The criticism of a recent column, “My New Year’s Wish for the Church,” forced me to think more deeply about the road to renewal in the Catholic Church. Several readers argued I was forcing Evangelical habits on a Catholic parish.
Of course, I would still insist that Catholics need to be more welcoming to each other and to parish visitors. But the key to Catholic renewal is found elsewhere, at the heart of what it means to practice the Faith.
In my earlier column, I spoke about the lack of “connectedness” that many non-practicing Catholics report when they are asked why they have stopped attending Mass. I limited my interpretation of this to their sense of rapport with other worshippers — that is, I think, what elicited the criticism. It gave the impression that Catholics should primarily nurture an emotional connection among the members of the parish community to evangelize. Personal recognition is a good thing, but it is not the primary thing, at least among Catholics.
So what makes Catholics distinctive among other Christian groups? Certainly papal primacy, the authority of bishops and priests, the universality of the Church, and the meaning of sacraments are among the most important. Of the sacraments, our belief in the “real presence” of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist not only distinguishes us doctrinally but liturgically as well. When a Catholic comes to Mass, his expectation — the one foremost in his mind — should be this real encounter with Christ in the Eucharist. If this encounter with His presence lacks vibrancy — if it has the ho-hum quality of required ritual — then renewal is the antidote.
How is this vitality recovered? This is where I think the “logic” of being Catholic sends us on a different course than that followed by other faith groups. There is the tendency to assume this renewal should be summoned up from within, based upon prayer, rosaries, or some sort of spiritual exercises. These are all good to do, of course, but that leaves aside the most obvious place to look for renewal: the liturgy itself.
Let me offer the following example: Have you ever prayed in a great cathedral when the organ was playing or the choir was singing a Gregorian chant, a Mass by one of the Renaissance greats — Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, or Byrd — or some form of music that moved you? Did you find it easier to pray? Did you find yourself going deeper, praying longer, and rising to leave with a rare sense of joy at having been on your knees?
I know that the local parish is rarely a great cathedral, or even a building of architectural distinction, and I know that most parish choirs are not schooled in either chant or Renaissance polyphony. But, I would ask, how much effort are we, both laity and religious, putting into the beauty of our liturgy? After all, isn’t it the beauty of the music, architecture, stained glass, images, homily, and the liturgical gestures that engage our senses and focus our minds on divine things?
In 2oo2, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger delivered a sermon, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” where he said:
[T]he most convincing demonstration of [faith’s] truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.
How much lost “connectedness” would be recovered if more attention were paid to encounters with “the Beautiful” in the liturgy, so that it was never perfunctory, listless, or offensive to the ear and eye?
Don’t misunderstand me. Beauty in the liturgy isn’t just a matter of better music and homilies; it requires its proper form (i.e., rubrics) as prescribed by the Church.
In a later column, I will argue that the beauty of liturgy, emanating from the Eucharistic sacrifice, has been marred by misguided liturgical improvisation. Dumbed-down liturgies have only increased the distance many Catholics feel from their Church, whatever their good intentions.