In today’s Gospel, Jesus sends his disciples off to ‘preach repentance’. Not long ago I heard a sermon which contrasted this with the idea of sending them off to ‘preach Canon Law’; as is the way with such sermons, this was not done to the advantage of Canon Law. Rather as with ‘doctrine’ and ‘dogma’, anything which constricts the individual in the free exercise of their right to believe whatever they want to believe, is out of fashion.
It is not hard to see why. My phrasing in the last paragraph was deliberate, and if someone wants to tell me it obscures the gap between licit dissent and license, I shall not quarrel with them. The Church allows a good deal of licit dissent on inessentials. I have often wondered how far some of the dissent on the Novus Ordo Mass is due not to itself, but to the things which accompanied it, such as ghastly pop-style hymns, inadequately prepared homilies, and an ‘informal style’, all of which, for many of us, get in the way of the fact that we go to Mass to offer worship to our Creator and to receive the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a solemn occasion, which does not mean it must be dour – some great texts and music have been written for the Mass, the hearing of which elevates our minds and our souls. That these things have been exchanged for a tawdry cheapness in our own day naturally makes some of us bewail the times in which we live. In some ways, to me at least, it seems easier to bear the hostility of the age than it is to see the great liturgical inheritance we have squandered for the mess of pottage that are ‘clown masses’ and ‘liturgical dancing’. If we want the priest to face east, it is because he leads us in facing the Lord and in making the sacrifice on our behalf. Symbols matter.
We encounter Jesus in whatever way we are led, but like St Phillip’s Ethiopian, we can only know how to read the texts if someone tells us. A stiff-necked race of sinners prefer to rely on its own infallible understanding than to call in aid a tradition dating back to the Apostles; we seem to think we know everything. Some humility in the face of the Divine Mysteries would be good for us, but we set that aside so we can chat with our friends before Mass and spend as much time at coffee afterwards as we do at the Liturgy itself.
Dogma and doctrine, likewise, we set to one side, presumably because we have become so wise we have no need of them? But wise and powerful as we have become, can we not ponder why the society we have hepled create is not rather better than it is? Perhaps instead of an assent to the wisdom of our ancestors, we prefer the shallow satisfaction of hearing our own voices echo back at us?