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from the Secretary General

Priceless Oysters

by Robert L. Stern

If I were an oyster, I think I’d take a pretty dim view of pearls. After all, what makes a pearl? Usually it’s the result of some foreign and perhaps irritating particle getting lodged inside the protective shell of the living oyster.

Since the oyster can’t get away from or get rid of the foreign particle, it does its best to deal with it — the oyster secretes and coats it with the same nacre that lines and smoothes the inside of its shell.

The result is an encapsulated particle in the form of a glistening sphere — a pearl. Alas, poor oyster, for the pearl is worth more to most people than the creature that brought it into being. The pearl is ripped from the living flesh in which it is nested and the oyster is cast aside to die.

It’s an odd inversion of values. Since without oysters there can be no pearls, why should the pearl be worth so much more than the oyster?

In some ways, living faith communities are like the oyster. They are confronted with disturbing foreign customs or secular traditions that somehow find their way into the fabric of their daily life. If it’s not possible to get rid of them, living societies do their best to accommodate and incorporate them, suitably modified and rendered harmless.

Curiously, some of the things and customs most associated with the identity of a particular church or religious community often are the results of such accommodations. Further, these “pearls” are sometimes inordinately esteemed, valued and defended.

For example, appropriate religious clothing. Increasingly, Muslim women are wearing head scarves or veils that had their origin in some ancient Middle Eastern customs. They are becoming a controversial badge of religious identity.

But, how much do scarves and veils ultimately matter? With respect, the faith and devotion of the person is more than important than the clothing.

Catholics have experienced similar situations. A couple of generations ago it was unthinkable that a woman would come to church with her head uncovered; now the custom barely exists.

The founders of many religious congregations wanted their members to live simply and modestly, so they made their uniform the ordinary clothing of the poor of their day. What would they think of the post-Vatican II controversies about habits or of a religious generation more concerned about dress than mission?

Is it vital that Western prelates wear the Roman imperial purple, now the sign of the papal household? Is not the Byzantine Liturgy equally efficacious, if its prelates do not wear imperial-style crowns?

Whether the congregation prays barefoot or shod, covered or uncovered, men and women together or apart, prayer is still prayer.

Orthodoxy survived a time without its icons. Western Catholicism can manage without Latin high Masses. Protestants have grown beyond “only Scripture.” These are all precious pearls of our various histories and traditions — but the living church is greater than them all.

We dispute customs and traditions prompted by different times and places. But, the most important thing is the living, common faith that produced them.

The pearl may be of great price, but oysters are priceless.

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Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern



Tags: Catholic Religious Taxonomy