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Vanilla Catholicism?

Deacon Keith A Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC

I have a wonderful twenty one year old daughter who lives with us. She loves cooking shows. It seems to be genetic. My late dear old dad loved them also. They seem to form a backdrop these days when I arrive home early from the office. I occasionally join my daughter in watching one of them, especially when I just want her to know I care or I need some mindless fare.

Some time back, on one of her favorite cooking shows, the host and a guest were making home made ice cream. Well, need I say anymore? I was drawn into my living room chair. I love ice cream; you know the real kind, made with heavy cream and all the real flavors, not the fat free, sugar free, taste free pretend kind that was in vogue for a short time. The shows' host prepared the basic recipe, using real vanilla beans as the flavor base, and placed the large recipe in various ice cream makers.

Then, along with her guest, she began to deepen the experience of the basic recipe by filling various bowls with the concoction and adding all the various fruits, nuts, and flavor bases that make ice cream even more of a culinary experience. By the time it was done, the vanilla seemed awfully bland. Sure, it was still ice cream, still rich and creamy, but it was missing the depth of flavor that draws so many people to this amazing frozen confection we call ice cream. At the end of the program, some members of the audience were invited to sample the various flavors. No-one chose vanilla. I am sure, if it was the only flavor available, or if it was offered alongside of the fat free or sugar free kind, it would have been chosen. But when there is something fuller flavored, most people want it.

What's my point?

Well, I live in a Diocese that has been devastated by some of the worst trends in the contemporary Catholic Church. Don't get me wrong, I have complete confidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in this Diocese and I am not afraid. This Diocese belongs to the Lord and I am a loyal son of the Catholic Church. Since the retirement of our Bishop was accepted at the mandatory age, we prayerfully await a new Bishop, As a member of the clergy of this Diocese, I pray daily that the next Bishop will lead the faithful of our Diocese in a Catholic restoration.

Until then, I still treasure the gift that is Catholic Christian faith in its essentials. I understand that the Church is both a gift and mystery. I understand the diversity that is appropriate in Catholic life. I know it is not the "externals" that make us Catholic. However, they are an expression of the heart and center of what is distinctively Catholic about Catholic Christianity- and when they are missing, our liturgical experience can become bland and barren. That is a shame.

I have spent decades in ecumenical work, and I find it so odd that right when so many of our Christian friends in other confessions and communities are searching for a deeper encounter in formal worship, for sign, symbol and mystery, for a connection with the ancient Church in her divine worship, some parts of the Catholic community are discarding the very treasures that make her formal liturgical worship so beautiful, full of mystery and so compelling and attractive to those seeking a deeper Christian life.

Let me give you some examples.

Along with moving the tabernacle out of the sanctuary (and with it so much of the mystery and beauty of encountering the living God, in His transcendence and His imminence) the renovation "experts" in this Diocese have moved many of the symbols of uniquely Catholic worship, practice and expression out of the sanctuary. What the faithful are forced to accept is the bad fruit of what one writer aptly referred to as changing "Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces". Oh, don't get me wrong. The basics are still there, thank God. The Word is still proclaimed from what still at least resembles an Ambo. There is an altar, although it is often stripped down and has little grandeur befitting the eternal sacrifice made wonderfully present in the timeless mystery re-presented at every consecration in every Mass.

The priest still wears vestments; even though they seem to have such a casual nature to them one does not quickly grasp why he even wears them, or the connection that they bring between the eternal heavenly liturgy and the beauty of the worship of the Holy Church throughout the world. They sometimes seem so "ordinary" that one can fail to discern that they speak symbolically, crossing the span of more than two thousand years and reaching back into the temple worship. Then there is the issue of the "rubrics" following the rules, the norms, of the liturgy.

In one parish close to my home, the priest somewhat elevates the consecrated Host, (which he lifts from an earthenware paten) and the Chalice (filled as we believe with the very Blood of Jesus Christ), but only ever so slightly. He slightly bends his waist afterward, no genuflection. This is not "wrong", it is not profane. It is at least a sign of "reverence." It is a "valid" liturgy of course. Most of the "rubrics" are technically complied with.

But I so often ask myself "Why?" The extraordinary depth and beauty that the elevation conveys; the invitation it is meant to be for all the faithful into the heavenly mysteries and a participation in the very life and love of a God who gives Himself to us. There, "in persona Christi", the celebrant mediates the gift of heaven, the mystery hidden from the ages...and there we encounter the Lamb of God, slain for us. At that moment all the angels of God bow in profound reverence and we are invited to join them! Why this minimalism?

It actually begins when you enter the "worship space", there is absolutely no sign or symbol anywhere. Particularly one that would make you think that you have entered a catholic Church. The walls are beige. The few banners have geometric patterns. There are no icons or images reflecting the heavenly touching the earth, drawing you into a transcendent encounter with the God who we are about receive and in whom we are invited to live and move and have our being. The "space" is filled with people conversing about the week - no screaming mind you, but nothing that sets it apart as the place where God will manifest Himself and give Himself away, body, blood, soul and divinity, to we who are mere mortals invited into His throne room.

Before the processional, we are invited from the ambo to "greet everyone around us". Nothing wrong with that I guess, the Church is a community of the faithful. But I did it already in what use to be called the vestibule, now called the "commons" with absolutely no religious symbols at all. There is no kneeling in this liturgy (though I understand that kneeling is primarily a western practice, it certainly adds to the liturgical experience); no profound bowing either (primarily an eastern practice), no gestures of humbling ourselves in adoration before the living and true God. In effect, no use of the body in the profound act that is liturgical worship.

I am not a "traditionalist" Catholic, although I understand and respect those who are. I am just a Catholic Christian; a "revert", drawn back to the fullness of Christianity that is dynamic, orthodox, faithful Catholic life and practice. I have the utmost respect for my brethren who are Protestants in each of their various confessions and communities. However, I am not one, by choice. I don't want a Protestant looking church building or stripped down Catholicism whose worship seems more protestant than Catholic. I do not want barren liturgy and symbol-less Catholicism. In short, having tasted the full richness of liturgical life, I do not want Vanilla Catholicism. I want to live my life, bring my wife and children, indeed all those who hunger for God, into a full, rich and beautiful experience of Catholic faith, worship and life.

Oh, I know what I have called "Vanilla Catholicism" is still Catholicism. It is, in its basic ingredients, still the right recipe. However, I like the added flavor in my religion just as I do in my ice cream. I think it is sad and condescending that those who think they "know better" have taken the richness, the depth of flavor that draws so many to this treasure that is Catholic worship and life. Their efforts will not endure. Their numbers and influence are also dwindling.

The Catholic seminaries that are full are filled with candidates who want more than vanilla, they want the vibrant, symbolic, magisterium following, richly liturgical, devout flavor of Catholic faith and life. The ecclesial movements that are flourishing are made up of men and women who also want the full recipe in all of its rich beauty. The "new" Catholics, coming from other Christian communities into full communion with the Catholic Church, are flooding the "orthodox" and faithful Catholic parishes. The symbols are coming back and new ones are emerging.

There was a movement called Iconoclasm ("Image-breaking") in the eighth and ninth centuries in the Eastern Church. It became a full scale heresy. The term has come to be associated with those who rejected icons, but I think it speaks to a broader problem. Icons are meant to put us in touch with the transcendent mysteries of our faith. I pray with icons and have for many years. I cherish their role in the Eastern Church. In fact, one would never find an Eastern Church, Catholic or Orthodox, without icons. The contemporary "iconoclasts" are those who seek to de-mystify Christian faith, life, worship and practice. They are not the future of the Church but the past.

They think that the symbols of our worship, our faith and our life are somehow a problem. While they strip our sanctuaries, make our liturgical experiences "vanilla", and think they have helped us by somehow making the faith more 'relevant", "meaningful" or "contemporary", they have done the Church and her mission a disservice. They fail to grasp that, by nature and grace, human persons are symbolic. Man (and woman) is created in the image of God, and is a divine icon. Jesus Christ is the Icon of the Father. Symbols touch us at a much deeper level than words or emotive or affective participation. They touch us at the level where authentic religion and deep worship truly begins. It is there where we hunger the most for God.

It is time to bring back the full Catholic recipe to worship. We could get a quick start by bringing the Tabernacle back into the sanctuary. That would begin the process of making them sacred spaces once again. Somehow, I cannot imagine that the gymnasium behavior that has come to characterize the church of the meeting place continuing with the Tabernacle in the center of our worship. Oh, I know there is some merit in having a quiet place where people can go and meditate in the Eucharistic presence of the Lord. So, have two tabernacles and place one in the Eucharistic chapel.

Along with the Tabernacle, bring back the other signs and symbols of our worship. Fill those vanilla walls with the beauty of icons bringing heaven to earth. Bring back reverence, transcendence and beauty to the presidency of the priest and the responses of the faithful. When you can have more than vanilla, why settle for less. Bring back full flavored Catholicism and watch our Churches fill, our seminaries fill and a Catholic restoration flourish.


Deacon Keith Fournier is a married Roman Catholic Deacon, with five children and one grandchild. He also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Church with approval. He is a human rights lawyer and a graduate of the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He is a co-founder of the "Your Catholic Voice Movement" and the founder of "Common Good".


Catholic Online VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Executive Editor, 757 546-9580



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