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Posted September 17, 2004

Adjusting to Times of Change

By Archbishop Rembert Weakland from his Website

Almost every generation feels that it is passing through a unique time of transition in history. Certainly this has been true of our own culture for the last hundred years. As members of the Church we have the same feeling with regard to what is happening to the Catholic Church. Sometimes we may even feel that it is the Church alone that is undergoing such a radical transformation. We could all name signs of those changes, most of them perhaps experienced as negative.

In reality it is the whole of Western culture, and perhaps one could even say of all the cultures on the globe, that is changing radically. One only has to look at what is happening in China to verify this rapid adjustment to a new form of capitalism. Japan and Korea have been in the middle of such a transformation for decades now.

Often we analyze these transformations as being the result of global economy and global communications. Cultures that at one time seemed thousands of miles apart and that could look on each other as curiosities, now are immediately juxtaposed through the incredible means of communications that we enjoy. In watching the news we find ourselves saying the names of cities in countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia that previously we never knew even existed. There is no doubt that globalization has brought about the need for cultural change in our own nation as well.

Yet this does not seem to explain everything that is happening to us. One could say that many of the underpinnings of the American culture that go back to the Founders are also undergoing rapid transformation. Some might even say that such a culture with its roots well into the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment is crumbling from within. What at one time had been considered as a positive aspect of that culture, such as rugged individualism and absolute personal freedom, is now seen at times as a form of narcissism and isolationism. There seems to be so little concern for the common good and for the volunteerism that had been the hallmark of American culture in the nineteenth century and that had been so highly praised by European observers.

There has also been a rise of a new populist culture that at one time would not have attracted much attention but that now is center stage. Let me take music as an example. One could say that the music of the younger generation, whether it be rock or rap, seems to alienate that generation from a previous one that tried to hold together popular music and classical - or, one might say, the new and the traditional. We are a much more divided culture in tastes and underlying values.

In the older American tradition the rich thought it their duty to contribute heavily to the welfare of the whole society. They built museums, concert halls, stadiums, and other societal structures out of a sense of duty and gratitude for the goods that God had given them. The wealthy now are more likely to contribute to political parties and to those entities which we call think-tanks set up to perpetuate a theoretical basis for maintaining the status quo.

And yet, if the week of commemorations after the death of Ronald Reagan have taught us anything, it is that people are looking for unifying forces and symbols to counteract a concern only for the rugged individualism and the highly contentious atmosphere that now characterizes our culture.

Of late we see many in the Catholic Church analyzing the American culture only in its most negative outcomes, namely, the rugged individualism that leads to unbounded selfishness, a freedom that leads only to hedonistic and narcissistic expressions, and even to extinction of human life through abortions and assisted suicides. But there are many positives as well and these must be cited - advances in science and medicine, relief services around the globe, a search for spirituality and community, and the like.

The position of the Church, however, has always been historically that of both/and and not either/or. The Church has always supported, since the time of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the dignity and rights of the individual. The difference is that in its teaching it has seen those rights as existing in a constant tension with the common good or the well-being of the whole community. Any pastoral plan on the part of the Church today has to include such a both/and approach. It is not helpful to decry the rugged individualism of our society with one breath and then with another propose new kinds of devotionalism or older forms of piety that tend to reinforce such individualism. We must keep in view the need for personal holiness, but see that such holiness comes from and grows out of the challenge of participation in the life of an active faith community where that community is built up by the Liturgy.

It is unfortunate that in the liturgical renewal we no longer put any emphasis on the Liturgy as an encounter between Christ and the assembly as such. The role of the assembly is primary because the assembly is the Church here and now. In truth, everything in Liturgy serves the personal sanctity of the members, but as members of a living community under the unifying force of the Spirit that builds them up as a living instrument of the Kingdom. The unifying aspect of the Mass through the power of the Spirit - that is, the building of community, or Church - implies that the community is not inward-looking, or concerned only about its own prerogatives, but extends its mission beyond the walls of the Church to the whole of society. The Kiss of Peace is not a pleasant ritual, but a commitment to work toward that peace.

We need a Catholic pastoral plan that is both/and. It must enrich personal holiness, but always be integrated into a search for the unity of all God's people, for building the Kingdom beyond the walls of its buildings.