Whenever I write on liturgy, I get a lot of comments. Many people obviously care deeply about it.
Yet I also get comments that decry my “preoccupation” with liturgy, saying that it is of minor importance compared to the issues of poverty, abortion, etc. Some on the left will say, “Who cares if the Pope washes certain feet or doesn’t wear a fanon? Get out there and take care of the poor and show compassion. Frankly, your elaborate and expensive liturgies are an insult to the poor.” And perhaps some on the right will say, “Who cares if the Mass is in Latin or English? As long as you’ve got the true presence, why get all worked up about music, altars, and so forth?”
Count me in the camp of those to whom liturgy matters a great deal. A few years ago, there was a saying that summarized this view: “Save the liturgy, save the world.” To those who did not understand, the expression seemed excessive and fussy. But it actually summarizes well an ancient insight, one which Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger beautifully presented in his epic work The Spirit of the Liturgy.
Pope Benedict is currently overseeing the publication of his collected works. Interestingly, he directed that Volume XI (Theology of the Liturgy) be published first. And in the very opening of that volume is the essay from The Spirit of the Liturgy, in which he argues that the liturgy has a saving function for both man and culture.
I’d like to share some of his insights and admonitions here in bold, black italics, along with a few comments of my own in plain red text.
Pope Benedict (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote,
Man becomes glory for God … when he lives by looking toward God. … Law and ethics do not hold together when they are not anchored in the liturgical center and inspired by it. … It is only when man’s relationship with God is right that all his other relationships … can be in good order. Worship, that is, the right kind of cult, of relationship with God is essential for the right kind of existence in the world. It is so precisely because it reaches beyond everyday life. Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence … and allows light to fall from that divine world to ours [Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, pp. 7 & 8].
This describes well the fool’s errand of our modern culture, which thinks it can kick God to the curb and stand a chance of surviving. We are engaged in a strange little experiment to see whether we can we have a culture without a shared “cultus.”
Perhaps you noticed the word “cult” within “culture.” In English, cult has taken on a negative meaning, but its original and root meaning is the worship of God or the reverence due to God. Cultures cannot really explain or unite themselves. They must look to something higher and outside themselves in order to exist and hold together. Unless we all look there and substantially agree that God is the source of truth, law, and morality, we simply break down into the tyranny of relativism. It is tyranny because it is not reason or revealed truth that wins the day. Rather, the one who wins the day is the one with the most money or power.
Our little experiment is a failure. We cannot have a culture without a shared cultus.
To be sure, there was always a kind of religious pluralism in America. But in spite of that, there was also always a fundamental agreement on the basics, as articulated in the Judeo-Christian vision. And most Americans agreed that the God of the Bible was to be worshipped and obeyed. Now, that has been swept aside and we have undertaken a fool’s errand that seeks to demonstrate that we can have a culture without a basic and fundamentally shared cultus.
How’s that working out for us? At best, we’re in big trouble. At worst, we’ve become an “anti-culture,” which tears down but has nothing to offer, which smashes the icons of truth but offers nothing but to revel while the city, the culture, and the country burns.
This need not be absolutized to mean that only a theocracy will do. But certain basic agreements about God (that he is due worship and obedience) and how to worship Him properly are essential for a culture to exist at all.
And thus Pope Benedict rightly reminds us that we cannot have good order without right worship. Yes, save the liturgy, save the world.
And so … Man himself cannot simply “make” worship. … Real liturgy implies that God responds and reveals how we can worship him. [Liturgy] cannot spring from imagination, our own creativity–then it would remain just a cry in the dark or mere self-affirmation. … The liturgy is not a matter of “what you please” [Ibid, p. 11].
Now this is just not the notion that most people have of liturgy today. Too many Catholics think that they have some sort of divine birthright to say what the Mass should be, or that the liturgy should simply bow to every modern notion, convenience, and trend. This is misguided.
God spelled out what he expects rather clearly on Mt. Sinai. And while some of the norms given there were fulfilled in the New Testament (e.g., we don’t kill lambs since Jesus is the Lamb of God), most of the norms laid out on Sinai are still operative and were also seen by St. John in the vision of the heavenly liturgy.
Liturgy is revealed by God; it is not a human invention. Some adaptation to language and culture may be needed, but in terms of the fundamentals, we have no right to tell God how He is to be honored and worshipped.
The worship of God is the point of the liturgy, before any human goals such as edification or instruction. Hence words like “relevant,” “meaningful,” and “welcoming,” while not completely without merit, are subordinate to what God has revealed, no matter how we “feel” about it.
Nowhere is this more dramatically evident than in the narrative of the golden calf. … The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote and mysterious God. They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down … He must be the kind of God that is needed. Man is using God. … Worship becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being the worship of God, it becomes a circle, closed in on itself. The dance around the golden calf … is a kind of banal self-gratification … a warning about any kind of self-initiated, self-seeking worship. Ultimately it is concerned no longer with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources … pointless, just fooling around.
This is practically a laundry list of what is wrong and abundantly visible in most Catholic parishes today.
There is little evidence at all of God as mysterious. If anything, God has been “rendered harmless.” Even biblical references to God expecting to be taken seriously as Judge and Lord of All are usually ignored or watered down by homilists and in hymns that are top-heavy with anthropomorphic imagery.
Physically, many of our churches are now circular, or at least fan-shaped. The Eucharistic prayer is conducted facing the people and the image described by Pope Benedict as a “circle, closed in on itself” seems all too apparent. Surely, the Liturgy of the Word is properly directed to the people. But at the moment of supreme worship, all should turn outward and upward to God.
Banal self-gratification is also too much in evidence, with the frequent announcements congratulating the choir, the children, or a visiting dignitary, etc. This behavior seems expected today of the pastor, and for him to refuse to do so is taken as “insensitive.” Hence the premise seems to be that the liturgy is all about us, our needs, our accomplishments, and oh, by the way, God is invited, too.
The nice little world spoken of by the Pope Emeritus is also emblematic of the parish Church as a clubhouse rather than a lighthouse or God’s house.
Here, too, we ought to avoid blanket condemnations of all attempts to include the faithful in the liturgy or to make accommodations to assist people in reverent worship. Speaking of the liturgy and the sacraments as mysteries does not mean that they must be arcane. Good liturgical and theological formation (not a dumbing-down) are essential to proper worship. God’s people are not an afterthought.
But our goal is to incite deeper and more reverent worship of God, to help (by proper liturgy) draw people up to God, not to drag God down to us (as if we could).
Yes, save the liturgy, save the world. Part of the reason we in the West are in this mess we are in, is that God is not being worshipped. At the widest level, he has been rejected outright by atheists and secularists. But even in the Church, we have adopted dubious premises and notions of the liturgy that all too often render it neither compelling nor beautiful.
It is doubtful at best, and realistically unlikely, that our culture will ever recover unless the Sacred Liturgy recovers. We have allowed modern culture to influence the liturgy profoundly at the very time when in fact we need the liturgy to influence the faithful and the culture profoundly!
There will be legitimate debates about some of the details (Latin or the vernacular or a combination, musical forms, etc.), but an essential place to begin is to return to the scriptural norms laid out so carefully in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Revelation. Church buildings and liturgical norms, until quite recently, used to conform quite well to these. (My own church, built in the 1930s, is modeled on both the norms of Sinai and Revelation.) Lately, we have strayed into practices and designs that bespeak anthropocentrism, secularism, and excessive notions of comfort, accessibility, relevance (in the most ephemeral sense), and brevity. God is marginalized.
To be realistic, simply hoping to set the clock back to 1962 or earlier may not be workable. Pope Benedict himself did not see that as the way forward. Rather, he hoped for a kind of cross-pollination, wherein legitimate aspects of the liturgical movement (begun around 1900) would hold. However, he also hoped that wider use of the Traditional Latin Mass would help to address the excesses and unbalanced notions that swept in, creating a rupture with tradition and introducing the ailments of modern liturgy that sadly reflect modern culture more than serve as a medicine for it.
The recent addition of the beautiful Anglican Use (see photo, upper-right) may also serve as a model: vernacular, linked to the new lectionary, but eastward-facing and beautifully traditional.
Let’s keep the discussion going. As well-known blogger and liturgist Fr. Z. says, “brick by brick … “
Here’s a video that shows what liturgy can do.