The Call to Integrity in Worship

The first reading for Monday of the 15th week of the year is provocative, especially for those of us who hold the Liturgy in high esteem, as well we should. However, it is possible for us to distort even great things like the Mass and the sacraments.

Let’s look at the reading and then draw a few teachings from it:

Hear the word of the Lord, princes of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, people of Gomorrah! What care I for the number of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; in the blood of calves, lambs and goats I find no pleasure. When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you? Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and sabbath, calling of assemblies, octaves with wickedness: these I cannot bear. Your new moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load. When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you; Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow (Is 1:10-19).

Our worship can lack integrity. That which is supposed to glorify God and bring forth in us a holy obedience can become lip service. God seeks hearts that are humble, docile, loving, and repentant. We cannot satisfy Him just by singing a few hymns, saying some prayers, or attending Mass. These things, good though they are, are meant to bring about a conversion in us that makes us more loving of both God and neighbor, less violent, more just, more merciful, more generous, and more holy. Our worship should effect change in us such that we cease doing evil, learn to do good, strive for justice, address injustice, and defend and help the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the dying, and the helpless.

An additional problem with our worship today is that God has become almost an afterthought. Much of our liturgy is self-centered, self-congratulatory, and anthropocentric (rather than theocentric). We are “the aware, gathered community celebrating itself.” While the Mass should focus on God and summon us to humility and joy before Him, too often it seems more an exercise in self-congratulation. We are very narcissistic, even in a communal setting.

God cannot be pleased with all of this. Even if our worship is rightly ordered, we are not going to buy Him off that easily. God wants an obedient heart more than sacrifice. Sacrifice without obedience is a sham.

We need God to restore our integrity and give us a new heart. We are “dis-integrated,” in the sense that pieces of our life that should be together (e.g., worship and obedience, liturgy and healing) are not. Too often our worship does just the opposite of what it should. Instead of drawing us more deeply into the love and obedience of God, it becomes the very occasion of keeping Him at a distance and seeking to placate Him with superficial gestures. This makes our worship a lie and an insult to Him. God doesn’t mince words in the passage above when He says how displeased He is.

We need God to give us a new heart, one that loves Him as well as the people and things that He loves. Only then will our worship will truly reflect the heart that God seeks: a loving, humble, and generous one.

May our worship give us a new heart and deepen our commitment to God and neighbor!

The Biblical Roots of the Liturgy

Catholics are often unaware just how biblical the Sacred Liturgy is. The design of our traditional churches; the use of candles, incense, and golden vessels; the postures of standing and kneeling; the altar; the singing of hymns; priests wearing albs and so forth are all depicted in the Scriptures. Some of these details were features of the ancient Jewish Temple, but most are reiterated in the Book of Revelation, which describes the liturgy of Heaven.

The liturgy here on earth is modeled after the liturgy in Heaven; that is why it is so serious to tamper with it. The Book of  Revelation describes the heavenly liturgy and focuses on a scroll or book  that contains the meaning of life and the answers to all we seek. It also focuses on the Lamb of God, standing but with the marks of slaughter upon it. Does this not sound familiar? It is the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

We do well to be aware of the biblical roots of the Sacred Liturgy. Many people consider our rituals to be empty and vain, “smells and bells.” Some think austere liturgical environments devoid of much ritual are “purer” and closer to the worship in “spirit and in truth” that Jesus spoke of in John 4.

To such criticisms we must insist that our rituals, properly understood, are mystical and deeply biblical. Further, they are elements of the heavenly liturgy since almost all of them are mentioned as aspects of the worship or liturgy that takes place in Heaven. In this light, it is a serious mistake to set them aside or have a dismissive attitude toward them.

With that in mind we ought to consider the biblical references to the most common elements of Catholic and Orthodox liturgies. I have added my own occasional note in red.

Candles  –

  • Rev 1:12-13 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man. In traditional catholic parishes, there are six candles on the high altar and a seventh candle is brought out when the bishop is present.
  • Rev 4:6 Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne.

Altar –

  •  Rev 9:13 The sixth angel sounded his trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the horns of the golden altar that is before God.
  • Rev 8:3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.

Chair –

  •  Rev 4:1 and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald …
  • Daniel 7:9  As I looked,  thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; … In the Sacred Liturgy, the chair of the priest is prominent. But, as he takes his seat, we are invited to see not Father Jones, but rather the Lord Himself presiding in our midst.

Priests (elders) in Albs –

  •  Rev 4:4 the elders sat, dressed in white garments …

Bishop’s miter, priest’s biretta –

  •  Rev 4:4, 10 With golden crowns on their heads … they cast down their crowns before the throne … In the Liturgy, the Bishop may only wear his miter at prescribed times. But when he goes to the altar he must cast aside his miter. The priest who wears the biretta in the Old Mass is instructed to tip his biretta at the mention of the Holy Name and to lay it aside entirely when he goes to the altar.

Focus on a scroll (book), The Liturgy of the Word

  •  Rev 5: 1 And I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” In the ancient world, books as we know them now had not been invented. Texts were written on long scrolls and rolled up.

Incense, Intercessory prayer

  •  Rev 8:3 another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God …
  • Rev 5:7 and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints;

Hymns – 

  •  Rev 5:8 And they sang a new hymn: Worthy are you O Lord to receive the scroll and break open its seals. For you were slain and with your blood  you purchase for God men of every race and tongue, and those of every nation.
  • Rev 14:1 Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads … and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth.
  • Rev 15:3 And they (the multitude no one could count) sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and wonderful are thy deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are thy ways, O King of the ages!  Who shall not fear and glorify thy name, O Lord? For thou alone art holy. All nations shall come and worship thee,  for thy judgments have been revealed.”

Holy, Holy, Holy –

  •  Rev 4:8 and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,

Prostration (Kneeling)

  •  Rev 4:10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne
  • Rev 5:14 and the elders fell down and worshiped  In today’s setting, there is seldom room for everyone to lie prostrate, flat on the ground. Kneeling developed as a practical solution to the lack of space, but it amounts to the same demeanor of humble adoration.

Lamb of God

  •  Rev 5:6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain …

Acclamations –

  •  Rev 5:11  Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

Amen! –

  •  Rev 5:14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!

Silence – 

  •  Rev 8:1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (And you thought your priest paused too long after communion?)

Mary

  •  Rev 12:1 And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; 2she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.

Happy are those called to His “supper” –

  •  Rev 19:6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunder peals, crying,  “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; … And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”

Golden vessels, vestments  –

  •  Rev 1:12 And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands,
  • Rev 1:13 and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest
  • Rev 5:8 the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense
  • Rev 8:3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, at the golden altar before the throne.
  • Rev 15:16 The angels were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests.
  • Rev 15:17 seven golden bowls

Stained Glass –

  •  Rev 21:10 [The heavenly city] had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, … The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. (The image of stained glass in our Church walls is hinted at here.)

Here is but a partial list, except for one quote drawn only from the Book of Revelation. I invite you to add to it.

Here is an awesome video with wonderful quotes:

A Sobering Reminder on the Liturgy from the Book of Leviticus

There is a sobering passage in the Book of Leviticus that speaks to the need for priests to be faithful to the prescribed liturgical norms. While the offense described in this passage is complex, the main point is clear enough: The liturgy is revealed by God and is not the personal plaything of the priest or the congregation. Although some of the liturgical edicts of the Old Covenant have been fulfilled and are therefore no longer binding, only the Church, in careful discernment, can set liturgical norms; God’s priests and people must not stray from them.

Let’s take a look at the text consider its sobering reminder:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Wow, two priests struck dead by God for a liturgical violation! The severity of this moment ought to make us more cautious about brushing off liturgical abuses as “no big deal.” And while not all liturgical errors are equally serious, intentionally dispensing with sacred norms is highly displeasing to God.

The sin of Nadab and Abihu is complex and the nature of their offense is somewhat debated. A common explanation sets forth the following problems with what they did:

  1. Although the wording is not completely clear, it is likely that Nadab and Abihu each took “his” own censer rather than the sacred thurible of the sanctuary. However, it is also possible that the “his” referred to Aaron, and that Nadab and Abihu each took Aaron’s censer (see # 3 below).
  2. They seem to have offered it together, whereas the incense was generally offered by only one priest at a time.
  3. They intruded upon the functions of the high priest, who alone burnt incense in a censer (see Leviticus 16:12-13; Numbers 17:11). (Although ordinary priests sometimes burnt incense, it was only on the golden altar in the holy place (Exodus 30:7-8) or on the brazen altar as a part of the memorial (See Leviticus 2:2-3; Leviticus 2:16).)
  4. They offered the incense at an unauthorized time (apart from the morning and evening sacrifice).
  5. They offered “strange fire,” meaning that they filled their vessels with common fire instead of taking it from the holy fire of the altar, which was always to be used in burning incense. (Others think that the phrase “strange fire” denotes fire not offered according to the prescribed law (see Leviticus 9:24; Leviticus 16:12).)
  6. Later on in Leviticus, the text indicates that Nadab and Abihu had partaken too much of the drink offering and were likely intoxicated (see Leviticus 10:9).

The above enumeration may seem like “inside baseball” and the technicalities described arcane, but we should be most concerned about the last line of the Scripture passage: Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’”

In other words, the purpose of the liturgy is not to glorify man. It is not to entertain. It is not to serve as an occasion for priests to boast or to engage in unauthorized and egocentric displays. The purpose of the liturgy is that God be glorified and known as holy.

Sadly, many people today see the liturgy as a stage upon which man is to be exalted and entertained. Much time is devoted to announcements, self-referential hymns, self-congratulatory outbursts. Liturgical norms are often set aside in service of human preference or the ego of a priest who thinks his own words and gestures far outshine what the “institutional” Church and sacred tradition have directed. Speed, convenience, and comfort seem to far outweigh any notion that the liturgy involves offering a sacrifice to God in gratitude and obedience.

This does not mean that the sacred liturgy has to be unreasonably severe, slavishly robotic, or wholly unconcerned with the good of God’s people. Charity and prudence both require that the liturgy also manifest God’s mercy, goodness, and truth in ways that are intelligible and helpful to God’s people. In general, though, the balance has tipped so far away from glorifying God that we must constantly reminded ourselves that God is the point, not us. When He is the point we are blessed, for we look beyond our often petty and vain pursuits and come to find our true selves in God.

This passage from Leviticus should remind us that misconstruing the sacred liturgy is displeasing to God—not because He has a big ego, but because such abuse harms us. We were made to glorify God and find true happiness in so doing. Liturgical abuse in service of anthropocentric interests makes our liturgies small-minded and insular. Ultimately it is we who are deprived of our truer and greater joy, which is God Himself.

Strange Moments In Liturgical History – How a Paragon of Liturgical Tradition May Have Caused Unintended Effects

I have been asked by a number of people what I think of Pope Francis’ recent decision to remand a lot of the task of translating sacred texts to regional bishops’ conferences. To be honest, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I share many of the concerns about how the norms will be applied and how consistently accurate translations will be assured, but on the other, I do not know if it is healthy to place almost complete authority over the liturgy in Rome. In recent decades, many Catholics have depended on Rome to stamp out local liturgical abuses. Centralized authority is a double-edged sword, however. While some abuses have been addressed, there have also been many things imposed from Rome that those same Catholics have found far less pleasing.

As a kind of an admonition in this regard, I would like to republish an article I wrote a few years ago. It describes an unusual tale, one with some strange twists and turns, that helps to illustrate the problems with a sometimes heavy-handed centralized authority versus a more regional exercise of authority. Finding a balance for the Church in all this is not easy. I don’t know all the implications of permitting greater regional influence over translations, but something tells me that that either solution has potential problems. Here this is the reprint:

In the modern struggles and disagreements over the Liturgy, there tends to be a list of friends and opponents depending on one’s stance. For those of us with a more traditional leaning, Pope St. Pius X looms large as a friend and an image of tradition. He is usually seen as a defender of tradition and a great proponent of what today is called the Extraordinary Form (EF) or Traditional Latin Mass (TLM)—so much so that the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) takes its name from him.

Yet things, people, and movements are seldom as simple as we would like them to be. There are many good reasons for admiring Pope St. Pius X’s attention to the Sacred Liturgy, but it can also be argued that he helped lay the groundwork for the revolution that would follow, not so much by his ideas but by his rather sweeping use of papal authority to influence and change the liturgy in his day.

One of the most far-reaching things he did had little impact on the average Catholic but it had a dramatic effect on priests, because it made changes to the Breviary, the prayers said by priests each day in the Divine Office (or Liturgy of the Hours). What makes what he did so significant was his use of papal power to rather summarily effect the change, a change that arguably did away with almost 1500 years of tradition, just because he wanted to. I’ll provide more of the details later, but first here is a little background. (If you want to bypass the background information, skip ahead to the red text below.)

Background:

The Roman Rite of the Mass developed and came to fundamental form in the very early days of the Church. Its most basic elements were mature by the 5th century, though most of its elements date back far earlier. Due to the influence of the Roman See, it was largely the pure template for the liturgical practice of the Western Church. However, there were many local variations to the Roman Rite, some of them significant enough to permit the use of another name altogether (e.g., the Gallican Rite, the Ambrosian Rite, the Sarum).

This diversity of liturgical practice caused tension at times, if for no other reason than its bewildering complexity. From time to time there were attempts made to unify the liturgy throughout Europe by recourse to the Roman Rite and the fundamental purity and antiquity it was accorded. Most notably, the Council of Trent decreed that any form of the liturgy that was less than 200 years old should be suppressed in favor of the Rite as celebrated in Rome. There was a reverence for antiquity and a wariness of novelty and recent innovations.

Yet even after Trent, especially in places like France, there was a tendency for accretions and innovations. In a display of what has sometimes been called Gallicanism, the decrees of the Council of Trent were either ignored or enforced less and less strenuously. Thus many local variations began again to develop. By the 18th century, many liturgists began to critique the disorderly state of affairs and emphasized a kind of ultramontanism (a term meaning, literally, “beyond (or over) the mountains” and referring to Rome), which sought to establish the Roman Rite more purely.

By the time of the First Vatican Council (1869-70), papal influence was already well established from antiquity, but was also growing against Gallicanism and other local episcopal influence. Weariness over local European divisions was also part of the growing influence of the Pope. The Dogma of Papal Infallibility, proclaimed at the First Vatican Council (though narrowly construed and only invoked in very specific circumstances), served only to highlight papal power and influence.

Thus by the time of Pope Pius X (1903-1914), the “booster shot” that had been given to the papacy enabled him to flex his papal muscles and extend his influence in more sweeping ways. All this leads us to the liturgical changes introduced by Pope Pius X.

It was in 1911, with the publication of Divino afflatus, that rather dramatic changes were made to the Roman Breviary.

Some of the changes were small: cleaning up some accretions, adjusting the calendar, and giving greater priority to the temporal cycle over the more erratic sanctoral cycle. The obligations of what parts of the office and other prayers had to be said by priests were also clarified.

Along with these minor changes was a casting aside of the ancient arrangement of the psalter. Most notably, the ancient and almost universal tradition of praying the Laudate psalms (148-150) every morning and again every night at Compline was simply removed and replaced. No tradition in the Church was as universal and ancient as this, but with one stroke of his pen, Pope Pius X did away with it. Almost no liturgist has ever described what the Pope did as anything less than dramatic and sweeping.

Alcuin Reid, OSB, in his The Organic Development of the Liturgy (pp. 74-76), quotes the views of a number of liturgical scholars on this action by Pope St. Pius X:

  1. Anton Baumstark (in a scathing remark): Down to the year 1911 there was nothing in the Christian liturgy of such absolute universality as this practice in the morning office, and no doubt its universality was inherited from the Synagogue … hence, to [this “reform”] of Psalterium Romanun belongs the distinction of having brought to an end the universal observance of a liturgical practice which was followed by the Divine Redeemer himself during his life on earth.
  2. Pius Parsch: It is rather amazing that despite the conservative character of the Church, Pius X should have resolved on this vast change which went counter to a practice of 1500 years’ standing.
  3. Robert Taft, SJ: … this was a shocking departure from the almost universal Christian tradition.
  4. William Bonniwell, OP: In the revision of Pius X the venerable office of the Roman Church was gravely mutilated.

Frankly, Pius X’s move was unprecedented in liturgical history. Although Pope Urban VIII’s redaction of the Latin Hymns of the Breviary was also an unfortunate and imprudent mutilation of ancient masterpieces, their use in the Church was less universal than the psalms of Lauds and the redaction was not imposed by judicial power.

The issue may seem minor to those unfamiliar with the Office, but the precedent of using sweeping judicial power to simply end an ancient tradition is not minor at all. It is this same thinking that would later allow a sweeping change of the Mass to be promulgated in 1970 and for the Old Rite to be “abolished” by judicial fiat of Pope Paul VI. The Mass promulgated in 1970 was not specified by the Second Vatican Council Fathers, but by a small consilium. It was not marked by organic change but (as Pope Benedict XVI and others have observed) rather was characterized by a hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity. Only later would Pope Benedict XVI teach that there was no precedent for or right to abolish the older form Roman Rite (a rite far older than 200 years).

All of this heavy-handed use of papal power ironically had a precedent in Pope St. Pius X, the favored saint of many lovers of tradition. There were other liturgical waves that emanated from this indisputably good man and pope that have troubled us since. Among them was the disruption in the order of the Sacraments, when Pope Pius X moved First Communion to early youth but did not attend to the Sacrament of Confirmation. Thus the ancient order of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist, was disrupted; Confirmation became a kind of “hanging” sacrament, detached from its liturgical and theological moorings. The result was its reduction to a sort of Catholic Bar Mitzvah.

Further, Pope Pius X was also dismissive, if not juridically forbidding, of orchestral masses. While he fostered chant—a good thing—he also suppressed a musical form that had inspired most of the classical composers (e.g., Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven) to contribute to the Church’s musical patrimony. It would be 70 years before such Masses would again be heard widely in the Church.

Again, all of these issues are less significant for their immediate effect than for the groundwork they laid for what came later. The sudden liturgical changes of the 1960s would not have been possible in previous ages because although the Pope and Rome were strongly influential, local bishops and churches had a lot more leeway and influence on the liturgy.

This setup of local freedom is not without troubles. Too much diversity leads to difficulty and chaos. Some general norms need to hold sway; regional and even ecumenical councils need to help rein in extreme diversity by reasserting proper liturgical principles.

However, centralizing power over the liturgy within the papacy also presents serious difficulties. Plainly put, the liturgy is just too important to have it all depend on the notions of one man, even a holy man like Pius X. Many of his reforms were good, even necessary, and his sanctity is not in dispute; but even saints do not get everything right and some of what they say and do may later be exaggerated or corrupted by those that follow.

In recent decades, traditional Catholics have looked to Rome to resolve liturgical debates. On one level this has been necessary, as many local bishops and churches have seemingly abdicated their responsibility to oversee the liturgy, correct abuses, and guarantee the legitimate rights of the faithful.

However, traditional Catholics would also do well to understand the problems inherent in having an overly centralized control of the Sacred Liturgy. More needs to be done by traditional Catholics to build a foundation for good liturgy in their local parishes by building a culture that is respectful of tradition and sober about the pitfalls of depending too much on papal authority.

How strange it is that the paragon of traditional Catholicism should have, even if unwittingly, helped paved the way for what I would argue is the excessive use of supreme judicial authority in regard to the liturgy, a use so sweeping that even Pope Benedict XVI would have to announce that the suppression of the older Roman Rite was neither possible nor in effect.

Just one of those strange moments in liturgical history.

How the Liturgy is Healing Medicine for Strident Times

One of the most concise and cogent descriptions of these often strident times came from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986. It is contained in, of all places, his treatise on the theology of sacred music in a book called The Feast of Faith (Ignatius Press, 1986). His comments have been republished in a larger compendium of his works, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2014, Vol 11).

It is hard to describe our times as anything but contentious. Loud, strident protests often predominate over reasoned discourse and thoughtful argumentation.

To be sure, every era has had, and has needed, protest and public opposition to injustice. There is a time and a place for loud protest and the use of memorable sound bites.

However, it is the predominance of loud protest and civil disobedience that stands out today. Sound bites, slogans, and simplistic “war cries” have to a large extent replaced thoughtful, reasoned discourse. Volume, power, and visually flashy techniques are prized; they are being used more and more. Such approaches too frequently produce more heat than light.

Consider, then, this remarkable analysis by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, written back before the Internet and social media had turned up the volume even more. Ratzinger paraphrased an insight of Gandhi’s, applied it to his analysis of our current times, and then proposed a healing remedy to restore balance:

I would like to note a beautiful saying of Mahatma Gandhi … Gandhi refers to the three habitats of the cosmos and how each of these provides its own mode of being. The fish live in the sea, and they are silent. The animals of the earth scream and shout; but the birds, whose habitat is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth and singing to the heavens. Man has a share in all three of them. He carries the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of the heavens in himself. And for this reason, all three properties also belong to him: silence, shouting, and singing.

Today – I would like to add – we see only the shouting is left for the man without transcendence, since he only wants to be of the earth.

The right liturgy, the liturgy of the Communion of the Saints, restores totality to him. It teaches him silence and singing again by opening him to the depths of the sea and teaching him to fly, the angels’ mode of being. It brings the song buried in him to sound once more by lifting up his heart. . . .

Right liturgy … liberates us from ordinary, everyday activity and returns to us once more the depths and the heights, silence and song … Right liturgy … sings with the angels … is silent with the expectant depths of the universe, and that is how it redeems the earth (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11, Theology of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, p. 460).

This is a remarkable analysis and an insightful application of liturgy and cosmology to the issues and imbalances of our day! It is in the vein of “Save the liturgy, save the world.” For indeed, only in the worship of God do we find our true selves. Only in the liturgy is our true personality formed. The human person in his glory unites the material and spiritual orders. We are capable of pregnant, expectant silence; of the joyful shout of praise and the Gospel going forth; and of the song of Heaven.

As Ratzinger pointed out, though, we too often are preoccupied with and value only one aspect: the shouting of the earthbound creatures of this world. But the liturgy – good and proper liturgy – trains us in all three and accomplishes the balance that is so often lost today. The liturgy is a training ground, not only for our heavenly destination, but also in what it means to be truly human.

Read and carefully consider Cardinal Ratzinger’s reflection. It will bless your soul; I know it has blessed mine.

Here is a song of the heavens:

Pray for Priests! An Urgent Call Based on a Teaching by Robert Cardinal Sarah

One of the most consistent concerns expressed both by my readers and by attendees at the various talks I give, is the large number of tepid and problematic clergy. We clergy give our people much to endure, yet for the most part they are so very patient and loving with us despite our foibles and idiosyncrasies.

Most of the people are highly concerned about the widespread silence and/or vagueness of the clergy in the face of the grave moral meltdown in our culture. At best, many pulpits are silent or replete with abstractions and generalities. At worst, some pulpits and clerical teaching contain outright errors or ambiguities that (intentionally or not) mislead and confuse the faithful.

There are, to be sure, numerous exceptions to these concerns. There are many fine, hard-working priests who teach courageously and clearly, with love and zeal. However, the problem is widespread enough that it is a common concern of the faithful.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, in his recent book The Power of Silence Against the Dictatorship of Noise, presents an insightful analysis of the problem and its causes. He relates the problem to a lack of prayerful silence on the part of many priests, who find little time for prayer let alone deeper silent contemplation. He begins by referencing Fr. Henri Nouwen, who once said,

Silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive … Especially we [priests], who want to witness to the presence of God’s Spirit in the world, need to tend the fire within with utmost care … [Yet] many minsters have become burnt-out cases … in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died, and from whom not much more comes forth than their own boring and petty ideas and feelings; … It is as if [they] are not sure that God’s Spirit can touch the hearts of people [cited in The Power of Silence, p. 77].

Here are two key insights. First, a priest who is not accustomed to silently praying and listening to the voice of the Lord begins to hear only the voice of the world and to parrot its slogans and often insipid, ephemeral notions. The voice of Christ and the light of the Gospel grow dim, and his mind centers more on vain things and worldly notions. Gradually, he “goes native,” taking up the mind of the world, fleshly notions, and even the doctrines of demons.

Second, a priest can slip away from the “still, whispering voice of the Lord.” He can begin to lose trust in the power of God’s grace to touch and change people’s hearts. Vigorous preaching is rooted in confidence about both the truth proclaimed and the power of grace to bring about what the revealed Word announces. It is true that the Lord’s teachings are often challenging to the faithful, but this did not trouble Christ who, knowing the power of grace, did not hesitate to point to the highest truths and confidently summon the faithful to trust in His grace and mercy to get there! Without deep prayer, we lose our trust in God and in His people.

Gradually, as Nouwen notes, a priest’s untended inner fire grows cool and the numbness of the world extinguishes his joy, zeal, confidence, and love. The demands of the Gospel come to seem unreasonable or even impossible to him. And because he sees the Gospel as too challenging he is hesitant to preach its demands. As the inner fire grows dim, he slips into watering down the Gospel message, into the obfuscation of abstractions and generalities, or into outright denial of the harder truths.

Cardinal Sarah warns priests of this tendency and its outcome:

Christ is certainly distressed to see and to hear priests and bishops, who ought to be protecting the integrity of the teaching of the Gospel and of doctrine, multiply words and writing that weaken the rigor of the Gospel by their deliberately confused, ambiguous statements. It is not inopportune to remind these priests and prelates … of Christ’s severe words: “Therefore I tell you every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven … either in this age or the age to come. [He] is guilty of an eternal sin” [Ibid., pp. 77-78].

Thus, as both Fr. Nouwen and Cardinal Sarah point out, priests who let the fire of God grow dim and who no longer trust God or His people, sin against the Holy Spirit. They do so because they come to doubt or even deny the power of grace to make possible the satisfaction of the Gospel’s demands. Human flattery and worldly perspectives are preferred to the Holy Spirit’s urging to announce the Gospel plainly, lovingly, and without compromise. Human weakness becomes the baseline for what is expected. God the Holy Spirit is dismissed as irrelevant or incapable of perfecting God’s people. This is a sin against the Holy Spirit and a disastrous end for a priest, especially one who has reached the point of outright misleading God’s people and confirming them in sinful and erroneous notions.

Therefore, I ask all of the faithful to pray often for priests and bishops. In our human weakness, we clergy can stray from prayer. From there, the fiery zeal of God and the joy of the truth give way to the thinking of the world and to a lack of confidence in preaching without compromise. From the point of compromise, things just keep getting worse.

In his book, Cardinal Sarah references St. Augustine’s own plea for prayer, and I will conclude with that:

It is not my intention to waste my life on the vanity of ecclesiastical honors. I think of the day when I will have to render an accounting for the flock that has been entrusted to me by the Prince of pastors. Understand my fears, because my fears are great [p. 79].

Tu es Sacerdos in Aeternum by Vivaldi:

A Short Consideration of a Central Liturgical Principle

Some years ago, I was praying with a group of servers and other liturgical ministers just prior to going forth from the sacristy to celebrate a rather complex liturgy. I remember asking God in the prayer, “Please Lord, help us to serve you well, but above all, help us not forget to worship you.” For indeed, it is possible to be so focused on details that we forget the very Lord to whom the details are directed. A priest, server, lector, or musician can feel very good about how a liturgy has gone technically. I sang well. I preached or presided well. I remembered this detail or that one.  Yet, the most critical factor of all often goes unconsidered: Did I worship God? In other words, did I make room for him in my heart and mind? Even more radically, did I really even think that much of God at all during the Liturgy?

Cardinal Robert Sarah’s wonderful new book, The Power of Silence Against the Dictatorship of Noise, contains a wonderful meditation on this subject. He uses as an example the magnificent praise the Lord Jesus receives on that first Palm Sunday and then makes an observation I had never considered:

When Jesus went down from Bethany to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was given a grand, solemn reception. The people spread coats and branches beneath his feet and acclaimed him as a Son of David. They all cried: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel!” (John 12:13).

…When the festivities were over and it was late, oddly enough, seeing no one to offer him hospitality or give him something to eat, Jesus left the city and went back to spend the night in Bethany with his disciples.

The Son of God was welcomed triumphantly but found no one to open his door to him. Similarly, in our age, how often our welcome, our love, and our praises are superficial, without substance, really a coat of religious varnish….

Nowadays, in a similar way, when we acclaim Christ during the major liturgical feasts, we must insistently make sure that our joy is not merely artificial. Often we do not give the son of God the opportunity to do well in our hearts.

(The Power of Silence, pp. 60-61)

Like many of you, I love liturgical beauty; there is nothing wrong with such beauty. The problem is in our heart; we have so little room there. Perhaps asking ourselves a few simple questions after each Mass will help us to better discipline our thoughts and attention:

  1. Did I worship God or just enjoy the splendor?
  2. How and when in this liturgy did I encounter the Lord and experience his presence?
  3. How am I different from this encounter?
  4. Am I grateful?

 

On the Power of Liturgy and Prayer

There is a text from the Acts of the Apostles (read last week at Mass) that sets forth quite well some of the qualities of the Sacred Liturgy. Although the “liturgy” cited in this passage is not a Mass, the description should apply to all our liturgies; from the Liturgy of the Hours to baptism, from a penance service to a full sung Mass. Let’s look at the passage and learn from it the power of liturgy to deliver, instruct, and transform us and the world.

About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying
and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened,
there was suddenly such a severe earthquake
that the foundations of the jail shook;
all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open,
he drew his sword and was about to kill himself,
thinking that the prisoners had escaped.
But Paul shouted out in a loud voice,
“Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.”
He asked for a light and rushed in and,
trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.
Then he brought them out and said,
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus
and you and your household will be saved.”
And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds;
and he was baptized at once, he and all his family (Acts 15:25-33).

DeterminationAbout midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened … Here they are in an awful place, a deep dungeon with rats and filth all about, and yet they are singing.

An old hymn reminds us to persevere in praise: “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul, it is well.’” Yes, happiness is an inside job. There may be times when we don’t feel emotionally ready to praise God, but we have to command our soul. In the words of the psalm, I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).

Note that this is communal not personal prayer, and thus it is a kind of liturgy. They are singing hymns, a form of communal and liturgical prayer. More literally, the Greek text says that they were singing praises (humneo) to God. “Hymn” comes from humneo. Perhaps they were singing psalms or perhaps they were singing newly composed hymns such as we see in Philippians 2:5-11, Ephesians 1:3-14, or Colossians 1:15-19. But note their determination to praise the Lord anyway. Such praises will bring blessings, for when praises go up, blessings come down.

The Church must always be determined to celebrate the liturgy. The last thing we should ever consider stopping is the Mass! Recall how many priests and bishops locked up in prisons were earnest to obtain even the slightest scraps of bread or drops of wine in order to celebrate the Mass. Recall the many martyred priests during troubled times in England who risked everything to celebrate the Holy Mass. We must always be determined to pray, and whenever possible, to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, even at great risk.

Disturbance… suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook … Does our worship rock this world to its foundations? It should. The world ought to know and experience that we are at prayer! We should rock this world with our refusal to be discouraged at what it dishes out.

Further, good prayer, preaching, and the simple presence of the Church ought to shake things up a bit. It is said that a good preacher will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Each of us has a little of both within us.

Note that the early Christians were often arrested for being “disturbers of the peace.” They said politically dangerous things like “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Caesar is Lord.” Religiously, they upset the order by announcing that many of the old rites were now fulfilled. Temple worship was over. Jesus was the true temple and Lord, and the Eucharist now supplanted the lucrative temple rites. Morally, the Church shook things up by demanding love of one’s enemies and that people no longer live as did the pagans, in the futility of their minds. These things and more tended to disturb the political, social, and religious order. Liturgically, we gather to celebrate and learn many earthshaking truths and to be liberated from the hold of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Yes, the presence of the early Church was a kind of earthquake. When the Church is strong she not only consoles; she disturbs and even rocks things to their foundations by the simple declaration, “Thus says the Lord” and by our praise of Him who is true Lord and Sovereign King, far outranking all other kings and those who demand our loyalty and conformity.

Deliverance… all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose. The liturgy of praise and worship of God should effect an ongoing deliverance. The prayer of the Church in her liturgy should set people free: prison doors swing open, chains fall loose, and increasing freedom is granted to faithful.

I am a witness to this and I pray that you are as well. I have attended and celebrated Mass every day for more than thirty years now. In that time, through praise, hearing God’s Word, being instructed in God’s Word, receiving the Word Made Flesh in Holy Communion, and deep abiding fellowship with believers, I am a changed man. Many shackles have come loose. A new mind and heart have been given to me and the prison cells of anxiety are no longer. Deliverance is what happened to us when the Lord took us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. Through the liturgy, that deliverance becomes deeper, richer, broader, and higher.

DignityWhen the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” The liturgy we celebrate is that of the Catholic Church. The term Catholic refers to the universality of the Church’s mission. All are to be called.

One effect of the liturgy on us should be that we neither hate nor exclude anyone. Paul and Silas do not gloat over the misfortune of their jailer. Knowing his dignity, they call out to him, even at the risk of their lives.

The Church, too, seeks the welfare and salvation of even our most bitter opponents. Our liturgy is celebrated not only for our friends but for the whole world.

The Church is Catholic; all are called. Painting a picture of the Church, Scripture says, I [John] looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9). I realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10: 34-35, 43).

Discipleship[The jailer] asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.

Making disciples (not just members) is the primary job of the Church. To be a disciple is to be a follower of the Lord, but the word “disciple” also comes from the same Latin root (discere) as the word “learning.” Thus, the Church in her liturgy not only worships the Lord, she instructs the faithful and supplies the sacraments.

Note that the jailer asks for light. Do not think of this as merely a practical request. Asking for light is asking for the enlightenment that comes from Faith and Baptism. The Church in her liturgy and by her witness supplies light and acclimates the faithful to that light.

The jailer, having asked for the light, been instructed, and become accustomed to the light, is baptized.

Here, then, are some goals of and a description of true liturgy, one that rocks the world and yet delivers the faith, forming the people in the beauty of God’s grace. Do you and your fellow parishioners see the liturgy this way or do you see it as distant, even boring? See what this Scripture passage teaches about the truest goals and nature of every liturgy, great or small, in the Church.