Last week I went to a parish mission for the first time in my life. A mission is a short series of homilies or lectures offered over a few days to sharpen religious knowledge and spirituality. It is almost always presented by a guest preacher, and it is common to hold the mission during Lent. This year the mission at St. Ignatius was presented by Father Andrew Britz, a Benedictine who spent about 20 years as the editor of the Prairie Messenger weekly newspaper. He spoke over three nights, February 14-16.
I thought he was pretty effective. He had a disarming folksy manner, talking like the Saskatchwan farm boy that he is. He was comfortable dealing with lifetime Catholics who have maintained their loyalty to their parish and their confidence in the Church. He spoke without too many notes, for about an hour each night. He appeared to ramble a bit, to dwell on one point with many anecdotes and examples, and then to rush through other points. He seemed to leave things dangling, without making any particular point, perhaps inviting people to find and evaluate his point.
On the first evening he talked mainly about the architecture of pagan temples, the Jewish Temple at the beginning of the Christian era and the earliest basilicas of the Christian church. He said that pagan temples had stone sacrificial altars, and the Jewish Temple had a sanctuary and a Holy of Holies, separate spaces for women, men and priests. The earliest Christian churches had a chair for the presider, and a wooden table at the rear of the church to hold the offerings. There was no special place for God, and there was no ritual priesthood. Women had a major role in the early church. He dangled the question of what happened to Christianity to bring us to churches worshipping on stone sacrificial altars through a priestly class. He mentioned that when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, many pagan priests converted quickly, blending some of their worship traditions into Christian worship and creating, overnight, a bureaucratic priestly class in Christian society. He also remarked on the spiritual conflict of denying justice to the victims of abuse to protect the institutional church. He also made a remark, related to Church’s continuing insistence on limiting the role of women, with a remark about the problems of absorbing cultural values and allowing cultural values to dominate over faith values.
On the second night, he spoke mainly about the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. His approach was a sort of psychological spirituality – looking at the Pharisee as too closed, self-confident, rule bound, arrogant. I have been wondering about his approach, wondering if he wasn’t putting too much emphasis on psychology and taking some modern cultural baggage on board here. I plan to spend more time on this in a future entry.
On the third night, he tangentially mentioned the writings of Anthony de Mello and suggested that some of the best modern Catholic theology is coming out of India. I have looked at some of de Mello’s work, and I don’t think Father Britz’s approach to the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector came from de Mello – I don’t see that so far. The reference to de Mello was helpful. I have seen his books in bookstores and I was wary of more Catholic New Age syncretism, like Matthew Fox and that school. However de Mello is a much more orthodox on prayer and meditation with a distinct emphasis on the cross-cultural idea that a priest or religious leader should be like a guru, able to speak from a personal experience of God. (It isn’t really accurate to call de Mello a theologian in the traditional sense of presenting a logical philosophy of faith).
The third night was a ramble around a few issues. He talked about the Pope’s visit to Canada in 1984, and the cancellation of his flight to Yellowknife in order to keep on schedule for a State visit in Ottawa and how the Pope had immediately regretted missing that direct contact with the Dene and had insisted on coming back. He mentioned, a few times, that in the gospels Jesus always associated himself with the marginalized – with tax-collectors, Samaritans, prostitutes. He had a story about the culture change in the Church when Cardinal Roncarelli (John XXIII) succeeded Pope Pius XII. Pius XII was an ascetic who took small meals alone in the Papal apartment. John XIII insisted on companionship and wine with his meals, a signal that it was all right to enjoy what God gives us. Father Britz dismissed Gibson’s Passion movie as sadistic pornography. He read a few quotes from the Church fathers about women and the role of women – the point being that some of the Church’s esteemed traditions are only the perpetuation of a dead culture. He wondered why Catholic bishops had preached in favour of Bush against Kerry when Kerry had voted for so much of Catholic social policy. He looked at the fact that Catholics have locked on to opposing abortion, opposing radical feminism and opposing homosexuality as key moral tests, which led them to support a candidate who stood against the Church’s teachings on major social issues, and who opposed the Church on the invasion of Iraq and other international issues. He observed that in attacking abortion, radical feminism and homosexuality, Catholics can speak firmly from a perspective of innocence or a moral high ground. It is much harder to be maintain the same innocence on social justice issues, where we all must accept some responsibilities for failing to promote justice and peace.