Monday, May 07, 2007

Don't take a disgruntled Catholic into an Orthodox Church

Yesterday we went to St. Mary Orthodox Church to their Lebanese dinner. They have very good food! And afterward we went on a brief tour of their Church.

It was very beautiful, although you could see the Western influence in such details as the pews with kneelers. Traditional Orthodox churches don't have pews at all, although the same was true for Catholic churches until the Reformation (or shortly before). You can see a couple pictures of their church here. The design of the church overall seems very similar to older, traditional Catholic parishes. This isn't a coincidence, of course. Although churches throughout Catholic history have varied in design and ornamentation based on the culture they were built in, they had certain constants. For most of history, the altar and the people faced East, and people and priest faced the same way, making their offering together. Likewise, some kind of barrier always separated the sanctuary (the location of the altar and tabernacle) from the nave or body of the Church. In the Eastern Churches, this is the iconostasis, a wall of icons with the central door through which the priest passes to reach the altar and pray the liturgy. In pre-Reformation England the rood screen served the same function, and mostly recently in American churches the altar rail was used. This design of the church is based on the design of the Temple, and the "holy of holies" where the Sacrifice takes place and the Presence of God dwells.

Modern Catholic churches have abandoned this separation between the nave and the sanctuary, and it is not accidental. Church designs have been driven by a true change in belief, at least of the architects. Church design promotes inclusion, not separation. I understand the drive, in Christianity God is, in a way, both immanent and transcendent, both here and not here, both Same and Other. However, it was folly to abandon centuries of tradition without care or thought. The loss of a "holy space" in the Church has been followed by a loss of a sense of the Holy, in general. There has been a dramatic change in the understood nature of the priesthood. Priests are now counselors or leaders, rather than individuals set apart to represent the whole of humankind to God, and to represent God to their congregation. I can't help but think that the crisis in the priesthood (priests leaving, "the scandal," drop in number of vocations) is intimately connected to this change in belief.

This is particularly painful for us, as our pastor goes out of his way continually to deny the special nature of the priesthood. And our "worship space" does not feel like a sacred space at all. Bob was particularly pained when he tried to explain the prayer candles placed in sand to the kids. He had nothing to offer the kids for comparison, our parish doesn't even have votive candles. These changes do matter. Although they may not be essential to the faith, changes in these outward signs reflect and encourage changes in belief. Will some of the Vatican II changes (few of which were called for in Vatican II) be changed back? In particular, the present Pope as Cardinal was particularly critical of the change in the "orientation" of the priest during the Eucharistic liturgy. He now "faces the people" rather than facing the same direction of the people. In the Western Church, many Churches had already abandoned the practice of ad orientem, in which the priest and people faced East during the offering. If the Church did return to the ancient practice, I wonder how the lay people have respond. So may have been taught that the priest now faces the people so "we can watch" rather than "having his back to the people." The issue isn't getting a better look, it is offering a sacrifice with the priest with him being our representative, versus him offering a sacrifice while we watch. Here's a post by Amy Welborn from last year on the issue.

OK, rant over. This is just going to make mass that much more difficult for a few weeks.


  1. You are probably right about the effect this phenomenon has on the drop in vocations. It all goes together: you can't just thoughtlessly change one important thing without making lots of other changes as well.

  2. Yargleblargle.... I can't even begin to express how I feel about the whole thing.
    Having a Holy Sanctuary that is separated from the nave is so much... holier.
    There is so much beautiful tradition that people have just tossed away like yesterday's newspaper. Sure, not all of it is absolutely necessary in a theological sense. But it all MEANS something. Change for change's sake is so STUPID! History is important. These damned hippie/folk/alterna-theologians are just so moronically, idiotically, incredibly wrong. Nineteen centuries of tradition MEAN something.

    Look, now my blood pressure is up again.

  3. Nice post. So many of the changes in the post-Vatican 2 confusion have done nothing but erode belief in the True Presence but doing anything and everything to obscure the centrality of the Eucharist. Why, plenty of modern churches have the tabernacle off in some little side chapel, effectively hidden. It's amusing (in a sad way) to see people genuflect in such churches. To whom are they genuflecting? The altar? The priest? The crucifix (which is of course only a symbol)?

    When I've had a chance to see the English translation of the Tridentine Mass, I've realized that the Liturgy has suffered as well. It was a real eye-opener to hear a Verdi requiem, not because of the music, which was of course amazing, but to see the translation of the old funeral rites. It makes the current liturgy seem so, um, shallow in comparison.

    I'm not one of these hard code Traiditonalists who denies the validity of the Novus Ordo or anything, but I have come to realize that in modernizing the churches and the Mass, we have lost much, much more than we have gained.


What do you think? Let me know.