Strange Days Indeed

Cardinal Sarah was right.

We live in strange days indeed. The German bishops seem intent on dismantling the Catholic Church in their homeland.  Pope Francis sent them a letter two years ago in which he suggested (I think) that they apply the brakes:

The current challenges as well as the answers we give demand a long maturation process and the cooperation of an entire people over years . . . This stimulates the emergence and continuation of processes that build us as God’s people, rather than seeking immediate results with premature and medial consequences that are fleeting because of lack of deepening and maturation or because they do not correspond to the vocation we are given.

Another Letter

As I said, that’s what I think it means: I admit that there are any number of other possible interpretations.  The German bishops themselves, for instance, apparently took it to mean “full speed ahead!”  Their persistence in what they call “The Synodal Way” has, however, provoked another letter. This one is a closely reasoned, scripturally and theologically rich refutation of the abdication of apostolic authority that is taking place in Germany. You can’t explain the situation more succinctly than this:

Yet the authority of the apostles and their successors is not their own. It is a share in the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Truth (see John 14:6). Every successor of the Apostles must resist the temptation to imitate the “senseless prophets who follow[ed] their own spirit” in Ezekiel’s time, promoting their own opinions and ideas (Ezek. 13:3). Every successor of the Apostles must also resist the temptation to imitate the prophets and priests of Jeremiah’s time, who adjusted their teaching according to the preferences of the people (Jer. 5:30–31).

Yet the authority of the apostles and their successors is not their own. It is a share in the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ . . .

“Priest Offering Mass”, Simone Martini, early 14th Century

The only problem is that this letter does not come from Rome. It comes from Denver, Colorado, where it was promulgated by Archbishop Aquila. Needless to say, he has absolutely no authority over brother bishops across the Atlantic Ocean.  The appropriate authority in Rome is instead occupied with rejecting the proffered resignation of Cardinal Marx of Munich, one of the chief perpetrators of The Synodal Way.

Cardinal Sarah was Right

     Another thing distracting the authorities in Rome from the misbehavior north of the Alps, if we are to believe the rumors, is the urgent need to suppress Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificorum.* This letter freed the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) from restrictions widely imposed in the aftermath of Vatican II.

     I intend to discuss the TLM and more traditional expressions of liturgy in greater length soon. Today I’m simply reposting a revised version of a piece I wrote a few years ago. At the time Cardinal Sarah, then head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, made a strong appeal to bishops and priests to reintroduce the practice of saying the Mass ad orientem (facing the aItar).  Sadly, his suggestion was quickly squelched. It was a good idea nonetheless (a great idea, really). In the post below I explain why, with the help of Captain Picard, the Starship Enterprise, and some extraterrestrials from the far side of the galaxy. So, let’s boldly go . . .

The River Tamarc in Winter

       Just about everybody knows something about Star Trek, especially now that there have been half a dozen (?) different television series and who knows how many movies.  I’ve made profitable use of Star Trek material in my classroom and on my blogs on many occasions.  One of my all-time favorite episodes is  “Darmok”,  from the 5th season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

       In “Darmok” the (mostly human) crew of the starship Enterprise encounters an alien race called Tamarians. Humans have previously had several frustratingly unsuccessful attempts at communication.  It seems that the Earthling’s Universal Translators (ah, the wonders of science fiction!) are able to discover the meaning of the Tamarians’ words, but can’t figure out how the words combine to express meaning.  What is one to make, for instance, of utterances such as “Shaka, when the walls fell”, or “The river Tamarc, in winter”? The aliens seem to be talking in metaphors and allusions drawn from stories known to them and to nobody else.

Troi and Data explain how the Tamarian language works


Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

  Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Starship Enterprise experiences the same frustration as his predecessors. He feels frustation at his failure to communicate with the commander of a Tamarian ship. His alien counterpart clearly shares his frustration.  It is clear that their efforts are going nowhere. The Tamarian captain suddenly holds up two daggers and declares “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!” At that point both he and Picard are transported (more sci-fi wizardry) down to the surface of a planet below.  Picard soon realizes that the captain is not challenging him to a duel as he at first supposes. What he does intend, however, or what he means by his insistent repetition of “Darmok and Jalod at Tanagra!” remains a mystery.

      Eventually, the two captains together encounter a deadly creature (which mortally wounds Picard’s Tamarian counterpart). This is when Picard finally puts the puzzle together.  Darmok and Jalod were two heroes, perhaps rivals or enemies, who together fought a beast on an island called Tanagra. They formed a bond of friendship in their shared struggle.  The alien captain had hoped that, by putting himself and Picard in a similar situation, they might likewise achieve through shared experience what they couldn’t find through mere words.  Understanding too late his counterpart’s intent, Picard is able at least to comfort the dying Tamarian by recounting to him the ancient epic of Gil-Gamesh.

Captain Picard informs the Tamarians of the death of their captain

We Are Formed By Experience

    The Tamarians, as is the way with Star Trek aliens, are really humans in disguise (literally, of course, but figuratively as well).  In this particular story the creators of the television show have put their finger on something that goes to the very heart of what it is to be human. We are formed by our experiences, not only as individuals but as peoples.  The “aliens” they have created here view the world only through the lens of the stories that have been passed down about the history of their people. In their everyday experiences they consciously relive the experiences of their forebears. Their only way to communicate abstractions is through the concrete: people, places, and events.

Tamarian Captain and Captain Picard

  Now, we Earth-dwellers may not look very much like the Children of Tama at first.  We have a wealth of language that communicates abstractions and ideas. Nonetheless, we are more Tamarian than we might appear at first glance.  Notice how easily, for example, the name of the Nazi’s hand-picked Norwegian puppet Vidkun Quisling has become the common noun “quisling”, a synonym for “traitor.” Notice also how thoughtlessly we use  a metaphorical term such as “puppet”, as I did just now.

Actions Speak

As a matter of fact, we quickly forget that the expressions we are using are metaphors at all.  I remember for instance during the 1992 presidential campaign in the U.S. when former (and future) California governor Jerry Brown was asked about the “anointed front-runner” Bill Clinton.  Brown asked whether Clinton was running for president, or running for pope. Some allusions are even more deeply buried: how many people even know when they use the word “mentor” they are alluding to Homer’s Odyssey, where the goddess Athena, in the guise of a wise old man named Mentor, accompanies Odysseus’s son Telemachus to guide the inexperienced young man on his journey and, to speak metaphorically, “show him the ropes”.  

     There’s even more going on here than the use of language.  The Tamarian captain understands that actions, that experiences, can communicate in ways that words cannot, which is of course as true of human beings as much as it is of fictional extraterrestrials.  This is a large part of why so many religions rely on ritual and formal rites: the actions communicate to us much more deeply than mere words, because we are actually living out what they want to convey.

Its a Mystery to Me

  In fact, the true meaning of the term “mystery” (from the Greek μυστήριον) is not something unknowable, but something that can only be known experientially, through doing. Traditional Christianity tells us that God uses these mysteries as a means not only of imparting His Grace, but of revealing himself to us. Once we understand that, we can more easily see why μυστήριον translates into Latin as sacramentum, because sacraments involve not only knowing or thinking, but acting.

      Most religions rely, to some degree or other, on mystery.  At the very core of Christianity we find the Profoundest Mystery, the Supreme Sacrament: The Infinite God become Man in order to experience our humanity, and to invite us, in turn, to share in His Divinity.  We live out this mystery concretely when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the “Summit and Source of the Christian Life.”  While Catholic Christianity includes countless lesser ways of living out spiritual realities as well, such as the other Sacraments, sacramentals, devotions, and so on, the Eucharist, and the Sacrifice of the Mass in which we receive it, is the most important thing we do.

Why Cardinal Sarah Was Right

Cardinal Robert Sarah, (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

     It can be helpful, I think, to bear these considerations in mind when we consider why I say that Cardinal Sarah was right. Cardinal Sarah, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has suggested that priests start re-introducing the practice of saying the Mass ad orientem‘ “toward the rising sun.” In other words, facing the altar rather than the congregation.  The Cardinal made the suggestion in a talk delivered at a liturgical conference in London a few years ago (full text here).   Cardinal Sarah asked his fellow shepherds in the episcopate to support him in this matter, saying:

I very humbly and fraternally would like to appeal also to my brother bishops: please lead your priests and people towards the Lord in this way, particularly at large celebrations in your dioceses and in your cathedral. Please form your seminarians in the reality that we are not called to the priesthood to be at the centre of liturgical worship ourselves, but to lead Christ’s faithful to him as fellow worshippers united in the one same act of adoration.

Pride of Place

Implicit in the part of the quote I have put in bold type above is the idea that what we do and what the priest does during the Mass is a part of the message.

    I first came across a similar suggestion in regard to ad orientem worship some years ago in an article by Fr. Joseph Fessio called “The Mass of Vatican II”. In his essay Fr. Fessio explains what the documents of Vatican II actually say about the Mass; for instance, that it should remain mostly in Latin, and that Gregorian Chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services”, and various other directives that appear not to have much influenced the post-conciliar revision of the liturgy.

Turning the Priest Around

Fr. Fessio points out that one thing that was done does not appear, anywhere, in the Council’s documents. It had never been part of the tradition of the Church over the previous 18 centuries. The post Vatican II mass turns the priest around to face the congregation, rather than having him face the altar, the liturgical East, along with the people he is leading in prayer.  In defending the traditional practice Fr. Fessio more explicitly makes some of the same points that Cardinal Sarah does in his London talk:

It’s true that when the priest faces the people for the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, there may be a sense of greater unity as a community. But there is also a danger of the priest being the performer and you being the spectator – precisely what the Council did not want: priest performers and congregational spectators. But there is something more problematic. You can see it, perhaps, by contrasting Mass facing the people with Mass facing East or facing the Lord.

Here Fr. Fessio makes a frontal assault on the characterization of the traditional mode as the priest “turning his back” on the congregation:

I don’t say Mass “with my back to the people” anymore than Patton went through Germany with his “back to the soldiers.” Patton led the Third Army across Germany and they followed him to achieve a goal. The Mass is part of the Pilgrim Church on the way to our goal, our heavenly homeland. This world is not our heavenly homeland. We don’t sit around in a circle and look at each other. We want to look with each other and with the priest towards the rising sun, the rays of grace, where the Son will come again in glory on the clouds.

The Medium is the Message

    Marshall McLuhan famously said of television that “the medium is the message”.  The same can be said of all media, including sacred media.  How we celebrate the Mass sends a message.  The symbolic “message” of the ad orientem Mass is clear: that all of us together, priest and people, are making an offering to God; we all face our Lord together.  When priest and people face each other, who is offering what to whom? The message seems to be that we are there to see each other, not to turn to Our Lord. The little cartoon to the left (which, I confess, I stole from Fr. Z’s blog) gives a good illustration of the problem. Cardinal Sarah himself recently made the same point in a talk delivered to the bishops of Sri Lanka,

In recent decades in some countries the Sacred Liturgy has become too anthropocentric; man not Almighty God has often become its focus.

But that’s not how it’s supposed to be.  Instead,

In every Catholic liturgy, the Church, made up of both minister and faithful, gives her complete focus – body, heart and mind – to God who is the centre of our lives and the origin of every blessing and grace.

     That’s the beauty of the traditional ad orientem celebration of the Mass. We don’t merely read or hear but experience for ourselves the Truth that God is the center of our lives. We all turn to Him, together, in our worship .

It’s Greek to Me

     Which brings me to one of my few real quibbles with “Darmok”. In the final scene of the episode we see Captain Picard reading a book. His first officer, Commander Riker, enters the room.  Riker looks at the book curiously, and says, “Greek, sir?” (did I mention that Captain Picard is the consummate Renaissance man? Starship captain, interstellar warrior, student of Latin and Greek, etc.), which leads to this exchange:

PICARD: Oh, the Homeric Hymns. One of the root metaphors of our own culture.

RIKER: For the next time we encounter the Tamarians?

PICARD: More familiarity with our own mythology might help us to relate to theirs. The Tamarian was willing to risk all of us just for the hope of communication, connection. Now the door is open between our peoples. That commitment meant more to him than his own life. Thank you, Number One.

Now, the Homeric Hymns is not a bad place to start, as far as it goes. If Picard really wants to get at the “root” of what it is to be human, I have a better suggestion for him. I’m thinking of something that starts like this:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος

In the beginning was The Word, and The Word was with God, and The Word was God (John 1:1)

*The dreaded crackdown did, of course, come about later last year in the form of Pope Francis motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. I comment on this and related issues in the posts below:

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