Peter McGRAIL.  The Rite of Christian Initiation, Adult Rituals and Roman Catholic Ecclesiology.  Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2013.  pp. 200. £60.00 hb. ISBN 978-1-4094-2655-4.  Reviewed by Francis BERNA, La Salle University, 1900 W. Olney Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19141

Is the glass half empty or half full?  Or, perhaps has the glass been shattered and few seem to notice?  Marking the Fiftieth Anniversary of Sacrosantum Concilium, the document of Vatican II on the liturgy, some members of the Roman Church call for a “reform of the reform.”  Other members of the church experience the implementation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal as a step back from the Council’s intent regarding Catholic worship.  For all those who have left, and are leaving the church, the internal liturgical struggles of the church constitute the ongoing irrelevance of the institutional church to their everyday lives.

            Pope Benedict XVI identified a desire to meet the pastoral needs of more traditional members of the church when he gave permission for the more frequent use of the post-Tridentine liturgy and established it as the extraordinary form of the Roman rite.  As McGrail points out, this permission extends not only to the celebration of the Eucharist, but to all of the sacraments, including the initiation of adults.  The ritual, promulgated in 1614, holds a very different view of the world, the church in relationship to the world, and the relationship of the church members to one another.  In other words, the post-Tridentine ritual promotes a specific ecclesiology, and one that stands in radical contrast to the post-Vatican II Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults.

            Aligned with the 17th Century Order for the Baptism of Adults is Robert Bellarmine’s notion of the church as the “perfect society.”  This society was to stand in contrast to a secular and sinful world.  McGrail notes that it included an identification of the institutional church with the Kingdom of God and expressed little appreciation for the spiritual nature of the church (p. 23).  Though the rite itself was seldom used in England or the United States, its adaptation was used as the Rite for Children.  While fewer in number, the rite for children similarly included various exorcisms and placed great emphasis in promoting a negative view of humanity.

            Though it took significant theological conversion on the part of many Council Fathers, the council itself came to a much more positive appreciation of the world.  The documents locate the church in dialogue with the world.  The world itself is understood to be a place where God is at work, even apart from the church. While maintaining the hierarchical character of the church, the Council emphasizes a community in the Body of Christ where all of the members actively participate in the church’s sacramental life.  And, as Mc Grail makes clear, they participate as adults.

            The author demonstrates a solid command of the Council documents and helps the reader appreciate some of the reasons for the current differing interpretations.  Likewise, he provides a truly scholarly analysis of the rites for the initiation of adults.  He includes both historical detail and perspectives on ritual function.  He draws on a full range of both widely and lesser known 20th and 21st Century theologians.  Most striking and helpful, however, is his appreciation of the twofold dynamic of the Council – ad intra, concerning the internal life of the church; and, ad extra, concerning the relationship of the church with the world.  Mc Grail reminds the reader that a genuine concern for a revision of the Order for the Baptism of Adults was brought to the Council by missionary bishops.

            While not taken up by the author, the Roman Church’s recently concluded Year of Faith, and the ongoing calls for a new evangelization, the ad extra importance of the ritual for church membership seems to parallel the earlier missionary concern.  McGrail does mark this approach by highlighting the challenges presented by the clergy sexual abuse crisis.  The abuse and its cover up by the bishops emphatically states that the church is far from a “perfect society” and it clearly undermines claims to hierarchical clerical authority.  For too many in Europe and the United States, the glass has shattered.

            McGrail rightly perceives the power of well-celebrated rituals to awaken the community to deeper experiences of the transcendent.  The power of mystery celebrated in good ritual can carry the church forward.  As the author notes today’s church is alienated from its recent past and has yet to secure a way forward (p. 160).  He appreciates that the post-Tridentine rite can appear attractive.  The institution can shore up its identity and stand against a hostile and sinful world.  Unfortunately, as McGrail emphasizes, a restoration of old rites and identities cannot make the current problems disappear.  The current challenges require the church to face uncertainty and liminality, to engage in transition, the very dynamics made possible in the post-Vatican II rite.

            Liturgical arguments concerning the enduring value of the post-Tridentine rite or the reclaiming of the “more ancient tradition” in the post-Vatican II rite – arguments about a half empty or half full glass ought be laid aside.  McGrail provides the historical detail to show how the church has adapted its initiatory rites in both circumstances.  And, if the one accepts the missionary challenge of today, then the scholarly reader will find McGrail’s text helpful in moving forward with the ongoing implementation of the ordinary rite for adult initiation in the Roman Church.