The new language of the Mass

Yesterday I heard the new English translation of the Mass for the first time. There is a regular Mass in English offered on Saturday evening in the parish I attend which uses booklets provided by the Archdiocese of Dublin. That diocese, like others in most English-speaking countries, have started to use parts of the new translation in recent weeks, and so, automatically, have we.

Sadly, no catechesis or explanation was offered for the new translations of the well-known regular replies and prayers of the liturgy. I am thinking if I can perhaps offer something through the media of the student chaplaincy I am involved with. Many of the faithful attending the English Mass are students, after all…

That’s something for after the weekend, though.

Of course, new texts focus the attention on the changes, especially when we’re not used to them yet. But that’s good. People should be well aware of the words they hear and speak in the Mass, because these are more than communication. They are also teaching us about who God is, what our relationship with Him is and what we do at Mass. It may sound logical and simple, but in reality it is not. At every Mass we should try to be aware of what we see, hear and do, because those actions directly communicate what we believe. Of course, we won’t succeed every time, but that’s no reason not to try.

Regular Mass attendance greatly helps with that, though. What may escape our attention – because we are busy mulling over some other words perhaps – at one Mass, may grab us at a subsequent one.

The opportunity to do just that, to mull over what we say and hear, is one of the great strengths of our Catholic worship, I think. We are not mindless automatons going through the motions. No, our worship is educational and transformative; in it, we hear the Lord speak to us and we speak to the Lord – sometimes directly, and at other times the priest does so on our behalf. And we must allow ourselves to be educated and transformed, and sometimes that means that we trust the priest to pray, to communicate, on our behalf, while we let some idea – from the readings, from the homily, from the Eucharistic prayer perhaps – sink in.

The liturgy of the Mass is rich. Very rich. It is virtually impossible to take it all in in one go. But we are not expected to do so. Sure, we should be focussed and attentive, but we are also called to attend the Mass on every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, which allows us to become better acquainted with the liturgy, which in turn means that we can go on a journey of deeper understanding every time we attend Mass.

The new translation (and every non-Latin liturgy of the Mass is a translation of the original texts) is more accurate, which means that meanings are no longer hidden behind words, that we more clearly say what we believe, that we get closer to the heart of the matter, however inadequate our language sometimes is. Because a translation always remains a translation, and can therefore never be perfect. But we are also independent people who can take initiatives. Let the liturgy of the Mass, our words and those of the Lord, be an invitation to take initiatives in our hearts and minds, to learn, to understand and so to teach and be transformed. If not always in that order.

The mythical blasphemy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Tomorrow evening the student parish here is hosting a movie night, and the movie that will be shown is Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the story of the man who just happened to have been born in the stable next door to the one used by Mary and Joseph, and who continuously gets mistaken for the Messiah. “There’s no Messiah in here. There’s a mess alright, but no Messiah. Now go away!”, his mother shouts to the masses gathered outside his house.

It seems that in certain Christian circles this movie is at the heart of a controversy. It is blasphemous, many say. But is it really? Does the movie make fun of the person of Jesus Christ, His message or the faith of His followers? I don’t believe so.

Jesus makes a single appearance in the movie. He is shown in the distance during the Sermon on the Mount, in a scene where all the attention is on a group of people who have difficulty hearing Him because they’re all the way in the back. All we hear from Jesus are the words that are in the Gospel: the Beatitudes. True, the people in the back mangle them (“Hear that? Blessed are the Greek.” “The Greek?” “Well, apparently, he’s going to inherit the earth.” “Did anyone catch his name?”), but that’s not blasphemous, of course. In fact, in a source I have mislaid at the moment, I read that the makers of the movie tried to write a comedy about Christ, but then realised that there really isn’t anything to poke fun at in His words. Thus the character of Brian was born.

Brian’s life roughly parallels the life of Christ. He too was born in a manger, we only get to meet his mother, Mandy (there’s not even a foster father), the Romans don’t like him and he plays an important part in the Jewish resistance against Roman rule (many scholars in the 20th century also depicted Jesus as a resistance leader). So are the things that happen to Brian blasphemous? Not really. Brian’s adventures are mostly the result of stupidity of the people around him, who mindlessly follow him because he looks like the Messiah (“Only the true Messiah denies his divinity.” “What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right, I am the Messiah!” “He is! He is the Messiah!”), or of his own clumsiness. Life of Brian is, in the first place, the story of a man who tries to live a normal life.

There are also other (post-)Biblical themes in the movie, chiefly the presence of doom prophets. Brian pretends to be one for a while (and fails miserably) to escape the pursuing Romans, and he also makes a desert father break his 18-year vow of silence. Granted, the prophets are depicted as raving loonies, but be fair: how would a prophet like Amos or Ezekiel be looked upon by the general populace in their days? It doesn’t make them any less important or wise.

In my opinion, what Life of Brian pokes fun at is mindless faith. The brainless following of anyone who may seem to promise something better. The crowd that follows Brian around is a great example of that. They positively worship the shoe and the gourd he looses in the chase, one of them claims he is the Messiah, because “I should know, I’ve followed a few!”, and they are taken advantage of by both the Romans and the resistance. And Brian is stuck in the middle, with all his clumsiness and desperation.

Ultimately, the only possible blasphemy is in details. The Jewish faith, for example, is treated no more reverently than any other religious or social construct. Look at the stoning scene, for example. The crucifixion of Brian and others, at the end of the movie, contrast heavily with the sacrifice of Christ in the cross, but He is not the butt of the joke: the Romans and the resistance are. So Brian, in that scene, is redeemed a bit: he prevails over the people who used him. It is these brainless fools, together with the equally mindless masses who followed Brian (and abandoned him when things became difficult), who are made fun of.

And that is not at odds with a healthy Christian faith. On the contrary, faith and reason are both part of a developed human life. Faith without thought is just unmotivated action. The brainless running after anyone who has something to offer, even if they don’t. And that is worthy of pointing out.

Life of Brian will be shown on Tuesday 28 September in the parish house of the cathedral of St. Joseph, starting at 8 pm.

Parish shutting down for summer

Usually parishes never close for business, but if it is a parish which specifically caters to students the summer is a very quiet time indeed. That is why St. Augustine’s, in which I am involved as a member of the PR/organisation committee, marks the end of the academic year with some sort of event, restarting operations again in August. This year our plan was to host a barbecue, but the weather forecasts being less than positive, we decided to turn it into a pizza dinner at the last minute (read: a day before).

We started with Mass at 6, as usual on a Sunday, and then we relocated to the parish hall. Drinks were drunk, conversation started to flow and pizzas were ordered. The turn-up was larger than I had expected, and I was quite optimistic. It struck more than one of us that one of the things that could attract students to our activities is our international flavour. Six nationalities – Dutch, German, Austrian, Italian, Polish and Ugandan – were represented last night. Luckily, that international flavour has slowly come to the fore more often now that we have begun working closer towards the people attending the Saturday evening vigil Mass, which is in English.

Once the pizzas had arrived (with 17 pizzas it was, I fear, a bit of a tall order for the pizzeria we chose, so we had to wait about an hour), Father Wagenaar opened with a short prayer and then pizzas were tucked into. The wine and beer flowed freely and the atmosphere was very good. Some people already knew us and each other, but others were new, but no one was left out, as far as I could see.

By the time the dishes were put in the dishwasher and the parish hall returned to semblance of normality, it was close to 11, but I cycled home feeling very content. We had worked quite hard in the last days to make it a success and it worked.

Now that I am writing about St. Augustine’s, I might as well include a link to the parish’s website, which is available in both English and Dutch.

And for the committee that runs to practical side of parish events, it is now time to start working towards the period between summer and Christmas. Lots of plans, and hopefully also lots of new people to get to know us.

And in the meantime, I’m grateful for last night.

Ascension Day

Tomorrow is Ascension Day, and since it doesn’t look like I’ll have much of a chance to be online (rather like today, then), here is a text I wrote for the website of the St. Augustine parish for students in Groningen:

The Ascension of Christ, by Salvador Dali (1958)

This Thursday we celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Catholic Church that day counts as a Sunday. Because just like every Sunday this is a feast day which we specifically celebrate. And of course such a Sunday is more than just a day off. The Church asks us to keep the Sunday holy because of the importance of what we celebrate. That is taken directly from the Ten Commandments. How do we keep that day holy? By showing that we know what we celebrate and that we thank God for it. And we best recognise, celebrate and thank when we attend the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass. That is why there is a Sunday obligation for Ascension Day. We are expected to attend Mass that day. Not because the church has to be full, but because it is important for us, as members of the Body of Christ. Becoming aware of God’s acts is a first step towards the sanctification of our own lives.

There will not be a student Mass on Thursday. Instead you can go to the High Mass at the cathedral at 11:00. If you want to go before that, the doors of the St. Francis church, at the Zaagmuldersweg 67, are open for Mass at 9:30.

The Ascension of Christ is the conclusion of His work here on earth. Not that everything was now done and eternity was ready to begin; far from it. Things were really only starting for the Apostles. Just before ascending into heaven, Christ told them: “You will receive the power of the Holy Spirit which will come on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to earth’s remotest end” (Acts 1: 8). And that is exactly what happened at Pentecost, which we celebrate in almost two weeks. The Holy Spirit came over the Apostles and they become that strong witnesses of the faith who we find in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Ascension is therefore a new beginning. After the new Covenant had been established at the Ressurrection, it can now be put into practice. Jesus promises is that He will send us a helper: The Holy Spirit. We received Him ourselves at our personal Pentecost: the sacrament of Confirmation, and we can always ask the Holy Spirit to come over us anew, to guide and inspire us.

That is what the Ascension already indicates. But until Pentecost we stare up at the empty sky, with hope and faith in the promise made by two angels to the Apostles. And what a promise!

“Why are you Galileans standing here looking into the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way as you have seen him go to heaven” (Acts 1: 11).

My Easter Triduum, and then some

If you’re active in the Church, in whatever capacity, the coming days are the busiest of the year. I don’t expect to catch much sleep, especially around Good Friday. There have been cases where I had a full workday, an all-night vigil and another full workday, totalling over 36 hours without sleep. A minor sacrifice. 

Here is my schedule: 

Maundy Thursday
19:00: Mass. The last Mass before Easter, commemorating the Last Supper. It also includes the Washing of the Feet. The Blessed Sacrament is relocated to the Altar of Repose, as Jesus goes to Gethsemane and ultimately His death and resurrection.
20:30: Start of the vigil. With a friend I’ve organised this all-night vigil for the third time. We watch and pray with Christ in Gethsemane. The cathedral will be open until midnight, although anyone is welcome at any time. 

Good Friday
07:00: End of the vigil with Lauds.
15:00: Stations of the Cross. In fourteen stages we relive the journey of Christ to the Cross, from His conviction by Pontius Pilate to His burial. It’s always an emotional experience.
19:00: Serving at the Service of the Passion of the Lord at St. Francis. Not a Mass, since the Lord is not there anymore. We venerate the Cross, tool of our salvation, during this service. 

The Easter Vigil starts in darkness. The Paschal candle, carried here by my parish priest, Fr. Rolf Wagenaar, signifies the light of Christ, and slowly illuminates the entire cathedral.

Holy Saturday
20:30: Serving at Easter Vigil at St. Francis. The early vigil where several catechumens will be baptised and/or confirmed. Always special to be a part of that.
23:00: Easter Vigil at the cathedral. A long Mass, the high point of not just our liturgical year, but our entire existence: Christ is risen! The rituals and music are always fantastic. 

Easter Sunday
11:00: High Mass, offered by Bishop de Korte. Easter continues unabated and we still celebrate.
18:00: Mass for students. Which will be interesting because of a distinct lack of volunteers… But we’ll manage. 

Easter Monday
11:00: Serving at High Mass.

Faith and politics

The overriding theme of today seems to be politics, but what better opportunity to advertise the next activity from the St. Augustine parish for students and other young people here in Groningen. It’ll be a lecture on faith and politics, read by Professor Alfons Dölle, member of our parish council, senator for the CDA, and professor at the law faculty at the University of Groningen.

For me personally, my faith is a decisive factor when making decisions, including about whom to vote for. To some extent that limits the field already, since some political parties are incompatible with Christianity. On the other hand, some of the Christian parties present their own problems, since a party’s name not always reflects their record in parliament.

And from the opposite end of the issue, there is the question of how politics can and should influence faith. Christ taught us to “pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar — and God what belongs to God” (Matt. 22, 21), seemingly indicating a clear separation of the obligations we have to government and to God. But what if the government intrudes upon the faith, when it limits or otherwise influence the duties, practices, beliefs and teachings of the Church?

Interesting – and unavoidable – questions.

 The lecture was already planned with the upcoming municipal elections in mind, of course, but now that we can suddenly  expect national elections too makes it extra topical.

Faith and happiness

I’ll be at the lecture advertised above tonight. For those who don’t read Dutch, the topic will be French author Marcel Pagnol and his ideas of faith and happiness (a very Catholic idea, of course). French literature is hardly my forte, and I can’t say I have ever heard of Pagnol, but I have at least heard the speaker speak before. Dr. W. Bots knows a thing or two about French Catholic authors and has been a guest speaker in the parish a few times. he knows an awful lot about his topics, so I have hopes that I’ll be able to learn a thing or two.

The lecture is not organised by the student parish, but we have been asked to advertise it on behalf of the St. Martin’s parish. We do, after all, share a cathedral, parish house and priest.

Credit to Taquoriaan for the design of the flyer.

A look back at the conference

The conference I attended yesterday afternoon was certainly interesting. All in all, a dozen or so student societies and other groups were represented, all of them Christian in some way, shape or form.  The introductions included some words from Prof. Zwarts (pictured), Rector Magnificus of the university, about what he thinks the role of the Christian societies in the larger framework of the university should be. He sees them as anchor points in the expanding student population in the city, that can help people keep their bearings in the large anonymous and often new world of university life. He said he counts on them to maintain the human side of things, while the university obviously works on the academic and official business. It was quite surprising to see how much value Prof. Zwarts attaches to having specifically Christian groups involved with a secular university.

The first major item of the conference were the so-called ‘talks by representatives of the various groups’. I was one of those, teamed up with a fellow representing a Reformed (Liberated) group. It turned out to be more of an interview times five. In five ten-minute rounds we were asked questions about who we were and what we did, with a new audience every time. So a lot was repeated, but it was quite informative. For one, I found that the Reformed (Liberated) group is not too dissimilar from our student parish in the way it works, so perhaps some cooperation may be possible with them in the future.

After a break and a short talk by a professor in early church and New Testament studies on open communication (he postulated that the two seemingly separate bodies of church and society, while legitimately so, should not be isolated from each other), we teamed up in smaller groups, not by affiliation of denomination, but toally random, to throw ideas for future cooperation about. What could we do and what not, what kind of ideas already exist, what can we learn from each other, that sort of stuff. These ideas were then dicussed by the chairman for the day, who picked a few good ones and suggested we realise them.

All in all, the conference was fruitful. Form our perspective there is certainly is a wide gap between the various Protestant denominations on the one hand and the Catholic Church on the other, but there was a lot of interest in us and enthusiasm for our presence. In the past, Bishop Eijk pulled us out of the general Christian platform to maintain our identity (and rigthly so, because a short while later that platform went from generally Christian to generally spiritual), but many people apparently were sorry to see us go.

In the next couple of days, the suggested ideas will be committed to paper and hopefully we’ll be able to work some of them out and maintain the contacts we have tentatively established. I think that the Reformed (Liberated) group and their miniter, as well as the Navigators, whose motto is as simple as knowing and witnessing Christ, can be good partners for us. We will be working towards a first event on Shrove Tuesday; we invited representatives of the groups at the conference to come and visit us then for drinks, a tour of the cathedral and a chance to get to know us a bit more.

Tomorrow: conference with Christian student clubs

Tomorrow I’ll be attending a ‘conference meeting’ of the various Christian student and study organisations here in Groningen, organised by the GSP. I’ll do so representing the student parish, together with Father Wagenaar, Guido, Inge and Maurits. Initially I tagged along out of interest: this conference sounds like a great opportunity to do some networking and establish some contacts, which would hopefully lead to us reaching more people. But yesterday I found I also have to hold a short introductory speech…

Well, I volunteered, to be honest, since there was no time for lengthy discussions about who would do it and what would be said. Reading the program, though, makes me wonder if this was smart: they’re talking about sharp questions and ‘pushing people hard’… Uh-oh.

But the conference sounds interesting. There’ll be a speech from the rector magnificus of the university, a lecture on ‘open communication’ and an opportunity to discuss things with other groups.

I’m curious to see what it’s all like and hopeful that we can further the ‘fame’ of the student parish.

Some extra information, in Dutch, here.