Continuity: A Careful Consideration

Many writers, with perhaps Pope Benedict foremost among them, have written of the value of continuity in liturgy, especially in liturgical reform. I don’t wish to dismiss the virtue of continuity out of hand, but I would like to put it in perspective as part of my criticism of the reform-of-the-reform movement.

To begin with, continuity or discontinuity is mostly a local occurence. In the life of the Church, practices and expectations can be disrupted by the appointment of a new pastor. Everyone from altar servers to groundskeepers, back pew folk to pillars of the parish, can find their ecclesial lives jolted by a new leader with new priorities, new emphases, and different ways of relating to people and getting things done.

The implementation of Vatican II was felt most profoundly on the local level. My home parish did things in a largely fruitful way. Communion in the hand and Communion under both species were each introduced with much discussion in advance. On the other hand, there was a weekend where I showed up at Mass and found the altar rail was mostly gone. The pastor didn’t consult me, obviously. I did hear a few negative or curious remarks from people around me. Could have been one man’s decision. Could have been parish council’s or liturgy committee’s. I have no idea. But that was one example of a change that didn’t fit the usual pattern I knew of information, consultation, and preparation.

I remember when my 1995 pastor was dealing with a church renovation. A number of dissenters had been recruited onto the task force the year before. After studying documents, they were “converted” to the wisdom of a large-scale do-over. They were seen as something of “traitors” to the cause. A petition was drawn up and my pastor, very wisely, called a town meeting. There was no agenda, just a priest carrying a folding chair into the church, setting it up in front of the altar rail, and sitting down.

“I’m here to listen to your concerns,” he said. A lot of people had put in a lot of prayer and study and discernment into the project, he reminded everybody. Every parishioner had had an opportunity to get on board in one of the study groups or to do committee work. This matter wasn’t going to be put to a vote. And the discernment to renovate had been careful, well-studied, and based on prayer and education.

The first four speakers spoke of tradition and keeping the status quo. The next three dozen or so urged that it was time to change, and the climate of the meeting blew clear: some had reservations, but the project was going ahead as long as people stepped forward to pledge their support. And they did. No gift was larger than $10,000 from what I understood, but the pledge drive netted the exact amount needed to renovate: $1.17 million.

There are times when continuity is simply not a virtue. The pharisees and scribes valued continuity and tradition, even the ones who were not self-serving. Nicodemus speaks to Jesus and can’t one see the stress and inner upheaval in the man? He wants to be true. Yet Christ draws him in gentle challenge to look past old ways of thinking. Nicodemus stands on the foundation of his Jewishness, as did Peter. Yet Jesus invited each to a decided discontinuity.

And there are times when continuity is sinful, or at least a sign of the denial of Christ. We speak of metanoia, the complete turning around of people called by God. The rich young man was invited to discontinuity, and he went away sad. On the other hand, fishermen dropped their nets, left family behind and followed Christ. The woman at the well, who had avoided her neighbors for so long, became an effective evangelizer Serial monogamist to apostle to the Samaritans, you might say. Paul was knocked off a horse. Elijah fled to the mountains. And the saints–what saint’s story doesn’t find their life in total disruption? Patrick. Mother Teresa. Joan of Arc. Maximillian Kolbe.

When the need is great, continuity just doesn’t figure in the equation of sanctification. Francis Xavier, for example, could have been a fine parish priest in Spain. But Ignatius of Loyola was his friend, and in the founding of the Jesuits, found himself called to the Far East as a missionary.

How many founders had to leave behind continuity in an established religious order, and with it a certain security, safety, and comfort? Instead, they placed themselves totally in God’s hands discerning new charisms, or pioneering reforms, and often with little resources, few followers, and often enough I’m sure, self-doubts.

Saint Paul could have remained Saul the Pharisee and would it have been a bad choice to stay within Judaism and preach Christ? He would have reverenced the conversion experience. He certainly could have persuaded many fellow Pharisees to follow Christ. All of these would have been virtues. Perhaps.

I suggest caution when embracing continuity as a value with positive connotations. Certainly, there are times when believers are so beset with upheaval that some aspects of the faith should and must remain stable. Most people would have assessed the 50′s and early 60′s as a time of great stability and strength for the Church. Some still do. Does God tend to ask for great things of the strong and comfortable? It would seem so, if we look at the Bible and the lives of the saints.

My own sense is that liturgical reform was long overdue in Roman Catholicism for the whole of the last century. Further, I think an appeal to excessive continuity is a tacit admission of weakness and a lack of trust in God. Other liturgical values were more highly touted by the council bishops: an expanded use of the Scriptures, participation, developing a liturgical spirituality in the laity, evangelization, ecumenism, a ready intelligibility. When discerning the mind of Vatican II, I suggest looking at the values mentioned in more than one document. Organic development is mentioned in SC 23. But no other consititutions, decrees, or declarations. What is mentioned in the documents on the Word, on the church, on the clergy, laity, religious life, etc.? Participation, the Bible, spirituality and holiness, ecumenism, evangelization. These are the fruits of the Second Vatican Council. Not a fearful appeal to stick to shallow waters.

I think a discussion on the nature of continuity is important for us Catholics to have. With respect to a pope’s reflections on the matter, I have serious reservations about continuity. Perhaps you readers can reassure me the pope is on the right track. Or maybe you have something else to add to the Catholic tradition of saints in upheaval.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
This entry was posted in Commentary, Liturgy, spirituality, Vatican II. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Continuity: A Careful Consideration

  1. David D. says:

    As the hermeneutic of continuity takes as a given the validity, necessity and desirability of Vatican II, it is as much a response to diehard traditionalists as it is to certain progressives. If “consonance” is substituted for “continuity” I think what the Pope intends becomes clearer whether or not we agree with that approach.

  2. Jimmy Mac says:

    Often “continuity” is bolstered by appealing to tradition (small ‘t’).

    One of the worst enemies of Tradition is traditionalism. Real tradition lives by changing and dies by simply repeating itself. Sebastian Moore, OSB, letter to editor, “The Tablet” 29 July 1989.

    Tradition is the living faith of those who have gone on before. Traditiionalism is the dead faith of the living.
    Jaroslav Pelikan.

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