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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Old Catholicism and the Early Church

The above picture shows St. Mary Magdalene Old Catholic Church parish in Prague. It is a beautiful round stone building that can hold up to 30 people comfortably. These old church buildings in Prague were built from the twelfth-century to fifteenth-century. I could not help but think about the Early Church when standing inside St. Mary Magdalene's, especially when we gathered to celebrate Mass; the liturgical space truly imbues a sense of gathering, togetherness, and hospitality. It is round, it is small, it is simple, it is truly a place for the church to gather for liturgy. Swiss Old Catholic theologian and bishop Urs Küry (d. 1976) was one of the first to intimately connect the Old Catholic tradition with the Early Church of the first eight-centuries. He indeed regarded the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht as the Catholic Church of the West. He regarded Old Catholicism as living in continuity with the Early Church -- Old Catholics are in relation with the Early Church as believers of the "the way," which is Christ crucified and risen! In accordance with contemporary Old Catholic theologian Mattijs Ploeger, Küry believed that the Early Church's theology, liturgical praxis, creed, sacramental life, conciliar governance, and episcopal ministry is synonymous with the term "Old Catholic". That is to say, the primary meaning of Old Catholicism is in fostering and living in fellowship with the Early Church here and now. So how do Old Catholics live in connection with the Early Church? Ultimately, it begs the question of asking what constitutes church for Old Catholics, and how does it relate to the Early Church? First, it must be clarified up front that neither Küry nor any other European Old Catholic theologian advocates an anachronistic ideal in mimicking the Early Church's life today. It is impossible to be what the Early Church was contextually speaking. We live in a different time from that of the Early Church; meaning, our sociological make-up is quite altogether different from that of the Early Church.

The Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht are connected to the Early Church through its understanding and definition of what the church is. That is to say, Old Catholics share an understanding of the church's nature that is in solidarity with how the Early Church, generally speaking, understood the essence of church to be. Old Catholics attempt to live in continuity with the teaching principles of the Church Catholic of the first millennium. Ploeger states it best when interpreting Küry's assertion that Old Catholics strive to live in continuity with the undivided Early Church by explaining it is "a [intentional] return to the principle decisions of the Early Church...a return to the major issues of Scripture, creed and ministry, rather than remaining within the historic divisions and its many denominational confessions, which date from the second millennium (Ploeger, "Celebrating Church: Ecumenical Contributions to a Liturgical Ecclesiology" (Universiteit van Tilburg, 2008), 191)."

The picture above shows the inside of St. Mary Magdalene's Old Catholic parish in Prague. It's simplistic decor creates an ethos of Early Church ambiance in its liturgical space. The altar-table is carved out of stone where, during the liturgy of the Eucharist, the assembly sets the table with the cloth, candles, and eucharistic gifts that are to be offered to God with joy and gratitude. For Old Catholics faith is as much communal as it is personal and Old Catholicism, like the Early Church, takes to heart the Greek definition of the word "ecclesia", literally translated means "the gathering" or "the assembly". Thus, the primary essence and nature of the church is organic and not institutional.

The local-universal Church cannot be foundationally viewed as a corporation, non-profit agency, and/or charitable center, but is rather the local Body of Christ comprised of living human persons: the baptized! Put another way, the church is the gathering of the local baptized around their bishop in the liturgical celebration of Holy Eucharist: the Mass. The church then for Old Catholics is essentially local, organic, and relational by nature. Now, many western Christians and Christian denominations openly acknowledge this assertion of the church's nature as though this idea is a common experience most baptized persons encounter though it is an essential fact of how people today understand the essence of the church a priori. I disagree with this assumption and find such arguments a bit audacious because it ignores the fact that most baptized persons (lay and ordained) do not commonly view the church's nature as being primarily organic, but rather as institutional, hierarchical, and confessional/denominational.

The church, it seems, is everything but organic to most in the U.S.--of course many acknowledge the primary organic nature of the church, but the question to be asked is along the lines of whether one truly believes in one's heart that s/he manifests with the other baptized the local Church Catholic, that they have an "ecclesial" identity which is Christ's identity by virtue of their baptism into his life, death, and resurrection. Are the hearts of the local baptized truly transformed to that of Christ's paschal mystery, which is centered in the energy of the Spirit, or is such "missional" discourse about "being the church" merely political and ideological rhetoric of liberal, conservative, monarchical, or democratic factions? A church primarily seen as institutional and a power separate from the local baptized is not the church, but more of a human instrument of trying to contain something that cannot be contained: the Holy Spirit.

The question I pose above indeed needs further pondering because it is one thing to say the church is the people, and another reality altogether when the people realize in their hearts that they indeed are the church, that they are the primary essence and identity of what constitutes "ecclesia". There needs to happen in our day a rekindling of the question posed long ago by the men walking on the road to Emmaus after they encountered the Christ: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us (Lk 24:32)?" Old Catholicism inspires and seriously contemplates this rich tradition of the Early Church where the local baptized know with hearts aflame that they are the ones who constitute and "concretize" in history the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of the ages. Of course the institution of the local-universal church is a reality, however, my assertion here is that it is a secondary reality and cannot, never will, exude the primary nature of the church as the local Body of Christ: organic and energized by the Spirit. Here is a picture Holy Cross Old Catholic parish in the heart of downtown Prague. It is another beautiful worship space that seats up to 30 persons comfortably. The local-universal Old Catholic Church of the Czech Republic is small and has around 3,000 communicant members, a bishop, 11 priests, and some deacons and other administrative ministers serving Christ and the gospel. The parish buildings are small in size because the communities are in general small in size. If a local-universal Church primarily locates its essence as being organic and relational, it will manifest itself as such in reality.

Every parish I visited, whether it be in Germany or in Prague, was small in size (less than 300 members). There could be many reasons for their smallness, but I believe it is due to the reality of how Old Catholics understand the nature of the church as being primarily identified with the local baptized in relation to each other and their bishop. One cannot be relational in a "mega-church" or a church community that totals in the thousands, at least not in any meaningful way. No, the Old Catholic communities in Europe tend to be small in size because they are relational...the community wants to know its members and really be the Body of Christ together in a meaningful way. For example, I learned that the Old Catholic parish I visited in Stuttgart, Germany requests a person and/or family to journey with the parish for 6 months to a year before petitioning the parish council to become a member. This policy is not exclusionary by nature, nor is it meant to be oppressive. It is rather a way for the person/family to get to know the parish community and really establish a meaningful relationship with each other in celebration of all that is the liturgical essence of living the eucharistic life. Here is a look inside Holy Cross Old Catholic parish. It is absolutely beautiful. Both Holy Cross and St. Mary Magdalene's parish buildings have always been Old Catholic. Both community's have a long history before and after the First Vatican Council and its infamous infallibility teaching of the pope. Holy Cross parish has been in existence at least from the 14th-century. The mosaics on the wall are faded a bit, but are part of the original church and give it character. I attended weekday Mass at Holy Cross, and it was a moving experience. Close to fifteen people were in attendance and the local Old Catholic Bishop Dušan presided at the Mass liturgy. He cantored the psalmody for the day with his wonderful voice while playing his guitar. He is one amazingly gifted bishop to be sure!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

More Random Pictures of Prague

The Castle and Cathedral of Prague at a distance...

Walking the streets and cobblestone corridors of Prague...

Ahh, Prague's tram (street car) system--there is no better way to get around town! The trams commute all around Prague's inner city as well as the extending suburb-like is amazing how one can commute around town via tram easier than with a car.

Some more pictures of Prague (or in Czech "Praha").

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Prague and the local Old Catholic Church of the Czech Republic

My journey to Prague, Czech Republic was approximately an eight hour car ride from Stuttgart, Germany. I was glad to finally reach Prague, and tired from all the traveling I had done up to this point. I stayed with a gentleman named Josef who is the local Old Catholic Church historian and curator of the the Czech diocesan center's library. The library is small in size, but possesses a very impressive collection of books and publications on Old Catholic history, theology, and other relevant works in German, English, Czech, and Polish. I was like a kid in a candy store!

While perusing the library I came across an older edition of the German Old Catholic Altar Book, to which I learned is a prominent liturgical text of the Union of Utrecht that has been translated, transcripted, transliterated and used among smaller Old Catholic Churches in Europe, i.e. the Czech Republic and Austria. The Christian Community of Old Catholics and Episcopalians, USA began using the German Old Catholic Altar Book (2nd ed. 1995) in 2008, and is in the process of publishing its second edition with improved translation and transliteration in English, as well as additional prayer texts for its chapter communities liturgical use in the United States.

I could not find a publication date for the book. Josef seemed to think that it was a late nineteenth or early twentieth century publication. It was a moving experience to hold a piece of Old Catholic history knowing that it was probably one of the first or second editions of the German Old Catholic Altar Book. It reminded me of the history that formed the Union of Utrecht, and the courageous and progressive Roman Catholics at the First Vatican Council (1868-1870) who refused to accept the theological dogma of papal infallibility and universal ecclesial jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome. These defiant Roman Catholics were labeled "old" Catholics because they believed Rome created a "new" or "novel" Catholicism that was not in continuity with Church tradition and Holy Scripture. Put another way, they questioned whether the infallibility teaching was an authentic product of the council's decision under the guidance of the Holy Spirit or that of a few power-driven bishops, including Pope Pius IX, who politically manipulated the process.

It is from this historical context that these progressive Roman Catholics, lay and clergy, were excommunicated and ostracized by their local dioceses in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Czech Republic, and Poland. They had nowhere to go and were truly living in the Diaspora of the Catholic Church. I state often in my lectures and in conversation with others that what Catholics in general value more than anything else is the sensibility of belonging; a knowing that they are sacramentally in communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of the ages. There is nothing more frightening and disheartening for a Catholic than to feel he or she does not belong, and is somehow not in communion with, the "one true church." Denial of communion is a denial of participation in the sacramental life of the church, which has a profound negative effect on persons being exiled. Granted, some of us Catholics may deny this assertion out of defiance and/or anger, but I challenge those of us who are progressive Vatican II Catholics to really reflect on this idea, because I believe much of what I say can be resonated with and felt deep down in the pit of one's stomach. It is only when we truly look into this uncomfortable and hurtful place, and face its ugliness for all that it is, that we can find healing and be transformed by the Spirit to a greater vision of Catholicism and communion.

Do not get me wrong, I am not advocating for reform within the Roman Catholic church institution. As a Catholic, I have moved away from trying to reform an institution that I believe is dis-eased from its very theological source planted at Vatican I. Meaning the heterodoxy of some in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, beginning with the infallibility doctrine at Vatican I, is the dis-eased weed that is systematically choking the authentic work of the Holy Spirit and the reforms instituted at Vatican II. Much like the European "old" Catholics who were excommunicated for defying the infallibility doctrine of the pope at Vatican I, "Vatican II" Catholics in North America are today's "old" Catholics who are being excommunicated for attempting to incarnate the reforms and teachings of the church on the local level in creative and Spirit-driven ways. Those of us Catholics who are gay, lesbian, divorced, or in solidarity with these persons (among others) in the United States are denied a place at the eucharistic table by the Roman hierarchy. Those of us who stay and "fight the good fight" in the Roman Catholic Church are battling a hopeless cause, and are being emotionally and psychologically abused at the same time. I am not advocating retreat from the Catholic faith, rather I am advocating for a different vision that is Catholic in tradition (historically, liturgically, and theologically) as well as in its most pure understanding of the word: universal. Meaning, the Catholicism manifested in the historical local Churches of the Union of Utrecht are not confessional by nature--they do not seek to be a "denomination" among other denominations--rather the primary identity of being Old Catholic is fostering a relational sense of genuine communion, focused on a unity amidst diversity and not uniformity!

What I speak of here is not "Utopian talk" because I am the first to acknowledge that there are those liberal so-called "Vatican II" Catholics who seek to obtain the same oppressive and domineering powers they battle to support their agenda. And any church institution is by its human nature and involvement prone to make mistakes. The irony in all of this comes down to the craving of power and authority, whether it be liberal or conservative, it is at its root the same ambition with a different ideology. What is needed for those of us Catholics in the United States who are no longer welcome at Rome's table is a complete paradigmatic shift of focus, of vision and mission. In some sense, our journey today is much like how the Old Catholics in Europe came to understand their identity as being the western Catholics in continuity with the doctrines and liturgical practices of the Early Church, similar, but not identical to, how the eastern Orthodox Christians view the eucharistic and baptismal nature of the Church Catholic primarily manifested in the act of liturgy (leitourgia). I noticed the above picture in the Czech diocesan center depicting people gathered in liturgy celebrating eucharist together, and realized this is the symbol and realization of what it means to be is the symbol of who and what we are: a communion of diverse communities united together with their local bishop in gratitude with Jesus in the energy of the Sophia Spirit, to the glory of God the Creator of all.

While touring Prague I was struck with an immense feeling of knowing what it meant to be Christian when, while crossing the oldest bridge in Prague: Charles Bridge, I encountered the first among many giant statues of antiquity. It was Jesus hanging on the cross. There was a Hebrew inscription stating "Son of God" crested in gold around him, his mother, and Mary Magdala. I then looked down and in the shadow of the cross on the road I saw four poor persons begging for money. It was how they were begging that stirred my stomach, and caused a feeling in my guts that ached with compassion for them...they were on their knees crouched over with their forehead to the concrete and hands lifted high in the air to receive whatever crumbs of coins that were thrown their way. They said nothing, they just received. And then I looked up at the cross and thought about the scripture reading of Matthew 25--of Jesus intimately identifying with these poor persons begging for money...regardless of their intentions: good, bad, or indifferent. It also reminded me of Jesus' words reminding us that as baptised persons we share in his passion for life, and through him in eucharist we are empowered to relationally seek him out in the poor and those ostracized by society. Hence, to be Old Catholic, is to be an Old believer in solidarity with the poor in addition to the conciliar teachings of the Early Church; the same teachings that the Second Vatican Council advocated for and manifested in much of its pastoral and theological documents. It is a paradigmatic change of one's focus, vision, and mission from maintaining and defending a confession, belief, and/or institution, to fostering, maintaining, and strengthening communion (koinonia) in the local-universal Church where diversity is embraced and viewed as a key ingredient of what binds us together in the love of the Spirit.

Enough "talk" for are some more pictures of Prague, enjoy!

Looking towards the Prague Castle and Cathedral from downtown.

Another view of Jesus crucified--one of the very first statues one is confronted by on the oldest bridge in Prague: the Charles Bridge (named after the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who personally laid the foundation stone of the current standing bridge on July 9, 1357 at 5:31 a.m. -- or so I was told) built in the 14th-15th century. It is an amazing bridge to cross, where one is welcomed or sent out by Christ and his saints.

Here's another picture of the Charles Bridge leaving the city center of Prague. We were on our way to the Chrism Mass at the Old Catholic Cathedral of St. Lawrence on Prague's magnificent bluffs overlooking the city. It was like the saints were bidding us a goodbye blessing. It is certainly the place to go to for an evening walk with someone close to you.

One of the statues on the Charles Bridge has an old folk lore tradition of rubbing with your hands the image of a dog and a traveler to guarantee you will return to Prague. It has been rubbed so often that the gold still shows, polished and all! I rubbed the images extra hard to guarantee John and I will return to Prague sometime in the near future.

I am convinced that there are two things the Czech people cannot live without: their cigarettes and dogs! There are dogs everywhere, even on public trams (street cars)! This one followed me a bit on the Charles Bridge, so I thought I would take a picture of him. He was cute enough.

I will post more pictures and comments soon about my stay in Prague. Peace.