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Friday, September 19, 2014

Reclaiming Sunday

Original title: Learning to Unwag the Dog

This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Pastoral Music, an issue dedicated to a discussion of the "state of the question" about the future of the RCIA and music's role in it.

My son’s girlfriend recently became a member of a sorority at the University of Nebraska where they are enrolled. She took part in the weeklong rush and all the Greek events that were part of that, and was accepted as a Tri Delta, and was ebullient about it. The sorority (L., “sisterhood”) is a social and philanthropic group to which one belongs for life, it appears. I was so struck at her joy in belonging, her pride in membership, and seriousness about their charity work on behalf of  Children’s Cancer research.

Of course, it made me start a mental “compare and contrast” with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). What’s the same about joining a church and a sorority or civic club? What’s different? What’s the same about the recruitment process? What’s different? A lot of that falls outside of the scope of an article about “what’s ahead” for the rites and music, but the answers, or the inquiry at least, will shape the way we approach the question. Ultimately, this is because the future of the rites, including the music, has less to do with what ends up in the book or even how that book is translated, and more to do with how we actually do them in the parishes. Liturgy is what we’re actually doing, not what’s in the book.

What is clear to me about the current state of the Rite is that there are a lot of Catholics out there who are passionate about its implementation, and who work very hard in their ministries of welcome, catechesis, and liturgy to keep traffic moving in both directions through the doors of the church: outward, to seek out and connect with people interested in coming to Christ or to pursuing the Catholic path of Christianity, and inward, welcoming those who come seeking Christ and apprenticing them with the gifts of the community in order to form the strong bonds that will be sacramentalized in the formal rites of initiation. At the same time, fiscal and cultural forces converged in a way that spelled the demise of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate in mid-2013, leaving a gaping hole yet to be filled in the church’s visioning and training of initiation ministers. Some, like Nick Wagner and Diana Macalintal of San Jose, CA, with their “” website and resources, have stepped into the breach, but a broad organization fueled by the single-mindedness and passion of the Forum has not yet emerged.

Most of us have first-hand success stories of initiation ministry. One of the most wonderful for me is Randy, a fellow whom I see every Sunday because he plays drums at the main choir mass at St. Anne’s. Randy was baptized the same year my son Desi was, and in addition to his weekly contributions as a music minister has served for the last several years as a sponsor for new Catholics himself. It’s those two connections, the connection to Sunday worship and the interpersonal connection, the commitment to be-with others as a manifestation of our awareness that we are an initiating community, that I would like to point to as the future of the RCIA for us in church ministry, particularly in music.

See, it’s not hard to provide music for the rites of initiation. We have a lot of specialized resources in a wide range of musical styles. We have the ability to adapt music we already know into shorter acclamations and refrains and litanies that can be used to foster participation in the rites of initiation. The critical issue, the issue that will make or break the future of the RCIA in our communities, is whether we can connect the parish community that does the singing on Sundays with the rites that we celebrate together. How can we learn to be what we sing? How can we help awaken one another to the reality that singing together is a metaphor, even more, a sacramental sign, of a way of being together in the world, working together, welcoming together, feeding together, learning together, supporting one another? It’s here that church, initiating church or worshipping church, will ultimately succeed or fail. We don’t exist as church to have a good time or even to offer what we imagine to be beautiful or meaningful worship. We’ve been gathered here to announce the reign of God, and renew the face of the earth.

Put another way, the question in the light of both the “new” and the original evangelization is: initiation into what? Or even more precisely for Christians, into whom? What kind of organism are we? Benevolent, like Elks? Altruistic and social, like a sorority? Secretive and elitist like gnostics? Territorial, counter-cultural, and committed to each other, like a street gang? The answer to that question will shape the way we initiate.

So the first step that we might want to start dreaming for the future might be remembering in our parish leadership groups who we are, who we have been called to be, in our Christian life. We might want to stop trying to find ourselves, as it were, and start losing ourselves in gospel life. For us musicians and people involved in parish liturgy, it means recovering Sunday as Sabbath, as the Lord’s day. Sabbath is not the day of just any Lord. It is the day of a God who wants to be known and worshipped and loved (i.e., lived) as Abba, as the head of a household of brothers and sisters who care for one another not as equals, but as people who try to outdo each other as servants. “Equality” is too timid a goal for us. We should pass “equal” on the way down, as it were, so that as God’s people, as people who imitate the one who did not even cling to equality with God as something to be grasped, we are willing to serve at the cost of equality and personal borders.

Sunday should be reshaped in this way. Preachers should focus on the core gospel message of an alternative offered by the reign of God to “business as usual” in the world. Music should suit the style of the parish but care should be taken that there is a prophetic and New Testament attitude in the texts that offers both comfort and challenge, that acknowledges the presence and absence of God, that proclaims both belonging and mission, and that humbly acknowledges that the manifestation of divine “power” in the world is not like the power of the age but is seen in acts of self-emptying love and service. Everything else, literally, has to go.

It is a different world from when folks of my generation were children, and I don’t want to go back there. But another place we should pay attention to is the infantilization of prayer, preaching, and worship. The gospel is for grown-ups. Yes, children belong in the mix. Formation for children is important to the church. But the way that children will get the message is by the behavior of adults. Bored adults, unengaged adults, non-participating, unchallenged adults, adults who don’t claim the gospel or mention it outside the walls of the church, will only block the growth of children in the gospel way. Recovery of Sunday means recovering the alternative life that Jesus invites: turn away from sin, and believe the good news. This does not mean that we should wallow in obscure, archaic language in prayer or fire and brimstone preaching. It means announcing, in plain language, story, rite, and music, the course of the reign of God and how it goes in the opposite direction of the way we, most of us, are going in life, caught in the flow of our culture and the gods that it really worships. Children will follow as children do. Adults have to lead the way.

So recovery of Sunday is the primary work that needs to be done, by musicians, liturgists, the ordained, and the people of God, to prepare a future for the rites of initiation.  Necessary for that are a reimagining of who we are and where we are going, shaping music and rite to foster that imagination, and beaming a clear signal by our gathering and life that will call people of good will to join us in the mission of Jesus.

This means nothing less than starting with the baptismal promises and working backward through the rites of initiation to prepare people to make them. And for those of us who have already made those promises and renewed them dozens of times at Easter, it will probably mean doing the same, and then triaging our praxis and habits to scrape away the personalistic bias of our American heritage and coming to a new appreciation both for communal grace and the weight of social sin. The baptismal renunciations and promises are nothing other than a response to the invitation of Jesus to “turn away from sin and believe the good news.” Being explicit about what that means will change the celebration of Sunday, of the liturgical year, parish ministry, allocation of time and other resources, and, of course, initiation practice.

In a stunning article in Worship (2007, Vol. 81, no. 5, pp 409-425), David Batchelder of West Plano Presbyterian Church in Plano, Texas, submitted an interpretation for the twenty-first century of those promises. Called "Baptismal Renunciations: Making Promises We Do Not Intend to Keep," Batchelder asks hard questions of our baptismal practice and the communities that are entrusted with passing on the faith:
Does the evidence show that the baptized and baptizing community is renouncing sin and evil or participating in it?
I worry that our communities have learned to practice a way of speaking ritually that not only permits false witness at the font, but establishes it as the norm. (page 411)
He urges us to “name names” as we approach those promises, and he begins to encase those names in the renunciations. I would suggest that this sort of thing might better be relegated to the celebrations of the scrutinies and tied by explicit catechesis (and/or mystagogy) to the baptismal promises, but his point is well taken. He doesn’t pull any punches, either, and asks questions not often posed in my church, nor, I imagine, in yours.
Do you renounce all attempts to equate the Gospel of Christ with the American dream?
Do you renounce the power of the economy to define human value by what you consume and produce?
Do you renounce the pursuit of national security at the expense of global security for this world God loves? (page 422)
I know. I’m not there either. But being worried about what songs to sing when these questions aren’t being addressed is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We seem to have a Pope who understands that doxology (right worship) is more than fancy words and expensive vesture, but is rather the action of a people infected with the subversive joy of the empire of God. Forming that people, teaching them to pray, teaching them right worship, will require more of us than organ technique or guitar or vocal virtuosity. Even the pagans have those. Forming new Christians well means that us old Christians need to receive and live the gospel anew. Otherwise, we should leave the initiation to street gangs, fraternal organizations, and sororities.