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"A New Springtime"

It is with some rather significant trepidation that I begin this blog series; it is something that has been chasing about in the back of my mind for a long time – I begin to feel old just thinking about how long. But…eventually that hound always catches up to you and you must submit. So with that…

Many, if not most (and would that it were “all”), Catholics will recognize the term “new springtime” as one of the late Pope John Paul II’s favorite terms. If he were in advertising it would have been called a “catch phrase” or a “tag line” most likely. But as with much written and said by him, its poetic eloquence is perhaps exceeded only by its uncanny accuracy, if only the recipient takes the time to fully unfold its petals.

In particular, one should consider the two-fold natures of spring, those of both birth and re-birth. For many, the focus is on the “birth” aspect of spring – new baby animals, seeds pushing forth into life as full-fledged plants and so forth. But sometimes equally as awe inspiring, and for Christians properly disposed even more so, is the re-birth of things that appeared dead – flowers appear from bulbs left in the ground, animals peak out of their winter hiding to frolic in the new warmth. Many, as they should, will recognize the terms of “spring” and “springtime” as analogies to the rebirth in Baptism and the Resurrection promised us. If one looks hard enough, nothing comes anew that is not foretold in the past.

But other than clamoring about the beauty of the symbolism of the concepts of “spring” and “springtime” what, as my mother would put it, does that have to do with the price of spinach? The other day I was blog-hopping and came across Fr. Z’s blog, What Does The Prayer Really Say? and I came across his posting on the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Therein he posts from an article originally printed in The Wanderer discussing, again, the meeting of the Catholic Bishops to discuss and vote on the new translation of the ordinary of the Mass. In this article he made a striking statement:

You might object, “But Father! But Father! You’re saying that people in the pews have to be metaphysicians in order to pray!” No, I’m not! Leaving aside the philosophy and theology lessons, the simplistic version (apart from being wrong) forecloses on further thought or consideration. By eliminating a traditional and accurate technical term, as hard as it is, and opting instead for something simplistic you kill reflection. By dumbing it down you slam door on understanding. People don’t have to be theologians or metaphysicians, but they do have to think. The pretense that we can’t understand words or long sentences during Mass guarantees that we won’t even think about the content of the prayers. We should be able to think about these hard things as well as expect Father’s good explanations.

I find nothing of this topic more true than in his last two sentences. There was a time when Catholics were expected to, and indeed many were more than pleased to, “pray, pay and obey”. They were to an extent willingly and sometimes willfully ignorant of the great Truths they professed. As the self-named “modernists” would tell us, “that was then, this is now”. The great majority of Catholics today are not interested in merely showing up at Mass, marching through their ordained mechanical movements and then racing to beat each other out of the parking lot (the old saying “there is no place more dangerous than a Catholic parking lot on Sunday morning” notwithstanding). “But surely,” you say, “that is what the great majority of them do.” Indeed, that is what they do. They are left with no ready alternative.

The fundamental reason the Vatican requested yet another English translation of the Mass is due to the significant mis-translations present in current use. Indeed, some traditionalists would say current the current work trades the magnificent for the banal. I’m not entirely positive that I would go that far, but it certainly does have aspects of truth. I will readily admit the difficulty in translating as precise a language as ecclesiastical Latin into English – as an old teacher once said, “learning Spanish from English is much easier than the reverse because English breaks its own rules so often”. I surmise the truth is the same for Latin. But the taken pattern of selecting a translation for the sake of ease when sacrificing precision and mystery is a dangerous one.

Fr. Z’s point about the word consubstantial is truly important in this context. There would be several reactions to this change, three of which would cover the majority. First, we would have a group who would grumble about using such an arcane word when “one in being” was just fine, but never bother to look into why it was chosen. Second, we would have a group who would be annoyed their perfectly memorized prayers were changed, but would re-memorize them and recite them as mechanically as before. And third, there would be a group who would perk their ears at this new word and pull down their dictionary from the shelf and then go Google on it to learn why it changed.

It is this third group about which I speak when I mention John Paul II’s term, “a new springtime”. In many ways, Catholicism in the western world has become too easy – we have lost our “counter-cultural” pinache and turned our theology into another test to memorize for. It is very tempting to do so, when you step back and look at it: the prayers are always the same, and intentionally un-challenging, the homily almost always reminds us that God loves us no matter what we do, we do the Catholic shuffle up to Communion to receive what many have forgotten out of laxity that which is Jesus Himself, and then we leave, off to our regular lives. Rinse, repeat once a week or as your social schedule dictates.

I am not about to make a claim that we should retrench to the “glory days” of hellfire and brimstone homilies – first, that will never happen and second it would be useless even if it did. But after the umpteenth homily reminding you that God loves everyone no matter what they do and that you can always be saved from Hell as long as you confess at the last moment of life, the human mind tends to wander away from the traumatizing impact of even the slightest sin and the miraculous redemptive suffering of our Christ. It wanders to things far more important, like the memo you forgot to deliver at work, or something to add to the grocery list, or what to have for lunch. After all, if sin, Incarnation, redemption and salvation can wait until the last moment of life, why not let them wait?

So…why “a new springtime”? Because it is just at this very point, right as we move from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist that the homilist has the opportunity to catch the wandering mind and direct it to higher things, things more important than the decision between ham and bologna. If the homilist can renew interest in the Goings On that are to follow, even in just 5% of those in attendance within a short time the pews will be like the ground underneath a great oak tree in spring – new, fresh faces popping up to bring themselves closer to the Son that gives them life, and Life Everlasting.

But how can the homilist renew interest? Here’s a thought – bring up sin. Not just the concept of it, but the personal essence of it. Flipping off another dictionary definition of sin and then quickly moving on to forgiveness will not cut it. I do not for a second suggest beating people about the head and shoulders with their sin – that was the first step to creating tone deafness to sin. But leaving sin a
t the door was to give earplugs to the deaf. Sin is something that happens in its greatest extent between the sinner and God. It is a given that sin necessarily has an impact on society at large or minimally on other people, but no matter that impact, the impact on the relationship between God and the sinner is greater. But even as that chasm is opened by sin, God offers a perfect salve to heal the wound. To discuss this forgiveness without first discussing the sin that requires it only guarantees confusion.

I am emphatically against the idea that sin must be a part of every homily. First, the homilist is often constrained in time and cannot do proper justice to the issue presented by the readings while extrapolating further into the concept, definition and impact of sin. Second, there is a lesson to be learned from the U.S. interstate highway system. As nebulous an intersection as that may seem, allow me to swim up this stream. Back when the system was first being rolled out the designers took advantage of the wide open spaces to create exactingly straight highways, since we all know the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The problem with this, they discovered, is that people tend to get drowsy and distracted by driving in straight lines without curves to demand their attention. Talking constantly of God’s love and forgiveness without giving mention to sin or Mary or church history or the saints or martyrdom or why we do what we do is just like designing a straight highway – eventually people stop paying attention and drift off the road.

We have, as current estimates would put it, probably two years before the new translation is put into use. As the old saying goes, now would be as good a time as any to start putting curves in the homily highways, to introduce, or more properly re-introduce, lessons that have been on the theological shelf for fear of losing people. Of all the things true in our history, it has been shown time and again that Americans love a challenge. A challenge to truly understand our relationship with God and how we affect it could be the greatest genesis of a new springtime we could have.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Marguerite McTear July 9, 2006, 5:20 pm

    I think that it is about time that the Clergy start talking once again about sin, and what the wages of sin are. You can talk about how God loves us over and over again, and people start to think it’s ok, God loves me, and they go on doing whatever. One thing that I noticed in my Church this morning was, the Church was 3/4 empty by the time Father finished giving out Communion. I thought how sad. What was so important, that they had to leave in such a hurry. As far as the homilies(really do not like this word) go most of the homolists lose the people after five minutes. We once had a priest that said more in five minutes than most say in 30 minutes. It used to be that where-ever you went to Mass in the world, it was the same, Latin on one side of your Missal and your native language on the other side. Even if you were in Germany you could still follow the Mass. You didn’t get the sermon, but you understood the rest of the Mass. I do believe that we need a new springtime. God Bless us all.

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