TRADITIONS AND RITUALS IN THE CHURCH

(Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013, Asian Institute of Management Chapel).

First,  an overview of the liturgical context we are in. We are into the fourth Sunday of Easter, and Easter is the time we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.  But Jesus’ resurrection is linked up not only to his passion and death, therefore to the season of Lent and the Holy Week, but also to his return to the Father, and the sending out of his disciples to continue his work, and therefore to his Ascension and Pentecost. Thus, during the 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday, the liturgical themes center on the risen life of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the sending out of the disciples that marks not only the spread of belief in the words and deeds of Jesus, but also the establishment an organizational Church. And so, in terms of the scriptural readings, the first 3 Sundays of Easter recount the appearances of the risen Christ, with the fourth Sunday reserved for the theme Christ as the Good Shepherd, while the 4th to the 7th Sundays are excerpts from the prayer and discourse of the Last Supper. Throughout the easter Season, in all the three cycles—A, B, and C– of the liturgical year, the readings are the from the acts of the Apostles that recount the spread, and life of the primitive Church.

And it is on this theme of the  Church that we reflect upon a little in today’s Mass.

The election of our new Pope, Francis, is a momentous event in the life of the Church, an occasion for great celebration. But it is also an occasion that highlights what—for some Catholics—may be disturbing, or at least, unsettling, realities—before the election, in the course of the election, and even now after the election of the new Pope.

Before the elections, there was the scandal of priests and religious, and Church institutions, accused of sexually abusing minors. These are criminal actions that affect not only individual priests or religious, but the very authority structure of the Church itself, for bishops, the local CEOs of the Church, are involved and one is left to conjecture how high up the hierarchy of the Church the wrong principle is held that in order to preserve the dignity of the Church or its officials, one can violate the laws of the land and the rights of defenseless victims. Then, given the global and instantaneous communication of the digital age, one became aware of the “politics” of electing a Pope: the home advantage of the Italian block, the solid numbers of the English speaking block, the growing influence of the third world block. And now, as anecdotes are broadcast about the simplicity, humaniity, and ordinariness of Pope Francis—eschewing the  Papal limousine, paying his own hotel bills, giving a chair to his Swiss Guard, washing and kissing the feet of women—one is confronted with the news that there are sectors in the Church that do not look too kindly on such behavior that they believe are unbecoming of the Vicar of Christ on Earth, and one becomes aware of an even more fundamental disharmony in the Church—that all these efforts to restore tradition that we ourselves are experiencing in the Philippines in reverting back to the old liturgical format of the Mass are but a manifestation of an underlying effort on the part of some sector in the Church to “reform” what they feel was the erroneus reformation of Vatican II.

Because these facts can rattle deeply held convictions about the Church, it is not surprizing that some may be tempted to simply explain these facts by saying that “the Church is only human,” set them aside, and get on with one’s life.  But if these facts seem to challenge deeply held beliefs, and these beliefs are of real importance to us, then perhaps we should not be too easily dismissive of them. We owe it to ourselves to be intelligent and reasonable about our faith in God and in the Church, otherwise our faith becomes less than human.

Let me share some reflections with you on these matters, but because of the limited time, I can just state general principles and leave the fuller explanation of them perhaps at some later occasion in the course of the year.

Firstly, these events help to highlight the very important distinction that can be traced from the earliest beginning of the Church between the Church as an organization with its hierarchy, its rules and regulations, its practices and customs, and the Church as the union of hearts and minds of believers with the heart and mind of Christ. It is not possible to have one without the other, but the one is not to be identified with the other. And so, one can be a bishop, even a Pope, and still not be united with the mind and heart of Christ. Conversely, one can have the mind and heart of Christ, and yet not belong to the organizational Church.

Secondly, because we are conditioned historical human beings, we develop habits, customs, practices, traditions, rituals, accepted modes not only of behavior but also of thinking and attitudes. It is important to become aware that our faith in God as revealed by the life and teaching of Jesus is not to be simply identified with such practices and traditions. Jesus himself accused the Jews of perverting God’s will by clinging to their traditions; and the first ecumenical council of the Church, held by the apostles in Jerusalem,  concerned the issue of tradition versus faith in Christ. For the Jews, circumcision is the mark of belonging to the people of God. Question: Do non-Jews have to be circumcized to belong to Christ? The vehemence of this conflict can be discerned in the letter of St. Paul and the Acts of the Apostles. And the answer of the council is: “No, one does not have to be circumcized to belong to Christ.” So, in our day, the same tendency to cling to tradition and identify the life of faith with “accepted” practices and rituals, is to fall into the same error challenged by Jesus himself and rejected by the early Church.

Thirdly, the reason why tradition and practices cannot be absolute is because they are just our limited, conditioned, human means by which we try to connect with God who is so real that if He were not there we would not be here;  and yet who is so totally unlike us that he is a mystery. These rituals are but our feeble human ways by which we try to get in touch with a reality we cannot even begin to comprehend! And so what is vital is not the rituals, but getting in touch with the mystery of God through these rituals. And so, the life of the spirit is what counts, and when rituals no longer arouse, nourish, and sustain that life, then they have outlived their usefulness.

Fourthly, and finally (for now): our life of faith is the life of the Holy Spirit within us. No amount of malice or sin or stupidity of others or of the world can kill that spirit within us. It is only we, ourselves, through the stubborn misuse of freedom that can reject that life of faith. And if we believe the words of Jesus that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church. Then, that’s the truth. And if one were to say, But the Church is dying! Churches are empty in Europe, the young no longer go to Church, and so on, and so on, . . . then, it is good to recall that one’s understanding of a “successful Church” — rich and awesome Church buildings, great numbers, strong political clout, dominant position in society, and so on — may not have quite the right criteria. God is mystery, He loves us, He will always be with us, but His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. The best we can do, then, is to try to live our lives and follow as faithfully and as generously as we can the guidance of the spirit within us. And after we have done what we can, if things still happen in ways we did not think should happen, then rather than questioning God, we should really question ourselves—for God certainly knows what he is doing, and we really just have limited, tentative, and perhaps even erroneous expectations of what should happen. In other words, God is in charge, not us, and if history develops in a way that surprises us, then our task is not to question Him (as Job did), but to try to understand what God seems to be saying through these events, and how we can best cooperate with Him according to the guidance of the Spirit within us