An Encouraging Word — Standing in the middle

“… things both new and old.” Matthew 13:52

Father J. Ronald Knott
Father J. Ronald Knott

As I watch the leadership of Pope Francis, I am reminded of my days as pastor of the Cathedral of the Assumption. I had no idea we would be renovating that building when I accepted the job back in 1983.

After all it had been renovated in the 1970s. What I set out to do was to revitalize the congregation.

However, I soon learned that the renovation of the 1970s, besides basically gutting its interior, had simply painted over the real problems — disintegrating plaster, a leaking roof, a bell tower about to fall and no inside access to an unusable basement.

When it became clear that we were going to have to renovate again, two extremes came out of the woodwork. There was the crowd who wanted another modern renovation and the crowd who wanted to put it back like it was. I certainly did not want to be part of spending a fortune on a museum dedicated to 19th-century Catholicism. Besides, those who wanted to “put it back like it was” were thinking of 1952, not 1852 when it was dedicated.

The first crowd acted as if we had no history. The second crowd acted as if we had no future. I wanted a cathedral that respected our history and one that would serve a revitalized congregation today. A museum church, I thought, might bring people in once or twice, but a revitalized congregation would bring them every Sunday. I agreed wholeheartedly with St. John XXIII when he said, “Tradition is about protecting the fire, not preserving the ashes.”

As a guiding principle, we chose this line from the Gospel of Matthew. “… like the master of household who brings out of his treasure things both new and old.” I believe the results respect our history, as well as the needs of today’s church. It looks very much like it did when it was dedicated, while being suited to today’s worship needs.

Pope Francis, like Pope Paul VI, is getting hit from both sides because he is trying to stand in the middle. The theologian, Christopher Bellito, argues that the best way of understanding Pope Francis is to look back to the work of the theologian, Dominican Father Yves Congar, who developed principles that steer between the extremes of tradition and progress, as well as between conservation and innovation. (I actually met Father Congar at the ecumenical monastic community of Taizé, France,
about 20 years before he died.)

Father Congar identified the first temptation of reformers as a Pharisee-like adherence to religious formalism and obligation. This perspective tends to hold on to tradition and ritual as fixed inflexibly in time and place. The opposite temptation is the wholesale rejection of what is termed “old.” The church should adapt, but she should not lose touch with her core and her past. We must be open to the letter and spirit of the law as well as to the natural development of tradition.

Father J. Ronald Knott

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