It is not my intention to determine in this article who is responsible for the present liturgical crisis (whether it is due to liberal liturgists, unfaithful magisterial authorities, Bugnini or the Bogeyman); I am not qualified to determine such a thing and I trust Holy Mother Church will answer this question after the proverbial dust has settled. My purpose is not to point finger but to give comfort to disturbed Catholics.
There are many who convert to Catholicism from Protestantism, dissatisfied with the Puritan mentality of worship found in most Protestant Churches. They see the desperate need for beauty and mystery in worship and are aware that, at least on paper, the Catholic Church teaches the liturgy ought to be beautiful and reverent. Surely such converts are disappointed when they discover that many Catholic parishes do not celebrate mass in accord with the Church’s official norms but in a whimsical, spontaneous and irreverent manner. Seeing this liturgical crisis taking place in the Church, new converts (and even cradle Catholics with a sense of the sacred), are forced to ask “why is the Church going through this crisis?”
Has This Happened Before?
Before an answer is provided, it is important to note that the present crisis is not without precedent in the history of the Church. During the 4th century, the vast majority of Bishops in the Catholic Church embraced the heresy of the Arians, leaving the Bishop of Rome and St. Athanasius, among a few of Bishops, to preserve the Orthodox faith. The situation was so dire that St. Jerome noted “the whole world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian”. But wait, there’s more! Millions were lost to the heresies of the “Reformers” in the 16th century and the Church had to call the Ecumenical Council of Trent to address the errors. If the Church was preserved through such pervasive Theological errors and destructive epochs, it is safe to say God will preserve her through liturgical errors and abuses. So if you are disturbed by the state of liturgical affairs in the Church today, relax, take a deep breath and take comfort in the providence and omnipotence of God. Now, on to the question at hand: why is the Church going through this crisis?
Why is the Church going through this crisis?
The short answer is that God is strengthening the Church through the crisis. He is able to use the present crisis for the good of the Church. There is no doubt many have a vague intuition that God is working behind the scenes since they are aware that all things happen for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Yet they are still forced to ask, what good can come from the present liturgical crisis in the Church? The following are five, by no means exhaustive, lessons the Church will learn, or rather relearn, after the liturgical crisis is over.
The Liturgy is Done by Christ. Once the smoke has cleared the Church will have learned the liturgy is not something we do but is something Christ does. Theologian Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S. notes:
“the liturgy is first and foremost the action of our Lord himself, not simply our action and our invention. It is a sacred mystery that we receive and enter into, rather than something we create for ourselves. It could even be said that neglect of this great truth is the basic source of all the postconciliar liturgical confusion, in which the human community and its activity and ‘creativity’ have come to predominate over the divine presence and the divine activity.”1
In fine, the liturgy is not about us, it isn’t even primarily something we do, but it is primarily something God does, we just happen to be the recipients of what He is doing in the Liturgy.
Common Liturgy Does Not Appeal to the Common “Man”. Another lesson the Church will learn is that making the liturgy more common place does not attract more people. For example, after the Second Vatican Council, it seems many Churches began to remove anything and everything in the Church that was beautiful (in spite of Vatican II’s admonition otherwise.)2 In light of the decreasing number of vocations and mass attendance, it is evident that the plan of some liturgist to make the mass less transcendent or more like “a successful cocktail party”3 has not succeeded in attracting more people to the Church, if anything, it has pushed more people away.
Older Does Not Mean Better. The Church will undoubtedly learn that older does not always mean better. Just because something was practiced in the Early Church doesn’t mean it is necessarily better than later developments in the liturgy. For example, some cite St. Cyril of Jerusalem as a witness that early Christians received the Eucharist in the hand and that communion on the tongue was a latter accretion. Even if the practice of communion on the tongue was a later development, which is debatable, many still believe it is a better way to receive the Eucharist than communion in the hand. Not only is it a more reverent practice by not allowing unconsecrated hands to touch the Eucharist , but it also helps protect the Eucharist from being taken home and desecrated, or even used in occult practices (yes, this tragically really does happen).
Both/And. Once the liturgical crisis is over the Church will realize even more that she is a “both/and” Church. For example, some have noted4 that the Mass before the liturgical reforms was focused more on the Mass as a Sacrifice. Though the Mass since the reforms does not deny that it is a sacrifice and occasionally refers to it as such, the emphasis is more on a communal meal. Some have reacted by saying that the Mass is only a Sacrifice and not a communal mean. However, the Church teaches that the Mass is both. For many years the former was stressed in the Sacred Litugy, now the latter is stressed. Once the crisis in the liturgy is over, the Church will be able to step back and emphasize both aspects of the Mass from a more balanced perspective. This will help it to realize even more that it is a “both/and” Church. Fr. Kocik described this aspect of the Church well when he wrote the following:
“The Church has always eschewed false oppositions because she thinks in terms of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’: reason and revelation, Scripture and tradition, grace and free will, faith and good works, hierarchy and charism, marriage and celibacy, and so forth. A new liturgical reform should aim at a more obvious balance of the ‘Tridentine’ and ‘Vatican II” accents: sacrifice and supper, cross and resurrection, priest and assembly, exterior participation and interior recollection, sacrament and word, regularity and versatility.”5
“High Liturgy” Is Attractive. There is a reason why so many are awestruck by the Latin Mass the first time they attend it. They see the “high liturgy” and are attracted to the sense of the sacred and other-worldliness that it brings. They love how the rising of the smoke of incense symbolizes their prayers that rise up before God. They are attracted to the Gregorian chant sung by the Schola which lifts up their minds to the angelic choirs in heaven. They are attracted to the parts of the Mass in Latin which help to communicate a sense of the sacred by using a language that is not in everyday use. The fact that many are taking interest in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in a time when Ordinary Form parishes are dwindling in numbers will undoubtedly teach the Church in the years to come that “high liturgy” is not only reverent, but even evangelistic!
Are These Lessons New?
Some may ask: were not these things known before the present liturgical crisis? How then will they teach the Church that which it already knows? Indeed some in the Church knew these lessons before the liturgical crisis, but after the crisis they will be painstakingly evident to most and will serve to warn future generations of making the same mistakes. Are these the only lessons the Church will learn? Undoubtedly they are not, surely the centuries to come will look back on the current liturgical crisis with much more wisdom and will be able to glean more from the lessons that can be learned from our present failures.
As many are disenchanted with a Church that in practice does not always lift up its member’s minds to the heavenly liturgy, one should step back for a moment and get a greater perspective as to why God is allowing the current liturgical crisis to take place. Is it possible, that though some in the Church have meant the recent failures in the liturgy for evil, God meant it for Good (Genesis 50:20)? Let us pray that God will strengthen His Bride through the fires of this crisis and that once the dross is removed the beauty of her gold will be all the more evident!
1 Thomas Kocik, The Reform of the Reform, p. 175. (Ignatius, 2003).
2 “Ordinaries must be very careful to see that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or dispersed; for they are the ornaments of the house of God.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, VII, 126)
3 James Hitchcock, The Recovery of the Sacred, p. 24. (Ignatius, 1995) quoting Colman Grabert, OSB, “Toward the Development of an Authentic English Sung Mass”, Worship, XL, 2 (February 1966), pp. 80-90
4 Letter of Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani and Antonio Cardinal Bacci to Pope Paul VI, September 25, 1969, “By a series of equivocations the emphasis is obsessively placed upon the ‘supper’ and the ‘memorial’ instead of on the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary.”
5 Thomas Kocik, The Reform of the Reform, p. 101-102. (Ignatius, 2003).