January 13 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Reject Church tribalism

ROSS AHLFElD looks at the black and white ‘culture war’ dividing Catholics

Last month we Catholic Workers were kindly welcomed by the wonderful Missionaries of Charity to Eucharistic Adoration at the sisters’ house in Glasgow. The sisters have taken a vow of poverty and as such live a life of austerity and contemplation without any of the technological distractions of modern life. Therefore, the splendour of Christ’s presence in the host radiates out into a very simple setting.

This got me thinking about my own wee parish church which was extended in the years after Pope John Paul II’s visit. As such, our church is minimalistic and modern. The walls are made of exposed grey breeze block and the floor is carpeted rather than covered with marble. If you were being uncharitable, you might say it’s a bit dull until you look above the altar and see a great carved wooden statue of Christ painted in gold.

Unusually, this carving is not of the Crucified Christ on the cross but the Risen Christ with his arms outstretched towards us. The significance of the Risen Christ is often reinforced by parish priest Mgr Gerry Gallagher’s encouragement to us to contemplate both aspects of the Crucified and Risen Christ. Similarly, the Mgr also speaks often about how our own Western tradition exists alongside the Eastern Churches with their special emphasis on the movement of the Holy Spirit.

The movement of the Spirit has taken on meaningful significance for the parishioners of St Ninian’s since we have always considered our Church to be a holy space, particularly on Doors Open Day when visitors have often commented on the fact that our church feels like a peaceful place in which God is present. I once asked Mgr Tom Monaghan why our wee provincial church feels like a holy place even though it’s not a magnificently ornate baroque cathedral. Mgr Tom’s reply was beautifully simple, saying ‘it has become a holy place because holy people have prayed in this place,’ and in doing so have sanctified it over many years. This makes perfect sense if you think about it, and when I think of all the good people who built our community over the last 100 years then we know this to be true.

If we take the time to look around our church, listen and pray then all of a sudden we start to get the full picture from our architecture and from the pulpit too. Once our eyes are open we start to see beyond the superficial aspects of art and interior design towards a whole new beauty which reveals to us that the spirit is indeed moving in our Churches. It’s what Henri Nouwen defines as ‘Orthocardia, Orthopraxis and Orthodoxy.’ Or in other words, right heart, right action and right belief, all working in unity.


What does all this mean? Well it means that we do not need magnificent gothic spires or Pugin- inspired architecture to have a holy place in which to find God. It tell us that our prayer life, our architecture and the ability to listen to a good sermon all combine to inform how we express our Faith. For me, this type of full understanding can transform our notions of what traditionalism means. It challenges our ideas about what a traditional Catholic Church is supposed to look like. (On a related topic, if anyone wants to hear modern Catholic music performed for liturgy in a beautiful and reverential way then take a trip up to St Joseph’s in Greenock to hear the wonderful St Joseph’s music group).

In my opinion, this type of well balanced and thoughtful approach to all the elements of our Faith sits in stark opposition to the crude culture war which seems to be dividing our Church with Cardinals issuing Popes with ‘Dubias’ and so on.

What side are you on in the great Catholic culture war? Conservative or liberal? Are you a liturgical traditionalist or modernist? Pope Benedict or Francis? Perhaps a more important question is, how did we end up creating such tribalism and false dichotomies within our broad and universal Church?

For me, such disputes have their origins, not in the corridors of the Vatican, but in the polarisation and individualism of American civic society. This ongoing culture war between conservatives and liberals seems to permeate the Church in the form of debates over liturgy and social teaching. In my opinion, the tone and context of these debates are often not about either liturgy or social teaching at all. Rather, it feels more like they are sometimes about other things, such as fear or power. More so, such divisions are further exacerbated by forums and the social media echo chamber where we seek out like-minded individuals who share our views and so have all our existing preconceived ideas reinforced.


So, what is to be done? Regular readers might have twigged that I am an unrepentant localist and an unapologetic provincial townie, both politically and spiritually. For me, the idea of place is meaningful, so it will come as no surprise when I say that I sincerely believe that part of the solution to this culture war lies in our fidelity to the norms of parish life.

Everything we need can be found in parish life. It is here that we find the potential for solidarity, community and fellowship. The parish is the place where we create and build peace and mercy and then take that peace and mercy out into wider society. More so, there are professional counsellors, qualified spiritual directors, and expert liturgists all freely available to us in the form of our parish priests and deacons (which we don’t always choose to access).

Most of all, Christ is here in the tabernacle. You might be surprised to learn that Peter Maurin, the founder of Catholic Worker, considered Eucharist adoration to be an integral part of his social views and action. The living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist caused him to ponder the presence of Jesus in our fellow men, and in the poor. Even political Catholics like Peter Maurin were nourished by adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si: “When it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world.”

So let’s make our parishes the place where we accept each other, the place where the so-called modernists and traditionalists come and go with each other. Just as St Paul tell us to ‘be of the same mind toward one another.’

Finally, in China right now there are two Catholic Churches. One is the state controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association with its big places of worship in the major cities, the other is the persecuted underground Catholic Church which exists in the backstreets and hidden places of the provinces. It’s obvious to me which one has Jesus present within it.




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