It has been a constant observation of sober commentators on the Church since the Vatican Council that the principle of "lex credendi, lex orandi" has been comprehensively traduced by both official and unofficial liturgical innovation.
We are all used to being subjected to the whims of creative liturgists at illicit lounge room liturgies and parish balloon and clown festivals. Most of these liturgies are merely banal and offend more against good taste than doctrine. The chief objection to such celebrations is that they create a general ambience of liturgical anarchy and lack of order in the Church which is inimical to a truly Catholic notion of Divine Worship. Any offence against doctrine is at one remove, by omission, rather than commission.
Recently, however, a number of young lay people came to me to voice concern at a liturgy they had attended. It seems that a new class of liturgical abomination has surfaced: namely, one which has been deliberately designed to inculcate a particular theological emphasis, often at odds with the received tradition of the Catholic Church. What is even more disturbing is that such celebrations are often carried out with the implicit support of local church authorities.
At the April meeting of the Diocesan Pastoral Council of the Archdiocese of Canberra, the official liturgies of the meeting contained instances of where ideas seemingly inconsistent with a Christian notion of God were presented.
The prayers were structured around the four directions of the compass (North, South, East and West) and the four elements (Fire, Earth, Air and Water). The prayers obviously came from the Northern Hemisphere (I could imagine California) since the symbolism for North (Coldness) and South (Warmth) were inappropriate for our hemisphere where the reverse is the case.
For those who in other circumstances would be frothing at the mouth about inculturation, it is ironic that the liturgical ramifications of the geographical position of the Australian continent seem to have escaped their notice.
I am reliably informed that at the first liturgy a bowl containing fire was the focus of the liturgy and that the congregation stood facing the fire with hands outstretched in blessing. This is inconsequential of itself, except that the Christian liturgy already has the rite of blessing fire on Easter night and that none of the resonance of Resurrection and new life are explored in the ersatz Californian one. I find this a surprising omission.
The identification of South and Fire is also bizarre. The usual and, dare I say, natural identification is between the Fire (representing the Easter Christ) and the East (the rising Sun). This is the most historically consistent and obvious Christian use of cosmic symbolism. (The interested reader may refer to Cardinal Ratzinger's Feast of Faith or the Catechism of the Liturgy by the monks of du Baroux). Historical consistency, however, is something that one has long since learnt not to expect from Catholic liturgies.
The omission of the Resurrection as a theological motif is not surprising if we advert to the fact that, in the first session of prayer, the usual trinitarian structure of Christian prayer was not present. God was not addressed as Father, except during the Closing Prayer, when He was also addressed as Mother. There was no mention of the relationships within the Trinity, of the Incarnation, of the Holy Spirit or of anything much except God's integrity and justice. In fact the first session of prayer could have been attended and participated in by almost any religious person of any theistic persuasion and, with a few minor mental reservations, by an honest agnostic. This may account for the seeming popularity of such prayers among the clergy and religious.
Liturgical horror stories
The most objectionable part of this morning liturgy was the Closing Prayer. It is worth quoting it in full for those who enjoy liturgical horror stories:
Father of the Poor.
Mother of Mercy.
God of all consolation!
Your silence makes a mockery of your name.
Come, God of Justice.
Too much suffering, too many deaths.
You have waited long enough!
Strike quickly in our world and today in our hearts.
To which the congregation was expected to reply "Amen"! The ascription of epithets traditionally reserved to our Blessed Mother, to God the Father is quaint enough. The fact that the prayer could not be formed into a coherent sentence makes the entire proposition more than faintly ridiculous. The prayer, as it stands is, of course, manifestly gibberish. We have all learnt to tolerate charitably clerical gentlemen in pink shirts and religious ladies in sensible shoes inflicting gross indignities on the English language in the name of sexual equality or theological modernity. This prayer, however, plumbs new depths of theological blather. If it were not so sinister, it would be amusing.
The underlying assumptions of such a prayer, however, are profoundly disturbing to anyone who understands what it is asking. The hermaphrodite deity addressed in this prayer is apparently not playing speaks with humankind, or "earthborn women and men', and needs to be shaken out of his/her sulky mood by a bit of stern talking to. It all bears the distinct impression of having been composed by someone who had spent far too much time dealing with eight year olds.
One can actually imagine the prayer concluding: "... and if you don't do what you're told, you won't be allowed outside at play lunch." The God Most High who speaks to Job from the midst of the tempest or communicates himself to mankind through the Incarnation in an act of sovereign freedom appears to have been filtered out of the religious consciousness of anyone who can seriously pray this, prayer.
The divine residue is the wimpish, bisexual God of the magicians whom, if we can cajole and nag enough, might be talked around to our way of looking at the world. God becomes a sort of Fairy Godmother who waves the magic wand over the problems of human suffering and makes it all better, who applies the celestial band-aid to the skinned knee. Such a God does not appear in the articles of any Creed or Council or in the pages of the Old or the New Testament.
One assumes that this prayer is an attempt at theological boldness in dealing with the problems of evil in the world. It succeeds in being merely naughty. The problem of reconciling Goodness and Omnipotence in the person of one God is a difficult business. One does not deny Christians the freedom to face this difficulty honestly. The Scriptures themselves show many examples of the sacred author grappling with this problem.
Problem of evil
It is the Incarnation, however, which gives Christians their most cogent response to the problem of evil. For Christians to ignore in a liturgical context the theological datum of the suffering of the God/Man Jesus on the cross in favour of such juvenile ravings as in this liturgy is simply offensive, if not blasphemous.
The composers of prayers such as these are about 2000 years out of date. The plain fact is that God has spoken to man in his suffering in the person of Jesus who cried out on man's behalf "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" The Father's reply to this searching entreaty was given by the angel at the empty tomb, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" This might well be the attitude of any angel one might encounter at such liturgies, albeit for different reasons.
If such nonsense as was proposed for Christian prayer at the official liturgies of the Canberra Diocesan Pastoral Council were the result of ennui and a desire for novelty, it would be disconcerting enough. One suspects, however, that darker reasons lie beneath the surface of this sort of literary endeavour.
The attempt to shock orthodox theistic sensibilities only makes sense if one is able to pray such a prayer around orthodox theists who might be shocked by it. It therefore has a plainly political intent, namely to change the idea of God which is held by the congregation who listen to such prayers or, in any event, to move the centre of theological debate sharply to the left. Anyone who cavils at such pseudo-pagan mumbo jumbo is immediately identified as a benighted conservative or sexist or out-of-touch or whatever the current jargon is to label people one disagrees with. One can only hope that the essentially trivial nature of do-it-yourself liturgy packs from America bores people so much that they fall asleep during the heretical bits.
Far from it being the case that the purveyors of this ecclesiastical snake oil have to justify their inept excursions into "creative liturgy', it is the honest layperson who is put in the position of having to justify a negative appraisal of such goings-on from half-formed intuitions and snatches of half-remembered catechism.
The result is the slow but steady restructuring of the symbolic frame of reference by which the Church addresses her Father and creator, and the increasing alienation of those who object to this restructuring. Those of us who are concerned about the doctrinal direction which large sections of the Catholic Church are taking make a serious mistake if we believe that such liturgies are just well-intentioned silliness.
They are a deliberate and sinister attempt to change the faith of the Catholic Church and ought to be resisted by every good Christian as precisely that. It is not just a matter of style or taste or fashion, but it touches intimately the essential core of the faith and spirituality of the Church, namely, our belief in a transcendent God with whom we may have communion through His Incarnate Son.
Father Ephraem Chifley O.P. is the Catholic Chaplain at the Australian National University.