Meaningful ritual or oppressive hierarchy?

Last week I was pondering the role of ritual in giving us a sense of living meaningful lives and having worth alone and in our communities. I attended the march out parade of young men and women who have completed the year long Mawhera Services Academy programme and I was really proud to have known them all, to see them utterly, shakingly nervous minutes before the beginning and then they all performed perfectly. The graduation began with a powhiri and then ran according to military tradition, with many shouted commands in a rehearsed drill, brass band music, military dignities and speeches. I saw these boys and girls at the beginning of the year and I know their histories of struggle. Almost none of them fitted well into a traditional school environment. To see our community witness and celebrate their achievements last Thursday was also to see these young adults know they have worth and futures. I loved it.

It also got me thinking about rituals. I have little patience for people who claim that Maori have culture and Pakeha do not. Maori have fought damn hard to resurrect their traditions and get them respected throughout New Zealand's formal and informal institutions. Pakeha society (white settler New Zealand) was formed from the mid nineteenth century and drawn from cultures in the British Isles already undergoing rapid change due to the industrial revolution. Historians differ on exactly how religious New Zealand settlers were, but nobody is claiming that allegiance to institutional religious belief reigned in every household (or tent or hotel).

But for many New Zealanders, religious traditions made or make up a significant part of their world view. I grew up going to Mass with Mum and my siblings every Sunday (Dad only converted quite recently). Not merely most Sundays, but every single Sunday without fail. Now I can see that the exposure to Bible readings and sermons gave me things to think about which were aimed slightly above me as I grew up and that that was a good thing, on the whole. The whole social justice aspect of Catholicism has long appealed and I am not angry that I was exposed to Catholicism as a child. In a boring suburban existence, the incense, the symbolism, the almost magical stories of children who became saints (St Franics of Assisi, Stoke, Nelson - great children's library if you are into romantic stories of children finding God and changing their life and becoming saints) were a exotic windows into a less banal world.

Therein lies the rub. Like most of my peers, I don't attend Mass on a regular basis. Once a year would be typical, maybe twice. I rejected the ritual and traditions associated with regular Mass going because I found the hierarchical structure of the Church unhelpful and inappropriate. I found the sexism which permeates every weave of the fabric of Church life unacceptable and unhelpful. Today when I go on occasion I always come away frustrated with the sermon's focus on Catholic dogma, preached to a largely well-dressed well-fed congregation, while poverty and disaster (and global warming and tsunamis and financial markets' abuse of ordinary people and so on) reign outside the doors.

So I've taken the social justice aspects of Catholicism and created my own path, supported along the way by many wonderful people. The ritual thing is beautiful though and I saw it in a rosy glow for a while last week, thinking that Catholic schools can offer much to kids adrift amongst commercial crap.

But why did I reject so much that came with the rituals of Roman Catholicism? Err well, a post which a friend linked to on facebook today (I love having a US friend on facebook linking to interesting articles in the New York Times) - an article by an arch conservative Catholic writer Kenneth Wolfe, reminded me quite quickly. Wolfe intones against a man called Bugnini who is credited with much of the reforms known broadly as Vatican II. Here is an excerpt:

Pope John Paul II continued the liberalizations of Mass, allowing females to
serve in place of altar boys and to permit unordained men and women to
distribute communion in the hands of standing recipients. Even conservative
organizations like Opus Dei adopted the liberal liturgical reforms.
Bugnini may have finally met his match in Benedict XVI, a noted liturgist
himself who is no fan of the past 40 years of change. Chanting Latin, wearing
antique vestments and distributing communion only on the tongues (rather than
into the hands) of kneeling Catholics, Benedict has slowly reversed the
innovations of his predecessors.

None of this has to do with reflecting on how to live like Jesus. It is all hierarchical tosh. I loved going into churches in Ireland, parent of New Zealand Catholicism far more clearly than Rome is. I used to light candles for my relatives back home and feel a sense of connection between my life in New Zealand and this place on the other side of the world. But St Peters in Rome left me cold. The wealth of the poor all over the world sent there for privileged men to feel important.

In times of economic scarcity, fundamentalist religion becomes increasingly attractive. People find succour in absolutes and in a sense of a life beyond this earthly one, a reward for earthly suffering, dare I suggest even a way for the poor and respectable to feel better than the less devout Joneses. This article on the apparitions at Knock demonstrates, amongst other things, that when the Celtic Tiger loses its magic, the magic of the Virgin in Blue becomes ever more appealing.

There is a part of me which is disappinted that my children barely know the rituals and stories of Catholicism, the swirling pretty skirts on Sunday morning and the families of many handsome boys to admire during communion. And the little book of reflection to use before confession (never brought out again after I asked what masturbation was) and the singing and the sense of connection with other Catholic kids in a largely Protestant/fundamentalist/irreligious town. But I am also very clear that if a price has to be paid so I do not start out teaching my children to revere a hypocritical, steeply hierarchical, sexist and corrupt institution, and that price is being apart from the ritualistic world of Catholic communion, then we will pay that price.


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