It's time to move on from the debate about ritualism versus activism, says Dominic Scarborough

On Wednesday, June 9, the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, addressed 4,000 priests from around the world. They were gathered at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls in Rome for the conclusion of The Year for Priests. He told them that nothing is more important for a priest than conversion of heart because only this will enable them to fulfil their mission to bring Christ to others. He went on to say that making “corrections” to ecclesial structures is not sufficient to evangelise priests, but rather a change of heart must occur because “the greatest obstacle to the transmission of Christ is sin”.

The cardinal’s words echo those of the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris who once said that the necessity and aim of the Second Vatican Council was to recognise that the Catholic world as it existed then had been catechised but not evangelised. However justified the late cardinal’s remarks about the pre-conciliar Church might be (one suspects he was not the only one, then or now, to take the battleship-grey paintbrush of modernity to the delicate fresco of Catholic tradition, devotion and praxis of the previous two millennia), the subsequent experience of the post-conciliar era did not achieve Cardinal Lustiger’s dream. My own experience of growing up in that era was that we were neither catechised nor evangelised, but more frequently jeopardised.

Perhaps what lies at the root of this failure is the point now being made by Cardinal Meisner, that Catholicism is dead if it is only about externals and not about a lived experience of faith which must be internalised.

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Perhaps the mistake in the post-conciliar era has been to attempt merely to replace one set of externals – that of devotions, catechism, the ancient liturgy and all the other associated practices – with another comprising activism in the social arena, lay ministries and other acts of “doing” or “being Church”, which still lack any significant development of what used to be called “the interior life” (often now called “the life of the spirit”).

The most vociferous critics of the revival of the Traditional Latin Mass and the apparent traditionalism of many young priests always point to the externals – the splendid vestments, the cassocks and Roman collars and the ritual – as though this is all they can themselves see is at stake and it tends to say more of their own activist agenda than accurately critique the return of tradition as a source of spiritual nourishment.

This is where the figure of Cardinal John Henry Newman is so important for the life of the Church not just in this country but throughout the world. Newman understood that religion can never be imposed on someone from without, nor can it ever truly consist only in externals of either variety. For him, ritualists were “gilt-gingerbread men”. But equally he rejected mere activism and social improvement as being equivalent to authentic religion. For Newman, to attempt to heal the soul by an activism aimed only at bodily and social needs was a confusion of the physical and spiritual which was equivalent to “recommending a canonry as a cure for the gout”. Rather, true religion must come from within and be a transformative experience. It is a process of conversion of the heart arising from the gradual realisation from within the person that God exists which impels the soul towards seeking out this hidden God. For Newman, the proof of God’s existence did not come from learned books or even from the Intelligent Design arguments of the physical universe.

Rather, this proof came from the undeniable reality of the human conscience and not because this conscience divinised Man to be his own arbiter of truth but because its existence revealed the existence of the objective moral law. This starting point provided the only sound foundation from which the whole person could move towards a faith enlightened and informed by the truths of Revelation as entrusted to the Catholic Church.

In short, then, true religion must begin and end as a supernatural experience of the reality of the soul, of God and of sin. Everything else flows from this or all that is left is a hollow institution standing on its own power and prestige or else a hollow activism that cannot compete with a well-organised and efficient welfare state.

Those priests who have been revealed as sexual abusers have all too often failed to internalise their faith, to make it a truly transformative experience. Instead, they have allowed the externals either of the traditional trappings of clerical power (or the more subtle modern narcissistic ones of egocentric personality-based ministry) to act as a mask concealing the weak, unreconstructed and unconverted sinner beneath, too often protected by the institution concerned with power and reputation.

It is time for the Church to move beyond arguments over ritualism versus activism. These arguments belong to an era in the Church which has failed to see the inner spiritual reality of which Newman speaks. The Church must look again at her roots and her raison d’être to discover again true faith in God. If the Year for Priests was about anything it was about a call to dispense with the mask and live the priesthood as a reality from within.

If the return of the traditional liturgy to our parishes is not to be empty ritualism it is about this liturgy offering us a different way to participate actively in Christ’s self-offering, by internalising what we see in front of us in the rich signs and symbols of hallowed stylised ritual to communicate an inner reality to our spiritual selves.

If activism and “being Church” is not to be mere secular social activity it must be about an activism motivated by love of God and our neighbour as an act of the will and not by simply the need to belong to a group or assuage guilty sentiments.

Only if we all, clergy and laity alike, look inside ourselves can we truly pray the words of the Psalmist: “A clean heart create for me O God.”

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