Thursday, January 10, 2008

Lifting the Prayer?

While Summorum Pontificum and the widened permission for use the 1962 Missal have garnered ad intra reactions that span the spectrum, one element in particular has generated heavy attention outside the walls: the "Old Rite's" controversial Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jewish people.

The text, which asks God to "lift the veil from their hearts," has also come under internal scrutiny; the "Vice-Pope" Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB is on-record as saying that the replacement of the '62 prayers for the Good Friday commemoration with those from the 1970 Missal of Paul VI as a potential remedy was being given "active consideration." (And if Bertone -- the de facto papal spokesman -- says it, well....)

With this year's Easter falling -- for the first time since 1940 -- at the earliest possible date (23 March), the NCR's John Allen looks at the "ticking clock" the Vatican faces:
[T]he timeline is further complicated by the fact that Benedict XVI will arrive in the United States just three weeks after Good Friday, and will meet with an inter-religious delegation expected to include Jews. The last thing organizers want is a cloud of Jewish/Catholic tension hanging over the event. It’s an especially acute sentiment given memories of Joseph Ratzinger’s last visit to New York, in 1988, when a handful of rabbis refused to meet him in protest over comments allegedly suggesting that Christianity is the “fulfillment” of Judaism.

If a reminder were needed of Jewish sensitivities about the Good Friday prayer, which among other things asks God to “lift the veil from their hearts,” the Anti-Defamation League included it on a late December list of “Top Ten Issues Affecting Jews in 2007.” The ADL called the possible revival of the prayer “a theological setback to the reforms of Vatican II, and a challenge to Catholic-Jewish relations.”

(To be sure, the ADL statement did not go down well in some Catholic circles. Putting Benedict XVI on the same list of anti-Semitic offenders as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example, struck even some Catholics deeply committed to Jewish/Christian dialogue, and who are themselves concerned about the Good Friday prayer, as excessive. Nonetheless, it’s an indicator that the prayer remains a live issue.)

At one level, this may seem an easy fix. Last July, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said the problem could be solved by substituting the prayer for Jews found in the post-Vatican II liturgy for Good Friday, which no longer refers to conversion but rather asks that Jews “may arrive at the fullness of redemption.” Since the original texts of the new liturgy are in Latin, it would be fairly simple to ask communities celebrating the old rite to use the Latin version of the more recent prayer.

(In a mid-November consultation between the U.S. bishops’ conference and the National Council of Synagogues, Fr. Dennis McManus, a liturgical expert, also floated the idea of finding another ancient prayer, or creating a new one, but most experts regard these as more complicated and long-term possibilities. Aside from questions of content, the advantage of the prayer in the post-Vatican II rite is that it’s already been approved for liturgical use.)

So, why not just decree immediately that the Latin version of the more recent prayer be used by everyone, thereby defusing the bomb before it goes off?

Part of the answer, of course, is simply the normal leisurely course of affairs in the Vatican. More deeply, however, experts say the real problem is fear of a slippery slope: If church authorities are willing to revise the Good Friday prayer for the Jews on the grounds that it’s not consistent with the teaching of Vatican II, what about other elements of the old rite that, according to some, raise similar questions?

For example, the Good Friday liturgy also contains prayer for heretics and schismatics (meaning Protestants) and for pagans (meaning non-Christians). Should those prayers too be revised, since they don’t reflect the more sensitive argot of Vatican II? More broadly, some critics charge that much of the symbolism and language of the old Mass is inconsistent with the vision of the council. Should all that be put on the operating table? If so, one might fairly ask, what was the point of Benedict’s ruling in the first place?

Creating a precedent for selective editing of the old rite, in other words, could open the door to death by a thousand cuts....

Catholics have been able to celebrate the pre-Vatican rite with permission from their local bishop since Pope John Paul II authorized it with a special indult in 1984. For the last 24 years, therefore, a handful of Catholics have been reciting the old prayer for the conversion of the Jews each Good Friday – without, in the eyes of most experts, any appreciable impact on Jewish/Catholic relations. Of course, the difference this time around is that Benedict’s motu proprio has raised the profile of the old rite, ensuring that saying the prayer this time would be a cause célèbre.

Second, a bit of misunderstanding continues to circulate in some quarters about Benedict’s ruling, one which affects the Good Friday controversy. Because the pope decreed that priests should not celebrate private Masses in the old rite during Holy Week, some have concluded that the Good Friday prayer would never be used in any event. In fact, however, the pope made a distinction between private Masses and public celebrations for stable communities. Where Catholics routinely worship according to the old rite, they will continue to do so during Holy Week, and therefore would use the old Good Friday prayers – absent any contrary instructions from the Vatican.
Good Friday is nine weeks from tomorrow -- appropriately enough, the first day of spring.