Eucharist and the freedom of the Spirit - Neil Darragh
It is easy to see the connections between the Eucharist and Easter. Holy Thursday remembers the last meal of Jesus with his disciples and has provided a norm for how Christians gather for Eucharist, Sunday after Sunday. Good Friday and Easter Sunday celebrate each year Jesus’ passage from death to resurrection. Eucharist celebrates daily, and especially each Sunday, that same passage from death to resurrection.
In the flow of the liturgical year we are now on the way towards Pentecost. If it is easy to see the connection between Eucharist and Easter, what of the connection between Eucharist and Pentecost? Eucharist seems to be more about Easter than about Pentecost. And if that is the case, this is a good time to worry about whether there is something missing in our understanding both of the Holy Spirit and of Eucharist.
Pentecost is a feast of dancing flames and strong winds and many languages. It is a feast of diversity that laughs at human attempts to control the divine Energy and bend it to their own schemes. At the same time it is also a feast of unity. It declares to us that many cultures and languages can all gather in a common understanding of the witness of the apostles. It is a celebration both of diversity and of unity, but it is the diversity that seems to have disappeared into the background of our Eucharists.
Pentecost is a feast of the Holy Spirit, a Spirit that blows where it wills – “you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”, Jesus says to Nicodemus(John 3:8). It is a divine Spirit that cannot be grasped by human hands but which can strengthen and energise the human spirit. It cannot be grasped or controlled by human plans but it upholds and moulds the diversity of the human community.
At the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Pope John XXIII caught the imagination of the Catholic world by calling for a new Pentecost, a new opening of the church to the winds blowing through the world, a new opening to the Spirit. Something very strange has happened to the Catholic Church since then. The Second Vatican Council is just history to most people today. But many of those who lived through it and its impact on the New Zealand church have an unpleasant feeling that it has suffered a slow but relentless dulling down in the years since. We pray more to the Spirit than we used to. The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite now invoke the Spirit more than they used to. But they call on the Spirit mainly to sanctify the offering of bread and wine and to unify the church under its leaders. Not much here about dancing flames and strong winds! We may pray more to the Spirit nowadays, but our Sunday liturgies make it clear that while a spirit of unity would be welcome a spirit of diversity would be searched and fingerprinted before given entry.
The Second Vatican Council inaugurated a liturgical reform with the idea of updating the liturgy and encouraging active participation by everyone. It wanted to move away from the situation where the priest ‘said’ Mass and the people ‘attended’ the priest’s Mass. Hence its insistence that people abandon the old rules and adopt the new ones. The result was some quite substantial changes in participation. But an insistence on the new rules also meant an insistence on a new uniformity.
Following the spirit of Vatican II, one of the ideas that has been talked about a lot both in official church documents and in theological reflection is inculturation. This term is intended to indicate that the Gospel message is not bound to any one culture but is expressible in any living culture. It is an invitation to cultural diversity among Christians. But the idea of inculturation is one that has been more talked about than put into practice. Liturgical authorities have been much more focused recently on maintaining central control than implementing inculturation, and this in practice means a lot of uniformity.
Nowadays, in New Zealand, we have little pieces of liturgical inculturation and lots of uniformity. From a single language, Latin, used in the Roman Rite throughout the world in the period before Vatican II, we now have a variety of languages, but nearly all of the prayers we commonly pray during the Eucharist are translations from the Latin. Effectively, what we have is a vernacular translation of the Latin prayers. This is translation, not inculturation.
In most New Zealand parishes, inculturation consists largely of some Kiwi informalities and local idioms as substitutions for or additions to the quaint-sounding translations of old Latin rhetoric that not even someone trained for seven years in a seminary can quite feel at home with. New Zealand priests and liturgy leaders tend to de-formalise the awkward pomposity of the Roman rubrics and the English translations of the Latin phrases. But that is about as adventurous as most priests are prepared to be. Ask the question: Do you follow the Roman rite? The answer is almost always ‘Yes’. But ask, What New Zealand inculturation have you implemented in Sunday liturgies? and the answer is more likely to be a blank look of incomprehension.
Let us dwell for a moment on the strange case of liturgical language. The change from Greek to Latin as a liturgical language seems to have happened first in Latin-speaking North Africa from whence it travelled to Rome and became strongly influenced by the eloquent oratory of classical Roman Latin. In the early Middle Ages there was some influence from Frankish and Germanic cultures, but from then on the Roman Rite seems to have developed an immunity to any other language styles. The elegant but now dead oratory of Roman classical culture altered the Greek Christian liturgy and has been a major determinant of the current New Zealand liturgy.
But there is no trace in this New Zealand liturgy of the equally elegant, sophisticated and still living oratorical styles of the Maori, the New Zealand Irish, the Samoans or the Tongans. In its English translation, this immunity has now been extended beyond oratorical styles to everyday English usage such as its inexplicable resistance even to gender-inclusive language. And our liturgical leaders are more focused on dealing with the sad case of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship than on developing a New Zealand liturgy that communicates in intelligible New Zealand English.
There are nevertheless some good bits and pieces of inculturation and sparkles of diversity glinting through the blanket of uniformity. To my knowledge, the best of these are the Samoan and Tongan investments in liturgy. The power of harmonic singing and of vibrant earth colours are perhaps the most remarkable. Less well known but even more remarkable is the power of graceful movement in liturgical dance and processions. These elements of inculturation do not conflict in any flagrant way with the official Roman Rite, but they do alter its timing and shift the balance of its parts enough to make us rethink our liturgical theology, and they do shift some of the liturgy’s sacramental power from the sanctuary back into the body of the church.
Maori inculturation seems to have been more cautious, but elements of mihi and karanga and the people’s participation in the remembrance of the dead have begun to make the move towards a Maori liturgy that is more than just a Maori translation of the Latin. The recognition of other liturgical leader roles such as that of the katekita as well as the priest also begins to acknowledge the liturgical significance of established Maori protocol.
The poor performer here is Pakeha culture. The Kiwi informalities noted above do sometimes bring about warmth and an engagement of the congregation but, as nearly everyone can attest with examples, they are a very mixed blessing in the grasp of the unskilled practitioner. The Pakeha traditions of equality and participation might be a better place to start. The imperial roots of the Roman practice of the mono-presider should at least arouse some disquiet in the Pakeha congregation. The single mono-presider at Sunday Eucharists, week after week, and year in year out, is not only a failure in liturgical communication but a dangerous narrowing of the diversity of God.
What then of the Eucharist and Pentecost? If we have lost the connections between Eucharist and Pentecost it is probably because we have missed the Spirit’s manifestation in a diversity of cultures and languages and our desire for unity has collapsed into uniformity. If so the failure here is not just a liturgical one. If Eucharist is the ‘source and summit’ of the Christian life, it patterns our hearts and minds to deal with the key issues of life. Pakeha Christians might be expected to be alerted through their liturgical life to deal with the current public debates about ethnic and cultural diversity and the search for national consensus.
But if our Eucharists themselves know only a universal uniformity, they disconnect us from public life and the movements of the Spirit there, or worse they reinforce the temptation to mono-cultural uniformity. Similarly, in ecological debates, diversity is a fundamental value within the interconnected unity of planet Earth. If our Eucharists know only unity and remain naïve about diversity, then these Eucharists leave us spiritless in the contemporary world.
Fr Neil Darragh is a theologian and author, and is parish priest of Glen Innes , Auckland