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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!


  1. Hi Father Bob,

    Nice to see you posting again. I find myself very much in agreement with your eccesiology. However, it might be slightly easier to digest if it were broken up into paragraphs lol!

    What you call mosaics on the interior walls of the Rotunda of the Holy Cross are not mosaics but frescos. And whilst both St. Mary Magdalene and the Rotunda of the Holy Cross are very ancient buildings and have been used for Christian worship for many centuries, I think you will find that the Old Catholic Church in the Czech Republic has only had the use of them since a few years after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

  2. Thank you Fr. Ricky for your comment. I am still trying to learn how to format this blog...will try to space things out a bit next time.

    Also, thank you for the corrections. They are appreciated! More posts to come...~Bob