Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ecumenism and Tradtion

Ecumenism and Tradition

     Those of you who know me well know that I have often complained that many of my fellow young Catholics alienate me, because they treat my Methodist and German Lutheran heritage with disrespect. This is a fact which I have been unable to explain to anyone except for my mother (the Protestant) and one or two of my closest friends. Even my father thinks that this disrespect of which I have been complaining is in my imagination. Last September, however, an incident occurred which showed me that this disrespect is real, not imaginary, and that Catholics with Protestant heritage are not its only victims.


 In an effort to find some kindred spirits, I attended a youth mass last September. The mass was followed by a nice reception, during which I struck up a conversation with a young man and a young lady. The young lady was talking about how peculiar it seemed to her that there were so many Catholics married to Jews. “How could you marry someone who does not share your faith in Christ?” she asked.
     I said, “Of course, it would be completely different if we were talking about Christian Jews.”
     “What kind of Jews???” the young man and woman asked together.
     “Christian Jews.” I said. Seeing the blank looks on their faces, I continued, “You know, Jewish Christians who still celebrate Jewish holidays and traditions.”
      After they were finally persuaded that such people actually exist, they asked “Why would anyone do that?!?!”
      I ought to have replied “Tradition!” (quoting from the man in Fiddler on the Roof), but I was too stunned by the question to think of an answer that clever. How do you answer a question which is so stupid, that it should never have been asked in the first place? At this point I wanted to scream “Give me an Evangelical!” because even the most poorly educated Evangelical can understand the concept of a Hebrew Christian.

    Before I continue, I should clarify two points. The first is that the Catholic Church itself is quite aware of the debt of gratitude that we owe to the Jews. Pope Benedict often refers to them as our elder brethren in faith, and much of our liturgy, and that of other liturgical churches, is based dirently on Jewish tradition (but others are much more qualified to talk about this than I am), and because the Jewish customs were instituted by God himself, Catholics are allowed to participate in them (even though they are not necessary for salvation). The second is that the Catholic Church is quite aware that other Christians are real Christians. The Pope himself has written about the gifts that other types of Christians have brought to the faith. Also, not believing that other Christians are true Christians is grounds for excommunication from the Catholic Church. The problem, then, is not with the Catholic Church, but with many of its members.

An Analogy


      This conversation bothered me for months afterwards, but I couldn’t figure out why. I’m not a Hebrew Catholic--why was this troubling me so much? Then the answer came to me. My situation as a Catholic with Protestant heritage is in many ways analogous to that of a Catholic (or any Christian) with Jewish heritage. I may not be able to claim Jewish heritage (well, perhaps a little bit, but I cannot prove it), except in the sense in which all Christians, as adopted descendents of Abraham, can claim Jewish heritage, but I do claim Lutheran and Methodist heritage. My ancestors might not have been the first to hear the word of God, but they did give the world the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the hymns of Charles Wesley, and there is no more reason for me to abandon that tradition of devotion than there is for a Catholic of Jewish descent to throw his Hebrew prayer book out the window.

      A Christian is a follower of Christ. A Catholic is a follower of Christ with the theological views of the Roman Catholic Church. I sincerely believe these theological views to be correct, which is why I am a Catholic. Unfortunately, Catholics all to often present their faith as a collection of rosaries, novenas, and other prayers which, although perfectly good, are by no means the only good prayers for Catholics to say. Similarly, Gregorian chant is by no means the only form of good music for Catholics to sing.

My Tradition

      It used to bother me that I did not have the same love for Gregorian chant and the Latin mass that many of my Catholic friends have. I felt that this was an inconsistency in myself, since I am usually such a traditionalist. I have come to realize, however, that it is precisely my love for tradition--my tradition--that makes me long for the Christian music of my ancestors--all of my ancestors, not just the Italian Catholics.

      My Christian heritage on my mother’s side is twofold. Her ancestors were German Lutherans, most of whom came from the Pfalz (lower Rhineland) district of Germany to escape religious persecution after the Thirty Years War, but some of whom (my great grandmother’s family, the Schwartzes) came from Heidelberg at the end of the 19th Century, and it was the Schwartzes who brought the music with them (it is also my opinion that the Schwartzes had Jewish ancestry, but that is a theory of mine which has yet to be proven). My mother herself, however, was raised in the Methodist church, in the days when the Methodists still believed in the teachings of their founder, Charles Wesley.

The Wesleys

      Charles Wesley was a reformer from within the Anglican church (he did not fight the Catholic Church, and therefore he is usually ignored by Catholic education programs). Much of what he taught was very, well, Catholic. He fought against Calvinist predestinationism, for example. He also followed the seasons of the church year, and he taught that marriage is a sacrament.

      Charles Wesley and his brother, John Wesley, were also hymn writers. All Catholics in the English speaking world are familiar with their hymns “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” (although I agree with my mother that their hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today--set to the same tune--is better), and some Catholics may even know “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” What most Catholics don’t know is that these are just a few of hundreds of hymns written by the Wesleys for various times during the Church year (including Ordinary Time), all of which are perfectly compatible with Catholic teaching, and which, I might add, are a great deal more Catholic than what most Catholic hymn writers produce now (although that is not saying much). A priest once told me and my fellow Theology classmates to learn the hymns of the Wesleys, because, as he said, they are very Catholic.

The Lutherans

     The great gift of the Lutherans to Christianity was also one of hymns and music. In fact, they were the first people to have liturgical hymns with poetry (because hymn lyrics are poetry) written in the vernacular language (in the case of my ancestors, German) for congregational singing. Many Catholics are familiar with “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” All Catholics are familiar with “Now Thank we all our God” (to the point that this song becomes boring, since it is one of the only chorales that most Catholics know). These chorales are frequently attached to the liturgical year, something which Lutherans share with their Catholic brethren.

     I recently told a Lutheran gentleman (whom I met at a fundraiser for the Trivium, a private Catholic school in Massachusetts) that I will always be grateful to the Lutherans, because they gave the world Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach took the great tradition of Lutheran chorales and turned them into his beautiful Cantatas. Often I find that there are theological concepts or scripture passages which I can understand better when listening to the music of Bach than I can by reading any theologian, Catholic or Protestant.

     For example, I never really understood the idea of Christ as the Bridegroom until I listened to Bach’s cantata “Wachet Auf.”

Wachet Auf (Karl Richter, Müncher Bach-Chor)

An Ecumenical Artist

     One of my other favorite artists, Felix Mendelssohn, who is worth many blogs on his own, was a devout Lutheran, like Bach, but in addition to this he was also Jewish. He wrote that, without Christianity, he would not want to be alive, and he was very proud of his Lutheran heritage (he experienced much of the world through music, and he rightly believed that the Lutherans had the greatest tradition of Church music, although he appreciated Catholic music as well), and he was also very proud of his Jewish heritage (his grandfather was a famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, who was the first Jew to forge friendship between the Jewish and Christian communities), and he spent much of the later part of his short life contemplating the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and much of his music was born from the interaction of these two parts of his Judeo-Christian heritage.

     Perhaps the best example of this is his chorale “Es wird ein Stern aus Jakob aufgehen” (“A Star will go forth from Jacob”), which comes from the Epiphany section of his unfinished oratorio “Christus.”

Es wird ein Stern aus Jakob aufgehen (Neeber-Schuler-Chor)

     Perhaps the reader is now asking, why is any of this important?

     The answer is that all of these things are important because they are valid ways of worshiping the true God. It is because we take our faith seriously that we have differences of doctrine which cannot easily be overcome, but it is also because we all share a common faith in Christ that we are much more united than we are divided, and all Christians must have respect for both the Jewish people and their customs, because, if it were not for their faith, we would not have ours, and all of our traditions and all of our beliefs are rooted in theirs. And so it is because of my love for the Judeo-Christian tradition--the whole Judeo-Christian tradition--that I am an ecumenist.