In December of 2011 the Bishop Edward Braxton forced the resignation of the 72-year-old Rev. William Rowe of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Ill, because Rowe deviated from the exact words dictated in the Roman Missal in order to better echo the Gospel message of the day. Instead of saying, “Lord our God that we may honor you with all our mind and love everyone in truth of heart,” he said, “We thank you, God, for giving us Jesus who helped us to be healed in mind and heart and proclaim his love to others.”
Of three experts on liturgy from within the Catholic bureaucracy, Monsignor Kevin Irwin, professor of liturgical studies at the Catholic University of America, came closest to the point of view of my manuscript, “The Molten Chalice.” He said there were some prayers said by a priest at Mass in which he is “beholden to the structure not the words.” And I’m also asserting that the structure emerges from the human brain interacting with the immanence of meaning in their world. Not from Rome.
Why would the church be upset enough to fire a priest for paraphrasing when there are in existence authorized multiple translations of the missal anyway, some of them in different languages altogether? First of all, this is a challenge to the top-down authority of the Catholic church, which is -- after all -- modeled on the Roman Empire. One could argue that the purpose of the Pope is to prevent the “mission drift” which affects every human organization. If the Pope does not need to take contraceptive measures, neither should you. However, the grasp on the supposedly faithful over the years has been loosened so people don’t do what the Pope tells them to, even inside the bureaucracy. Rowe had been creative with the Missal for 18 years before he was found out and thrown out of an establishment that badly needs priests.
The Pope daren’t excommunicate all the people who use contraceptives -- which would be the natural remedy for such disobedience to the rules of that church -- because he would have few parishioners left, so he tries to get secular authorities to enforce his ideas by criminalizing them. In the meantime, one priest of retirement age can be a good example of what happens to disobedient people, though saying he was “crucified” would be an exaggeration. He is retirement age.
When the Protestants left the Catholic establishment, they took the structure of the liturgy with them and sometimes even the words. Most people are not very aware that they are using this pattern because it is so natural. What could be more inevitable in any human event than a beginning and an ending? Even fewer are aware that it grew out of Jewish patterns: a group studying scripture followed by a potluck which evolved into a formal evocation of Passover and then Communion. So if the Pope doesn’t insist on the “right” words, how will people know they aren’t at a Lutheran mass?
On the other hand, invariant words imply a dimension of magic, having to perform an alchemical formula exactly, in order to kindle the magic. The Roman Catholic church, esp. since medieval days when people thought that the Communion bread actually turned into Christ on their tongues, has always had a strong strain of this. Why else would someone steal the mummified heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole, patron saint of Dublin from Christ Church Cathedral and leave the gold and silver chalices behind? It’s Harry Potter stuff, knowing the right words to put the monsters back in their places. “Eye of newt, toe of bat, heart of Saint!” That oughta do it.
In fact, the Roman Catholics have always asserted that the priest must mediate contact with God, no matter how rotten he is, because he is the ordained conduit of the truth’s connection to the original Apostles. THEY have the franchise, the key to the Kingdom. Evangelicals pick up this point of view. It’s a rather shamanic view, labeling a special sort or class of people to have privileged access. Among Unitarians there are always individual ministers who claim the privilege of doing what they like because they are of a different class (more educated maybe) but Unitarian parishioners are vigorous levelers and administer their version of education more quickly than Bishop Braxton. The scientists among the UU like the owls but not the wands.
At heart, I suspect, what this incident enacts is the same clash between the Baby Boomers who dearly admired the Aquarian Revolution and Pope John Paul, the ones who unscrewed the pews, put them in circles and sang guitar-accompanied hymns, as opposed to those who have gotten where they are through simple longevity and loyalty. Also, KA, if you know what I mean. I don’t want to be TOO disrespectful. Just enough to provoke thought. But they are human despite irrational claims to other possibilities.
It IS a tightrope walk. But I would suggest that the balance depends on taut structure rather than trying to control exact wording of formulas. I would locate the power of the liturgy in the relationship between the priest and his people and I mean the priest as a person, though that can lead to a certain amount of variation. But that which is not open to change will die.
Once at seminary I had a friend who was a Franciscan monk. A big lively fellow, more Friar Tuck than his supervisors might have liked, was open to discussions so I asked him how on earth he managed a vow of obedience. (I was hoping for helpful tips, since I struggle with it.) He said, “We’re into creative obedience.” Not much of a tip. But useful. In some places Jesus advises obedience to the spirit of the law rather than the jot and tittle stuff.
The Pope seems to like jots and tittles, probably also beer and skittles. (That’s a joke. He’s German.) In fact, “jots and tittles” are little marks in Hebrew alphabets and even English (a tittle is the dot on an i). The reference is in Matthew 5:18. According to Wikipedia: “In the Greek original translated as English "jot and tittle" is found as iota and keraia. Iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet, and was used as a small diacritic below other vowels (the hypogegrammeni in ancient Greek texts. Alternatively, it may represent yodh, the smallest letter of the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets. "Keraia" is a hook or serif, possibly referring to other Greek diacritics,” Of course, Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic, so unless we can speak that language and have access to a written version in Aramaic, we are obliged to change the words no matter what the Pope says.