By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
The Vatican notoriously does not like to make decisions down the barrel of a gun, and with good reason – moments of crisis driven by outside pressure rarely make for careful policy. Yet there’s an important choice facing the Vatican these days, accompanied by a ticking clock that could create an unusual sense of urgency.
Here it is in a nutshell: What to do about a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews contained in the old Latin rite, which has been authorized for wider use by Pope Benedict XVI? The ticking clock is created by the liturgical calendar: Good Friday falls this year on March 21, just nine weeks away.
(As a footnote, I refer to the “old rite” rather than “old Mass” because, of course, Mass is not celebrated on Good Friday. Pre-consecrated hosts are distributed during a liturgical commemoration of the Passion of Christ.)
While this would be of concern under any circumstances, the timeline is further complicated by the fact that Benedict XVI will arrive in the United States just three weeks after Good Friday, and will meet with an inter-religious delegation expected to include Jews. The last thing organizers want is a cloud of Jewish/Catholic tension hanging over the event. It’s an especially acute sentiment given memories of Joseph Ratzinger’s last visit to New York, in 1988, when a handful of rabbis refused to meet him in protest over comments allegedly suggesting that Christianity is the “fulfillment” of Judaism.
If a reminder were needed of Jewish sensitivities about the Good Friday prayer, which among other things asks God to “lift the veil from their hearts,” the Anti-Defamation League included it on a late December list of “Top Ten Issues Affecting Jews in 2007.” The ADL called the possible revival of the prayer “a theological setback to the reforms of Vatican II, and a challenge to Catholic-Jewish relations.”
(To be sure, the ADL statement did not go down well in some Catholic circles. Putting Benedict XVI on the same list of anti-Semitic offenders as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example, struck even some Catholics deeply committed to Jewish/Christian dialogue, and who are themselves concerned about the Good Friday prayer, as excessive. Nonetheless, it’s an indicator that the prayer remains a live issue.)
At one level, this may seem an easy fix. Last July, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said the problem could be solved by substituting the prayer for Jews found in the post-Vatican II liturgy for Good Friday, which no longer refers to conversion but rather asks that Jews “may arrive at the fullness of redemption.” Since the original texts of the new liturgy are in Latin, it would be fairly simple to ask communities celebrating the old rite to use the Latin version of the more recent prayer.
(In a mid-November consultation between the U.S. bishops’ conference and the National Council of Synagogues, Fr. Dennis McManus, a liturgical expert, also floated the idea of finding another ancient prayer, or creating a new one, but most experts regard these as more complicated and long-term possibilities. Aside from questions of content, the advantage of the prayer in the post-Vatican II rite is that it’s already been approved for liturgical use.)
So, why not just decree immediately that the Latin version of the more recent prayer be used by everyone, thereby defusing the bomb before it goes off?
Part of the answer, of course, is simply the normal leisurely course of affairs in the Vatican. More deeply, however, experts say the real problem is fear of a slippery slope: If church authorities are willing to revise the Good Friday prayer for the Jews on the grounds that it’s not consistent with the teaching of Vatican II, what about other elements of the old rite that, according to some, raise similar questions?
For example, the Good Friday liturgy also contains prayer for heretics and schismatics (meaning Protestants) and for pagans (meaning non-Christians). Should those prayers too be revised, since they don’t reflect the more sensitive argot of Vatican II? More broadly, some critics charge that much of the symbolism and language of the old Mass is inconsistent with the vision of the council. Should all that be put on the operating table? If so, one might fairly ask, what was the point of Benedict’s ruling in the first place?
Creating a precedent for selective editing of the old rite, in other words, could open the door to death by a thousand cuts.
Given that concern, it’s not clear how the uncertainty over the Good Friday prayer might be resolved, and perhaps equally critically, when. Bertone announced this week in an interview with the Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana that the Vatican is working on a document clarifying implementation of the pope’s ruling, but offered no sense of timing.
Those interested in Jewish/Catholic relations, and in the outcome of Benedict’s trip to the United States, will certainly be watching.
Two other points are in order. I’ve made both before, but since this controversy hasn’t gone away, they bear repeating.
First, Catholics have been able to celebrate the pre-Vatican rite with permission from their local bishop since Pope John Paul II authorized it with a special indult in 1984. For the last 24 years, therefore, a handful of Catholics have been reciting the old prayer for the conversion of the Jews each Good Friday – without, in the eyes of most experts, any appreciable impact on Jewish/Catholic relations. Of course, the difference this time around is that Benedict’s motu proprio has raised the profile of the old rite, ensuring that saying the prayer this time would be a cause célèbre.
Second, a bit of misunderstanding continues to circulate in some quarters about Benedict’s ruling, one which affects the Good Friday controversy. Because the pope decreed that priests should not celebrate private Masses in the old rite during Holy Week, some have concluded that the Good Friday prayer would never be used in any event. In fact, however, the pope made a distinction between private Masses and public celebrations for stable communities. Where Catholics routinely worship according to the old rite, they will continue to do so during Holy Week, and therefore would use the old Good Friday prayers – absent any contrary instructions from the Vatican.
In August, I published a comment that makes the point: “There is no doubt that the motu proprio permits public celebration of the ‘62 Missal during Holy Week in parishes with a stable group of faithful,” said Msgr. James Moroney, former executive director of the Secretariat for the Liturgy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.