In the Presence of the Divine

The measured strains of Ave Maria delivered by an operatic soprano voice drifted across my living room. The occasion was a solemn high mass for the recently deceased Cardinal Egan in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC. I lived in New York during the 9/11 attack and remember Egan as a good soul in a city of good and heroic souls. I walked passed the smoldering ruins every day for a couple of years after the attack. Egan was in great need because we were all in mourning for the vanished dead, the DNA of souls found in land, sea and water.

The Ave Maria always stops me in my tracks, whether sung in St. Patrick’s or last year at Resurrection Church in Green Bay, WI, when I buried my brother. Of course, the Ave Maria is a religious anthem for many, including me. I grew up in the Latin Church and still find in traditional Latin hymns a deep and respectful quiet, even though I rest uneasily with a lot of Catholic theology. Perhaps it is because sepulchral music is fundamental, archetypal and trembling in soulfulness.

I’ve been reading around in Church history, focusing on the council of Trent that ended its on-again, off-again eighteen-year run in 1563. This tumultuous Council was supposed to be an answer to Martin Luther in particular and the Reformation in general. So issues relating to married priests, saying Mass in the vernacular, and reducing papal power were in the air but kept out of the sessions by a dominant and self-serving Italian delegation representing the pope. The Council was largely a sham.

Pope Paul V, the reigning pontiff when the Council closed, thought the printing press was the devil incarnate. He had a point. Catholic bibles and other religious texts were regularly published without papal consent in Italian in Venice and in local tongues throughout Europe. This was when the Inquisition was in flower and the Vatican declared such publications anathema and often excommunicated the offending parties for such heresies.

The Council of Trent was organized to let some fresh air into a medieval church. The next real effort was 400 years later, almost to the day of the close of Trent, at the Second Vatican Council. Delegates revisited some of the topics that weren’t addressed in the 16th century. Ironically, in the opinion of many of the faithful Vatican II abandoned the deep, ancestral, sacramental Latin for the unpoetic and uninspiring local tongues. For others, the publication of “Humanae Vitae” in 1968 on the heels of the Council, remembered most for its doctrinal stand on artificial birth control that seemed to echo Aristotelean thought, made the Church a laughing stock and is still ignored by most Catholics. Fifty years on, the document does seem to express a curious theology, psychology, and physiology. Apparently when Pope Paul VI was weighing his decision about birth control in 1968, a number of bishops cautioned him that this could lead to another “Galileo moment” and further shrinkage of the Church.

The Catholic Church still struggles with the feminine. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, followed by the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven in 1950, under the weight of papal infallibility, were attempts to elevate Mary without making her a god. This took nineteen centuries. During Vatican II, a Belgian Cardinal apparently asked how the assembled could discuss the fundamental reality of the Church when half the population was missing. His question is still hanging fire.

In “Humanae Vitae” there is something precious yet forbidding about the language describing human sexuality and not just because the document was prepared by celibate men. The tone is restrained and somewhat virginal, cautioning that every act of intimacy must hold the promise of procreation. It is as if the document itself is the superior creation. After a hundred years of psychology we are left with some doctrines that might well be applauded by Copernicus.

When listening to the Ave Maria in the Resurrection Church in Green Bay, my dead brother in a casket in front of me and my loving family by my side, I knew I was in the presence of the divine.

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