Church Reform - What Works and What Doesn't

There seems to be a lot of chatter on the Internet about the reforms of Vatican II, and the future direction of the Catholic Church. So I thought this would be a good time to chime in about what I think as a convert to the Catholic Church. You see, I came into the Catholic Church totally by free choice. I had no friends or neighbours drawing me in. Granted, I had an aunt and uncle in another state who were Catholic, but they were in another state, far away, and I rarely ever saw them. Granted, my grandmother, like my aunt, was also a convert, but she had been dead for over a decade at the time, and I really had no previous connection to her on a religious level. When I decided I might want to convert, even my wife was against the idea at first, and as for the rest of my family (parents, siblings, etc.), they thought I was crazy. So the point I'm trying to make here is I had nothing drawing me into the Catholic Church other than the Church itself. I had nothing "vested" in the Catholic Church. There were no family or social "incentives" to becoming Catholic.  In fact, I lost a lot of "friends" over this decision, and so did my wife when she eventually decided to convert as well. What drew me into the Catholic Church was the Catholic Church itself, nothing less and nothing more.

That being said, I think I might have a little insight into the topic of Church reform.  First and foremost, the goal of Church reform should be twofold and simple.  One, to make the Church more palatable to new converts.  Two, to make members within the Church more holy.  Now I would say that while these two goals may seem separate, they are in fact, one in the same.  For holiness on the part of Church members will in fact make the Church more palatable to new converts.

The real question is, how do we get there?

I would assert that everything we need is already before us.  What we need to do is just implement the right things in the right way. We have nearly 50 years since the close of the Second Vatican Council. During that time we have seen sweeping changes in the Church, unprecedented in 2,000 years. We have watched the Church thrive in some places and wither in others. From this, we know what works, and likewise, we know what doesn't work.

Before we talk about what we know works, let's talk about what we know doesn't work. There are two things that have proved to be disastrous to parish growth and parishioner holiness.

The first thing that doesn't work is rigid legalism. We don't see too much of this any more in North America, but if one searched hard enough, I'm sure one could find a pocket of it here and there. What is rigid legalism? Rigid legalism is when the Catholic Christian faith is reduced down to a list of rules -- "do's and don'ts."  It is often accompanied by a "sourpuss" mentality, wherein the joy of Christian life is gone, and the entire faith becomes a "contest" of sorts, to see who is more holy than others.  The enthusiasm of Christian life is gone.  The zeal to win new converts is gone. Such folks eagerly await the punishment of God upon this heathen world, so they can inwardly say "I told them so" as the world goes up in smoke like Sodom and Gomorrah. This kind of attitude is what drives people away from the Catholic Church, and makes them say they hate organised religion.

The second thing that doesn't work is liberal modernism. This is the exact opposite of rigid legalism, and we've seen a whole lot of this in recent decades.  I would say there is scarcely a single city in North America where this isn't going on in at least one or two Catholic parishes.  Actually, the real statistic is probably a lot higher.  Liberal modernism is when the pendulum swings in the completely opposite direction of rigid legalism but goes way too far.  Liberal modernism is when traditional rules and regulations are thrown out completely, and parishes embrace a sort of "anything goes" mentality.  Here we have a lax view of sin, wherein we see issues related to money and sex virtually ignored.  The rich are catered to, so long as they give a generous donation now and then, and as for the sexually deviant, everyone just looks away, as if to pretend it's not really a problem.  However, there is more to liberal modernism than this.  It also manifests itself in the form of teaching that comes from behind the pulpit and in the classrooms, wherein the Catholic Christian faith is turned into some kind of "feel goodism" in which nothing is judged, not even sin, and everybody is just "okay."  The assumption here is that everybody will go to heaven, and sin is more of a relative issue, depending on one's conscience, regardless of how well informed that conscience is.  Lastly, we see liberal modernism manifest itself in the form of liturgy, wherein again there is an "anything goes" kind of mentality.  It begins by tossing out traditional forms of worship, and what made Catholicism distinctively "Catholic" to begin with.  Parishes begin to take on a more traditional Protestant look and feel.  This then leads to innovations in the liturgy, wherein the priest begins to think he needs to do more "interesting" things to keep the attention of the congregation.  Some priests really took this too far and implemented strange innovations that can only be classified as "liturgical abuse."  This kind of attitude also drives people away from the Catholic Church, because it makes those within it look hypocritical.  When Catholicism is reduced to something that can easily be offered by anything else in the world (other religions, denominations or philosophy) why bother with Catholicism at all?  If rigid legalism makes people hate organised religion, then liberal modernism makes people think organised religion is just irrelevant.

Over the last 50 years we have seen how these things have failed to produce personal holiness among parishioners, and by extension, they have failed not only to attract new converts, but they have also failed to retain the youth of long established Catholic families.  They have been miserable failures and today the Catholic Church is suffering because of them, not only in North America, but also in Oceania and Western Europe.

So now that we've discussed what doesn't work, let's take a look at what does work.  I think the place to start is with two popes actually, both still alive, one reigning and the other in retirement.  In Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI we see two completely different styles of Church governance, but though they seem opposite in many ways, they are actually very complementary to each other.  In both Francis and Benedict, together, we have the formula of successful Church reform.

Let us look first toward the reforms of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.  In 2007, His Holiness issued a motu prorpio appendix to Church law entitled Summorum Pontificum. In it, he succinctly explained the nature of the Roman Rite as manifested in two forms.  The Ordinary Form, also called the Novus Ordo (meaning "new order") is the form of the Roman Rite that is commonly celebrated in multiple vernacular languages around the world.  The Extraordinary Form, also called the Vetus Ordo (meaning "old order") is the form of the Roman Rite that was commonly celebrated before 1970 exclusively in Latin.  His Holiness made it crystal clear that the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (the Vetus Ordo) has never been repealed or abrogated.  That it remained in force, alongside the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite (the Novus Ordo), since 1970 and has never been replaced.  This came as a shock to many priests and bishops within the Church who had treated the Vetus Ordo as just that -- replaced.  The previous pope then instructed that all priests, who are competently trained to do so, may celebrate the Vetus Ordo privately with, or without, their bishop's permission. Likewise, each and every bishop was charged to make welcoming accommodations to any group of parishioners that requested the Vetus Ordo, and that all Roman Catholics have the sacred right to worship God using the Vetus Ordo mass.  What were the results?  Over the last seven years we have seen an explosion of Vetus Ordo masses all over North America, and with them we are beginning to see a renewed desire for holiness among youth.  With that comes new converts from Protestantism and other forms of faith.

However, if that were all the Benedictine reform was, it would be quite a bit, however Pope Benedict XVI did not stop there.  Throughout his pontificate, Benedict demonstrated by example and teaching that traditional elements must be restored to the liturgy, and that pastoral instruction must be consistent with the historical teaching of the Church.  Gradually, Benedict's celebration of the Novus Ordo mass became more traditional in approach, with older styles of music, Gregorian chant, the regular use of Latin, etc.  His papal teachings highlighted a hermeneutic of continuity with the pre-conciliar Church.  In other words, the Church's doctrine is the same both before and after the Second Vatican Council.  He stressed again and again, that everything we do in this post-conciliar era must be interpreted in continuity with the pre-conciliar era, and that this is where Vatican II gets its proper context.  Before the end of his papacy he did two things.  The first was to candidly explain that during the Second Vatican Council, the mainstream news media essentially hijacked the message and meaning of the council, causing many clergy and laity around the world to get a false impression.  Benedict, who was present at the council, knew what was intended by the council's statements and documents.  The media however, gave the world a different impression, and sadly, that wrong impression has played out in dioceses all over the Western world.  He urged the cardinals, archbishops and bishops of the Church to get back to the basics, ignore the media's interpretation, and rather interpret Vatican II within the context of the pre-conciliar era.  During the final years of his pontificate, many parishes, particularly in the United States, began implementing this more traditional interpretation of Vatican II.  As a result, those parishes have seen a revival of their youth, and some growth among converts to the Catholic Church.  The second thing Pope Benedict XVI did, in the last moments of his papacy, was to send out a "tweet" through the social network Twitter, urging all the faithful to remember the joy of their Christian baptism, and bring that joy back into the world.  With that last papal address, Pope Benedict XVI slipped away into retirement.

What followed the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI was the election of Pope Francis, and Francis wasted no time picking up right where Benedict left off.  The joy of the gospel became the focus of his papacy.  Francis' style is remarkably different than Benedict, but that is not bad thing. What it does is emphasise the other half of this Benedictine-Franciscan renewal of the Church.  While the Benedictine side dealt with the renewal of tradition, procedure and doctrinal stability, the Franciscan side deals with attitude, mindset, and childlike humility.  In other words, it's not just all about tradition and procedure.  It's also about attitude and passion.  Keep this in mind.  It's not an "either/or" thing.  It's a "both/and" thing!  We must have BOTH Benedictine continuity AND Franciscan simplicity!  Some have tried to pit Francis against Benedict, and nowhere is this more seen than in the mainstream media.  This demonstrates an immature mindset and a complete lack of understanding about Catholicism.  Woe to anyone who looks to the mainstream media as "experts" on the Catholic Church.  They have no clue as to what they're talking about.  Within the Franciscan side of the Church's reform we can expect some changes.  These will be mainly procedural in nature, probably to simplify and streamline canon law, so as to make it easier for non-Catholics to convert to Catholicism, and help people live within the framework of Church life.  To expect any changes to doctrine, tradition or morality is very naive.  That's not how it works in the Catholic Church.  Still, we have yet to see what the Franciscan side of the reform will look like.

So all we really have to work with, for the time being, is the Benedictine side.  To renew our parishes, it seems the best thing to do is work with the Benedictine model.  It is a model that Pope Francis not only fully supports, but it is also the model he will be building upon in the years to come.  If we want to prepare ourselves for the Franciscan side of the reform, we must prepare the foundation with the Benedictine side of the reform.  Those parishes that fail to lay the Benedictine foundation will not be ready for the Franciscan renewal.  To illustrate, let us look to history.  Saint Benedict of Nursia came long before Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Benedict laid the foundation of Western monasticism.  Saint Francis refined Western monasticism by building upon the foundation laid by Saint Benedict. Saint Benedict brought Christianity to Western Europe.  Saint Francis renewed Christianity in Western Europe, again building upon Saint Benedict's previous work.  Benedict always comes before Francis.  Benedict lays the foundation, and Francis builds upon it. I don't think it is mere coincidence that these modern popes of Church renewal and reform chose the names Benedict and Francis in that particular order.  They are two sides to the same coin, but one always comes before the other.

So the message I'm trying to get across here is this.  If you love Pope Francis, and you want your parish to be ready for his reforms when they come, and you don't want to be left behind trying to catch up, then this is what you need to do.  Lay the foundation of Pope Benedict XVI's reforms in you parish.  Get it ready for Pope Francis' renewal.  While many parishes will obviously not be able to accommodate the Vetus Ordo mass, they can still implement the traditional liturgical renewals in the Novus Ordo mass.  They can carefully work on sticking to the rubrics of the mass, return to an ad orientem position, bring back the bells and incense, start doing Gregorian chant (or at least Roman plain chant), and most of all, they can start kneeling for communion again and encourage reception on the tongue.  Homilies must be doctrinally sound, and parishioners must be encouraged to live holy lives.  Pastors must be pastors, and instruct their congregations not only corporately, but also individually, in loving pastoral council.  The sacrament of confession must be made widely available, and people encouraged to visit.  Sometimes even communion must be withheld, for public sins, until they are repented of privately in the confessional.  These are the Benedictine reforms, and this is the foundation Pope Francis will work to build on.  We must get the foundation of our houses in order, so we will be ready for the Franciscan renewal in the years ahead.  We don't want to be left behind!


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Highly recommended by priests and catechists, "Catholicism for Protestants" is a Biblical explanation of Roman Catholic Christianity as told by Shane Schaetzel -- an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism.  The book is concise and formatted in an easy-to-read Question & Answer catechism style.  It addresses many of the common questions Protestants have about Catholicism. It is ideal for Protestants seeking more knowledge about the Catholic Church, and for Catholics seeking a quick refresher course on fundamental Catholic teaching. It's an excellent book for Catholics and Protestants alike!



MC said…
Great work.I also am a convert. No one pulled me in.Started reading about the Church Fathers, then found they were the Catholic Church.Still don't know why I was never shown this in the Baptist Church? Well all is good,3 years now. Keep up the good work. Mike.
You may have lost some presumed friends, but gained the most important one of all. Great article!
Ypu may have lost folks you thought were your friends, but you found the greatest friend of all! Nice read.