Friday, October 07, 2016 - Updated: 7:00 am
QUESTION: I have a problem with inconsistency in the Catholic Church. One parish says this or that is a rule, and all you have to do is go around the corner and you will hear something very different at another parish. What is this all about?
ANSWER: The question above relates to one of the laments often heard when people describe what they see as the changes after the Second Vatican Council. They say the beauty of the Catholic Church “back then” was that no matter where in the world you went for Mass it was exactly the same — Texas, Tanzania or Taiwan, exactly the same.
While that is basically true in what we knew as the Catholic Church of 1958, was it always that way? Any reading of the New Testament letters as well as the Acts of the Apostles will demonstrate that early Christianity was actually an experience of both unity and diversity.
The unity of the early church was found in its adherence to a creed of essential beliefs. Especially following the first councils of the church, fundamental truths of the faith were those expressed by commonly held creeds that became the benchmark for unity. Each bishop, when assuming office, publicly professed his faith in that creed. The creed became the standard of teaching and belief. What became normative was what we continue to profess in the creed at Mass each Sunday.
Along with this essential unity was an amazing diversity of expression. The New Testament churches had different “styles” of prayer and even governance. This diversity was seen not as a weakness but as a strength precisely because it enabled each community to express its fundamental unity in ways that utilized their unique thought patterns, language and culture. In the history of the Catholic Church these principles of unity and diversity coexisted for centuries.
It was only with the Catholic reformation following the challenges of Luther, Calvin and others, that diversity came to be seen as a weakness and uniformity in all things was seen as desirable. But even those structural reforms applied mostly to the Latin church, and the worldwide Catholic Church continued to enjoy a remarkable diversity of liturgical “rites.”
Today, this continues so that in one area of a city, three Catholic parishes may celebrate the Eucharist on the same Sunday in three very distinct ways. For example, in a Latin-rite parish, in one that is Byzantine and one that is Maronite. What we see in this example is the unity of faith in creed and the diversity of expression.
Something of that pattern exists from parish to parish. People have a fundamental right to hear and express a common faith and correct teaching in every Mass. There cannot be doctrinal “options” from parish to parish. However, people of some parishes have cultural traditions that differ from those of their neighboring parishes. Parishes also have preferences for certain types of musical expression, and this is sometimes based on the talent and resources that are available. One of the real strengths of the Catholic faith is the ability to express a common faith as unity within diversity.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.