Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Benedict XVI proclaims that baroque is back - Catholic Herald Online

Another interesting article appears today on the Catholic Herald: Benedict XVI proclaims that baroque is back.

Some quick comments to follow.

Benedict XVI proclaims that baroque is back: The Pope's sartorial choices are provoking rage among liberal Catholics, says Anna Arco. But there is a deep theological point to his finery

Priests dance on roller-skates and ridiculously lacy surplices flutter down the catwalk. Copes made entirely of mirrors are followed by chasubles and mitres covered in blinking neon lights, while eerie atonal music reaches its crescendo when glittering, heavy, overly embroidered hyper-Baroque vestments glide through the darkened room. The audience at the "clerical fashion show" consists of decaying, ancient aristos; and Rome's old guard is presided over by an ageing cardinal, so decrepit that he falls asleep during the silken extravaganza.

For many, any discussion of liturgical dress conjures up this scene from Federico Fellini's 1972 film Roma: it seems like the theatre of the absurd and the surreal, a vestige of a former, more decadent time in the Church's history, more interested in form than in substance, that is far removed from what is essential in Catholicism today. It is often seen as a subject that should long have been relegated to the dusty storerooms of the collective memory, much like the pre-conciliar vestments have been consigned to museums, depots or sold to junk shops and decorators. Ecclesiastical dress, be it ancient or modern, has the power to provoke strong emotions.

"The sartorial choices of Benedict XVI fill me with indescribable anger," lamented one Tablet reader last week, reacting to the Pope's choice of vestments on Ash Wednesday which were based on patterns from Pope Paul V's pontificate. "What message is all this ostentation giving to the poor and deprived in the rest of the world? What need have the cardinals, or the pope, for ermine-trimmed capes, red velvet shoes, chasubles commissioned in the style of the 17th-century pope, priceless lace albs and surplices, ornate gold rings, jewelled mitres (or even mitres at all)? 'I am the Way,' said Christ; what would he think of all this richesse? " On the other side of the spectrum (quite literally) the bonanza of tie-dyed blue and yellow that the Pope wore for the Mass in Mariazell in Austria was met with a mixture of grim mirth and despair.

The liturgical reforms of Vatican II changed attitudes to sacred vestments. They came in part to be a physical symbol of the renewal of the Church that the Council was hoping for, but also for some of the overly liberal interpretations of the Council documents which led in turn to some liturgical excesses never envisaged by the Council Fathers.

In 1971, shortly after the liturgical reforms were implemented, Mgr John Doherty, the executive secretary of the Liturgical Commission of the Archdiocese of New York, wrote: "The Church's attitude toward the use of vestments of our time grows out of her present view of her mission and image. While firmly committed to sacred vestments in the performance of the liturgy and to maintaining the basic tradition of the past, the Church will see adaptation and creativity grow and increase, based not on a Roman or a Catholic or a baroque model, but arising from varying cultures and local expression."

Many old vestments were discarded; opulent Renaissance and Baroque vestments especially were relegated to museums, warehouses or simply thrown away. In the mainstream Church, the poncho-like Gothic shape of the chasuble (the vestment worn by the celebrant) replaced the rounded shield shape of old Roman vestments; maniples stopped being used and abstract images and shapes replaced traditional patterns. Albs, the white vestment worn under dalmatic, chasuble, and cope, lost their lace and became simpler.

Since Pope Benedict replaced Pope John Paul II's creative Master of Ceremonies, Archbishop Piero Marini, with Mgr Guido Marini last year, a number of changes have crept into the papal wardrobe. With the liberalisation of the 1962 traditional form of the Mass, which requires the use of items that have fallen out of use like the maniple and the biretta, he has slowly started mixing the old with the new.

As Archbishop Marini's favourite liturgical designers, X Regio, said in a 2005 interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, what the Pope wears sets trends. For the Palm Sunday procession this year Benedict XVI wore an old-fashioned cope, a long mantle-like liturgical vestment which was less widely used in the mainstream Church after the reforms of the 1960s and 1970s (although it was not suppressed), while the cardinal deacons wore dalmatics which were similar in style. The Pope's chasuble during the Mass was plain, in the modern Gothic shape.

Pope Benedict's renewed use of older forms of liturgical vestments is more than just a taste for showy clothes and is in keeping with his concept of the liturgy, which is informed not by a nostalgia for an older Church or by an elaborate "aestheticism" but by his profound understanding of the reforms instituted by Vatican II and what he sees as their place in both the long history of Church tradition and its philosophical and theological underpinnings.

As the Australian theologian and philosopher Dr Tracey Rowland argues in her excellent new book Ratzinger's Faith; The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, beauty plays an important role in Pope Benedict's faith, not as an optional pedagogical tool or a "question of taste" but as an integral part of his understanding of Christ. While Dr Rowland does not write about vestments, she outlines Pope Benedict's theology and how it informs his understanding of the liturgy. Beauty and God are inseparable and for Pope Benedict the liturgy is "a living network of tradition which had taken concrete form, which cannot be torn apart into little pieces, but has to be seen and experienced as a living whole".

Summing up Pope Benedict's attitudes both to some of the liturgical malpractices which came out of certain interpretations of Vatican II and the need for beauty in the liturgy, Dr Rowland writes: "Beauty is not an optional extra or something contrary to a preferential option for the poor. It is not a scandal to clothe silken words in silken garments. Catholics are not tone deaf philistines who will be intellectually challenged by the use of a liturgical language or put off by changeless ritual forms. However, banality can act as a repellent."

As the discussion about liturgical vestments heats up (which by the looks of things, it will) the Pope is said to have ordered a new series of vestments copied from pre-Tridentine vestments which he was to wear last Sunday. It is worth remembering one catchphrase which has qualified Benedict XVI's papacy so far: the hermeneutic of continuity.

By wearing older, pre-conciliar style vestments to celebrate the Novus Ordo, a practice common in his native Bavaria as well as other pockets of the world, the Pope is sending a signal that the post-Vatican II Church should not turn its back on its long history, but rather that it should celebrate it.

The comment about beautiful vestments and vesture in relation to it being a scandal toward the poor is a typical cliche that is based upon a very misguided idea -- and one wonders about a hypocrisy as well. (For example, for those who make that critique, what sort of homes do they live in? What sort of cars do they drive? How do they treat themselves? These things are purely in the domain of private benefit even if not publically seen, whereas the liturgy is a public thing which belongs to no one individual but rather to all the faithful and which is ultimately oriented to God.)

Is it not skewed to suggest that the worship of God should be impoverished? The great apostle to the poor, St. Francis of Assisi certainly did not think so, and those with experience of the Missionaries of Charity and Mother Teresa would also testify to the fact that they, who are in our own day so known to serve the poorest of the poor, likewise do not think so. They understood and understand the importance of these things and it is interesting, for example, to see the importance the Missionaries of Charity assigned to learning about the usus antiquior. It is interesting to hear of the importance they give to the liturgy in their houses. It is further interesting to see their sisters show up in so many places which take pains to practice excellence and beauty within the sacred liturgy.

It seems to me this is because St. Francis, the Missionaries of Charity and the like understand the service to the poor in its full and proper context. They understand that ministering to people also means ministering to their spiritual needs -- and we do injustice to that when we impoverish that which is most spiritually central: the sacred liturgy. As such they understand that these things are not only not contradictory, they are complementary.

The liturgy is that from which all else flows, including our activities in relation to the social implications of the Gospel. The liturgy has the power to focus us upon God, to sanctify us, and from there to send us out into the apostolate. It is that which helps bring us to conversion and it is from that point that we are then sent out. Without that we actually endanger those aspects.

Beyond that, are the poor to be denied beauty? Do they not likewise appreciate it and benefit by it? They do indeed. In fact, they have often contributed to it themselves. The liturgy of the Church is as much their's as anyone's and the beauty of the vestments have little to do with the individual cleric in question and everything to do with the sacramental office of the priesthood and, ultimately, the liturgy itself in which we all participate. To say or think otherwise is to actually -- and ironically -- demonstrate a fairly self-centered view of the matter.

Frankly, this argument is a tired one and it seems to demonstrate an understanding of the Faith which on the surface might sound reasonable in some regard, but which has become quite skewed and focused merely upon works, lacking in a proper understanding of the place of the apostolate in relation to the spiritual life which is most publically expressed and exemplified in the public worship of the Church. It is an attitude toward the Faith that seems, again quite ironically, more or less material, but which has neglected what is spiritual.

Finally, this entire matter continues to show why these things matter because they are more often than not tied to principles; principles which can be more or less in line with our theology. Liturgy and liturgical form does indeed matter.

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