A Call to Holiness

As the initial reports filter out of the Synod people on the different parts of the spectrum of Catholic belief begin to assess what, if anything, has happened. As expected, there has been no narrowing of the gap between the widely divergent and deeply held views, and whatever Pope Francis does in the end, he will cause strong reactions – something which he is not afraid of, thank goodness, as he seems to recognise that change is messy.


Against the backdrop of the last weekend of the Synod, I had the opportunity to spend time at each end of the spectrum, firstly at a talk given by Canon Montjean of the Institute of Christ the Sovereign King, then with Fr. Daniel O’Leary on Liverpool ACTA’s Day of Reflection. This day gave a clear focus to one way which we, as a grassroots movement which seeks to promote open and frank dialogue can allay fears (and refute allegations) that ACTA is essentially a pressure group which either ignores or breaks with Catholic teaching, and show how we argue from within the Catholic tradition.

From one end of the spectrum to the other

My visits to each end of the spectrum clarified that those who call for change and those who want to keep things as they are both pursue the same goal. ACTA’s mission statement that we “want to contribute fully to the life of our church so that we may be a more effective sign of the Kingdom of God”, is the same as the Institute of Christ the Sovereign King’s specific missionary aim to “spread the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ in all spheres of human life”. Some of the hostile reactions to ACTA, eg during the Synod process, suggest that people on other parts of the spectrum aren’t aware of the common desire, hearing our call for dialogue and change as a challenge to church authority or an attempt to ignore or reduce the authority of tradition.

What became apparent was that a key difference between the two ends of the spectrum is a different understanding of how God relates to his people, with what lies behind the different ways of celebrating Mass being a good example of how a particular understanding bears fruit in practice. How the Institute hopes to fulfil their mission is clear on their website which proclaimsan integral part of the Institute's charism is the use of the traditional Latin Liturgy of 1962 for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the other sacraments”; a long way, then, from the Mass we celebrated with Daniel which was woven through the day, and was an integral part of it, with the Eucharist shared at the table used for lunch.


“Through you, I shall display my holiness for all the nations to see”    (Ezekiel 20:41)

In reflecting on Ezekiel, Daniel’s starting point was the implications of the Christian belief in an infinite God: he is present in every moment. This is not just a theoretical point – it means he is present in the ordinary events and relationships of the day. As Daniel concluded, he is to be found ‘in the rubble and the rabble’ of the world, as was clear in the Incarnation. The question, it seems to me, is how far the different positions on the spectrum are prepared to allow God to continue with the Incarnation.

Allowing God to share our lives

The Institute’s understanding of how Christ can reign ‘in all spheres of human life’ is clearly stated on their website:

“The Lord has left us the Holy Liturgy to make sure that we can remain in contact with Him. As a matter of fact, we could say that the only aim of the Church is to bring people in contact with the Lord through the celebration of the Sacraments, especially through the Holy Mass.” (My emphasis)

The understanding of the Holiness of God is clear in the fact that integral to the celebration of the 1962 Latin Rite are the altar rails, and the priest being the one who does everything, assisted by male only altar servers. The Institute’s literature invites ‘boys and men’ who are interested in the ‘privilege of serving the Traditional Mass at the Altar of God’. The exclusion of anything female of course speaks volumes about ‘worthiness’ and is not just a relic of the past, but is alive and well in the structure of the church hierarchy, as exemplified by Synod. My concern here, though, is how an understanding of God’s holiness can lead to women and girls in particular, and all people casually dressed and not appropriately trained in general, being told they are not worthy of being allowed beyond the altar rails to be near the Altar of God, as the Institute describe it.

Allowing God to be with the blocked and the broken

The altar rails are only found in a few churches now, but the mentality of a barrier between us and the holiness of God which the rails impose is still a common part of people’s understanding of where they stand in relation to God. My experience is that most people see the Penitential Rite as an apology for sins committed, with the understanding that any such sins make us somehow unfit to be in God’s presence and that before we can hear his word, and particularly before we receive Communion, we have to do something about them.

Our Penitential Rite was an adaptation of the washing of the Disciples’ feet: each person washed their hands and allowed someone else to dry them. Drying someone’s hands was fine, but allowing yourself to be served was more intimate and challenging. Peter clearly had a problem with this at the Last Supper, being scandalised by his Lord and master, (Sovereign king), acting as slave to him, but then being told, ‘If I do not wash you, you can have no share with me.’ The Penitential action, and our prayers, were more about allowing God to enter in to our lives as we are – in need of washing – than about having to come up to scratch before we can be in the company of God.

The difference is surely key in the Synod’s arguments about how the Church allows or refuses people who are in broken or in ‘irregular’ relationships; people who are deemed to break rules and so fall short of what is deemed to be the ideal laid down by God to come to the sacraments.

A church which goes out to meet God.

The implications of holiness in all aspects of life were illustrated with references to Evangelii Gaudium, which will not allow ‘holiness’ or ‘Gospel’ or ‘Church’ to be in anyway isolated from the world as it is,. This was powerfully illustrated by the suggestion that the Ezekiel quote might legitimately be changed to ‘Through you as you are my holiness will be displayed.’

Lunch with God…

God’s holiness cannot be displayed through us to all nations in church. It has to be in community and through our relationships that others will discover that God is intimately present in his creation, as the Offertory of the Mass reminds us.

Our Offertory ‘procession’ was to put food on the table. In sharing thoughts about how the food got there, its significance in the life of the person, gratitude for having food to eat, compassion and concern for those who don’t, God was blessed for his presence in creation, in the food chain and in family life, all of which is the food of eternal life – God present in the fabric of our lives, and joining us for lunch!

… or spectators at the banquet

In the Institute’s Latin Mass, God and his guests are kept in their places more like a royal banquet where the ordinary folk have no business at the top table. There is no Offertory procession from the congregation: that is taken care of by servants in the form of altar boys who serve the priest. Even the priest is to remember his inferiority, “having elevated his eyes to God, and immediately cast them down again” [my emphasis],

The invitation continues to say that the servers will be able to ‘Watch at close hand’: This emphasises that the congregation watches at a distance – passively.

Male and female servers wanted.

The rituals certainly remind us that we are in the presence of the holiness and majesty of God, something which people who long for the ‘good old days’ of the Latin Mass feel has been lost in the ‘modern’ celebrations. However, in the Incarnation God was ‘made flesh and lived among us’. This was not a dilution nor a diminution of holiness, but so that we could be partners with him, as our ‘second reading’ pointed out:

I thank him for considering me worthy and appointing me to serve him.” (1Tim 1:12).

I don’t wish to be disrespectful to the Institute, but I do not think that this is addressed to priests, or to men only.

Reflections on Laudato Si’ and references to St. Francis further developed the theme that an understanding of the presence of God in the ordinary does not reduce the holiness of God: it allows us to discover the holiness of the ordinary, and of people made in God’s image.

Awareness demands action

The worry for some people is that this leads to us disrespecting God or reducing him to our level, but awareness of God’s holiness in the world actually leads to the opposite conclusion: Pope Francis is clear in pointing out our duties to care for our common home in which the Creator is always and intimately present, and that he has entrusted us with the care of his world, including all life, human and otherwise. Through God’s presence in the world and in us as we are, we recognise our role as active partners in the on-going creation and in the building of the Kingdom:

In all truth I tell you, whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, and will perform even greater works (John 14:12)

This was our Gospel, read around the table which now became the Eucharistic table. The Eucharistic prayer and consecrating of the unleavened bread and the wine, lead into a deeply prayerful communion, with the bread being broken and the wine being poured and shared among us.

This was a long way from the Latin Mass I served at 50 years ago, where people knelt at the altar rails to have the host placed on the tongue with the emphasis on not letting it touch your teeth; and all that represents. I do not think Jesus had this in mind when he sat at the table with his friends and said ‘Do this in memory of me.’

Locally, I know of good people who are deeply afraid of changes which the ACTA questionnaire raised in the workshops because, in their understanding, it goes against Scripture and the authority of the Church’s teaching. I also know many good people who are no longer actively involved in the Church, either because they don’t attend or they just turn up on Sunday for a passive hour of religion. Neither of these talk about God, or about how he relates with us as we are. In the Incarnation, and when ‘the veil of the sanctuary was torn’, God took the risk of mingling with his rather messy creatures. His holiness was not compromised then, nor was it in our Liturgy or calls for dialogue and change. This might be a useful basis of any discussions or workshops.

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