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Our Old Haunts

“Thus, in 1 Peter 3:19, Jesus is actually declaring victory over the demonic realm; he is not preaching to the righteous dead. The second passage, 1 Peter 4:6, on the other hand, does say that the gospel was preached to the dead.” Thus say Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons, in a study titled The Harrowing of Hell, which appeared in Bible Review in June 2003. The authors cite St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Melito of Sardis, the Odes of Solomon, the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, and many other sources — establishing that the credal statement “He descended into hell” has a remarkable patristic pedigree. They won’t say, in the end, whether they consider it the Fathers’ “misreading” of the Scriptures. For some of us, the councils have settled that question by affirming the creeds. In any event, Jesus is indeed victorious over the demons, and He has indeed preached to the righteous dead. So happy Halloween, everyone!

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Patristibloggers Go Newsprint

At least a couple of your patristiblogging friends are quoted in an article on the return of the Tridentine Mass in the Allentown Morning Call.

Faithful have been flocking to traditional rite of Catholic Church.

By Daniel Patrick Sheehan Of The Morning Call

Four decades of change in the Roman Catholic Church have made the Latin Mass, the beloved rite of centuries, a stranger in its own house. So when an under-50 Catholic beholds the venerable ceremony for the first time, it’s with the surprised and wondering eyes of a tourist.

”Introibo ad altare Dei,” says the priest, his back facing the congregation, uttering Latin more familiar nowadays from fiction — the opening of James Joyce’s ”Ulysses,” where Buck Mulligan flippantly uses the phrase on his way to shave — than from exposure on Sunday. It means ”I will go in unto the altar of God,” and it opens an hour of reverent, murmured worship defined as much by its silences as its words.

The Mass, formally called the Tridentine Mass because it was codified under Pope Pius V at the 16th century Council of Trent, was supplanted by the Mass of Pope Paul VI — the largely vernacular Novus Ordo, or new order — in the 1970s.

That was a decade of jarringly rapid change in the church as the reforms of the Second Vatican Council — which called for the church to open itself to the modern world — were implemented. The loss of the Tridentine rite, which could only be celebrated afterward by special permission, devastated many Catholics, some of whom departed for the unchanged liturgies of Orthodox churches or retreated into resistance or outright schism as they strove to sustain the old ways of worship.

But in these early years of the church’s third millennium, the Latin Mass isn’t dead. It is making a bona fide comeback, with attendance at diocese-approved celebrations growing — in part because of interest among young people — and Pope Benedict XVI reportedly preparing to further loosen strictures on the rite so that priests can offer it without having to seek permission from the local bishop. The Coalition for Ecclesia Dei, a Tridentine Mass advocacy group, estimates the number of Masses offered weekly across the country has grown from fewer than 40 in 1988 to nearly 240 today.

”There’s a catholicity to it that was somewhat submarined after Vatican II,” says the Rev. William Seifert, who has begun offering the old rite at St. Stephen of Hungary in Allentown — the sole forum in the Catholic Diocese of Allentown — and welcomed more than 100 worshippers to the first Mass three weeks ago.

Most were carry-over worshippers from St. Roch’s in West Bangor, where Monsignor Charles Moss offered the Mass until his death earlier this year. They came from as far as Jim Thorpe, many clutching leatherbound copies of the pre-Vatican II 1962 Missal to guide them through the liturgy.

The women and girls wore lace chapel veils. The men and boys wore suits. They arrived early and lingered late. That alone made the gathering distinct from some new Masses, where families dressed for the day’s soccer game race for the exits at the first opportunity.

Many of the bowed heads were gray, but other worshippers were of generations born since Vatican II, who have little or no memory of the days when the old rite was the only rite. For them, sentiment plays no role in how they worship. They simply find a fuller, more satisfying expression of faith in the old ways.

That appears to be the case wherever Tridentine celebrations are offered. Dozens of stories in secular and Catholic media in recent years have noted the large numbers of younger people attached to the rite.

”I guess I’m drawn to the quiet, the reverence, the fullness of the prayers,” says Susie Lloyd of Whitehall, 40, a flesh-and-blood portrait of old-line Catholicism as she knelt with her husband and six daughters — a seventh child is on the way — in a pew at St. Stephen’s. ”There’s a sense of stability, an emphasis on God and the sacrifice.”

Matt Cavoto of Bethlehem, a 25-year-old Moravian College graduate who attends with his wife and infant son, says he was first drawn to the Tridentine rite when he lived in Norristown. Cavoto, a musician and composer who is forming a small choir for the St. Stephen’s Mass, was enraptured by the haunting medieval chant of the liturgy.

”I wouldn’t call my interest in the old Mass a preference, per se,” he says. ”You have different rites in the church and each emphasizes different aspects of spirituality. It’s the same faith either way. When someone becomes attached to a particular rite, it’s not a matter of preference, it’s simply the manner in which one lives one’s faith.”

Old versus new

The debate over new Mass versus old — raging hot as ever these days in theological journals and on countless Web logs — extends far beyond language and atmosphere into the very nature of Catholicism. Is worship primarily an individual meeting between God and believer, or more of a communal gathering? Are the Eucharistic bread and wine — which Catholics believe to be the body and blood of Christ — to be received on the knees, with a sense of awe and trembling, or shared like the elements of a meal?

These aren’t either-or propositions, Lloyd says. The Mass is a sacrifice and a meal, a private rendezvous and a public gathering.

But the new and old rites emphasize different elements, and the distinctions are evident even to a casual observer. At a Tridentine service, the priest faces the altar, not the people, and seems to be engaged in private discourse much of the time. His orientation and gestures make the sacrificial aspect of the liturgy far more explicit than in the Novus Ordo, which emphasizes the social elements of worship by using lay people for Scripture readings and including more responsorial prayers.

The Rev. John T. Zuhlsdorf, a priest and author who lives in Rome and maintains a Catholic apologetics Web site, says the old rite constitutes ”vertical” worship, raising the congregation’s attention to God on high, whereas the new Mass is ”horizontal,” emphasizing God’s presence in the community of believers.

While most of the old rite is in Latin, calling it the Latin Mass is misleading, because the new Mass is sometimes said in that language. It is also misleading to call the Tridentine the ”Mass of all time,” as some traditionalists do, because other liturgical forms flourished before its development.

Indeed, the Mass of Paul VI was ostensibly an attempt to reclaim elements of the earliest Christian liturgies — the sign of peace, for example, a handshake or other greeting among congregants which was a prominent part of early worship. It is used in the elaborate Tridentine High Mass, but not in the simpler Low Mass.

Communion in the hand, another recent change that traditionalists view as innovation, was also part of early worship.

”There is no doubt in my mind that the people who carried out the liturgical reforms in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, continuing through today, have seen their work as an act of retrieval from those [early] centuries,” says Mike Aquilina, a Catholic author whose work has focused on the teachings and practices of the church fathers. ”Whether they’ve succeeded in an actual retrieval is an open question.”

That’s because the record of early worship is spotty, at best. In those years, Christians were fiercely persecuted, so gatherings were held in secret. And witnessing the heart of the Mass, the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, was a privilege reserved for the faithful. Catechumens — those receiving instruction in the faith — were dismissed before the Eucharistic prayers began.

What hasn’t changed about the Mass is its core purpose. ”The essentials remain the same,” says Aquilina, vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio. ”That is, the offering of the elements, the bread and the wine and the belief about what happens there. But the ceremonials have changed from time to time.”

Returning to tradition

Lloyd, an author and columnist for Catholic periodicals, argues that Catholics risk losing the true sense of what happens at Mass, with belief in the Real Presence — the literal transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood — already in sharp decline.

In short, Catholics have been pushed toward a Protestant view of the Eucharist as a mere symbolic re-creation of the Last Supper, even though Catholic teaching on the essence of the Mass has not changed.

”This is the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary,” Lloyd says. ”We kneel down and the priest feeds us the Eucharist. … All of this imagery is lost [in the way new Masses are offered] and the result is that people don’t believe.”

According to media reports in Italy and America, Benedict is preparing a document that would ease the strictures on celebrating the Tridentine Mass by allowing any priest to offer it without first seeking permission.

That would be a step further than Benedict’s predecessor. Recognizing widespread longing for the old ways, John Paul II urged bishops to be more generous in allowing old rite celebrations — not just the Mass, but all the sacraments — in 1988.

”Respect must everywhere by shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition by a wide and generous application,” John Paul wrote. The directive, called an indult, was widely ignored, leading John Paul to reiterate his wishes in 1998.

If Benedict plans to grant even greater leeway, he may be hoping to mend the schism with traditionalist groups — especially the Society of St. Pius X, whose founder, Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre, was excommunicated before his death for ordaining bishops against the Vatican’s wishes.

Zuhlsdorf says the pontiff’s primary aim would be to allow the new rites and old to exist side by side and influence each other to the benefit of both. To a degree, that is already happening, he says. Younger priests who celebrate the old rite are more conscious of the congregation’s desire to participate, thanks to the influence of the Novus Ordo. Likewise, the old rite serves as an example of the sense of reverence and awe that should pervade any liturgy.

Through this liturgical cross-pollination, ”the pope hopes to reaffirm the newer form of Mass,” Zuhlsdorf says. ”It’s not a criticism of the newer form. It may be a criticism and correction of the way it’s being celebrated, but not of the form itself.”

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Hopeful Causes

It’s the feast of Saints Simon and Jude, a big day in our house. My son wrote a fine children’s book about St. Jude (deep in history and beautifully illustrated too). I hope you’ll read it.

It’s also my friend Scott Hahn‘s birthday. You can find out his age by poking around his website.

And today marks the conclusion of the St. Paul Center‘s Letter and Spirit Conference — which I’m pleased to say was entirely sold out.

Tonight’s Lawler Lecture, however, by the great patrologist Father Thomas Weinandy, is free and open to the public. If you can drive to Pittsburgh, I hope to see you there. Father Weinandy is speaking on St. Athanasius’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

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The Snarkster from Carthage

Just as baseball’s post-season wraps up and the NFL heads to midseason … Maria Lectrix scores big with audio files of Tertullian’s De Spectaculis (Of Shows). Almost as entertaining as Tertullian himself is Maria L. (aka Maureen) on Tertullian. Here’s her introductory text:

We don’t know if he’s a saint, ’cause he apparently died a member in good standing of those weird, self-righteous, and possibly semi-pagan, Montanists. We don’t know if he counts as a Father of the Church, though he would clearly deserve to be called one if he hadn’t stalked off to join a heretical sect. But before his little head-on with the Church, this North African Christian said some very cool, useful, and sarcastic things.

Yes! You asked for it! It’s our special Fathers guest star, Tertullian! And we begin with Tertullian at his nicest and his snarky best, asking new Christians why the Church is all mean about taking their favorite pastimes away. I mean, how could anyone think that attending gladiator games is inconsistent with Christian faith?…

“De Spectaculis” concludes with a brief stop at Tertullian’s typically philosopher-ish issues with fiction, acting and stage makeup as equivalent to falsehood. Then we get more thoughts about the games and the proper place of pleasure, many of which are useful, and a big showy finish with The End of the World.

Unfortunately, Tertullian’s amazingly big finish gets derailed by his anger issues. Anybody who can portray his eternal joy as catcalling and watching the damned get destroyed in happy Roman-type “games” is… well… the kind of guy who’d run off and join the Montanists out of pique that repentant lapsed Christians weren’t being punished enough. Sigh.

But don’t stop with reading. Go, download, and listen to our man from North Africa.

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People, Look East

Roger Pearse tells us where to find all the volumes of the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium (CSCO). This series includes many ancient authors who are little known in the West, but who merit our attention — the Fathers of the Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, and other non-Greek, non-Latin language groups. Roger advises that “most texts consist of two volumes, one in [the original language] and the other in translation. Originally the translations were all in Latin, but in the last few decadent decades, mainstream modern languages have been used instead.” I breezed through the list and found that a goodly number are in English. I know that some volumes will appeal to regulars on this site, as they include the topics that fill my email box: the mystagogy of the liturgy, the early literature of Christianity’s encounter with Islam, the Church’s devotion to the Virgin Mary, and so on. Make sure, though, to read Roger’s instructions carefully, as the online catalog entries are sketchy, and it’s sometimes very difficult to determine which is the English volume and which is the Syriac. The prices are remarkably low — but, still, you probably don’t want to buy a transatlantic flight for a book you’re not able to read. Yet.

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The Archons Wear Prada

I’m no expert on Gnosticism — ancient or modern, scented or unscented — but I did manage to finish an undergraduate thesis on the subject, twenty-odd years ago, and the Thunder must still echo in some dark corner of my imperfect mind.

I say this because it occurred to me, as I was driving tonight, that there were significant patches missing from the version of “Thunder, Perfect Mind” that the Prada Babe recited in her perfume ad. Indeed, there are passages in that text that no self-respecting perfume model would want to say about herself, even if she’s acting out the lines in the course of a five-minute television advertisement.

All I’ll say on this family-oriented blog is that the Prada version of Gnosticism is sanitized for our protection, shorn of any lines that would be unbecoming or unattractive on the surgically enhanced lips of their models. For the unexpurgated version, you can visit The Gnostic Society’s Library.

Now, I’m sure that devout Gnostics all over California recite the thing in its entirety, omitting nothing. I certainly don’t intend this post to reflect badly on the progress of their spirits’ ascent past the archons and into the realm of pure light (thundering, thundering, louder than before). I just want to point out that Prada’s giving the world Gnosticism with training wheels. Be forewarned: I’ll bet it won’t even get you past the first archon.

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From Pagels to Perfume

At first I thought this was a joke, but it’s not. PaleoJudaica informs us that “Thunder, Perfect Mind,” a Gnostic text found in the Nag Hammadi cache some decades ago, is now being used as the script for a Prada perfume advertisement. See for yourself on YouTube.

R.R. Reno may be right about The Return of the Fathers. But apparently their archnemeses are coming back with them. I live for the day when Arius is hawking Doritos.

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Christian Education

Alexandria in Egypt was the Cambridge of late antiquity. It was a city renowned for its colleges and libraries. The city was ethnically diverse, as its ports were the trading hub of the ancient world. But the dominant language and culture were Greek, and so the backbone of its remarkable educational system were the gymnasia, where the city trained the minds and bodies of young men for their duties as citizens.

The first Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy I, dreamed of making his capital city the world’s greatest center of learning. And his successors took up his dream, working almost desperately to amass all the world’s literature in one great library. The Ptolemies were unscrupulous in this pursuit, willing even to send thieves abroad to steal manuscripts from distant Athens, which was then well into its decline. According to ancient legend, it was Ptolemy II who commissioned the Septuagint, the translation of all the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, so that his library would not lack the great literature of Jews.

The library and its holdings were the lifeline of Alexandria’s great university and research institution, the Museion, which was renowned for its studies in astronomy, biology, philosophy, botany, geography, and literature. The Museion counted among its alumni great men such as Euclid and Archimedes, and its laboratories produced remarkable inventions such as the steam engine.

The Jews were a sizable and influential minority in the city, but they lived in uneasy tension with the dominant culture. Jewish parents debated among themselves whether it was right to enroll their boys in the gymnasia, where they might be corrupted by Greek culture, with its polytheism, immodesty, and homoeroticism. The pagan Alexandrians were, for their part, ambivalent about admitting Jews to full citizenship anyway, as the Jews were a discrete community within the community — a faction of ethnic “foreigners” and a potential source of disaffection in the land.

But in the cultural greenhouse that was Alexandria it was an easy matter for Jews to establish their own educational enclave. Philo describes a semi-monastic group called the Therapeutae, who occupied themselves with communal prayer and intense study of the Scriptures.

Into this world, in the mid-first century — around and amid the Harvards and MITs of the Roman empire — came the Christian faith. The gospel arrived early in Alexandria, and some of the city’s best and brightest responded with vigor. The super-apostle Apollos was an Alexandrian (Acts 18:24). A well-established tradition tells us that St. Mark the Evangelist was the city’s first bishop. Eusebius reports that the Therapeutae responded to the apostolic preaching and converted en masse, constituting perhaps the Church’s first scholarly monastic order, anticipating the Benedictines by several centuries. There is documentary evidence, too, indicating that many early conversions came from the pagan Greek and native Egyptian (Coptic) peoples as well.

Alexandrian Christianity developed richly and rapidly. It was deeply Christian, but it was distinctively Alexandrian as well. This cosmopolitan Church prized education very highly.

Quite naturally, the Alexandrian Church soon established a school, which became known as the Didaskalion. Scholars today debate whether it was a “school” the way we understand the term today, with teachers and classes, or merely a “school of thought.” But it is certain that there was some form of systematic education going on. The first master of the school known to history is Pantaenus (late second century), who had been a Stoic philosopher before his conversion and a missionary to India afterward. It was St. Pantaenus who put the Didaskalion on the cultural map. It was he who attracted so brilliant a student as Clement, who would succeed him as master of the school. Many of Clement’s “writings” seem to be transcripts of his own lectures. They are brilliant, erudite, seasoned with allusions to classical literature and abundant examples from the natural sciences. They assume a highly literate, leisurely audience of seekers, eager and attentive.

Clement, in his turn, attracted a bright and zealous young student named Origen, who would succeed Clement while still a teenager, and who would draw famous students from all around the empire — including the emperor’s mother! Origen, like his predecessor, placed a premium on secular as well as sacred learning. He taught that natural science was a useful and indispensable foundation for theological science.

Soon the Didaskalion would eclipse and then absorb the Museion as the center of Alexandrian culture. Alexandrian thought was transformed; yet it was still distinctively Alexandrian. God’s grace had perfected what was brilliant and beautiful by nature.

That’s what Christian education — at its very best — can do.

(An earlier version of this post appeared as my regular column in LayWitness magazine — to which you really should subscribe. For more on ancient Alexandria, see here, here, here, here, and here.)

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The Consolation

Today is the anniversary of the execution of Boethius, who wrote “The Consolation of Philosophy” and a very influential treatise “On the Trinity.” He served as consul under the Arian ruler Theodoric in the sixth century, but found himself imprisoned as Theodoric’s suspicions snowballed into paranoia. The Italians venerate Boethius as a martyr for orthodoxy. Hat tip: Rogue Classicism.

UPDATE: Amy and Father Z also posted some good Boethian material.

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Ignatius Has Just Entered the Building

I’ve posted audio of my KVSS interview on St. Ignatius of Antioch (scroll way down the page). When in Rome for our 2007 pilgrimage, we’ll visit the site of Ignatius’s martyrdom. And I’m pleased to announce that Kris McGregor of KVSS radio will be with us. Kris will be broadcasting from Rome as we pray and take in the sights. Please consider joining us!