Notice

A Question of Rights:

Nostalgia No Guide for Church Reform

By James E. Biechler

One of the things that bothers me most about you ARCC types is that I never hear you talk about benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Fatima, the rosary, litanies and novenas. These have always been a part of Catholic life and, since Vatican II they have almost disappeared. If you're so interested in church reform why don't you get serious about the real cause of the priest shortage and the loss of our young people, namely, the decay of true Catholic spirituality?

--W.P.S., Spokane, WA

You're right! The liturgical reforms begun by the Second Vatican Council did result in a de-emphasis on the once-popular devotions you mention. But, at the same time, you'll have to admit, not everything about the devotions you mention was without theological problems. There was much about them that was sentimental, magical and misleading.

A helpful statement from Vatican II's The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) helps me to put this in perspective: "New conditions have their impact on religion....a more critical ability to distinguish religion from a magical view of the world and from the superstitions which still circulate purifies religion and exacts day by day a more personal and explicit adherence to faith. As a result many persons are achieving a more vivid sense of God" (No. 7). The council was obviously including Catholics in this observation.

Nostalgia is never a good guide to our discernment of God's will. In fact, a longing for "the good old days" is a sentiment 180 degrees out of phase. Remember how the Israelites complained to Moses about the discomfort of their journey from slavery in Egypt? They longed for the fleshpots of Egypt where they nostalgically remembered the food they ate then. But God had other plans and other food the delights of which they could not imagine. For God is on the horizon beckoning us away from our comfortable certainties and satisfactions.

Nostalgia is a form of self-indulgence. It can be harmless enough when it does not become a norm or principle of behavior. Nostalgia is not the same thing as experience for it is always fatally flawed by its romantic factor. By idealizing the past, nostalgia turns the past into something bigger and better than life. When it concerns religion, nostalgia makes God and the church into antiques. In the search for God, nostalgia has the value of showing us where God isn't!

ARCC, concerned as it is with the rights of Catholics in the church, usually does not take a position on devotional practices in the church. It is only when some privileged place is claimed for these practices that we feel a need to enter the discussion. That is precisely what your question seems to do.

Surely you're not serious when you state that benediction, the rosary and novenas "have always been a part of Catholic life." By far, most of the devotions with which you could be familiar, didn't exist for most of the church's history. One can be a perfectly good Catholic without participating in any of these practices. Indeed, the "magical" element in such practices as novenas, and the non-scriptural basis for some of the others, is precisely what the Second Vatican Council wanted to remove from the church's public worship.

You're not the only one to talk about the connection between the so-called "shortage" of vocations and the devotions you mentioned. The last issue of ARCC Light quoted a remark of Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha claiming that vocation directors or seminary admissions counselors turn down applications from young men who are devoted to the rosary. Such finger-pointing assertions not only strain credibility but take our attention away from the issues of justice and rights in the church. If the church were perceived by our young people as a joyful community of justice and charity open to the future they couldn't be driven away!

ARCC is interested in your question because it relates to another, similar matter, namely, the attempt by some of the enemies of the Second Vatican Council to bring back the Latin liturgy. Just recently, Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, staged a glorious nostalgia trip in St. Patrick's Cathedral. The celebrant was none other than the Roman nostalgist, Alfons Cardinal Stickler, a man who opposes the vernacular Mass, the altar facing the people, communion in the hand, and the amount of lay participation and the emphasis upon community.

This ceremony was a celebration of the erosion of the teachings of Vatican II. As such, ARCC believes, it sent a ritual message of disunity and division, rather than what the Eucharist should be, a celebration of community. It sent a ritual message of disloyalty to the teaching authority of the bishops in council. A "ritual" message is stronger than a verbal message: Actions speak louder than words.

I want to thank you for your question for it gave me the stimulus to reflect on nostalgia and church reform, a reflection which began when I read the excellent article of Thomas F. O'Meara, O.P. entitled "Leaving the Baroque: The Fallacy of Restoration in the Postconciliar Era" (America, February 3, 1996). The subject is of great importance.

Tell your friends in Spokane that, as a principle of church life, nostalgia is the easy way out. The emphasis in this statement is not on the word "easy" but on the word "out!"

Religious nostalgia turns God and the church into antiques.


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America.

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