Originally posted at Talk to Action
This is the story of how and why I spoke out during a recent church service. When I arrived at Saturday evening mass with my family, I had no idea of the drama that my priest was about to stage — and my own unscripted role. While my outburst may have taken everyone, including me, by surprise, I was and I am faithfully dissenting from what my pastor, Father Michael Louis Gelfant, seems to want to do to my parish, my country and my faith.
His Saturday evening sermon of February 19, 2011 was an effort to introduce the forthcoming but already controversial, revised missal (a liturgical book containing all instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of Mass throughout the year.) Unfortunately, he sidestepped its much-discussed shortcomings and the heavy-handed way in which it is being imposed upon the English-speaking Church. That alone was disappointing, but he also used the pulpit to disparage Vatican II, American Catholics, and to wage culture war. And that is why I needed to speak out.
My parish, St. Finbar’s in Bath Beach, Brooklyn had always been a beacon of tolerance and progressive Catholicism. There, we heard sermons about living good, reasonable lives, economic and social justice and the lessons of the likes of Dorothy Day. Except for the occasional visiting priest, we were never subjected to Catholic Right culture war sermons. Our late pastor Father James Mueller, a Vatican II, aggiornamento-minded priest once complained to me about the young, conservative priests who would rather rush to the front lines of the culture wars than to the duties of a parish priest such as counseling parishioners in trouble or visiting the sick and dying.
After our new pastor’s sermon on February 19, 2011, I was left to wonder if he is the kind of priest Father Mueller was concerned about. Father Gelfant used a reading of 1 Corinthians 3 as the point of departure for his sermon. The key phrase for him was “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” He then proceeded to use these words to attack the legacy of Vatican II, the current (non-Latin) Mass, and American Catholicism in general.
But before we discuss the reading and the related sermon which helps to explain my dissent, I want to report that I have learned a little more about Father Gelfant that helped me understand why his sermon may have taken the tone it did. During a visit to his Facebook page I learned that his “likes” include Fox News, the “Notre Dame Scandal” (the protest against the University’s invitation to president Obama to speak at commencement) and Tea Party Patriots.
The Tea Party Patriots! This group is about as far outside of any branch of Catholicism as can be. For example, this outfit featured as a speaker at its recent policy summit , the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute Yaron Brook. Ayn Rand was, of course, a 20th century libertarian atheist philosopher, who railed against the Christian ethic of altruism, found religious faith incompatible with reason and disregarded prohibitions against monogamous marriage. Rand’s views are influential within the Tea Party movement.
Unsurprisingly, Tea Party Patriots organization is doing the dirty work for the infamous Koch Brothers, Charles and David, who are best known today as the major funders of the Tea Party movement.
Let’s briefly consider why a Catholic might raise an eyebrow about the Koch connection. They have employed a plethora of falsehoods in opposing universal health care legislation. Koch Industries was named one of the top ten air polluters in the United States by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute. The Koch brothers are fiercely anti-union and want to pull the social safety net out from under our most vulnerable brother and sister Americans.
Beyond that, the brothers Koch underwrite such organizations as the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and the Ethics and Public Policy Center that seek to strip the Christian Social Gospel and Social Justice traditions out of both Catholicism and mainstream Protestant denominations. These reactionary projects cut deeply against the grain of one hundred and twenty years of Catholic teaching that began with Rerum Novarum.
Perhaps he was unaware of these facts. Many people are. Or perhaps he is nostalgic for more authoritarian times. Or both. But of course, I didn’t know about his surprising political tastes when I protested out loud during the service.
Father Gelfant took the time in his sermon to complain to us about how the altar and tabernacle were moved to the front from the back in the old Latin Mass. In those days, the priest would say Mass with his back to the congregation and do so in a language Jesus most likely rarely used (being a Jew, He spoke with His fellow Jews in either Hebrew or Aramaic and with non-Jews in Koine Greek the lingua-franca of the Roman Empire). Father Gelfant then critiqued the these key changes of Vatican II in terms of St. Paul’s teaching that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” That struck me as an odd approach.
Mass is a remembrance of the Last Supper. Just as Jesus shared His last meal before crucifixion with His friends, Communion is also a meal with friends. Bringing the altar closer to the congregation was intended as recognition of that remembrance. (I have seen many paintings of the Last Supper and I have yet to see one where Jesus had His back to the twelve.) I couldn’t help but wonder if Father Gelfant would invite his friends and family to a celebratory meal and turn his back on them. In fairness, he has probably never thought of it that way, and may just be such a fan of the aesthetics of the Latin rite mass, that he has not fully considered the implications.
But then he spoke of his biretta, the square black cap priests sometimes wear at the beginning and conclusion of the Mass. Its use is optional since Vatican II, but I was left with the impression that he uses it as a statement that he is above us, not of us.
But it was when he began to tell us about and praise the new missal, with all its awkward literal translations (discussed below) that I became angry. He then announced that a Latin Mass was coming back — to St. Finbar’s, I presume. But he didn’t say for sure.
The Latin Mass is a trademark cause for the Catholic Right. It is emblematic of their desire to establish a dissent-free, top-down system of authority. And its reemergence should be the fire-bell in the night warning that the reasonable reforms of Vatican II are being rolled back. The new missal with its literal Latin translations appears to be a first step to restore the old Latin Mass.
That is when I said “no!” and “I dissent!”
His response to my outburst was that “American Catholics think they own the Church.” (I checked with several people to make sure I had heard him correctly. I had.) His rebuke of the faithful who have raised concerns over the new missal was as shocking as it was unmistakable.
It is not my practice to interrupt a speaker in church or anywhere else. But that is when and why I spoke up. Father Gelfant’s words portend a more angry, strident Church; one where Catholics like me are not wanted. And it appears that my own parish priest is among those who want such a church. I hope I am wrong about that.
Father Gelfant’s sneer not withstanding, American Catholics are not alone in their reservations. A large group of Irish priests, for example, wants a five-year moratorium on its implementation, calling it “archaic.”
Representatives from the priests’ group said the proposed literal translations from Latin had produced texts that were “archaic, elitist and obscure and not in keeping with the natural rhythm, cadence and syntax of the English language.”
What are the Irish clergy talking about? Well, one example is that the prayer “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” becomes “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” As any student of translation knows, idiomatic expressions can be clumsy things.
They also stated:
“We are passionately concerned about the quality of our liturgical celebration and about the quality of the language that will be used in the way we worship Sunday after Sunday,” he said. “If this goes ahead, instead of drawing people into the liturgy, it will in fact draw people out from the liturgy.”
What’s more, the Vatican’s imposition of the awkward new translation has been so heavy-handed that Father Anthony Ruff, until recently chairman on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy which was responsible for the fresh translation of the missal, dropped his support for the project. In a letter to the Jesuit journal America Father Ruff wrote:
The forthcoming missal is but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church. When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process-and then when I think of Our Lord’s teachings on service and love and unity… I weep.
That’s why I found Father Gelfant’s comment “American Catholics think they own the Church” at once so illuminating and outrageous. In a single sentence it suggested a deep disdain for transparency and accountability in the Church. It even suggested disrespect for the faithful.
Father Gelfant was also indirectly raising other simmering issues between American Catholics and the hierarchy on everything from ordination of women to artificial birth control to stem cell research. Those of us who hold views that differ from the hierarchy don’t think we should be stigmatized. To the contrary, to loyally question long unchallenged dogmas are part of the traditions of Aquinas, Peter Abelard and Jesus Himself. As Pope John XXIII declared, the Church is on a journey to better understand the Gospels. What Good Pope John understood is that is that while God is immutable, our understanding of Him is not. To accept that notion is not heresy but humility.
But to me, the use of tradition as a tool of authoritarian control is not humility before God. When Father Gelfant derided American Catholics, what I heard him saying between the lines was that he doesn’t like it that we don’t simply “pay, pray and obey.”
Such attitudes seem to be on the rise as many of Father Gelfant’s fellow traditionalists are quite clear in their desire for a smaller, leaner Church, purged free of dissenters. One prominent Opus Dei priest, Rev. John McCloskey has gone so far as to say in his ideal future American Catholic Church: “Dissent has disappeared from the theological vocabulary.” The Church, he says, would be reduced from sixty million members to forty million. And he speaks approvingly of secession that would tear asunder these United States. All this, in the name of advancing a reactionary brand of Catholicism.
Young people have stayed away from the Church in droves since the Church issued Humanae Vitae, its 1968 restatement in opposition to artificial birth control. The Church has also gotten leaner due to the way the Church has dealt with the scandal of pedophile priests. I expect that an hour long Mass in a dead foreign language certainly can’t hurt McCloskey’s membership reduction program.
And so we come full circle to St. Paul’s lesson about “the wisdom of this world.” In order to get the full meaning of his words, we need to go to verses 21-23 which read: “So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you, Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”
It is the people together with the clergy that comprises the Church. It is not Latin nor birettas nor the priest who turns his back to the congregants that is the Church. It is certainly not a clergy that colludes with nefarious men who would deny workers their wages, pollute the environment and crusade against better access to health care for all people. What is truly foolish in God’s sight is elevating archaic rituals over the needs of His people.
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