One of the more remarkable aspects of sixteenth-century music (and other arts, such as the theater of Shakespeare) is the fact that it was composed and performed in an era of unusual political instability. The medieval political arrangement had been in its death-throes for some time. The Reformation sent Europe in a rather new direction. Old verities seemed not to hold.
While God was still understood by virtually all to be the Judge and final arbiter, the splintering of the Church made discernment of His active presence in the world ambiguous at best. As historian Brad Gregory has pointed out in his amazingly detailed book The Unintended Reformation, we are still living with the fallout from this disintegration today. What had been ambiguous five hundred years ago has, if anything, turned into a welter of vagueness today. Is God involved at all in politics? Should He be?
That many Christians today even entertain such a question indicates the immense change that Western culture has undergone. Enthusiasts for the new order (rapidly becoming a disorder at the moment) would claim that we have finally succeeded in disentangling what should have been separate concerns in the first place, namely religion and politics. Those less enthused would point out that the consequence of this disentanglement is a practical atheism, what generally goes by the more genial name of secularism.
It was with these considerations in mind that Kevin Allen and I chose to include in last evening’s celebration of Solemn Vespers Jubilate Deo by Cristobal Morales. His work combines the Offertory of Quinquagesima Sunday (more on that anon) with a text celebrating the Truce of Nice (1538), which ended the conflict over Northern Italy fought for two years between the kingdoms of France and Spain. Morales interprets the truce as a moment of liturgical significance: the peace, brokered by Pope Paul III between two princes, was sent down from heaven as a blessing on “all nations.”
Pope Paul III certainly had a political stake in hostilities near the papal states. Yet it is significant that the restored peace is one in which the Church and her principal Vicar on earth play the substantial part. One can’t imagine the Holy Father brokering an analogous peace between, say, Elizabethan England and Spain fifty years later, at the time of the famous naval battle resulting in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Still, a sense of united purpose endured in Europe until very recently. There have been several lasting arrangements of European nation-states, the most recent being the European Union. All of these recognize in Europe something of a kinship bond. The proposed constitution for the EU was controversial in no small part because it failed to recognize the nature of this kinship—the shared Christian, and indeed Catholic, foundation of the very idea of Europe.
What we are seeing in the rejection of the EU by large parts of the population (most pointedly in the Brexit decision), is a sense that the new order, which prides itself on toleration of differing cultures, is anything but tolerant. Here, let me return to two earlier ideas, the medieval situation and the fact that we begin Quinquagesima Sunday tonight.
The Catholic Church is universal (kata-holos; according to the whole), but not uniform. And if the papacy and other ecclesial structures (such as eleventh-century Benedictine monasteries) were instruments of peace between peoples, it was precisely because love of neighbor and the associated virtue of prudence are able to discern what belongs to the genius of a nation and what belongs to its vices. If the medieval arrangement appears too unsystematic, this may have been with a larger purpose of genuine toleration, the tolerance that works from love. What broke down in the sixteenth century was not a sense of political uniformity, but a sense that peace and salvation could be achieved by solidarity and tolerance within one visible Church.
Our present liturgy in the Roman Rite currently uses two calendars, one for the Ordinary Form and another for the Extraordinary. This Sunday, then, is both the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time and Quinquagesima Sunday (which is the Sunday that precedes Ash Wednesday). The modern rationalist, who prefers clean systematic arrangements, would balk at this irregularity (and there’s certainly a part of that in me!). Is this septic rationalism a species of the same generic intolerance that modernity has ushered in? The medieval political world was a mélange of ad hoc arrangements by treaty, privilege, and custom—quite unsystematic and untidy. And the medieval liturgy mirrored and helped to shape and make sense of this multiplicity. Different dioceses employed different rites and calendars and recognized different saints. All, however, were committed to the sense of shared purpose that came about through one baptism into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We might, therefore, dignify the lack of tidiness with a word that denotes a different kind of system. The medieval liturgy was organic, the system of a living organism, the Body of Christ.
In this way, we can learn, by necessity if for no other reason, how to celebrate our present liturgical diversity as a blessing and life-giving sign. To do this, we must relearn how to see God active and present everywhere, even in that most untidy world of politics from which He’s been nearly banished.