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On littleness and the liturgy

A meditation on Anglicanorum Coetibus and related matters

By on Friday, 26 November 2010

Pope Benedict XVI shakes hands with Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury during a Mass in Westminster Cathedral Wigglesworth/PA Wire

Pope Benedict XVI shakes hands with Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury during a Mass in Westminster Cathedral Wigglesworth/PA Wire

There was a time, in reading the opinions of Anglicans who were weighing the momentous offer of the Holy Father in Anglicanorum Coetibus, when one frequently ran across an opinion that sought to sow doubt on the whole enterprise by calling attention to its littleness. I still see it crop up from time to time.

“I can’t see very many Anglicans taking advantage of this,” the opinion goes, “and it surely won’t amount to much.”

Well that, of course, is something for God to decide, though I personally believe it will amount to a great deal.

But for right now, I’d like to take the skeptics’ assumption at face value that the Ordinariate will ever remain a tiny, negligible enclave of Anglo-Catholics within the giant megalith that is Roman Catholicism: not much more than the handful of parishes that now comprise the Anglican Use in the United States.

Ought that fact convince us to abandon the effort?

It may surprise Anglicans–it certainly surprised me–at how numerically negligible some of the existing ethnic enclaves within Holy Mother Church really are.

The Annuario of Eastern Churches states that as of 2010, the Albanian Byzantine Catholic Church had 3845 members, 9 parishes, and 1 bishop. The Greek Byzantine Catholic Church had 2525 members, 4 parishes, and 1 bishop. The Bulgarian Catholic Church, 10,000 members, 21 parishes, 1 bishop. These are sui juris churches; there are also other Eastern communities without a hierarchy that are even smaller. Georgian Byzantine-Rite Catholics number perhaps only 500.

In the Western Church, only a handful of churches in Spain regularly offer the venerable Mozarabic Rite. There are about 6 parishes and as many priests in the Hebrew-speaking Catholic vicariate–headed by a patriarchal vicar, not a dedicated bishop. There are three American Indian missions along the St. Lawrence that preserve a 300-year old tradition of Iroquois plainchant and hymnody that dates from the North American martyrs. They have no dedicated priests or religious, no dedicated bishop, no formal recognition above the parish level. In the 1930s they were justly proud to have a native Mohawk priest–but that was about the extent of it.

These little ritual enclaves have struggled, in many cases, against great odds and sometimes the hostility of priests, bishops, and even popes, to survive. Some others, unfortunately, weren’t so lucky.

The church in my mother’s Albanian-speaking town in Italy originally had an iconostasis and was bi-ritual (Latin and Byzantine). It ceased to be so, however, in the mid-1700s, apparently due to mounting hostility from Latin bishops. Likewise, a number of American Indian mission churches like the Penobscot mission at Old Town lost touch with their unique patrimony, perhaps due to the assimilationism that was prevalent in American society at the beginning of the 20th century.

Whatever their numbers, these little enclaves are, in their own way, evidence of the Church’s universal nature. Catholicity is defined not only, as we sometimes tend to think, by the mere quantity of membership but also by the way it crowns each and every culture with which it has come into contact. That the Church can speak not only in Latin but also in Iroquois, Hebrew and Malayalam is a different kind of universality than mere numbers–and it is no less important.

Finally, it is always worth reminding the skeptics that the Church was never intended to be a corporation squinting at the ledger to see which divisions are more or less profitable.

The Church is a family of unique individuals all tied together by love. And in every family worth the name, it is always the case that the littlest members are the most precious and dearest of all.

– Claudio Salvucci is the author of The Roman Rite in the Algonquian and Iroquoian Missions: From the Colonial Period to the Second Vatican Council (Evolution Publishing 2008)

This article was syndicated from The New Liturgical Movement

  • Stephen Mc Elligott

    The anglican rite will take some time to take off. there will always be naysayers but that is always going to be. However this anglican rite has brought about the unity of many with the Catholic church and is a great move.

  • David Armitage

    The Church is a family of unique individuals all tied together by love. Sorry, wishful thinking. Paternalistic bullies at the top. As Descartes said: je pense donc tu suis.

  • AgingPapist

    Rome has a shabby history of trying to suppress non-Roman liturgical rites, going back before the Carolingian times. Bishops ,to this day, are often unsympathetic or downright hostile to eastern liturgical practices and the clergy celebrating them within their diocese.

    As much as I would like to see the Sarum usage restored and used in the Anglican Ordinariate, with or without the additions of Thomas Cranmer, I fear any such innovations will eventually be squelched by the Congregation of Divine Worship under a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. I dread the day when he is no longer with us..

  • Florentius

    Superb article and spot on. I look forward to visiting an Anglican-Use parish nearby my home and I pray that many Anglicans will take advantage of Anglicanorum Coetibus.