiliar word such as oblation, a theological term for offering or gift.

"If someone writes a scholarly article a few hundred people will read it," he says.

"A few thousand people read a theological book, but the mass, a celebration in which tens of millions will participate repeatedly across the decades, is a highly effective form of catechesis. (So Cardinal Pell, who was the chair of Vox Clara, sees these changes in terms of thought, theology, and the imputation of knowledge---Mass as school.)


I really encourage folks to read both articles of Fr Donovan because he develops his arguments against Pell's understanding in some depth.  Basically Donovan argues that the Mass is a ritual and ritual is about fostering holistic experiences, a sense of presence, and immersion in the life of the community dedicated to Jesus's teachings. Rituals and rites are designed to elicit far more than a cerebral or thought response:

......Jesus' Ministry and Rituals
Rituals are symbolic actions and a rite is a collection of these actions. The prophets in Israel ritualised and the people immediately experienced God's effective presence in their history. Jesus followed this prophetic tradition and was constantly plagued by "the theologians" of the day wanting a cerebral response from him.
Jesus himself is the proto-sacrament because in his humanity he reveals the unseen God. John explains that "the Word became flesh" (Jn 1:14) and "from the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing for another" (v.16). Jesus is "Emmanuel" — God-with-us (Mt 1:23). Throughout his ministry, Jesus mediated God through his interaction with the people. The following examples from the Gospels (while not exhaustive) will illustrate this point.
  • In Mark 2:1ff, Jesus heals the paralytic with a holistic ritual "your sins are forgiven" and immediately, "some of the teachers of the law" present consider Jesus to be "blaspheming" because "only God can forgive sins" (v7). The physical cure of the paralytic is the explanation of the ritual (v.12) which silences "the theologians" but, more importantly, the ritual invites participation by the crowd in God's saving work.
  • Luke reports that John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" Jesus does not feel compelled to answer the question directly but continues his healing ritual (Lk 7:20-21). The Baptist's disciples are " report what they see and hear (aural/oral): the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me" (Lk 7:22-23). What a "Cool" answer, Jesus work is holistic and nurtures faith.
  • John does not include a narrative of institution of Eucharist in his Gospel, but rather prefers the ritual of Jesus washing the disciples' feet (Jn 13: 1-17). Peter insists that Jesus is not to wash his feet (v.8) which eventually leads to the explanation of the ritual. "I ... have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet". Eucharist, for Jesus is not about doctrinal definitions but "service" so those who remember him at Eucharist remember him as Servant and they too, must "wash each other's feet".
  • For Luke (Lk 22:24-27) and Matthew (Mt 25: 31-46), the ritual of remembering must lead to action. There is an intimate connection between recognising and serving Jesus in the other and remembering and recognising Jesus in the Eucharist. The interconnectedness of ritual and life is the heart of God's saving work.
Through ritual Jesus expressed God's presence, he made mud and restored sight (Jn 9: 6-7) or wrote in the dirt (Jn 8: 7-8) or allowed people to touch him (Lk 7: 39) and he was forthright in refuting those who took the moral high ground attending to "correct content" rather than "the effect" of the ritual on all who witnessed the event. Jesus' ministry was intended to invite people to convert and to recognise God's presence among them (Mk 1:12-15), he invited his hearers to live the mystery not simply to define it.

Ritual is a Living Medium

........All rituals teach through effect rather than content. Religious rituals have the capacity to provide access to the living Tradition of the celebrating group long before the person is able to cognise or understand. Rituals also, allow the celebrating community to experience and embrace the Vision which assures that the Tradition is always open to and subject to the critique of the Kingdom thus The General Instruction on the Lectionary correctly, states that when the word of God is announced and proclaimed, there is an awareness of being a new people (effect) in whom the covenant proclaimed in the past (Tradition) is perfected and fulfilled (Vision). Tradition is not the dead faith of the living as some of the hierarchy would suggest; it is always the living faith of the dead who in ritual join in praising and thanking God.  Rituals ensure that communities remember their past but also can walk humbly with God and embrace the challenges of God's future.


As far as I'm concerned Fr. Donovan has hit the nail on the head with his two articles.  Ritual is about experience.  It is not about theology or knowledge or catechesis.  It is not brain candy.  Ritual when done right, by passes cognition in favor of a more holistic response.  It is about heart, not head.  It is about experience and effect, not rules and verbal content.  Language should never ever get in the way of the experiential power of the ritual.

For me there has been an interesting parallel development in Native American practice where elders are having to face that fact that passing on their knowledge and their rituals often means passing them on to people who are not fluent in traditional languages.  I can remember having talks with one elder about his concern for this issue.  He said he worried that the deceased ancestors would not recognize the rituals if they weren't done in traditional languages and they wouldn't come and lend their support, thus making the rituals far less potent an experience. But he was also Catholic, a not uncommon occurrence for many Native medicine persons, and drew on his experience from when Mass changed from Latin to English.  He didn't think he noticed any lack of connection with his Catholic ancestors, so maybe he was worrying for no good reason.

Ritual is always more about intent and honoring and respecting tradition than it is how all that might be expressed.  In the end this elder decided his concerns might say more about him than about his ancestors or the experiential power of his ceremonies, and he has subsequently dropped some of the language requirements.  Similarly, I think Pell's insistence on Latinized English and using the Mass to underscore catechesis and theology says a whole lot more about him than it does anything else.  

Unfortunately English speaking Catholics through out the world now get to experience his definition of verbal brain candy because he has the clout to stick the rest of us with his misunderstanding of rite and ritual. Lucky us.



  1. You nailed it-it's all about the power of Pell & company to dictate the liturgy to us. What we have had reflects the real meaning more than this Latinized monstrosity. It's all about asserting power and authority over the lay folk. I predict Mass attendance will continue to fall even more after the new liturgy comes into effect.

  2. I think this is an attempt to indoctrinate the public in the ways that Pell wishes them to think. It becomes like Fox News, to control the media and discourage people's independent thought. This plan will not work as it will engender criticism rather than controlled instruction (indoctrination) in the thoughtful laity.

    I agree the mass has always been about a spiritual ritual, the receiving of Christ--- Transformation in spirituality. It has not been a time to think about the catechism or theology unless a good preacher has been able to bring us there in his sermon. The Mass is so much more than either theology or catechism. In my opinion Karen is right, mass attendance will fall; only those interested in learning what the rules and regulations of the church are will attend. As some of these people mature, they will tire of the attempts to teach and miss something----miss spirituality that should be the mass.

    Isn’t wonderful to have such zealot ideologues as leaders!!!! I think these men come from fear not love. dennis