Monday, November 20, 2017

Confronting the Heresy of Activism with the Primacy of Prayer

In Henri de Lubac’s Vatican Council Notebooks — a resource already put to good use here at New Liturgical Movement in discussions of splendor and Latin — we find the following summary of a speech by Cardinal William Godfrey, archbishop of Westminster, on Friday, November 9, 1962, during the debate over the Divine Office:
Some people exaggerate the onus sacerdotum in opere pastorali [the burden of priests in pastoral work]. I have been a parish priest; I see a large number of priests; I have never met any who have told me that they no longer have time for the breviary. Do not legislate universally for a few exceptional cases. Be careful of the haeresis bonorum operum [the heresy of good works]. Work must be subordinate to prayer. The breviary has already been made lighter. It must remain the essentiale nutrimentum nostri laboris [the essential nourishment of our work]. … In our cathedral, the office is recited or chanted every day; our work is not neglected because of that. [1]
On Saturday, November 10, Bishop Martin Jaime Flores of Barbastro, Spain, made the rather obvious but important point that “Oratio est labor pastoralis”—prayer is, in a way, a pastoral work: it is something that benefits the people more than any other work. [2] Later that day, Bishop Luigi Carli of Segni spoke out against what he called “activismus exaggeratus,” an exaggerated activism, and said that the reduction of the breviary would be “shocking, a scandal to the whole Christian people.” [3]

Bishop John Ireland, father of Americanism
To find the roots of this “exaggerated activism” — which Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P., went so far as to call a “heresy” [4] — we need to go back to the Americanist controversy of the late nineteenth century. Fr. Walter Elliott’s 1891 biography of Fr. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, appeared in a French translation in 1897. This translation included the controversial Introduction by Bishop John Ireland of St. Paul, which was to occasion Leo XIII’s letter Testem Benevolentiae of 1899, addressed to Cardinal Gibbons and the American bishops. As related in the 1976 book Histoire des crises du clergé français contemporain by Paul Vigneron, the biography of Hecker became a bestseller among the French clergy then under siege from an anticlerical government. Soon there was a turning away from the interior life towards activism, or, as we might nowadays call it, “being pastoral.” Vocations to the diocesan priesthood plunged. Only the publication of Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s book L’Ame de Tout Apostolat [The Soul of the Apostolate - 1907, 1909, 1913] would reverse the trend. Vocations flourished until 1946, by which time over 250,000 copies of Chautard’s book had been sold. Then, Fr. Marie-Dominique Chenu, national chaplain of the worker priests, publicly attacked L’Ame de Tout Apostolat as outdated: the conditions under which Dom Chautard wrote no longer exist. Vocations to the diocesan priesthood plunged, never to recover. [5]

Marie-Dominique Chenu, opponent of Dom Chautard
Thus, by the time of the meeting of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the battle lines were fairly well drawn up between those who, in accord with Catholic tradition as enunciated by Chautard, saw the inherent priority of prayer and contemplation over works of the active life, and those who, following the modern trend from Ireland to Chenu, wished to lessen the “burden” of prayer in favor of pastoral efficiency.

There is no doubt about which side won in practice: all of the liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church, from the sacramental rites to the Divine Office to the blessings, were greatly shortened, simplified, and streamlined; the people were given much to “do,” and the celebrant was given the more “active” roles of interlocutor, animator, commentator, improviser. Religious life was redefined in terms of social apostolate. Contemplatives, in particular, felt they had to justify their existence by pointing to concrete benefits they conferred on society. As vocations to the diocesan priesthood plummeted, so too, and for much the same reason, religious vocations plummeted, never to recover in the mainstream Church. [6]

Today, many decades into the weary aftermath, the costly “collateral damage,” of all this frenzied activism, we are in a position to see more clearly than ever the wisdom of Godfrey, Flores, and Carli, the wisdom of Leo XIII, Chautard, and Aumann. No less a figure than Joseph Ratzinger frequently and perceptively writes about the problem of activism, which he considered symptomatic of a loss of confidence in the reality of Jesus Christ and the primacy of His kingdom. In a poignant section of The Ratzinger Report, he speaks of the loss of the dimension of feminine receptivity in the Church:
Activism, the will to be “productive,” “relevant,” come what may, is the constant temptation of the man, even of the male religious. And this is precisely the basic trend in the ecclesiologies . . . that present the Church as a “People of God” committed to action, busily engaged in translating the Gospel into an action program with social, political, and cultural objectives. But it is no accident if the word “Church” is of feminine gender. In her, in fact, lives the mystery of motherhood, of gratitude, of contemplation, of beauty, of values in short that appear useless in the eyes of the profane world. Without perhaps being fully conscience of the reason, the woman religious feels the deep disquiet of living in a Church where Christianity is reduced to an ideology of doing, according to that strictly masculine ecclesiology which nevertheless is presented — and perhaps believed — as being closer also to women and their “modern” needs. Instead it is the project of a Church in which there is no longer any room for mystical experience, for this pinnacle of religious life which not by chance has been, through the centuries, among the glories and riches offered to all in unbroken constancy and fullness, more by women than by men. [7]
In a lecture he gave on “The New Evangelization” in the year 2000, Ratzinger, like Chautard, pointed to the necessary foundation of apostolate in prayer:
“Jesus preached by day, by night he prayed.” With these few words, he [Don Didimo] wished to say: Jesus had to acquire the disciples from God. The same is always true. We ourselves cannot gather men. We must acquire them by God for God. All methods are empty without the foundation of prayer. The word of the announcement must always be drenched in an intense life of prayer. … Theocentrism is fundamental in the message of Jesus and must also be at the heart of new evangelization. … To proclaim God is to introduce [others] to a relation with God: to teach how to pray. Prayer is faith in action. And only by experiencing life with God does the evidence of his existence appear. [8]
Pope Benedict XVI returns to this theme in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, of 2005:
Prayer, as a means of drawing ever new strength from Christ, is concretely and urgently needed. People who pray are not wasting their time, even though the situation appears desperate and seems to call for action alone. Piety does not undermine the struggle against the poverty of our neighbors, however extreme. … It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work. Clearly, the Christian who prays does not claim to be able to change God’s plans or correct what he has foreseen. Rather, he seeks an encounter with the Father of Jesus Christ, asking God to be present with the consolation of the Spirit to him and his work. … Our crying out [to the Father] is, as it was for Jesus on the Cross, the deepest and most radical way of affirming our faith in his sovereign power. [9]
Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655)
One of the most developed treatments of this theme is found in Benedict XVI’s General Audience of April 25, 2012, explaining the Apostles’ decision to ordain deacons to assist them. The pope sees in the Apostles’ focus on the Word and the deacons’ handling of the poor a reflection of the distinction between Mary and Martha of Bethany, and notes that each aspect supports the other: prayerful meditation on the Word leads to its convincing proclamation, and, at the same time, the men to be chosen for works of mercy must be imbued with the Holy Spirit, not mere social workers. He then comes to his central point, which deserves to be read with the “burden” of the recitation or chanting of the Divine Office in mind:
We must not lose ourselves in pure activism but always let ourselves also be penetrated in our activities by the light of the word of God and thereby learn true charity, true service to others, which does not need many things — it certainly needs the necessary things, but needs above all our heartfelt affection and the light of God.
          In commenting on the episode of Martha and Mary, St. Ambrose urges his faithful and us too: “Let us too seek to have what cannot be taken from us, dedicating diligent, not distracted, attention to the Lord’s word. The seeds of the heavenly word are blown away, if they are sown along the roadside. May the wish to know be an incentive to you too, as it was to Mary; this is the greatest and most perfect act.” And he added that “attention to the ministry must not distract from knowledge of the heavenly word” through prayer (Expositio Evangelii secundunm Lucam, VII, 85; PL 15: 1720).
          St. Bernard, who is a model of harmony between contemplation and hard work, in his book De consideratione, addressed to Pope Innocent II to offer him some reflections on his ministry, insists precisely on the importance of inner recollection, of prayer to defend oneself from the dangers of being hyper-active, whatever our condition and whatever the task to be carried out. St Bernard says that all too often, too much work and a frenetic life-style end by hardening the heart and causing the spirit to suffer (cf.II, 3).
          His words are a precious reminder to us today, used as we are to evaluating everything with the criterion of productivity and efficiency. ... Without daily prayer lived with fidelity, our acts are empty, they lose their profound soul, and are reduced to being mere activism which in the end leaves us dissatisfied. … For pastors, this is the first and most valuable form of service for the flock entrusted to them. If the lungs of prayer and of the word of God do not nourish the breath of our spiritual life, we risk being overwhelmed by countless everyday things: prayer is the breath of the soul and of life.[10]
Looking back over these valuable texts from Ratzinger (and there are many more like them), we cannot avoid posing some uncomfortable questions for ourselves—for clergy, religious, and laity who are striving for holiness, which we know is not a product of our actions but a gift given to those who ask for it in prayer, who seek, who knock.

Do we actually believe in God? If we do, we will believe in His lordship, His primacy, His precedence over all created things, material or spiritual, visible or invisible—such that He always deserves priority in our daily life, the best of our time, energy, attention. That goes for liturgical prayer as well as private prayer.

Do we believe Our Lord’s word when He openly says: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt 6:33), or when He says: “Without Me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5)? If so, we will reject at its very root the secular Pelagian mentality that has crept into and corrupted so many “good works” sponsored by the Church or practiced in the name of Christianity.

Do we believe that Our Lord receives more honor and glory when we put on our lips and fix in our hearts the words of the very Psalms He inspired for Himself to recite as man on earth, as the Church bids us do in the Divine Office? If we do, our thinking about the “burden” of the Office will change; we will consider taking up some form of the preconciliar breviary, be it Roman or monastic; we will not seek shortness, speed, and efficiency; nor, if we are praying in Latin already, will we cut corners by a thoughtless rapidity of recitation.

Do we believe that the same Lord Jesus Christ is really, metaphysically, bodily, personally present to us at Mass? If we do, it should be obvious in the way we are worshiping, and the place that worship occupies in our daily life.

Ultimately, do we believe in the power and mystery of prayer? That is the question Cardinal Godfrey’s words, spoken 55 years ago, should prompt in us today.


[1] Henri de Lubac, Vatican Council Notebooks (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), 1:258–59. The Latin is not italicized in the book.
[2] Ibid., 266.
[3] Ibid., 268–69.
[4] Jordan Aumann, O.P., “The Heresy of Action,” in Cross and Crown, vol. 3 (1951), pp. 25–45.
[5] I owe this information to Anthony Sistrom. Vigneron cites more than 300 biographies and memoires of French priests in establishing his narrative.
[6] See Hilary White’s fine article "What is the Catholic Religion Actually For? A Monastic Answer."
[7] The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 103.
[8] Available here.
[9] Deus Caritas Est, nn. 36-38.
[10] Available here.

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