Mass Conversions and Liturgical Pluralism: A Path to Christian Reunification?
Wednesday, January 4, 2012, 9:00 AM
On January 1, Pope Benedict XVI formally announced the creation of a new personal orindariate for Anglican groups in the United States wishing to convert to Catholicism. The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, which is “juridically equivalent to a diocese” will bring both lay and clerical members of the Anglican church into full communion with the Bishop of Rome while permitting them a large degree of control over liturgical matters (especially allowing the retention of the Book of Common Prayer, the language of certain rites, and married priests).
Though this is only the second such ordinariate, following the creation of one for England and Wales in January 2011, media reports indicate that further ordinariates are under consideration for Canada, Australia, and other English-speaking nations.
The expected proliferation of these exceptional cases is remarkable for several reasons. First, their growth represents a new tack in evangelization that is simultaneously more accommodating of converts and more aggressive in outreach to them. It also indicates a deepened seriousness on the part of the Vatican to pursue Christian reunification, a project which has been of particular interest to Benedict XVI’s thought and papacy.
But perhaps the most intriguing facet of this project is the (re)newed Catholic willingness to accept entire groups of converts and allow them to retain significant hallmarks of their Christian traditions, even when these traditions are somewhat alien (though not in opposition to) what has traditionally characterized Latin-rite Catholicism. Recalling Lumen Gentium, the website of the new ordinariate notes the balance between pluralism and universality that the project aims for:
“[though] the one Church of Jesus Christ is said to subsist in the Catholic Church: [. . .] many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure, [and] these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity. There is an inner dynamic in the life and teaching of Anglicanism which continues to draw Anglicans to its source.”
Tailoring the structure of the Catholic Church to make group conversion a feasible option represents something of a ‘grand experiment’ in recent ecclesiology. Yet it is not entirely novel, as it recalls some of the conversions in the early church recounted in Acts of the Apostles, when “many thousands” of individuals, including, sometimes, entire families or towns, were baptized at the same moment. And the longstanding inclusion of Eastern rite Catholics (as well as efforts at rapprochement with breakaway movements in Europe) suggests there is precedent for this emerging big tent strategy.
Representing both a numerically augmented and more communally sensitive approach in which individuals may not have to face down members of their family, friends, or former parish over their decision to enter the Catholic Church, the simultaneous conversion of entire groups, the pope seems to believe, will the one of the ways the Christian church moves down the road to eventual reunification, and is one of the ways the twenty-first century church’s evangelization will be both significantly different from its recent past and freshly in-touch with more ancient roots.
– from the blog “First Thoughts”
Dear Christian Brothers and Sisters,
I have to admit I’m excited by this news. As a member of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, it pains me that my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are not in full union with the Church, for as the Encyclical Lumen Gentium (referenced above) says about our fellow Christians:
15. The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. (14*) For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. (15*) They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and accept other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them rejoice in the episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion toward the Virgin Mother of God.(16*) They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood. In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end. (17*) Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about. She exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the earth.
However, as one of my good Protestant friends once suggested to me, I wonder if this new arrangement isn’t for the best? The reason being, she suggested, is that perhaps the Catholic Church needed some diversity in style and worship (ignoring for a moment the bigger questions of theological diversity) or it would fall into stagnation and torpor. Analogously, imagine a body never exposed to viruses or bacteria of any sort. The body would never properly develop anti-bodies and therefore never become properly healthy when attacked by an illness. Likewise, a Catholic Church that never had to deal with the Great Schism of 1054 or more famously the Protest Reformation of the 16th Century (including Henry VIII’s defiance of the Pope and the eventual creation of the Church of England) might never have developed certain liturgical and theological arguments, even if only in response to what they perceived as errors from their wayward friends. This is a big argument, too big for a short blog post, but an interesting idea to think about and perhaps some of my readers can contribute some of their preliminary thoughts in the comments section.