The public recitation of baptismal vows should be familiar to most practicing Catholics. The vows consist of a series of questions whereby the faithful are invited to renounce Satan, his works, and his empty promises. As infants receiving the sacrament of Baptism, our parents and sponsors make these vows on our behalf. As adults, usually under the circumstances of a special solemnity, we make them on behalf of ourselves. It affords us the opportunity to reaffirm the promises that first brought us into the Church and that bind us to it today as loyal members. Like most prayers within a liturgical setting, the vows follow a formula: the prescribed words have a precise order and meaning. However, because the prayer is so well-known and identifiable, it can easily become the subject of parody, as was the case recently in a New York City parish.
If you have not already heard, here is a brief summary of what happened. While celebrating Mass on Sunday, August 30, Father Kenneth Boller, pastor of the Church of Saint Francis Xavier, invited parishioners to join him in a prayer for racial justice. That prayer went as follows:
I now invite you to stand and join us in the prayer for racial justice by responding “yes” to each of the following statements.
Do you support racial justice, equity, and compassion in human relations? Yes.
Do you affirm that white privilege is unfair and harmful to those who have it and to those who do not? Yes.
Do you affirm that white privilege and the culture of white supremacy must be dismantled where it is present? Yes.
Do you support racial equity, justice, and liberation for every person? Yes.
Do you affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Yes.
Therefore, from this day forward, will you strive to understand more deeply the injustice and suffering white privilege and white supremacy cause? Yes.
Will you commit to help transform our Church culture to one that is actively engaged in seeking racial justice and equity for all, for everyone? Yes.
Will you make a greater effort to treat all people with the same respect you expect to receive? Yes.
Will you commit to developing the courage to live your beliefs and values of racial justice and equality? Yes.
Will you strive to eliminate racial prejudice from your thoughts and actions so that you can better promote the racial justice efforts of our Church? Yes.
Will you renew and honor this pledge daily knowing that our Church and our community, our nation, and our world will be better places because of our efforts? Yes.
That the prayer imitates the baptismal vows is not up for dispute. Open, however, is the question of whether the prayer is a parody and whether it constitutes an instance of liturgical abuse.
It can be readily seen how the “affirmations” imitate the baptismal vows. Both share the same pattern of question (“Do you”/“Will you”) and response (“I do”/“Yes”). More importantly, both invite respondents to commit themselves intellectually and morally to certain claims, to be accepted as true, that establish, or perhaps re-establish, membership within a community. In the case of the baptismal promises, this is evident enough: congregants respond in the first person (“I do”), but it is done communally, so the effect is a reaffirmation of the individual’s membership within the larger community, the Church. Father Boller’s prayer, because he invited a communal response, seems to aim at a similar effect. It is the pledge of a congregation to certain claims that would unify them as a community. But, we must ask, into what community did the prayer unify them?
In several places, the prayer mentions “our Church.” It is worth noting that, instead of the definite article “the,” Father Boller uses the pronominal adjective “our”—“our Church,” not “the Church.” This verbal sleight of hand has the effect of disconnecting the Church of Saint Francis Xavier from the universal Church. Then there are the twin evils of white privilege and white supremacy mentioned in the prayer. These are not called “sins,” but rather “injustices,” and the congregants are invited not to renounce Satan and his influences, but rather to support racial justice and oppose the actors and forces that give rise to prejudice and discrimination.
So here we have two prayers. The first (the baptismal vow) seeks to unify respondents into a community, namely, the Church (i.e., the universal Church), by inviting them to renounce Satan and to affirm the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. The second (the prayer for racial justice) seeks to forge a different community, namely “our Church,” which is not universal but parochial, and invites respondents to renounce racial injustice and to affirm racial equity. They are similar yet different, the latter taking the former as its model, but falling short of it in several respects.
The evidence suggests, therefore, that Father Boller’s prayer is indeed a parody. It aims at uniting members of the parish as loyal members not of the Church, but rather of a church, a parody church, which we may call the Church of Woke. Membership in the Church of Woke requires that one make certain intellectual and moral commitments, but not those that Catholics make when renewing their baptismal promises. The Church of Woke is a very selective and ostensibly pious organization. Some may mistake it for the Catholic Church, but there are noticeable differences. The Catholic Church is defined by its relationship to Christ, as bride to groom; the Church of Woke is defined by the social activism of its members. The Catholic Church teaches that baptism cleanses us of original sin; the Church of Woke teaches that the sin of white privilege is still with us today. Most importantly, the Catholic Church recognizes the reality of Satan, his works and empty promises, as well as the reality of the triune God. The Church of Woke, by contrast, makes no ontological commitments to these beings, but sees man as both the cause of and the remedy for the earthly problem of racial injustice.
Father Boller’s prayer does not, like many parodies, have a comedic effect. It is, rather, a parody, in the sense of being something that falls short of the real thing—a travesty. The community it aims to establish is sectarian, not universal; it emphasizes humans, not God, as the agents of transformation and redemption; and it does not look to everlasting life, but the improvement of our earthly lives, as the ultimate goal. So the prayer can be rightly considered a parody, but the question remains: Is it an instance of liturgical abuse? If the purpose of the liturgy is to draw us closer to reality, and parodies by their very nature are ontologically inferior, moving us further from the reality the works they imitate represent, then, yes, there are legitimate grounds for considering Father Boller’s prayer an abuse. That being the case, the Church encourages us to report it as such, as Redemptionis Sacramentum instructs:
Any Catholic, whether Priest or Deacon or lay member of Christ’s faithful, has the right to lodge a complaint regarding a liturgical abuse to the diocesan Bishop or the competent Ordinary equivalent to him in law, or to the Apostolic See on account of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff.
We are not mere participants in the liturgy, but often its best protection against abuse. Again, as Redemptionis Sacramentum states: “Each one should always remember that he is a servant of the Sacred Liturgy.” It bears repeating: we are to serve the liturgy, not the other way around. Abuses, like Father Boller’s prayer for racial justice, will no doubt continue, doing damage to the liturgy and the Church.
In a webinar with the clergy of the Archdiocese of New York last week, the Vicar General assured the priests that this gross aberration was being handled in conversations between the Jesuit Provincial and the Archdiocese. Still, we must be vigilant. No matter how egregious the abuses become, no matter whether they come from foreign elements outside of the Church or fifth columns within it, we must have the courage to blow the whistle and remain steadfast in the hope that Christ, through the workings of the Holy Spirit, will keep His Bride safe and unified.
[Image: Father Kenneth Boller leads his congregation in the “affirmations.” Credit: facebook.com/PrestonPhillipsNews]