Bob Dylan, the pope and change

Each day we wonder what innovation will change our lives. Change accelerates as we fumble with one gizmo or another, hoping not to become obsolete ourselves. A few days ago, an email message listed nine things that would disappear in our lifetime. Some of them truly are still useful to us. Like the post office, or a physical book. The Catholic Church was not on the list.

We didn't always fall in line with all the Church's teachings. We had a loose and somewhat causal understanding of the authority of the Church. Many popular and seductive ideas and movements clouded our vision. We listened to political anthems and hoisted our placards. We were experimental, as the young are wont to be.

Older now, we see the enduring truth behind many of the Church's difficult teachings. Bob Dylan, the guru of our generation who is now 70, said "I like to think as we get older, we get better." We hope he's right!

Still, though, we are bombarded by contemporary issues, new priorities and pressing agendas from bloggers and angry sorts. They want the Church, as we know it, to change, if not disappear. They want the Church to transform, rather than transform them. Perhaps we should all adhere to Mohandas Gandhi's urging, "Be the change that you want to see in the world."

Still, how can we deal with ever new agendas and still maintain our central teachings? If we Catholics did not respect authority, we would be throttled with the problems of the 127 or so established Protestant churches that, since the Reformation, have been splitting and creating new doctrines and forms of worship. Central authority binds us together in a manner befitting a sacred history.

Think how remarkable it is that the country built on, and most dedicated to, rugged individualism can still live in relative harmony with a body of Catholic faithful. Clearly, persistent tension exists between our love of our individual eccentricities, our politically-implanted and ever expanding liberties and the Catholic adherence to permanent truths. That tension is probably not going to disappear.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver has observed, "We're at a time when some Catholics -- too many -- are discovering they've gradually become non-Catholics who happen to go to Mass. Sad but true. A parallel universe has developed where Church and state beliefs are often at odds. Witness the number of Catholics in politics who support pro-choice legislation."

Today individual expression is the highest and in many circles the most revered form of equality. "My opinion is as important as yours." Everyone is an expert because he holds his own opinion. We even hold opinions about things we know little about. Although many text the phrase IMHO (in my humble opinion), only a few subscribe to it.

This "sanctification of personal opinion" even affects the way we treat our nation's most authoritative document, the Constitution. It is not only open to our differing interpretations, it is now being taught in our schools as a "living document," ever open to new and expending understandings.

It's not easy being Catholic and modern. In order to have wide contemporary appeal, some churches stretch the liturgy. Keeping the traditional celebration of the Mass is a bit of a struggle. In our summer travels we will be attending churches other than our home parish. We admit to a certain shock when attending Mass recently in the Sunbelt. The liturgy had an informal quirkiness. Priests and others on the altar exchanged casual conversations throughout the Mass. Children were escorted out during the service by a scantily clad woman to the tune of the Muppet Movie's "The Rainbow Connection." (Kermit the Frog, thankfully was nowhere in sight.) Was this a Catholic Church?

Liturgical experiences like this reminded us of the late Richard John Neuhaus' observation, "There are still the ditties of doggerel set to vapid tunes what would make even Andrew Lloyd Webber wince; ditties that are typically more about 'Wonderful, Wonderful Us' than about the glory of God. Stories of liturgical and musical malpractice abound."

Pope Benedict, never one to shy away from controversy, suggests the way back from such excesses is through the Eucharist and how it is received. For instance, the pope does not oppose receiving in the hand. But the idea behind the current practice of having people kneel to receive on the tongue was to signal the Real Presence with an exclamation point. He favors this way of revealing something special is going on here. "He is here. Pay attention."

Architecture can abet this distracting, off-focus in churches. Somehow someone approved modern styles not of our tradition. Confusion arises in churches designed in the round. The tabernacle containing the Real Presence is moved somewhere off to the side or into a closet-sized space down a corridor.

A few weeks ago, during the beatification of John Paul II in Rome, the television camera fixed on bad boy Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi aggressively lecturing a cardinal. Although the words were not carried, the PM was talking on and on to the cardinal (poor fellow) beside him. Is this a metaphor for our current situation? Shouldn't it have been the other way around? Where is real Truth to power?

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited "Why I Am Still a Catholic" [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill.