The “Catholic Church” is often preceded by an adjective, such as Roman, Byzantine, Ethiopian, and the like. Oddly, the adjective takes the word “catholic,” meaning universal, and qualifies it as something immanently particular. It’s similar to how “brown,” paired with “dog,” excludes all the black, white, and red dogs – while at the same time keeping the “brown dog” within the general category to which all dogs belong.
I recently gave a short lecture on the nature of prayer to my local parish. Afterward, one of the parishioners came up to me and asked me if I had ever given any thought to what American Christianity looked like.
The question arose from a passage I had quoted from St. Gregory the Great’s letter to St. Augustine of Canterbury. Gregory had sent Augustine from Rome to evangelize the people in what today is the United Kingdom. Augustine, observing that these people had no Christianity and consequently no Christian liturgy, asked Pope Gregory if he should simply import the liturgy from Rome.
Gregory’s answer is nuanced:
Your Fraternity knows the use of the Roman Church, in which you have been nurtured. But I approve of your selecting carefully anything you have found that may be more pleasing to Almighty God, whether in the Roman Church or that of Gaul, or in any Church whatever, and introducing in the Church of the Angli, which is as yet new in the faith, by a special institution, what you have been able to collect from many Churches. For we ought not to love things for places, but places for things. Wherefore choose from each several Church such things as are pious, religious, and right, and, collecting them as it were into a bundle, plant them in the minds of the Angli for their use.
The line “do not love things for places, but places for things” summarizes the principle at work here. A place, in and of itself, is something general. Only real things can communicate beauty and goodness – a “place” does not cause one to marvel, but its mountains, rivers, and people do.
Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium makes a similar point about liturgical development:
Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.
Here the Council Fathers echo what St. Gregory had taught to Augustine. Whereas Pope Gregory spoke of drawing from various Churches, the Council document tells us that – while preserving the Latin of the Mass – we can take even from local cultures and practices in so far as they are free from error and superstition.
According to St. Bede, Gregory instructed Augustine to destroy idols, not temples. And instead of banning all sacrifice, to reorient the sacrifices away from the devil by turning them into feasts for the martyrs – for “if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones.”
And yet, it’s painfully clear that not every permissible inclusion in the liturgy is, in fact, fitting. The liturgy must convey, to the best of human capacity, the glory of the Creator-of-all’s presence in the Eucharist. It’s hard to imagine Hollywood using Michael Joncas’ On Eagle’s Wings to dramatize the entrance of an earthly prince, but somehow this music is deemed worthy for the King of Kings.
Is there a balance to be struck between the preservation of those liturgical elements we know to be worthy and the organic development of living, localized traditions? What is the ultimate value of this interplay? And how would it be manifest in the Catholic Church of America?
For years, I had thought that any tradition America retained was, at best, only remnants of Christianity and homogenization by Hollywood (something manifest in the loss of regional accents).
There is little to love about a place when the things there are the things found anywhere. Every Walmart, McDonald’s, and strip mall – for all their value – attests to that. It might not have seemed so bleak seventy years ago, but today how can one follow Gregory’s advice without also risking liturgical hollowness?
I believe that in order to truly develop a strong Catholicism in America, a distinctly Catholic folk tradition must be part of it. The leisure and entertainment that we all soak up like a sponge, must be infused with Christian imagination, a moral imagination. This means that Christians need to start not only enjoying good Christian movies, music, and classic literature, but also getting together for classic feasts and being encouraged by our peers to fast in the same way with the same rigor together.
Toward the end of the conversation I had with the man from my parish, he showed me two videos of something called Appalachian Orthodox Chant, here and here . While not everyone in the United States can relate to Appalachian folk, many of us have seen O Brother, Where Art Thou and can perceive how these tones combine and unite something distinctly American-folk with something distinctly Christian – and in a way elevated enough for reverent worship.
Perhaps this is the future for some of our Orthodox Christian brothers. But if we as Catholics – East and West – are going to truly live up to the advice of Pope St. Gregory and Vatican II, we too will need a living folk life that’s up to the task.