May 2015

For whom the Angelus bell tolls

Before we begin the ringing of new bells for prayer, we must listen to hear if they are already being rung, writes Alice Priest.

BY Alice Priest

I love the sound of the public call to prayer, my parish Church bell ringing in an otherwise quiet suburban street to signal that Mass is starting. I love the ringing vocalisation of the phrase – “Listen and attend with the ear of your heart” – from the opening line of St Benedict’s Rule, that each morning signals the call to prayer in classrooms and staffrooms where I work. I love the reverberation of the gong to signal the beginning of a Buddhist meditation. The Arabic cry of the muezzin, calling the city to adhan (to listen and pray) from the minaret, stirs something sacred deep within me.

And now the midday tolling of the Angelus bell is newly sounding in Sydney Catholic schools. Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher’s recently launched initiative mandates that, beginning from the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25, 2015), “the Angelus will be prayed in all our schools at noon every school day”. The intention is to initiate a call to “recite” a prayer that will resound through the lives of young people in Catholic schools. Yet the Angelus is a prayer whose language and sensibility sound of another age. Listening to its call, I ponder: does the Angelus bell toll for me?

Recently, two requests to me in my capacity as Chaplain have brought resonance to this question.

The first request came from a senior student, and her name, without a word of a lie, is “Belle”! Belle, who is Captain of the Boarding College, asked if I would, at short notice, put together a weekend liturgy for the boarders. She felt it was important to address the Bali 9 executions in some way, and to foster a sense of peace and community among the boarders as second term gets underway.

What struck me about this Belle’s call to prayer, was that after two years of participating in such weekend liturgies twice a term, she was connecting the grace of the Gospel and the power of sharing in prayer as a community with the way Christ’s peace could be effected in her everyday relationships and community. Furthermore, she was herself prepared to initiate and lead this.

On weekends the boarders typically go to the local parish Mass. They also gather together twice a term to celebrate a liturgy based on the pattern of the Liturgy of the Word for the appropriate Sunday. These boarders’ liturgies, as much as possible, attempt to “translate” the enduring message of the Gospel by making use of simple and sometimes very local vernacular – the language of the boarders, for a more “full, conscious, and active participation” (Sacrosanctum Concilium n.14 ) in the liturgy. There’s a notable absence of feet-dragging resistance to these prayerful gatherings.

The Gospel is explicitly linked to the particular issues of the day and the strengthening of Christian community life within the boarding school. They contain moments of silent reflection, listening and responding. They are humble and honest in the sharing of life, aware and inclusive of the great diversity of those gathered – country and city girls, Aboriginal and international girls, children and young women.

So why did Belle feel that, for the circumstances she described, going to Mass together at the local parish would not suffice when the Gospel message of the boarders’ liturgy would be the same? There’s something of an answer in John XXIII’s opening address to the Second Vatican Council: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another”. John XXIII goes on to emphasise that “it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary”, when the purpose “is predominantly pastoral in character”. Or, as the Sisters of the Good Samaritan who founded our school put it, the spirituality that we strive for in the 21st century “is spirituality for a way of life rather than a set of religious observances”.

When I hear the Angelus bell, and look at the materials from the Archdiocese of Sydney for staff and students to recite, I do not question the deposit of faith it contains. As Archbishop Fisher states, “By [Mary’s] consent God comes to dwell among us, as one of us. All of history turns on this instant”. Yet, the way it is being presented is, indeed, as Pope John XXIII put it, another thing. The language of the Angelus is far removed from that of the students who mouth it.

Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ Thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection. Through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen. (Extract from 2015 Angelus Prayer Card, Archdiocese of Sydney)

Its meaning is lost in the lack of translation. I fear it is doomed to be kept only as obedient religious observance, a sign of uniformity rather than, as Archbishop Fisher envisions, “a sign of unity”. It fails his own test of being “always faithful to the Tradition we have received but our language contemporary and accessible”. The importance of recontextualising such traditional confessions of faith, if they are to have any hope of continuing to be authentic vehicles of religious meaning for students of our time, cannot be understated.

The new striking of Angelus bells is not limited to the Archdiocese of Sydney; it was similarly decreed in the Archdiocese of Adelaide in 2012. My nephew, in Year 5 now, reports that at his Adelaide school they stop to pray during the day about once a week, which he remembers they started “a couple of years ago”, and someone says “something” over the PA system and then he says “the Hail Mary bits”. He was lost when asked what the prayer was about, and did not even recognise the written words of the prayer when his Dad showed him the text of the Angelus on his iPhone. His father told me he had never heard his son speak of it.

The second request that made me reflect on the ringing of the Angelus bells came from a beginning teacher:

Is there any chance we could pray for the people on death row who are due to face the firing squad this Wednesday in the early hours of the morning? Perhaps even just a staff prayer if this is too confronting for the students. I am willing to help construct a prayer. …I have never written a prayer before but I feel so deeply moved.

For this young teacher, her moment had come to move from earnest saying to authentic praying. It came because our 100-plus staff always gather to begin the day with prayer. As well, all 1000-plus students begin the day, in a designated time period, with homeroom prayer. At the teacher’s discretion, some classes during the day also begin with prayer. Like the Angelus, it’s daily prayer for daily life. It orients and sets us off into the busyness of our days, based on the readings of the day and the Rule of St Benedict. We pray to help navigate through, and contribute to, our loving response to the issues and concerns of an often broken world.

In his calling of schools to habitualise the praying of the Angelus each day, Archbishop Fisher identifies something of why the young teacher made her request to me. “By cultivating such habits, we are helping ensure that breaking and praying are part of the ordinary rhythm of life for our young people, like tooth brushing. And then, when the hard times come, when the puzzle is deep or the need is great, they will know where to go.” The young teacher’s request was made precisely because this culture, rhythm and habit of daily prayer Archbishop Fisher speaks of already exists in and gives great grace to our school, as I’m sure it does in many others. It is hard to imagine what reciting the Angelus could add to this. Before we begin the ringing of new bells for prayer, we must listen to hear if they are already being rung.

Pausing for prayer at all, even for just a few minutes in the morning at a Catholic school, is still a radical, difficult thing for many students and some staff. Archbishop Fisher is right when he presents the context of his Angelus initiative as part of a broader purpose to counter the growing nominalisation or absence of Catholic enrolments. But imposing the daily recitation of the Angelus – a reconfession of traditional Catholic identity – is more likely to raise alarm bells than hearts and minds to God, especially for those many students and staff already on the edge of engagement with prayer.

There are no short-cuts. Unlike the Angelus, which takes only a moment to prepare, and minutes to recite, the bespoke liturgy that Belle called for takes hours of patient preparation, “translation”, and a good part of an hour to celebrate. Expressing and sharing the deep cry of the Spirit as my young colleague sought to do in her school’s daily morning prayers also takes time and prayerful preparation. Tapping into the student heart’s restlessness for God for a few minutes each morning, whilst their minds and hands are busy tapping into their screens and devices, takes enterprise and endurance.

So, yes, the Angelus bells do toll for me, but they are calling me to find a new incarnation and translation of Catholic tradition that will sing meaningfully in the ears of young hearts hungry for what is ancient and true.

Alice Priest

Alice Priest is a religious educator with more than 20 years’ experience across a range of settings – from the classroom to youth ministry and teacher education. She has lived and worked in Catholic school systems and ministries in Italy, Germany and Australia. Alice is currently working at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in Sydney, where she teaches religion and English, and is head of faith formation and liturgy.

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