Sunday, April 25, 2004

Ecumenicalism run amok? 

by Aaron B
The Vatican is upset. Apparently, large numbers of American Catholic congregations are allowing unordained lay people to participate in Mass in semi-official capacities. Thus, too many non-priests and non-deacons are delivering sermons and preaching the gospel, when these important tasks should be left to the proper authorities. You can read about it here. This whole episode has me wondering ... What would Pope John Paul think of my good friend Father Hans?

Father Hans is a "Catholic" priest whose congregation meets in Hollywood. I use the scare-quotes because Hans is an adherent of "Old Catholicism," a schismatic movement that broke with the Roman church in 17th Century Holland. The Old Catholics retain the traditional, elaborate Latin liturgy, with all its bells and whistles, but seem more evangelically Protestant than Roman Catholic in theology. To cite its own sources, Old Catholicism values "collegial episcopacy, flexibility, moderate discipline, placing more responsibility on the individual to elicit a mature and free response from the individual," rather than Roman Catholicism's "exaggerated papacy, monarchical pyramid structure, with a burgeoning bureaucracy, legalistic mentality resulting in a multiplication of canon laws." Hans rejects "Mary-olatry," papal infallibility and Saint worship. He really likes Jesus, baptism by immersion and personal scripture study.

What makes Hans REALLY interesting, however, is his love for Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and Gordon B. Hinkley. (He's less fond of some of Brigham Young's teachings, the Book of Abraham and King Follet -- you understand). He's been studying Mormonism for years, and he's a better missionary for the Restoration than me or you. He hands out Books of Mormon at his work (yes, he has a job outstide of Church). He refers religious seekers to the Mormon missionaries rather than inviting them to his own services. When I introduced him to Blomberg and Robinson's _How Wide the Divide_, he practically had a heart attack he loved it so much. Hans is a "Dry Mormon" par excellence. The fact that he ministers to his own congregation every Sunday, AFTER attending "his" own LDS ward, makes him all the more fascinating.

About a year ago, Father Hans approached me with an unusual request. Convinced that LDS missionaries are "angels," and that they obviously love and follow Christ more than anyone in his congregation could ever hope to, Hans wanted to organize a Catholic-Mormon "hybrid" Mass. He proposed that my four full-time missionaries and I (the Ward Mission Leader) play an active role in his services. He would conduct as usual, waving the incense, reciting the liturgy and preaching a short sermon (complete with occasional Book of Mormon or D&C quotations - without attribution). We would stand on the stage with him as representatives of Christ, read excerpts from the Bible at key junctures and offer the closing prayer. I talked this idea over with my Bishop, and he agreed it would be an interesting idea. We have now held three of these ecumenical worship services. The Los Angeles Mission President was invited to the last one. He came, gave the sermon in place of Father Hans, and seemed to enjoy the afternoon enormously.

Needless to say, these were very unusual experiences. They were both spiritual and awkward, simultaneously moving but bizarre. A thousand questions were occurring to me that I would never otherwise have occasion to think about. Do we recite the ritual language, along with everyone else? Or do we stay silent? Or do we merely omit the theologically-incorrect phrases? Do we lightly bow to the Crucifix as we approach our seats, just as Father Hans just did? How do we refuse the chalice of sacramental wine when it is offered to us? (One naive elder almost took a swig, until I stopped him). What will the parishoners think if we do? Or if we don't? What do they make of Mormon missionaries co-officiating in their services to begin with?

But there are even deeper questions to ponder. Is it appropriate for priesthood holders of God's "true church" to be co-officiating in a Catholic Mass, complete with sacrament service? Even though we didn't bless or pass the sacrament, we appeared to be endorsing an "apostate" ordinance. Were we using our priesthood inappropriately to jointly preside over the service? (Hans was adamant that we were "conducting" with him). Or were we, by definition, not really exercising our "priesthood" at all (which is how we saw things)? Then again, if we were introduced as representatives of Christ by Hans to his followers, does it even make conceptual sense to divorce our "priesthood" role from our "representative of Christ" role? I actually discussed some of these questions at length with Hans prior to the first Mass. He insisted that he saw us as his equals in our capacities to represent the Lord. I told him that we could not reciprocate the compliment, given our views on priesthood authority. He understood, and said he didn't care.

So what does everyone make of all this? Maybe it's time for President Hinkley to issue an encyclical and help me out.

Aaron B
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