Pope Benedict on maintaining church harmony
February 20, 2020
Some years ago, my friend Msgr. Francis Mannion wrote an article concerning the three essential features of the Eucharistic liturgy – namely, the priest, the rite and the people. When these elements are in proper balance, rightly ordered liturgy obtains.
Further, from these categories, he argued, we can discern the three typical distortions of the liturgy: clericalism (too much of the priest), ritualism (a fussy hyper-focus on the rite), and congregationalism (a disproportionate emphasis on the people). It was one of those observations that just manages to spread light in every direction.
A similarly illuminating remark was made by Pope Benedict XVI concerning the work of the church, and I would like to spend a little time exploring it. Papa Ratzinger said that the church performs three basic tasks: It worships God, it evangelizes and it serves the poor.
The religious activities of over a billion Catholics around the globe, he maintained, can be reduced finally to these three fundamental moves. So for example, the liturgy, the celebration of the sacraments, individual and collective prayer, the singing of monks, the whispered petitions of cloistered religious, praise and worship songs, the recitation of the rosary – all belong under the heading of worshiping God. And the teaching of the kerygma (proclamation of the core of the Gospel message), street preaching, catechesis, university-level theology, the evangelization of the culture, proclaiming the faith through the new media – all of that can be categorized as evangelization. Finally, care for the hungry and homeless, outreach to immigrants, Catholic Worker soup kitchens, the work of Catholic charities, hospitals, and orphanages – all are expressions of the church’s commitment to serve the poor.
The life of the church consists, Pope Benedict maintains, in the harmonious coming-together of these three ministries, no one of which can be reduced to the other two and each one of which implies the other two. Properly evangelized people want to worship God and long to help the needy; helping the needy is a way of proclaiming the Gospel and a vehicle for the teaching of the faith; liturgy by its very nature leads to theology (lex orandi, lex credendi; “the church believes as she prays”) and the instantiation of the kingdom through service.
If I might borrow from Msgr. Mannion, we can also read off of these categories typical distortions in the life of the church. When the worship of God is exaggerated or exclusively emphasized, the community becomes hyper-spiritualized, disincarnate and at the limit, superstitious. What is required is the critical intelligence provided by theology as well as the groundedness provided by the concrete service of the poor. When the evangelical mission is exaggerated, the church runs the risk of falling into rationalism and of losing affective contact with God. What is particularly needed in that case is the visceral sense of the transcendent provided by the liturgical praise of God. When outreach to the needy is one-sidedly stressed, the church tends toward a reduction of the supernatural to the natural, becoming, as Pope Francis puts it, just another NGO providing social service. What is required in that case is the robust supernaturalism to which a healthy theology and liturgy give access. The point is that it is in the tensive play among the three elements, each complementing and checking the excesses of the other two, that the church finds its health and equilibrium.
I don’t want to oversimplify the matter, for there are plenty of ideological battles within the three “groups”: liberal liturgists against conservative liturgists, left-wing approaches to evangelization versus right-wing approaches, etc. But I might suggest that many of our disputes in the life of the church today have to do with a kind of imperialistic reductionism. I mean that people who are particularly interested in the praise of God sometimes think that the praise of God is everything; and that people who are really into evangelization sometimes think that the whole church should be nothing but evangelism; and that people who are passionate about the service of the poor think that this ministry should take all the oxygen in the room.
At its best, the church resists this kind of imperialism, and you can see it in the lives of the great saints, who seemed to have a feel for the manner in which these three ministries harmonize. Just think of Teresa of Kolkata, pouring herself out in service among the poorest of the poor in the worst slum in the world and passing hours and hours in contemplative prayer; or of Edith Stein, one of the premier intellectuals of the 20th century and a woman who spent hours every day in silence before the Blessed Sacrament, and who, at the climax of her life, offered herself as a martyr on behalf of her people; or of Francis of Assisi, who was married to Lady Poverty and who, judging from some of the few authentic letters we have of his, was extremely concerned about altar linens and the proper maintenance of tabernacles and churches.
By nature, training or personal predilection, each of the baptized probably gravitates more readily to one or other of the basic Ratzingerian tasks. I, for example, have long been oriented toward evangelical work: preaching, teaching, writing, communicating, etc. But I cannot tell you how often in the course of my priesthood I have had to battle an anti-intellectualism, usually justified through appeal to the urgency and primacy of social justice work. And I have certainly known advocates of that third path who have endured attacks from liturgy devotees, claiming that service of the poor is “secularist.” And indeed I have known passionate liturgists who have been forced to endure taunts for how fussy and out of touch they are with the “real” needs of the people of God, etc.
Could we please cut this out? It is not only stupid, it also crucially undermines the work of the church, which is a harmonious and mutually correcting interplay of the three Ratzingerian constants. I might close with a word of encouragement to my brother bishops. A major part of our work as “overseers” (episkopoi) of the church is to assure that a symphony among the three basic charisms remains vibrantly in place.