Thursday, December 26, 2019

Protomartyr Stephen and Staatskirche: By Grace beyond Institution to Zeal!

Gospel for the Feast of St. Stephen (1962) Matt 23:34-39:

"At that time, Jesus said to the Scribes and Pharisees, Therefore, behold, I send you prophets, and wise men, and scribes; and some you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from town to town; that upon you may come all the just blood that has been shed on the earth, from the blood of Abel the just unto the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you killed between the temple and the altar. Amen I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem! you who kill the prophets, and stone those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you would not! Behold, your house is left to you desolate. For I say to you, you shall not see Me henceforth until you shall say, Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!"

Praying Matins of St. Stephen, the thought kept recurring, that Saint Stephen was not martyred by others but by his own. His own community stoned him and rejected Christ in doing so.

"For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved." (Matt. 10:20-22)

As for Stephen so for us, faithfulness to Christ takes us nowhere but to Calvary and from there to the right hand of the Father. Such a thought renders institutional talk or thinking maybe problematic and somewhat beside the point. That would seem to apply for all the genuine and good-willed efforts in our blasĂ© Western World to keep Christ in Christmas. The same would apply at this time of year for those rather intense discussion about the role of Church in society and whether the Church isn't, well, losing it... becoming basically irrelevant. St. Stephen's world seems different and certainly more immediate. I do not think that it would be anarchic to insist that Church today cannot be different, that it must serve what amounts to a moment of judgment, a radical parting of ways in favor of the Lord Jesus and His Kingship.

The proposal seems all the more fair, because of the general dissatisfaction reigning clear across the spectrum of possible Church philosophies. Practically no one claims that things are going well for the Church, certainly not as far as Europe and Latin America are concerned. Different people have different takes on just what the problem is. Some people bemoan the loss of an imagined Church vitality from the good old days. They would insist that vitality would return almost automatically with a recovery of the best of our traditions, starting with a liturgical reset. Others refuse to look back and would simply cut the Church adrift, not explaining the logic of their choice which amounts to little more than a Star Trek approach to most anything (dogma, moral, pastoral), you know, daring to go where no one has gone before. If embracing Christ's mission charge from the Mount of the Ascension is indeed constitutive for the Church He founded, then evangelizing, going forth and proclaiming to everyone the Gospel of Christ as it comes down to us from the Apostles must be our raison d'ĂȘtre. Who would be so bold as to give himself or herself a pat on the back in that regard and claim we are succeeding in proclaiming the Messiah, God's Anointed, to the world these days? What serious person on the other hand would cut us loose from that tradition which binds us to the Lord Jesus, born for us and for us given?

Even so, it would be pure romanticism to claim that preaching Christ is best done in conflict with the dominant culture, or under persecution. History would indicate that anarchy as approach is not apostolic. The Church's greatest achievements have come to be in a positive social context and not necessarily in times of adversity. The word which describes us adequately is Christendom. Without pretense the heralds of the Gospel fulfill their mission, be it in green wood or in the dry. At issue would seem to be describing the role temporal power plays or should play in the social equation, for its own sake and for the sake of society, in furthering the mission of the Church.

Did the Church better fulfill its role of leading folks to Christ and into His Heavenly Kingdom in days when hierarchy and monarchy shared the same yoke, pulling the social plow or wagon forward together? Can there be a healthy separation between Church and State without their working at cross purposes and hence to the hindrance of true religion? Where do we find an example of the Church moving freely in accord with its very nature and mission, unrestrained by the temporal powers that be? In a recent interview Cardinal Kurt Koch made the distinction between what he termed a healthy secular stance on the part of the State and secularizing tendencies which are oppressive of Church and lethal for what is often touted as religious liberty. With all due respect for His Eminence, I am at a loss to find a state with a healthy secular stance; it seems to be more of an ideal. 

In the last days, two Swiss news agencies have published articles interviewing priests in Germany exclusively serving the Vetus Ordo, the Old Mass. In one case the priests are of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and serve Swiss communities. In the other, the article reported on an Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Berlin, exclusively dedicated to promoting the Vetus Ordo. None of the groups of faithful served by these priests is gigantic, but all their apostolates are growing, let us say they are reasonably prosperous, and are characterized by a predominant presence of young people and no small number of children. Much was made in both articles of the fact that the priests enjoyed neither state subsidies nor any sort of allotment from the so-called church tax. These men live from the offerings of the people whom they serve. Shouldn't a State with a healthy secular stance be on board with initiatives of this type? Or is it fair to suspect that such subsidies always have strings attached?

I bring this up, because the Oratorian Father from Berlin referred in the NZZ article to the Catholic Church in Germany as a virtual Staatskirche, an institutional Church tied to government, sort of like the Anglican Church in England, the Protestant Churches of the various Nordic Countries, or maybe like the Russian Orthodox Church. Vibrancy or vitality is not a characteristic of any State Church or Staatskirche. These days we can conclude that the thing almost by definition has no heart, is not life giving. Perhaps Staatskirche or some kind of sponsorship by the local noble (St. Bernard of Clairvaux's many foundations) did reflect vital religion in some age gone by. But from a look at today's examples, while it may have pageantry or the like, the term Staatskirche is synonymous with an entity which cannot pretend to have or touch the hearts of people. It has money, but no real draw on the hearts of people. The hay day of State Church is long since past. Generally it seems, people are turning their backs on this particular institutional form of religious expression.

For every St. Stephen, for every Francis of Assisi or Anthony of Padua, who set off to get himself martyred witnessing to the Saracens, God seems to have shown another path, leaving Stephen to shine brightly on the Second Day of Christmas. The sanctoral cycle of the Church calendar is amply populated with confessors, doctors and virgins. They too show us the way, in the midst of contrast or conflict, to let the light shine forth from the manger at Bethlehem. Whether by shedding blood or through their witness of heroic virtue, the saints would seem to disclaim that institutional language hell-bent on making the Church an equal opportunity employer. The narrow gate to Calvary passes another way.

The brightness of Stephen's confession brought joy to his brethren and had the powers that be or their henchmen grinding their teeth and blocking their ears. My hope would be not that my Vetus Ordo friends be visited by adversity from within the Church institutional, but rather that the brethren would find in them reason to rejoice and hope for a new Christendom by grace to be identified by its zeal.


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