“You’ve got to disintegrate the positive/then figure-skate about the negative/latch on to the pejorative/don’t mess with Sister In-Between.” If that’s what I’ve been singing for the past few columns, let me here squirm out of the blame and shunt it onto the subject matters I’ve dealt with: modern liturgy and terminal cancer. These two things, come to think of it, have quite a bit in common: Each represents, in its own way, an explosion of life in unexpected forms. Each throws up bold challenges to the stale status quo, producing new, vital structures that replicate themselves in ways that defy prediction. And each one encounters stiff resistance on the part of those people (or T-cells) afraid of change.
But I’m not here this week to keep on banging my little tin drum. Instead, I’d like to explore the useful, hopeful implications of the arguments I’ve made. In other words, I’ll mark mid-Lent by being pastoral — in the positive sense. But first, I need to lay out the conclusions I hope I’ve proved in parts one and two of my liturgy trilogy:
1) To us fallen folks who schlep through the realm of the senses, inessentials are essential. We wouldn’t have needed sacraments in Eden, and they won’t keep happening in heaven. But here, in a drafty world full of loud noises and shiny objects, where the Hope of brunch can crowd the Canon from our minds (“Behold the eggs of Benedict . . .”), we need all the help we can get. The forms that our rituals take should signify their content. We understand this intuitively, and hence men send their girlfriends live flowers in colorful vases, not mackerels wrapped in newspaper.
2) The central inessential for liturgical Christians is the form of our public worship. If we really believe that what we’re doing is participating in a sacrament that centers on a miracle (“Well, if it’s a symbol, then to Hell with it!”), our ritual actions ought to reflect that. This will help us to go on believing the words we repeat in the Creed and will shape the psyches of the young and the untaught so they conform to the mind of the Church. Rightly reverent ceremonies help us develop the natural virtue of religion, teaching us awe instead of aw-shucks.
3) The historic liturgies of the Church have proved themselves over centuries very effective at conveying the shocking truth about the Eucharist. Recent make-shifts haven’t done as good a job — which is why this pope has reversed the tremendous prudential error of his predecessor Pope Paul VI and lifted the ban on the old Latin Mass.
4) The reason the new form of the liturgy hasn’t served as well as the older form can be pinned down quite specifically: a confusion of symbols. Instead of ordering flowers for Valentine’s Day, we have been sending sushi.
5) The basic ritual action of the liturgy can be described at once as a sacrifice and a wedding. The priest climbs the altar like the hill of Calvary and acts in the person of Christ, offering Himself to the Father on our behalf — while we chime in with prayers of gratitude, praise, and petition. On another level, the priest acts in Christ’s capacity as the Bridegroom, descending from heaven to wed Himself bodily to the Church (the congregation) through the Eucharist. The priest represents the masculine principle, Christ. The people are the feminine principle, the Church. Blurring their roles is like dressing a bride and groom in drag: It doesn’t guarantee an annulment, but it confuses people.
6) Protestant understandings of the liturgy are radically different. Luther and Calvin and Cranmer would each willingly have died (and Cranmer did) rather than affirm the Real Presence as Catholics understand it. In “pure” Protestantism, the Eucharist is a group celebration of Christian love and unity, symbolized by a common meal of bread and wine. Christ is “spiritually present” in the hearts of believers, but there’s no man standing there filling His sandals. Such rites are all bride, and no Groom.
7) The Novus Ordo Missae was crafted by an ecumenical committee (including Protestants) that aimed at Christian unity. In a creative compromise, the committee cut large sections from the Mass — those that made it screamingly obvious that the Mass was a sacrifice and a wedding. The committee also trimmed away many rituals designed to underscore those doctrines, adding other practices to boost the role of the laity and undercut the role of the priest.
These changes didn’t vitiate the sacrament, but they did cloud its symbolic and catechetical clarity. They also reduced its dignity, gravity, and beauty. The Dies Irae gave way to “Gather Us In.” Or, as then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “In the place of the liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living, process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it — as in a manufacturing process — with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.”
8) The most important elements that distinguish the priest’s role from the people’s, and hence Catholic sacraments from Protestant prayer services, are the following: The priest facing the altar; the prayers of the old Offertory (which survive in the First Eucharistic Prayer); the exclusive claim of the clergy (priests and deacons) to handle the Sacrament; the all-male priesthood; and kneeling for Communion on the tongue.
9) Each practice we add to the liturgy that blurs the difference between the people and the priest adds to confusion about what the heck is going on up on the altar. It’s no surprise that after 40 years of liturgical “renewal,” only 30 percent of American Catholics still believe in transubstantiation. More troublingly, those who are receiving Communion rarely bother with the Sacrament of Penance. The old terror of blasphemy that was underlined by gold patens tucked under our chins gave way to a shrug and a smile as we take in our hands a wafer from a neighbor.
10) Dissenters from key Catholic doctrines of faith and morals took ruthless advantage of the hype surrounding the Second Vatican Council and the symbolic confusion sowed by radical liturgical changes — which seemed to signal, like a new flag flying over a country, a new regime in the Church. Maybe a new Church altogether. Some of these dissenters, like Archbishop Rembert Weakland, were also involved in creating the new liturgy itself.
11) That liturgy kept on metastasizing, “renewing” itself seemingly every year. The same bishops who pushed relentlessly for Communion in the hand, extraordinary ministers of Communion, altar girls, and standing for Communion were the men who appointed feminists and pro-gay, pro-contraception, and even “pro-choice” delegates to dissident conferences such as the Call to Action (1976). Such bishops also persecuted adherents of the old liturgy and clergy who preached Humanae Vitae. The same men repeatedly defied Pope John Paul II, who avoided a schism and decided instead to replace them as they retired with more faithful bishops. He mostly succeeded.
All of the above is simply, uncontroversially true. And in saner times, it would be none of a layman’s business. We have enough on our plates pursuing our own vocations and staying in a state of grace, and we really shouldn’t have to shop around for the least sacrilegious parish, or fight with our bishop’s religious education office against nuns who deny the Creed. But here we are, still gasping for breath as the smoke of Satan slowly lifts, and there’s no excuse for pretending the air has been clear all along. The Bride of Christ has been battered, hounded, and hunted by the Enemy — but she’s still standing, as we were promised. Now it’s our task to bind her wounds, repair the rents in her gown, and lovingly comb her hair.
To do this, we should view every celebration of the Mass in whatever form first and foremost as a miracle. In my own snarky experience as an amateur liturgy critic, there’s no sense — and probably some sin — in distracting ourselves from the holy sacrifice the priest really is performing by focusing on the flaws in the form. If you’re like me, it’s all too tempting to sit at a lackadaisical modern Mass (often all that’s available) and check off every abuse, or even to mutter “Cranmer!” whenever you hear the Third Eucharistic Prayer. Does this advance you in holiness? If so, you’re a better man than I.
Why not instead imagine the Church’s liturgy as a great Gothic cathedral that was bombed during World War II? Some sections are still intact, while others lie mostly ruined. Some of the people praying are shell-shocked, while others have no memory of what the place looked like in 1939. Large numbers have grown accustomed to makeshift services on broken altars, and actively prefer them to the grand ceremonies we had before the war.
It doesn’t make sense to shout at them. It’s tempting to grab such people by the ear and drag them to a side-chapel the bombers missed. But not everyone’s ready to make the move. A casual joie de vivre has developed among the rubble. People pray quite contentedly on broken bits of stone, looking up at shattered windows — and who are we to condemn them? We can curse the bombers, of course, but these people are our fellow victims, so there’s no excuse for smugness. When you offer one or more of the unhappy facts I adduced above, make sure you do it gently — in the spirit of someone who loved the old cathedral, not someone who hates its ruins.
If we can’t make our way across the rubble to one of the intact side-chapels, we should pray as best we can where we stand. We should do our best to remember what this place of glory looked like once, and how it can look again. While we do our work of piling stones and piecing the windows back together, we’ll be tempted to bitter thoughts of vengeance. But the bombers have already winged away, to face a Judgment more exacting than ours, or a Mercy more magnanimous. It’s not our job to throw pieces of rubble at our fellow refugees — but instead, with solemn joy, to practice love among the ruins.
If I might speak from experience — and from a rich array of pharisaical mistakes I used to make — let me offer a few ideas for helping convince people to come in out of the bare, ruined choirs. When we speak to people who’ve never attended the Church’s ancient liturgy, we should do so with humble patience and brotherly love. Stock up and freely hand out inexpensive missal booklets, or print the text offline. Offer them to friends as spiritual reading that will enrich their attendance at the Ordinary Mass — pointing out that their Sunday prayers can only be enriched by reading those that formed St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis, and St. Joan of Arc. Urge your friends to observe a liturgy much closer to the old Mass — and to the intentions of Vatican II — such as those broadcast on EWTN. If your bishop has followed the pope’s wishes and the traditional liturgy is available in your area, you might invite a friend to tag along. But make sure it’s a “sung” or “high” Mass, attended by all the beauty proper to the mystery. (No sense in going on a first date with curlers in one’s hair.) Encourage your friend, at his first Mass, to ignore the Latin and follow along in English — but don’t hover over him turning pages and pointing to things. Remember that he’s going through the same austere experience you did when you first attended the ancient liturgy.
He will probably find the language barrier humbling — likewise the fact that the priest is facing the tabernacle, behind an altar rail that clearly marks his province (the sacred) off from ours (the profane). The rituals may seem strange to him, even over the top. But its message will run crystal clear. If he speaks to you afterwards of a feeling of alienation, don’t argue that it’s “just because you’re not used to it.” Quite the contrary. That newcomer is experiencing reality: a stark sense of a sacrificial ritual enacting a solemn marriage between the fallen muck of earth and fire falling from Heaven. That’s how it’s supposed to feel, at least at first. Remind him that the consolations come later.