In the Apostolic Tradition by Gene Ciarlo

I am living away from home for an extended period of time. I often feel alone even in this beautiful place. Although it is lush and tropical, you might call it my desert experience, a good Lenten recall. I suspect that I have lived in my own quasi-spiritual cocoon in the hills of Vermont with the Benedictine priory nearby for so long that I have nearly forgotten what it is like to be “in the world, but not of it,” to paraphrase Saint John.

I am in a thriving Pacific city, rubbing shoulders with lots of people every day. Their roots are in a variety of countries, mostly within what is commonly referred to as the Pacific Rim. Many of these countries have a rather significant population of Christians. I take part in their Catholic worship experience on Sundays and feel at home to the extent that we share the same Eucharist and believe in the story of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. Thus we share many of the broad strokes of Christianity together.

Yet from my observation and experience, we have different fundamental understandings of Jesus and the Eucharist. The liturgy here is Vatican II progressive, insofar as the Mass is replete with popular participation and lots of singing—even though, for the most part, the sentiments expressed in the hymns are not what I believe about the faith. People are enthusiastic, even more vibrant that I would expect or find in Catholic parishes on the mainland. Etymologically speaking, I suppose this is what it means to be Catholic. I remember hearing from someone, somewhere, long ago, “No matter where in the world you go, the Mass will always be the same and you’ll feel at home.”

That said, I confess that I do not feel at home in some basic, fundamental ways. I don’t believe in memorializing Jesus through the Eucharist in the same way that many of my fellow Catholics who surround me believe. This not only from the choice of hymns, but from body language which very often speaks louder than words. I sense this not only in the community gathered for worship but even in the priest-presider.

To dig myself out of this snobbish hole, a look back at history and into the present day is necessary.

From my observation and experience, most baptized Catholics no longer buy into what they were taught and the ways in which they practiced their beliefs from childhood, on into adolescence, and then, if their “faith” lasted that long, into adulthood. The Christian faith in general used to be an integral and essential part of the fabric of our society, even though religion in our modern era is no longer worn on our sleeves in the same way.

Christianity since the early Middle Ages was mainly an exercise in morality, a structure for staying within the bounds of acceptable social norms and behavioral ethics, rather than a philosophy and a theology of the spiritual life that prepared the way for metanoia, a transformation of the heart—the ideal of the Lenten season, in fact. The apparently tried-and-true way of Catholicism and Christianity of a former time actually kept people organized, of one mind and heart, and gave “one nation, under God,” a genuine moral sense of how life ought to be lived, how we should think and act, relate to each other and live in society, generally speaking. The United States was a Christian country and it was universally acknowledged as such.

Times have changed very quickly. We in America and in other countries with politically, economically, and technologically advanced societies, might rightly or smugly be called “children of the light.” Are we better for it? We have become the enlightened ones and the ancient structures of religion are no longer viable, believable, and livable. We can no longer be tamed and herded together, a corpus of baptized Christians with standardized beliefs and practices, designed and determined to create order and propriety in society. Instead, we have become individuated, and along with that individuation has come independence and much freer thinking about matters of the body politic as well as those in the non-terrestrial realm of the spirit. Conformist patterns of behavior along with common beliefs and practices are no longer the order of the day. Life is much more demanding and complex, the price of intellectual evolution and global integration. It is both a curse and a blessing, a yin and its essential yang.

The demise of the former religiosity, if you will, has become increasingly obvious to me now that I am surrounded with a variety of expressions of Christian culture. In conversation and ordinary daily commerce I experience, perhaps out of circumstance, only superficial aspects of life, the daily grind, the joys and sorrows of living in this world and only in this world with nothing of the “spiritual,” in the broadest sense of that term. It is all about this world, the here and now, the politics, the economy, and the ethics of today. The poet William Wordsworth put it succinctly: “The world is too much with us.” That was uttered long before our modern age. Have we lost our souls to transient, mundane, and superficial realities?

That we are losing our souls means we are becoming wise to the alluring ways of the world, falsely considered to be an “Aha!” moment in history for the sophisticated masses who have evolved beyond the superstitions of the past, religion included among the most significant. I don’t want to buy into the temporal realities that portend to prove to the majority of enlightened humanity that we have risen above that which is not scientifically and technologically verifiable. The herd instinct once again kicks in, even though we may think that we are thoroughly individuated and independent thinkers, aware of alternate facts.

This brings us to the present moment in the Catholic Church and the Synod on Synodality. Is it a providential coup at this juncture in the history of the Catholic Church, or is it perhaps more intentional due to the insight and foresight of Pope Francis? With or without the Synod, but perhaps exacerbated by its initiation, we are heading into an informal, undeclared schism in the church between those who want not only to preserve but bring back the old ways of theology, liturgy, and law, as opposed to those who read the writing on the wall and realize that we must change if we are to be an influential moral and spiritual force in our world today.

There will be those who will enforce the traditions of the centuries, who will sing pious hymns and offer their full-throated responses at the Eucharist when the miracle happens and bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The axiom of strength in numbers will not be important to them since they will be convinced of their righteousness regardless of their status as an aging majority. At the other pole, there will be Christians who are not satisfied and never will be satisfied because they are perpetually struggling to arrive at a vision of what it means to live a God-conscious life according to the spirit and message of Christ, not “pie in the sky when you die,” but a life of depth counting heavily on awareness, reflection, and continual assessment of what they are doing and where they are going.

The undeclared schism that I refer to will be devoid of drama, unlike the 11th-century Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic break declared by the potentates on both sides, because we don’t do things like that anymore in our advanced society (or do we?). We can stand by our Christian principles while we disagree. It has already started out with the majority of Catholics following the standard age-old practices of their faith. But in time, that way of living the faith will dwindle considerably as the older members of our society pass from this life. The more progressive thinkers will start out as a minority, small and not particularly well organized. To see the direction of such a motley group we must be mindful of and refer back to the apostolic tradition. This remnant is going to be a dedicated minority of people, much like the men and women in the first century who followed “The Way.” Christianity will no longer be able to count on numbers to win its battles and claim its victories.

Regardless of synods and from-the-bottom-up inclusiveness in processes and programs, we Christians may be relatively few in number once again, and once again we will have to grow from the new seeds planted in rich soil. The rich soil is the reality of Jesus and his message. The Christian scriptures and their intense study will create the backbone of the faith rather than the canon laws and sociological structures that necessarily develop in time.

The small gatherings of Christians ought not to start out with their likes and dislikes, such as the place of women in the church or as presiders at the Eucharist, or the role of sacraments or prayer. While the New Testament will always be in the forefront of reflection and consideration, I propose a more historical approach. I would like to see people studying the Didache, one of the most important writings of the Apostolic Fathers. Further, two third-century church documents, the Didascalia Apostolorum and the Apostolic Tradition (the latter attributed to Hippolytus of Rome), would give us a sense of the beginning of liturgical structures in the early church. As for noncanonical biblical sources, the Gospel of Thomas comes highly recommended by Elaine Pagels, a great historian of religion.

These would be some of my personal preferences in the revived church rather than other oft mentioned likes, wants, and favorites. To quote the beginning of a song from The Sound of Music: “Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.” ♦

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white.

Image: Detail from Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles, Russian icon, 14th c.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.