Being Poor, Non-Pelagian and Re-oriented

There’s a lovely article on Fr Ray Blake’s blog Poorer Church, a non-Pelagian Church, a re-Orientated Church. He naturally bases his ideas on what he has been hearing from Pope Francis. Poor Church? Few things make me more angry than learning that some monstrosity has been installed in a church or a cathedral for use as an altar facing the people and cost a fantastic sum of money, perhaps thousands of euros (dollars, pounds, whatever) for an ugly piece of concrete, metal or plastic done by a questionable artist. In the 1970’s, they were burning vestments on bonfires (some of mine were rescued from such a fate) and commissioning expensive new vestments that “looked poor”.

What is even more obscene is the impoverishment of the liturgy whilst some clergy drive flashy cars and have equally flashy careers. There I agree with the idea that many of us do well to drive around in more modest vehicles, and live in a more modest lifestyle. Some of us have little choice when we are limited by a low income. Frankly it suits me to eschew bourgeois life and fashion. I like the simple life!

Fr Blake makes good points about the bishops hob-nobbing with the powerful, but we have to be realistic. There is a difference between simplicity and impoverishment. An impoverished Church ceases to be or do any good for anyone. Without priests, liturgy, beauty, inspiration and more, what is the point of the Church?

Pope Francis seems to have been calling traditionalists Pelagians, those who in St Augustine’s time believed that salvation was through human strength and not divine grace, a man-centred religion. Supposedly it is a matter of saying so many rosaries to get this or that favour from God. Fr Blake seems to understand things deeply – the man-centred religion is not the traditionalist resistance but rather the way things have been done in the Church over the past fifty years. The quintessential Pelagian liturgy is the priest taking the place of God looking at his flock over the altar, as Benedict XVI put it, the closed circle. The antidote to Pelagianism, or its modern equivalent, is re-orientation, turning to the east, the Eastward Position for the liturgy. In the eastward-facing Mass, the priest is hidden and God takes his rightful place. Re-orientation is not only doing the liturgy the old way, but also turning back to God ourselves – conversion, turning around and going the right way. There is the conversion of each of us, but also the conversion of our institutional Churches.

Good reflections, Father Blake, and we all have progress to make regardless of whether we are Roman Catholics or are in some other ecclesial communion.

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4 Responses to Being Poor, Non-Pelagian and Re-oriented

  1. Stephen K says:

    Father, I read Father Blake’s post and I was not so impressed. There has been a lot of defensiveness by and amongst traditionalists over Pope Francis’ “Pelagian” allusion. I don’t think they have thought it through properly. And I think it is mistaken to think the orientation of the altar solves the problem. You accept Father Blake’s thesis that the post-Vatican II liturgical paradigm is essentially Pelagian because “ad populum” seems man-centred. I disagree. Let me explain by setting the issue in some context.

    Catholic restorationism is all about re-establishing a state of affairs that could be summed up as a state of ecclesiastical obedience and wide observance of the traditional forms of religious piety. The Pope’s example which sparked off this religious angst was a gift of 3,525 rosaries. It seems it was the trouble taken to count the number of rosaries that struck him. What was significant about the number? What was significant about counting them, or making a point about them, or even, perhaps, saying more than one? The question is, was this Pelagian, and if so, how? Perhaps Pope Francis was thinking that counting one’s rosaries was evidence of disengagement with the very object of the prayer, and only engagement with the process. Or, that perhaps it was reflective of too great a sense of “accomplishment”.

    Saying a rosary 3,525 times does not itself reflect a Pelagian belief, otherwise we would suspect and reject every repetition of prayer or good works. But thinking 3,525 rosaries is better than 1 – or thinking that the eastern orientation of the altar is “better” than ad populum – begins to take a person closer to the idea that grace works quantitatively (and eventually qualitatively) in direct ratio to human quantity or decision. That could be considered Pelagian in spirit.

    Thus, the community, human-centred orientation of the post-Vatican II liturgy might be alternatively characterised, not as Pelagian, but as Incarnational, emphasising Jesus’ identity with our own limited condition, and our continuity with the very earliest communities of faith. Indeed one might argue that the modern tendency to downgrade traditional acts of piety springs from an instinctive suspicion that in the end nothing we do will “merit” grace, which is more akin to Augustinianism.

    I think Father Ray Blake’s take on this is limited and misses the point. I think Pope Francis was making sure, like Chips in his first Latin class at Brookfield, that the class knew who was in charge. He wasn’t prepared to be “boxed in” by someone’s prayers. To say Mass facing east because one adopts a hallowed liturgical custom of facing God as a community is laudable; to do so because the alternative is slummy and inferior or without merit may be thought Pelagian and presumption; for to say Mass facing each other because one calls to mind the fraternity of the Last Supper is not Pelagian but emphasising a different but equally valid expression of agape.

    • Stephen K says:

      In case it is not otherwise clear, I say (1) nothing in my post supports an inference that I have any problem with an eastern altar orientation, and (2) I do not have any problem with an eastern altar orientation!

      • A good point, so that you don’t get pounced on. I find the RC traditionalists in general difficult to live with, and I eventually got out, even for those in communion with Rome. It is easy to understand their defensiveness when they got so much stick especially back in the days of Paul VI. They easy become intolerant, and not a few adopt “extreme right wing” ideologies on the basis of their belief that without constraint, human beings cannot be virtuous or pious.

        Anglican “traditionalism” is generally more liturgical and less political, which was the main reason I went to find a home in it, but we are far from perfect.

        I think it is dangerous for the Pope to try to attach fourth-century labels to unrelated problems of our own times. Instead of talking of “Gnostics” and “Pelagians”, he should be looking to understand the real issues and how peace in diversity can be restored in this highly polarised and unhealthy situation.

    • Indeed one might argue that the modern tendency to downgrade traditional acts of piety springs from an instinctive suspicion that in the end nothing we do will “merit” grace, which is more akin to Augustinianism.

      You do have a point, especially here in France. There is quite a Jansenistic tendency in the “modern” Church, and this is especially apparent when priests refuse to baptise children of non-practising parents.

      But of course it’s not my business to criticise the Roman Catholic Church of which I haven’t been a member for a good few years.

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