March 18, 2009

Relativism in Religious Life

Benedict XVI is oft-quoted on the dangers of the "dictatorship of relativism,"and in religious life as I have experienced it, relativism is alive and well. An embedded culture of relativism--to which many are strongly committed--is, I believe, one of the main reasons why mainstream religious life in North America is in such a malaise, struggles with recruitment, and has a hard time deciding where it is going.

I remember being a very young religious in my first house of formation. We would be gathered for "theological reflection," which was code language for the compulsory intimacy of sharing our own feelings and personal stories. With subtle affirmations of body language, the formation director taught us that the correct way to begin one's "sharing" was with the caveat, "For me,..." Thus we were taught to use ourselves as a starting point in reflecting on our vocations and experience of religious life. God might fit himself into the picture later, but it was we ourselves who were the starting point.

Later on in my religious life I was in another house where we had a meeting about the reverences made upon entering the chapel for Morning and Evening Prayer. One brother suggested that if we all made the same reverence upon entering the chapel, it would be a powerful sign of the unity of our religious profession. A fine inspiration, but impossible to achieve because of differences of "opinion" and "feeling." One would say that "for him" it was important to reverence the Blessed Sacrament, but that he would not genuflect (as we do in the Roman rite) because such a gesture was culturally bound and thus not binding. Another would say that "for him" the altar as more important than the tabernacle ("I don't have that devotion") so he would bow instead to the altar. Still another would say that he "preferred" to reverence the gathered assembly, because that was where the presence of Christ subsisted most evidently "for him."

What was interesting to me was that no one said--out loud, at least--that he would genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament and/or bow to the altar because that is what we do in the Roman rite of the universal Church. No one said it because the axiomatic starting point of the reflection was what seemed best "to me" and "for me" rather than our common profession within the larger Body of the Church. This sort of thing is a seriously debilitating spiritual disease in contemporary religious life.

I was thinking about all this because of something that happened last week. A visiting priest arrived to preside at a funeral. I was volunteered to be acolyte for the Mass (how I miss this ministry sometimes!) In the funeral Mass the Opening Prayer follows directly upon the procession of the ministers and the deceased to the sanctuary. So, as the family were getting to their pews, I approached the priest with the Sacramentary. He then sent me away, telling me that he needed to "make a little speech" at that moment. I wanted to tell him that there was a moment a little later during the Mass when he would have the opportunity to make a sort of speech, and, in fact, would be expected to do so, but I decided that it probably wasn't a teaching moment. He was committed to offering his version of the Mass.

As with so many things for us Catholics, the 'rubber hits the road' with the liturgy. As long as priests reserve to themselves the imaginary right to lead their version of the liturgy, and as long we let them get away with it, we allow our "presiders" to turn the Mass into more and more of a cooking show and a cult of personality and we reinforce the dictatorship of relativism.


ben in denver said...

Maybe you could just send a card that said, "Gal 2:20".

Can you imagine what St. Francis has to say about this?

If I were a professed franciscan, I think I might as afraid of facing the humble Francis in the next world as Christ the King, if I thought that I somehow had the right to impose my own personality onto the mass.

Anonymous said...

I would tend to agree with you about some of this stuff. We need to focus on the essentials in manner keeping with the direction of the Church. Regarding the funeral incident, I can understand where the priest may be coming. Sometimes afew words at the beginning help set the tone for the liturgy especially with those who are unchurched. But it should be brief and reflect the liturgy.
from Gerard of Middle-earth