In his first Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul addresses prominent divisions that plagued the Church during his time. He calls out the problem by saying, “there is jealousy and strife among you” (1 Cor 3:3). Many people belonging to the Church at Corinth were splitting into separate groups based on which preacher inspired their conversion. Some are saying “I belong to Paul,” and others are saying “I belong to Apollos” (1 Cor 3:4). No doubt each group saw something good about being associated with one or the other, and so they entered into competition, each claiming to be better than the other.
One interesting thing to observe is that, on some level, one of these groups was probably right. Looking through the lens of history, it is easy now to see that Paul was a greater saint than Apollos. There was nothing wrong with Apollos, but God gave Paul special gifts that rendered his preaching and writing more powerful and sanctifying. If you had to choose only one or the other, it would be wise to go with Paul.
But that isn’t what Paul tells the Corinthians. Not at all. In fact, he nearly makes the inverse point. Rather than boldly telling the people of Corinth they had better listen to him instead of Apollos, he acts with humility, and he directs their attention back to God. This was something which Jesus did many times when he was put before a worldly trap, such as in Mark 12:17 where he says, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Paul does something similar by downplaying his own significance and reminding the Corinthians what they need to be aiming at: “what then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:5-7). Paul is not saying that there is no difference between Apollos and himself. He isn’t even saying that they are equal in all respects. Instead, he is calling his audience’s attention to the point of his work and the one person who gives all the value to everything that Paul or Apollos might do. In other words, he is saying something like, “God is the one who gave you your faith, and I only matter insofar as I help you get to him.”
At the end of the chapter, Paul makes his point even more plainly when he says, “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 3:22). In saying this, Paul is establishing the right order of priorities based on man’s ultimate end. The whole goal of the Christian life is to be united to God in heaven. We get to God through Christ who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Paul is saying that everything else is ours for the sake of bringing us closer to Christ. This means that it doesn’t make any sense to choose a side between Paul and Apollos. Doing so undermines the whole purpose that both of these men had in preaching at all. Choosing Paul or Apollos at the exclusion of the other is to make a creature into an idol. Arguing about which one to listen to is to miss the whole point of their preaching. Divisive Christians have a tendency to argue about God until God has been forgotten.
Alright, so what’s the point? Today the Vatican has released some controversial news. Pope Francis has decided to reverse a decision made by his predecessor (Pope Benedict XVI) which allowed priests to celebrate the extraordinary form of the mass with little restriction. Now, once again, priests will need permission from their bishops to do so, and this permission is not to be given lightly. In what people are now referring to as the Catholic “liturgy wars,” it would seem the pendulum has once again swung to the left. In light of Paul’s words, what are we to make of this?
Should we celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass or the Novus Ordo? Paul or Apollos? Benedict or Francis? Paul’s answer is essentially a “both/and” answer. It is not about the form of the liturgy. Is one better than the other? Probably the answer is yes, but does that mean we ignore one and devote ourselves entirely to the other? The answer to this question is certainly no. When it comes to matters of discipline, all are ours, and we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. Paul does not tell the Corinthians that they cannot prefer the preaching of one or the other, but he tells them not to waste their time arguing and not to wound the Church with division. In both the Traditional Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo we are given access to Christ, and the more time we spend bickering about which one is better, the less time we spend rightfully worshipping Jesus in the Eucharist. The point is that it would be better if we took a path of humility and stopped talking about these things so much. There is a grave imbalance in the whole matter.
This does not mean that we cannot have intelligent conversations about the liturgy, and even have a personal preference for one or the other. The point is that we need to stop thinking that we will be saved by choosing the right liturgy instead of giving our life to Christ. The person who attends TLM or the NO has just as much access to the Eucharist as the other. Our arguments are not getting us anywhere. Nothing can help us resolve the problems in our Church apart from an intimate union with Christ. We need to study Scripture, pray, receive the sacraments, and perform works of service in order to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. Only then will we have the clarity to make wise choices about our liturgy. The tragic irony is that, in their efforts to get people closer to Christ through liturgical reform, both sides serve only to divert our attention away from him. We are all very much like two friends, arguing over which route is faster, stopped in the road and not getting any closer to our destination. Satan really is a clever fool.
Even the holiest saints can be made into idols. We cannot let the great become the enemy of the good (or vice versa!). We need to change our focus in the Church today. It is not the language you speak, but the meaning of what you say…
“Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso, est tibi Deo Patri omnipotenti, in unitate Spiritus Sancti, omnis honor et gloria per omnia sæcula sæculorum / through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever.”