Catholics Introduction by Robert Ellsberg
Introduction Robert Ellsberg
On a storm-swept island oﬀ the coast of Ireland, a community of “Albanesian” monks maintains the “faith of their fathers,” worshipping God as the church has for centuries, “changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ the way Jesus told his disciples to do it at the Last Supper.” It was monks such as these who kept the faith alive during previous times of invasion and persecution, and who, indeed, as Thomas Cahill has put it, “saved civilization” when barbarians roamed the land. Except that now, it is the barbarians who are running the church. Such is the background of Catholics. Brian Moore’s short novel, ﬁrst published in 1972, is set sometime in the near future, after a ﬁctional Vatican IV has completed the church’s wholesale capitulation to the spirit of secularism. Far beyond Vatican II’s famous aggiornamento v
(“—updating”), the church is now on the brink of a historic apertura, allowing for the ﬁrst time “interpenetration” between the Christian and Buddhist faiths. But suddenly, on the eve of this breakthrough, comes disturbing news. Catholic pilgrims from around the world have been converging on a coastal town in Ireland where the monks of Muck Abbey, ignoring current church teaching, continue to say Mass in Latin according to the old Tridentine rite. To put an end to this scandalous anachronism, an American priest, James Kinsella, has been dispatched to deliver an ultimatum to the recalcitrant monks: either conform to the new order or face the consequences. Kinsella is a perfect embodiment of the new Catholicism. Dressed “like a soldier boy” in denim fatigues, he is bemused by the monks’ references to “mortal sin” and their attachment to the rosary, to outmoded prayers, and to the practice of private confession. Religion for him is mainly a vehicle for social change. Asked to provide his own understanding of the Mass, Kinsella, speaking for “most Catholics in the world today,” describes it a purely
symbolic act: “I do not, in the old sense, think of God as actually being present, there in the tabernacle,” he says. Facing Kinsella is Tomás O’Malley, the abbot of Muck, whose wily graciousness leaves us in doubt, right up to the end, about how he will respond. Will he yield to authority and give up the Latin Mass, or will he stand up deﬁantly for the old way? It is more than simply a dispute over language. As the monks see it, the conﬂict is really about the religious content of the liturgy. As one of them puts it, “This new Mass isn’t a mystery, it’s a mockery, a singsong, it’s not talking to God, it’s talking to your neighbor.” Complicating the abbot’s decision, as we soon learn, is the fact that he himself has long since lost his faith. He continues in his post, much as a foreman or manager, making sure the job gets done, while dreading the day when he must face the void and enter “null.” On his response rests the future of Muck Abbey, and perhaps even more. Although the speciﬁc drama of Catholics is set in an imaginary future, the conﬂict it describes reﬂects a real tension in the post–Vatican II church. The decision in
those years to replace the Tridentine Latin Mass with a new liturgy in the vernacular was a jarring transition, even for those who accepted it. For centuries, Catholics had been raised on an image of the church as essentially timeless and unchanging, united by one language, one liturgy, and one symbol of unity (an infallible pope). For some, the reforms of Vatican II called everything into question, removing the ancient symbols of faith without oďŹ€ering anything substantial in their place. Of course Vatican IIâ€™s reform of the liturgy, which sought to put more emphasis on the role of the community, involved no retreat from the traditional Catholic teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Nevertheless, pockets of resistance arose from the likes of Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers. After he ordained several traditionalist bishops without Vatican authorization, Lefebvre was excommunicated. But he was by no means the most extreme case. Moreradical sectarians have entirely rejected the legitimacy of Vatican II, holding that Pope John Paul II and his immediate predecessors were in fact apostates from the true faith. One can ďŹ nd their screeds on the internet, denouncing
the pope’s interfaith prayer meetings at Assisi with such vehemence that one might assume that the fanciful “apertura” was already upon us. And yet quite apart from this paranoid fringe, concerns about the place of faith and tradition in the modern, secular world are shared by many believers. In recent years Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, were among those who warned against the danger that Christians, in the name of dialogue and openness to the world, would lose any sense of transcendent truth. In words that might have been spoken by a monk of Muck Abbey, Cardinal Ratzinger proclaimed the following in 1988: While there are many motives that might have led a great number of people to seek a refuge in the traditional liturgy, the chief one is that they ﬁnd the dignity of the sacred preserved there. After the Council there were many priests who deliberately raised “desacralization” to the level of a program, on the plea that the New Testament abolished the cult of the Temple: the veil of the Temple which was torn from top to bottom at the
moment of Christ’s death on the cross is, according to certain people, the sign of the end of the sacred. The death of Jesus, outside the City walls, that is to say, in the public world, is now the true religion. Religion, if it has any being at all, must have it in the nonsacredness of daily life, in love that is lived. Inspired by such reasoning, they put aside the sacred vestments; they have despoiled the churches as much as they could of that splendor which brings to mind the sacred; and they have reduced the liturgy to the language and the gestures of ordinary life, by means of greetings, common signs of friendship, and such things.
This is the same man who warned, on the eve of his papal election, of the “dictatorship of relativism.” In the conﬂict between Muck Abbey and the church of “Vatican IV,” it is not hard to imagine where his sympathies would lie. What is at stake is whether the church will opt for “relevance” at the expense of emptying out the essential religious content of its faith. Flannery O’Connor, a Southern Catholic novelist who died in 1964, wrote extensively about this tension, as she saw it, between faith and the secularizing tendencies of
her age. Long before Father Kinsella (citing the “standard belief in this day and age”) would describe the Eucharist as a symbol, O’Connor supplied her own memorable reply: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” To a liberal friend, she wrote, “All around you today you will ﬁnd people accepting ‘religion’ that has been rid of its religious elements. This is what you are asking: if you can be a Catholic and ﬁnd a natural explanation for mysteries we can never comprehend. You are asking if you can be a Catholic and substitute something for faith. The answer is no.” That is ultimately the dramatic crux of Moore’s novel—not a parody of contemporary ecclesiastical politics, but a question about the ultimate mysteries that lie at the heart of faith. Kinsella and his ilk believe passionately in not much of anything. The monks of Muck Abbey, in contrast, believe just as passionately in the old certainties. And then there is Abbot Tomás, who cannot be identiﬁed unequivocally with either faction. He is a man with nothing but doubts. And yet those doubts, which at least pertain to matters of ultimate signiﬁcance, may be the slender thread that preserves his connection to God.
In that light, it is fair to wonder whether the abbot’s dilemma doesn’t speak for the author himself. Brian Moore, who was raised as a Catholic in Protestant Belfast, claimed to have abandoned his faith long before he left Ireland for a new life in North America. And yet in many of his twenty novels he wrestled with the problem of faith and the things that take its place when it is gone. One option in this novel is the proud secularism of Father Kinsella. Another is the “null” that haunts Abbot Tomás. But is there also a third option, a “faith beyond faith,” that lies beyond these characters’ imagination? According to Scripture, faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” There is always an element of risk in trusting in the hidden God. And so the tension between belief and doubt is not a contest between “true Catholics” and the general mass of modernists. It is a tension that runs through the heart of every believer. How will we distinguish between the essentials of faith and the changeable traditions in which it is conveyed? Is it not possible to opt for both relevance and sacred mystery? Openness to the world and a passion for truth?
Whichever choice Abbot Tomás makes will involve a leap into the void. The same is true for every Christian. We can only trust in the abbot’s ﬁnal words (whether he and Moore believe them or not): “If our words become prayer, God will come.” Robert Ellsberg is editor in chief of Orbis Books and the author of several books, including All Saints and The Saints’ Guide to Happiness.
About the Author Brian (pronounced Bree-ann) Moore was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on August 25, 1921, one of nine children of surgeon Dr. James Moore and Eileen Moore. He attended Catholic schools, and then began the study of medicine at Queen’s University of Belfast. His education there was interrupted by World War II, in which he served in the British Ministry of War Transport in North Africa, Italy, and France, a decision that deeply angered his anti-British father. In 1948, Moore emigrated to Canada, working ﬁrst in the oﬃce of a construction camp, and then as a reporter in Montreal. It was there he began writing novels, ﬁrst pulpﬁction popular novels under the pseudonym of Bernard Mara, and then turning to more serious ﬁction. His ﬁrst attempt at literary ﬁction, the writing of which was interrupted for months as Moore recovered from a
About the Author
serious motorboat accident, was published under his real name in 1954 and was an immediate success. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne was a study of a middle-aged, alcoholic Belfast woman, based, in part, on a woman who had been an acquaintance of his mother’s. He wrote nineteen other novels over the next few decades, some inspired by historical events—No Other Life (1993) echoes the events in Haiti during the rise of Jean Baptiste-Aristide, priest, activist, and eventual president. Black Robe (1985) is based on the story of French missionaries in Canada in the seventeenth century. Moore’s novels include Cold Heaven (1983), The Color of Blood (1987), Lies of Silence (1990), and his last, The Magician’s Wife (1997). Moore, whom Graham Greene referred to as his “favorite living author,” moved to Malibu, California, in 1966, and lived there until his death in 1999, at the age of seventy-seven.
“If reading it upsets you, do not be surprised. . . . Moore has eliminated our standard
“The story is told with . . . superb grace and wit.”—The New Yorker
escapes from God—a secularized Kingdom or a romanticized past.”—America “A neat and striking story.”—Times Literary Supplement
In the not-too-distant future, the Fourth Vatican Council has abolished private confession, clerical dress, and the Latin Mass, and opened discussions about a merger with Buddhism. Authorities in Rome are embarrassed by publicity surrounding a group of monks who stubbornly clever, assured Father James Kinsella is dispatched to set things right. At Muck Abbey he meets Abbot Tomás, a man plagued by doubt who nevertheless leads his monks in the old ways. In the hands of the masterly Brian Moore, their confrontation becomes a subtle, provocative parable of doubt and faith.
celebrate the old Mass in their island abbey oﬀ the coast of Ireland. The
Brian Moore (1921–1999) was born in Ireland and lived most of his adult life in Canada and the United States. He was the author of many novels, including Black Robe, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, and The Color of Blood.
Introduction by Robert Ellsberg
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