Saturday, January 19, 2019

Book Notice: ‟Singing His Song〞

Singing His Song: A Short Introduction to the Liturgical Movement. Revised and expanded edition

Hong Kong: Chorabooks, 2019
Kindle eBook $4.59
Paperback $12.64. Available at Amazon

From the publisher:

This study presents the history of the [Liturgical] Movement before and after the Second Vatican Council. The author distills and makes available to non-specialists some of the more technical studies of the ideas and policies that influenced Roman Catholic liturgical renewal in the twentieth century.

Suppression of PCED Confirmed

Something which has been rumored for a few weeks, that the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei has been abolished as a separate entity, and its duties subsumed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has now been officially confirmed by the publication on the Vatican’s daily Bolletino of a motu proprio to this effect, dated two days ago. It is currently available only in Italian.

I would strongly urge our readers to read what Edward Pentin (here) and Fr Zuhlsdorf (here and especially here) have written about this.

UPDATE: An article about this has now been published on the website of Vatican News: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2019-01/pope-francis-suppresses-ecclesia-dei-commission.html

Friday, January 18, 2019

St Peter’s Chair in Rome 2019

When there were two feasts of St Peter’s Chair, that of Rome celebrated today, and that of Antioch on February 22, the following sermon of Pope St Leo the Great was read at Matins of the former in the Breviary of St Pius V.

When the twelve Apostles, having received through the Holy Spirit the power to speak every tongue, undertook to teach the Gospel to the world, and divided the regions of the earth amongst themselves, the most blessed Peter, chief of the apostlic order, was chosen for the capital city of the Roman Empire, so that the light of truth, which was revealed for the salvation of the nations, might be shed the more powerfully through the whole body from the world from its own head. From what nation were there no men at that time in that city? Or what did the nations not know, once Rome had learned it? Here were the opinions of philosophy to be trod down, here the vanities of earthly wisdom to be abolished, here the worship of demons to be suppressed, here the impiety of every sacrilege to be destroyed, where everything that had been established by vain error over the whole world was kept, gathered most diligently by superstition.

St Peter Walks Upon the Water (Matthew 14, 22-33, the Gospel of the Octave of Ss Peter and Paul.) The original mosaic was made by Giotto on a wall of the courtyard of the old St Peter’s Basilica in 1298, opposite the church’s façade. Only a few fragments were saved from the destruction of the old basilica; this copy is an oil painting made in 1628 from drawings of the original. In 1675, a new mosaic on the same design was mounted in the portico of the new basilica, facing the main door, as a reminder to pilgrims as they leave the church to pray for the Holy Father. (Public domain image from Wikimedia.)
To this city, then, most blessed Apostle Peter, thou didst not shrink to come, and since thy comrade in glory, the Apostle Paul, was still occupied in the founding of other churches, thou didst enter that forest of roaring beasts, that most deep and stormy ocean, more firmly than when thou did upon the sea. Already hadst thou taught them that had believed from among the circumcision, thou hadst founded the Church of Antioch, where first arose the noble name of Christian; by thy preaching thou hadst filled with the law of the Gospel Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia; and with no doubt of the advancent of thy work, nor uncertain of the span of thy life, thou didst bring the trophy of the cross of Christ into the fortresses of Rome, where the honr of they authority and the glory of thy passion went before thee by the providence of God.

Another Historical Video of a Church Consecration

After seeing the video we posted yesterday of the 1959 consecration of St Michael’s Cathedral in Sherbrooke, Quebec, reader Jeffery BeBeau alerted me to this video of the consecration of St Joseph’s Cathedral in Edmonton, Alberta. (You can also watch it on the original site: https://vimeo.com/139648306.) Although it is in black-and-white, and rather fuzzy, in this one we see a lot more of the ceremony, which starts at about the 11:30 mark, and a good deal of explanation as well. This was celebrated in 1963 by His Excellency Anthony Jordan O.M.I., who was appointed coadjutor of the Archdiocese of Edmonton in 1955, succeeding to the see in 1964, and then resigned in 1973.

This ceremony was done after the 1961 revision of the second part of the Roman Pontifical, which shortened the consecration of a church very considerably, and partly reordered it. This reform also replaced the responsories traditionally sung during various parts of the rite with psalms sung in a manner similar to that of the responsorial psalm (coming soon to a revolution near you!); these can be heard chanted in the background in several places. At 17:45, we get a bit of that most rara of avises, a liturgical commentator, explaining the symbolism of the tracing out of the Latin and Greek alphabets on the floor of the church; he appears again at 21:50 to explain the anointing of the altar, and at 23:20 to explain the burning of candles on the five crosses on the mensa of the altar.

Masses in San Francisco during the Walk for Life, January 26

People who will be in San Francisco for the Walk for Life West Coast on January 26 will have two choices to attend an Extraordinary Form High Mass. The first will be celebrated before the walk at Cristo Rey Carmelite Monastery at 10 a.m., located at 721 Parker Avenue in San Francisco; the Carmelite nuns will sing the Ordinary chants and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Oratory Choir will sing the propers for the feast of St Polycarp.


The second will be celebrated after the walk at the historic Shrine of St Francis of Assisi in North Beach, (610 Vallejo Street, San Francisco) at 5:15 p.m. Under the direction of Professor William Mahrt, the St Ann Choir and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Choir will sing William Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices. This Mass is always especially well-attended.


In addition, Archbishop Cordileone will celebrate an Ordinary Form Mass for Life at the Cathedral of St Mary at 9:30 a.m. at which he will impart a Papal Blessing to those who attend that Mass. The Vatican has also granted a plenary indulgence for those who participate in any of these Masses offered on the day of the Walk for Life West Coast; those who are sick and infirm may obtain the indulgence by joining to the Masses spiritually or via media. The Mass for Life will be broadcast from the cathedral on the Archdiocese website, sfarch.org.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

An Altarpiece of St Anthony the Abbot

The National Museum of Catalonia houses this beautiful altarpiece of St Anthony the Abbot, whose feast day is today, painted by an anonymous painter now referred to as the Master of Rubió, and dated 1360-75. (Click image to enlarge.)

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
In the upper left hand corner, St Anthony is shown as a young man giving away all his money to the poor; St Athanasius, who wrote his life, records that he began his embrace of the monastic life after hearing in church the words of the Gospel of St Matthew, (19, 21) “If thou would be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give it to the poor; and come follow Me, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” Below that, a devil appears in the form of a woman to tempt him to lust, and at the bottom, devils beat and torment him.

In the upper right hand corner, Christ Himself, accompanied by two angels, appears to Anthony and blesses him. The central panel of the right side depicts a famous episode which is not, however, recorded by St Athanasius, but in St Jerome’s life of St Paul the First Hermit. On the day when Anthony came to visit Paul for the first time, unannounced, a raven which had brought Paul half a loaf of bread every day for sixty years, brought him a full loaf instead. (It has been guessed that the word “raven” reported to St Jerome may be a misunderstading of “Arab”, since the two words are similar in some Semitic languages.) The artist was very careless to show Paul younger than Anthony; when they met, he was 113, and Anthony 90. Paul’s garment has hash-marks over it, to show that it was woven from palm fronds; St Jerome records that Paul died very shortly after his meeting with Anthony, who buried him, then took this garment with him, and wore it each year on Easter and Pentecost. In the final panel, miraculous healings take place before Anthony’s tomb.

Divine Liturgy with Music by Tchaikovsky in NYC, Jan. 27

St Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church, in New York City will have a celebration of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom with the musical settings of the choral parts by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, on Sunday, January 27, at 6:00 p.m. The Liturgy will be sung in English and Church Slavonic; the church is located at 246 East 15th Street; the event is free and is open to the public. Tchaikovsky’s setting constitutes the first “unified musical cycle” of the liturgy.


This is the first in a program events to be presented at St Mary’s through the year, in which the liturgical music of the great Slavic composers will be presented within the context for which it was composed, as the music of the Divine Liturgy, giving the congregation the opportunity to be immersed in the experience as part of their worship.

The music will be performed by St Mary’s choir-in-residence, the Theoria Chamber Choir, directed by Andrew Skitko, Artistic Director/Conductor. Mr Skitko earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Music at Westminster Choir College, and has performed with the world’s leading conductors and orchestras at venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. He sings regularly with several choirs, and is a cantor for the Byzantine-Ruthenian Church; he is also an alumnus of the Studium Carpatho-Ruthenorum of the University of Presov, Slovakia, having completed courses in Carpatho-Rusyn history, language, and culture. He has studied Russian choral music and conducting at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary with maestro Vladimir Gorbik, musical director and conductor at the Moscow Representation Church of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery, and has participated in the PaTRAM Russian-American Music Institute.

Fr. Edward G. Cimbala, D.Min, pastor of St. Mary’s will be the celebrant and homilist.

The backdrop for the choral event is sure to just as inspiring. St Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church is one of the most unusual religious buildings in Manhattan and provides a beautiful venue for the program of Slavic Liturgical Music. For more information call 212-677-0516.

Historical Video of a Church Consecration

Thanks to a reader for bringing to my attention this video of the consecration of the Cathedral of St Michael in Sherbrooke, Quebec, by His Excellency Georges Cabanas, archbishop of Sherbrooke from 1952-1968. This took place at the beginning of the 1959 Eucharistic Congress, before the revision of the second part of the Pontifical promulgated in 1961, which drastically shortened and reordered the consecration of a church. The narration is in French; below, I will give a brief summary with the time index.


0:01-0:20 The bishop and clergy exit the building.
0:21-0:45 Rites of Purification: the Penitentials Psalms, and the Litany of the Saints; the exoscism of salt and water.
0:46-0:50 Aspersion of the external walls.
0:51-1:40 The blessing and opening of the doors. (At 1:12, we see the choir kneel at “Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate.”, a classically Roman formula which was removed from many places in the 1961 revision of the Pontifical.)
1:41-2:04 The bishop traces the letters of the Latin and Greek alphabets in the ashes spread over the floor of the church.
2:05-2:27 The bishop and clergy enter the sanctuary; consecration of the Gregorian water (as special form of holy water used for this ceremony, into which both blessed ashes and blessed wine are mixed.)
2:27-3:19 The second part of the ceremny: the anointing of the twelve consecration crosses.
3:20-3:33 The bishop seals the relics into the main altar.
3:33-3:38 A brief view of the same ceremony repeated at one of the side altars. (This was normally done by other bishops who were present, and could also be delegated to priests.)
3:38-3:57 The anointing and blessing of the five crosses (in the middle and four corners) of the mensa of the main altar.
3:58-4:16 The general anointing of the altar
4:16-4:21 A brief view of the bishop making the sign of the cross three times during the consecratory preface, at the words “Bene+dicere, sancti+ficare et conse+crare.” (In the 1961 revision, this was frequently reduced to just “Bene+dicere”)
4:22-4:34 Candles are placed one the five crosses and burned.
4:35-4:50 The altar is wiped clean and decorated for the Mass which follows (to the end of the video.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Fr Longenecker Satirizes the Post-Conciliar Reform

I’m sure that by now, a good many of our readers have seen the recent article by Fr Dwight Longenecker entitled “Twelve Things I Like About the Novus Ordo Mass”, as well as Peter Kwasniewski’s response to it, and his follow-up. A few days ago, Fr Longenecker published his own follow-up to the discussion, entitled “Twelve Things I Like About the Latin Mass”, which contains one of the cleverer bits of satire to appear on the Catholic web in a while.

“As in most everything in my life, I’m a dilettante, a poetaster, a Sunday afternoon painter, an amateur. However, I do respect those who are more disciplined than I am. I like the fact that they do the research and beaver away at it all with a passion. I respect their attention to detail, their ability to hone an argument and pay attention to rubrics with all the concentration of a heart surgeon or a chimpanzee trapping an ant with a stick.

Me? I’m afraid I do not have much interest in whether or not the anaclesis from the Syro Malabar Rite of the fifth declension features a Greek preface or not. I am glad some people dig deeply into the mysteries of whether the bishops of the Petrine revision of the Mozaribian liturgy in sixth century Anatolia wore the camelaucum or whether it was leather or embroidered felt. Such things are clearly very important and those who write books on them are to be congratulated because it means when busy priests need the answers they will know where to turn.”

Now at first blush, Father may seem here to be ever-so-gently poking fun at those who have taken issue with his first article, since he compares the serious study of liturgy to the activity of an ape, and extols as “very important” the study of various things that have never existed. One might be forgiven for seeing in this an implication that “busy priests” have much better things to think seriously about than the public prayer of the Church. However, I am sure that this is not his intent at all.

Of the points outlined in the second article, the twelve things he likes about the (traditional) Latin Mass, fully ten are not actually specific to it: Latin, Reverence, Altar Boys (i.e., well-trained and well-behaved ones), Ad Orientem, Music (i.e. good music), Vestments (i.e. nice ones), Incense, Mother Mary (because “(t)he Latin Mass often ends with a hymn to the Mother of God.”), Beauty and Altar Rails. To be sure, contrary to the will of the Fathers at Vatican II and all good sense, these things are much less common than they should be in the post-Conciliar liturgy, and are indeed to be found rather more frequently and consistently at the Extraordinary Form. This is a lamentable state of affairs, but that does not change the fact that none of these things is per se distinctive of the traditional Latin Mass, as opposed to a well-done celebration of the Ordinary Form.

The remaining two, Tradition and Example (“The Latin Mass offers a kind of gold standard for the celebration of the Mass.”), can arguably also apply to the new rite. There is a good deal of leeway, for the most part unused, but present nonetheless, to incorporate any number of traditional practices into the celebration of the Ordinary Form. And likewise, I can honestly say that I have attended a small number of genuinely awful traditional Masses, and an equally small number of new Masses which were genuinely exemplary, at churches like the London Oratory and St Agnes in Minneapolis-St Paul.

This leads me to the conviction that Father’s true intent, like that of every good satirist, lies elsewhere.

Go back and read the list of topics that he is afraid he has no interest in, but which are nevertheless “very important”, topics which liturgists generously study and write about on behalf of “busy” priests. Does it not read like a parody of the activities of the Consilium ad exsequendam, the committee appointed to reform the liturgy after Vatican II? Of course, there is no such thing as an “anaclesis”, “fifth declension” is a term of art in grammar, not liturgy, and the “Mozarabic” (not “Mozaribian”) liturgy is Spanish and not Anatolian. But the members of the Consilium actually did invent an epiclesis for the new canons which they added to the Missal, on the basis of a completely erroneous history of both the Roman Rite and of the epiclesis. They actually did decide that the Roman Missal was desperately lacking for a series of Mozarabic prayers for the dead, all of which had to have their conclusions changed in accordance with another erroneous history.

The camelaucum was a kind of headdress worn in the Byzantine court; I do not know if it was worn by “bishops of the Petrine revision … in sixth-century Anatolia” but a descendant of it, the triple tiara, was worn for a very long time by the bishop who holds the Petrine ministry. (How subtly the threads of this exquisite satire are woven!) Headgear does not seem to have interested the Consilium itself very much; eodem tamen sensu eademque sententia, those responsible for the reform of the Papal liturgy actually did suppress it, along with the rest of the Pope’s proper vestments, making him the only prelate in the Catholic Church who routinely and licitly celebrates Mass wearing nothing distinctive of his own rank.

Exceptions are occasionally made.
And they actually did a whole bunch of other things that only dilettantes, poetasters and amateurs would do and think they were doing well. They cobbled together a preface for Advent from pieces of three different prefaces for the Ascension, none of which had been used in well over 1000 years. (And they repeated this silly procedure countless times.) They put the anaphora of St Basil and the pseudo-canon of pseudo-Hippolytus into a paper shredder, and cobbled together new Eucharistic prayers out of the pieces, carefully selected so as not to offend the sensibilities of Modern Man™. They removed almost every distinctively Roman feature from the temporal cycle of the Roman Rite, adducing as their excuse exactly the kind of liturgese that Father so wittily skewers: “It’s not found in such-and-such a recension of the Ambrosian sacramentaries”, etc.

An astonishing number of similar examples could be cited, but there is no need to belabor the point. In the meantime, our kudos to the author, who has shown that the rapier of the satirist can do just as much for liturgical reform as the blade of his proverbial heart surgeon.

A second part of this article will examine in detail the history of sixth-century Anatolian embroidered felt camelauca.

Ignatian Retreat in Allentown, NJ, Feb. 15-17

On Septuagesima weekend, Fr Hernan Ducci of the Fraternity of Saint Joseph the Guardian will preach a retreat for men based on the Ignatian Exercises, at the Church of Saint John the Baptist, located at 1282 Yardville-Allentown Road, in Allentown, New Jersey. The Spiritual Exercises comprise an ordered series of meditations and contemplations born from the profound spiritual experience St Ignatius, gained from his conversion and his time as the first Superior General of the Society of Jesus. These exercises purpose to help the retreatant discern God’s will for his own life.

The retreat will begin on the early afternoon of Friday, February 15 and finish on the afternoon of Sunday February 17, with lunch (President’s day weekend). In order to cover the expenses (Fr. Hernan’s travel from France, food, donation to the parish, etc) we suggest a donation of $60. Also, please bring a sleeping bag. In addition to the meditations, the traditional Mass will be sung each day, as well as parts of the Divine Office; there will also be plenty of opportunities for spiritual direction and Confession. To confirm your attendance please read the following Google doc and fill the registration form. If you have any questions please contact hernan.ducci@gmail.com. Feel free to forward this invitation to any else you reckon would be interested.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

St Maurus, and a Famous Miracle of St Benedict

January 15th is the feast day of St Maurus, a disciple of St Benedict who is famous for his role in one of his master’s more impressive miracles. This is recounted by St Gregory the Great in chapter 7 of the Second Book of his Dialogues, which is devoted to the life of St Benedict.

“On a certain day, as the venerable Benedict was in his cell, the young Placidus, one of the Saint’s monks, went out to draw water from the lake; and putting his pail into the water carelessly, fell in after it. The water swiftly carried him away, and drew him nearly a bowshot from the land. Now the man of God, though he was in his cell, knew this at once, and called in haste for Maurus, saying: ‘Brother Maurus, run, for the boy who went to the lake to fetch water, has fallen in, and the water has already carried him a long way off!’

St Maurus Saves St Placid from Drowning, by Spinello Aretino, 1388, from the sacristy of San Miniato al Monte in Florence. The church is still to this day the home of a community of Olivetan monks; in accordance with a common medieval custom, St Benedict and his contemporaries are depicted in white Olivetan habit.
A marvelous thing, and unheard of since the time of the Apostle Peter! Having asked for and received a blessing, and departing in all haste at his father’s command, Maurus ran over the water to the place whither the young lad had been carried by the water, thinking that he was going over the land; and took him by the hair of his head, and swiftly returned with him. As soon as he touched the land, coming to himself, he looked back, and realized that he had run on the water. That which could not have presumed to do, being now done, he both marveled and was afraid of what he had done.

Returning therefore to the father, he told him what had happened. And the the venerable Benedict did not attribute this to his own merits, but to the obedience of Maurus. Maurus, on the contrary, said that it was done only in accord with his command, and that he had nothing to do with that miracle, not knowing at that time what he did. But in this amicable contention of mutual humility, the youth who had been saved came as judge; for he said, ‘When I was being drawn out of the water, I saw the Abbot’s garment over my head, and perceived that it was he that drew me out of the water.’ ”

A Meditation after Epiphany: The Transfiguration Icon and What It Tells Us About Christian Culture

Here is a painting of the Transfiguration. It is a 16th-century Russian icon from the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery in Yaroslavl, which is to the northeast of Moscow.


Readers will be familiar with the scene. Christ is on the mountain flanked by the two prophets, and the three disciples are stunned by the sight of the transfigured Christ. This is a glimpse of his heavenly glory, hitherto unseen by the disciples. The nimbus that surrounds Christ in this picture is called a “mandorla”, the Italian word for “almond”, from its elliptical shape. The season of the Epiphany (also known as Theophany) is the time in which the first manifestations of God’s glory are commemorated, and especially the Baptism in the Jordan; in the East, the feast is wholly focused on the latter, and the Adoration of the Magi is commemorated at Christmas. As such, they all point to this moment as the fulfillment of all epiphanies.

The mandorla surrounding Christ usually shows concentric bands of shading which get darker toward the center, rather than lighter. It is painted in this way so as to communicate to us, pictorially, the fact that we must pass through stages of increasing mystery in order to encounter the person of Jesus Christ. This encounter, which takes place in the Mass with the Eucharist at its heart, is one that transforms me supernaturally, so that I can begin to grasp the glory of Christ more directly.

This encounter is made possible by my baptism, confirmation, and communion so that I have ‘put on Christ’ as St Paul says in Galatians. God’s actions are not in any way restricted by the Sacraments, of course, but as a general rule, until I become Catholic I am going to be dazzled into blindness by the transfigured Christ, and the mandorla will look like a jet-black envelope with a heart of darkness.

Nevertheless, prior to being fully part of the body of Christ, I was able to perceive, those outer rings of the mandorla. In this context they represent the Light of Christ reflected in the cosmos, and Christian culture and art. This tells me there is more to know and love and I yearn for it. This is the power of beauty, and of art in particular, and is why the rejuvenation of Catholic culture and Catholic art, in particular, are so necessary. We need them to speak powerfully to people today of Christ and draw people into the Church.

Beauty is a perceptible sign of something which we cannot see, Almighty God. It calls us to itself, and then beyond to Him who inspired it, and who is Beauty itself. Creation is beautiful because it bears the mark of the Creator; and the culture or any aspect of it, whether mundane, sacred or high art can speak of it too. Even everyday Christian activity is beautiful - graceful - if it is inspired by God and will draw people to God.

The Christian life well lived is one in which every discernible aspect our lives contributes to the brightness of the outer rings of the mandorla through inspired contributions to the culture. This is because we are part of the mystical body of Christ, the Church, which is the transfigured Christ of the painting above. Each of us is a pixel of supernatural light in the heart of darkness! The artist is called to contribute to the culture by his painting, but each of us contributes in our own way.

The most powerful formation that will enable us to be contributors to a beautiful Catholic culture that bears this cosmic beauty is the central activity of the Church, the worship of God. Christian culture permeates the life of the Church and of the world - the sacred and the profane - and so is an important part of the sign of Christ and of the world to come. It is a principle that potentially permeates all human activity.

Below is the Transfiguration mosaic from St Catherine’s Monastery, Mt Sinai.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Interview with Dr Kwasniewski on “Beauty—God’s Messenger”

NLM readers may wish to know about a new magazine, Calx Mariaepublished four times a year by Voice of the Family in the U.K. The editor, Maria Madise, invited me to do an interview on the theme of “Beauty—God’s Messenger,” for the third issue, which recently appeared in print. I hope I am allowed to say, in spite of being a contributor myself, that I find the content and the production values extremely high. It is truly one of the nicest publications I’ve seen in a long time, and a sight for sore eyes in these days of internet-dominated news and features. For subscriptions and copies of individual issues, visit this link.

With the editor’s permission, the full interview is reproduced below.

Maria Madise: Throughout history, the Church has sought out beautiful music, art, architecture and the finest craftsmanship. Why do these things play a crucial role in Catholic spirituality and formation? 

Peter Kwasniewski: The reason is simple: we were made by God as creatures of flesh and blood. We learn through our senses. When God revealed the Law to Moses, He made use of a lofty mountain, lightning, thunder, dark clouds, blood, and stone tablets. When He commanded the building of the tabernacle, He showed the pattern of it in fine detail, demanding the most expensive materials. When God spoke to Elijah, He first made a lot of noise, and then revealed Himself in a “soft, small voice.” When Our Lord wished to give Himself most intimately to His disciples, He used bread and wine, in the midst of a highly structured religious ritual. We can think of thousands of examples from divine revelation of “theophanies,” that is, the manifestation of God in various signs and figures. The Jewish liturgy in temple and synagogue continued this pattern, and obviously Christian liturgy did as well, moved above all by the miracle of the Son of God Himself taking on flesh and blood. The Catholic Faith, with the power of the Incarnation behind it, developed the richest and most beautiful culture the world has ever known—but all in the service of pointing beyond itself, to God.

What is the purpose of beauty? Is it practical or functional?

Beauty is God’s first, last, and most effective messenger. We learn that the world is good and orderly because of the beauty of nature, which we only later come to understand intellectually. And just as we come to know God through His divine artistry, we see the inner beauty of the human person most of all in the great works of human art. A painter like Rembrandt helps us to see the immense, almost heartbreaking beauty of an old man or old woman’s face, which we might otherwise rush past or even find ugly. Christ Himself is “the fairest of the sons of men,” as Scripture says, but He allowed Himself to become “a man of sorrows,” marred beyond belief, to tell us something unforgettable about the invisible Beauty of love, of sacrifice for love. The Church therefore cannot and must not flee from her role of introducing mankind to this immortal Lover, both in the beauties that appeal to our senses, and in the deeper mystery that no sense can reach.

What is the role of beauty in the formation of children and young people? 

The first thing a baby notices in the world is his mother’s face, which establishes a first and permanent vision of beauty—not necessarily as the world sees it, but because love discloses the truth.

As a child grows in the family, his parents have the serious obligation to train him or her in a love of the beautiful by reading good stories, memorizing poetry, putting up good artwork, making art together, and attending liturgy that is outwardly very beautiful, if at all possible. All these things are part of a subtle and pervasive education of taste, sensibility, instinct, and intuition. When we are brought up with beauty, we have a sense of propriety, respect, nobility, dignity. These things are proto-religious or para-religious attitudes that heavily influence the course of one’s life. Without them, we are much more vulnerable to the winds of false doctrine and shoddy excuses.

A typical European street corner
How would you explain to someone what exactly culture is and what is Catholic culture? 

It is not easy to define culture. In a recent lecture I tried my hand at it: culture is “the shared ways in which a society or people is accustomed to expressing, celebrating, and inculcating its vision of reality.” Maybe that’s too broad. Culture is always concerned with the concrete expression of ideas and values. How we eat our food, what we drink and when and why, how we dress and speak, what our buildings and vehicles look like, all this is culture, and does, in fact, express a worldview (or perhaps an eclectic mingling of worldviews).

In Europe above all, Catholics developed an extremely rich culture in which even the littlest objects of daily use were decorated beautifully and often with explicit reference to the doctrines of the Faith. In this way, there was a continuum from the cup at home to the chalice on the altar, from the dinner bell to the cathedral bell, from the tablecloth to the houseling cloth. The images of Our Lady and the saints presided over everything—our familiar companions in this world, but as a reminder that “we have here no abiding city: we seek one that is to come.”

A Catholic culture, then, is what a society inspired by the Faith will produce and cherish: an environment that turns the mind to God gently and frequently, making full use of the high beauties of fine art and the rugged genius of folk art, the impressive pageantry of ceremonial and the stabilizing force of rituals. The result is a joyful impregnation of the whole of life with the immense reality of God, too great to be limited to any domain or any one expression.

Should there be an overlap in liturgical and popular culture? If yes, in what form? If no, why not? 

I think, in fact, it has been a tragedy that high culture and popular culture have parted ways almost completely, and that the liturgy is no longer the driving force of culture, as it had been for well over a thousand years. Today’s “inculturation” is often cheap, random, and secular, because it is not guided by strong and clear thinking rooted in divine revelation and Church tradition.

For example, people try to take contemporary pop music and bring it into the liturgy. This is a giant mistake, because this music is saturated with emotionalism, strongly associated with the liberal anti-culture and its sexual promiscuity. It does exactly the opposite of what church music is supposed to do: raise the mind up to God, purify the heart of disordered affection, discipline the body. Instead of assisting in our assimilation of the Word of God, it rather promotes the secularization of religion.

But it is possible to do inculturation well. The missionaries of Europe who came to the New World often incorporated external features of the evangelized cultures into music, devotions, and visual arts. For instance, Spanish missionaries in Mexico taught the natives how to compose in the style of Renaissance polyphony, but allowed or even encouraged the addition of native flutes and percussion. The result still sounds ecclesiastical, yet with a Central American flavor to it. (If you are interested in listening to some of it, just look up the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble, or SAVAE.)

Prodigal son as metaphor (detail from Rembrandt)
What is our duty as the heirs of Catholic tradition? Do we need to reform, preserve, or recreate? 

This is an important question. Here is what Our Lord Himself teaches us in the parable of the prodigal son. What we do to, or with, our family inheritance shows what we think of our father and of our entire family. Now, no one can deny that things like Latin, Gregorian chant, and offering Mass ad orientem are central, constitutive, and characteristic treasures of our Catholic patrimony. The liturgical reform suppressed them or marginalized them, acting just like the prodigal son who squandered his family wealth on loose living and ended up impoverished and miserable. The only way out of this bad situation is what the parable shows: conversion, repentance, return, and reestablishment in the house of the father.

The right attitude towards our inheritance is to protect it, preserve it, defend it, and make use of it to the greatest extent possible. To do this, we must know it, and the better we come to know it, the more we will love it. This love, in turn, will inspire new works of beauty in continuity with what has come before. That is the experience of every serious Catholic artist—architect, painter, iconographer, sculptor, composer, poet. Knowing our tradition, we imitate it, emulate it, develop it, and carry it forward into the 21st century. There is no need to seek originality. The only fully original person is God the Father, since He has no origin from anyone else; even the Son is not original, but originated; and the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. God Himself teaches us that the perfection of all persons after the Father consists in their derivation from another. The creature who tried to be wholly original was Lucifer, of whom Our Lord says that he is “the father of lies” because he “speaks from himself.” That’s where sheer originality will get you: into hell. And that, of course, is what we see in so many modern artists.

Incidentally, Martin Mosebach has made the observation that the notion of reform makes sense only if one takes the word itself seriously: it is a return to form, a re-forming of that which has lost good form. Reform doesn’t mean loosening up, wandering off, or blowing things up. It means more discipline, more attachment to good models, more self-control, more humility in the service of greatness. That’s the kind of reform that the Church always needs, not the “reform” we have gotten in the past half-century, which should more truthfully be called deformation.

How would you describe your own discovery of Catholic tradition and what effect did it have on your formation and work? 

For me, the discovery of Gregorian chant was a huge revelation. I can’t say why I was so fascinated by it at the tender age of 17, but then again, the chant really is mesmerizing and haunting in a way that no other music is. By listening to recordings of the Wiener Hofburgkapelle, I taught myself to read the neumes in an old Graduale Romanum that had been discarded by the Benedictine boys’ school I was attending at the time. I think my study of composition—being introduced to J. S. Bach’s chorales and trying to imitate them in my exercises—also played a role: there is something about this kind of discipline that helps the mind to perceive beauty not as something vague, fluffy, and sentimental, but as the result of labor, craft, rule.

Other important influences at the end of high school included the reading of Plato’s dialogues and Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. At the time, I felt that Plato, though a pagan, was really “one of us”—a sort of “closet Catholic”—and that to be educated meant to read Plato, and authors like him. All this made me want to go to a college where I could be steeped in the riches of Catholicism that I had begun to taste. That’s why I went to Thomas Aquinas College in California, where I could study the “Great Books.”

Attending TAC introduced me to a world of immense depth and beauty. This included the traditional Latin Mass, where all that is purest, loftiest, and loveliest in the Catholic Faith comes to roost. I think of that psalm verse: “Even the sparrow finds herself a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young: Thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God” (Ps 83:4 [84:3]). The Mass truly was and must once again become the inspiring force of Catholic culture. Certainly for me and my family, it has been the place where we can make a spiritual home, and where we may bring up our young in the peace and fragrance of Christ.

A prayer corner
So much of modern culture is ugly, even grotesque, many people have a real hunger for what is beautiful and good. Can you suggest how we may satisfy this hunger? 

I strongly believe, as I hinted earlier, that we need to surround ourselves with beauty. I don’t mean in a cluttered or kitschy way, but by suitable decorations, by investing if we can in works of art, by listening to really good music (and by this, I do not mean any particular period, but certainly not pop, rock, rap, techno, or any of that barbaric stuff, which is the musical equivalent of junk food or drugs), and by seeking to understand the greatest art that European and Catholic civilization has bequeathed to us. I would recommend several practical steps.

First, find the most beautiful celebration of the liturgy you can, and go to it. If it’s in a beautiful church, even better! The liturgy is where most of the fine arts blossomed and where they are meant to be experienced: as offerings to God, caught up in (and ideally assisting in) the ascending movement of prayer. The liturgy is not just the “source and summit” of the Christian life, it is also—or it has been and should once again be—the source and summit of Christian culture as well.

Second, think about the rooms you are living and working in, and how you might elevate them with prints, watercolors, engravings, etc. It takes time to find works of ‘original’ art, but in the mean time, or supplementally, a good quality giclee reproduction of a Fra Angelico or a Giotto, a Rembrandt or a Vermeer can make a big difference in the ambience, encouraging a more contemplative spirit. (I recommend The Catholic Art Company, which has a fine selection. They don’t sell junk, and they don’t support immoral causes.)

Third, pick a place in your home and make it the “prayer corner,” with icons or holy images, a candle, holy water, rosaries, flowers. This should be a place around which it is natural to gather for morning or evening prayers. (You can read more about this in David Clayton and Leila Lawler’s The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home. Other beautiful customs can develop from this center point; see Mary Reed Newland’s We and Our Children: How to Make a Catholic Home.)

Fourth, acquire some good recordings of sacred and “classical” music, and take time to listen to them, to develop your ear and your soul. (At LifeSite News, I’ve written some pertinent articles: “What makes Gregorian chant uniquely itself—with recommended recordings” and “These new recordings of sacred music will transport you to the courts of the King.”)

Fifth, make time for ongoing education. I cannot recommend highly enough the lectures by art historian William Kloss available from The Great Courses: such eye-opening and fascinating explorations of the genius of the greatest artists, who have a special gift for seeing—and thus, for helping us to see—the luminous depths of reality. Obviously, if one can visit a good or great museum, one should do this on a fairly regular basis.

Sixth, at least once a year, go on pilgrimage. The pilgrim, too, gets to enjoy the sights and sounds of the journey and the destination, but he has a higher purpose than the mere tourist. Aesthetic experience becomes more meaningful when united to the love of God, the practice of religion, and the expression of devotion to a saint and to Our Lord Himself. This is what I loved, by the way, about attending the All Souls Pontifical Requiem Mass at St. John Cantius in Chicago this past November 2nd: the choir and orchestra performed Mozart’s Requiem in its authentic liturgical context. Somehow, hearing it in the right place and at the right time made the music even better.

Seventh, if we have the means, or if we are in a position to influence people of means, we should try to patronize new works of art that are truly beautiful, and if intended for the Church, truly sacred also. I admire clergy and laity who, when a special occasion is coming in the future, commission a piece of music or a painting for the occasion. Obviously, as a composer myself, I recognize that if Catholics stop asking for and expecting good art for the Church, good artists will starve and disappear. The same can be said of supporting music programs and the right kind of church restorations (often undoing the damage wrought by postconciliar iconoclasts).

In your new book Tradition and Sanity you make a number of compelling arguments in favour of returning to the traditional liturgy—not for liturgical or aesthetic reasons alone, but also because the way we live the Sacrifice of the Mass lies at the heart of every aspect of our lives. Could you explain this a little?

In keeping with what I was saying earlier about how a grateful son should approach his father’s house and his family patrimony, I would say that worshiping God with the Roman Catholic liturgy in the form in which it organically developed for a period of over 1,500 years is crucial to having (or, for many, to recovering) a stable identity, a profound spirituality, a sound doctrinal foundation, and a compass for the moral life—this, in addition to the obvious literary and artistic merits that the old liturgy has in itself and has inspired for so many centuries.

Given that Catholicism is inherently a religion of tradition, it should strike us as quite troubling that Catholics of today pray in a manner terribly different from, and even at odds with, how our ancestors prayed, including the vast majority of saints. Either they were wrong and we are the enlightened ones—or, rather more likely, we have gone off the rails in our quest for modernization and need to get back on if we would reach our destination safely. Liturgy is not something that each age needs to redesign and recreate in its own image. On the contrary, the vicissitudes of history are to a large extent transcended in a still point, an immovable center, a pole star from which we can always take our bearings. You could apply to the Mass the Carthusian motto: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “the Cross is steady while the world is turning.” This, to my mind, is the reason why the old liturgy is winning so many “converts” today. The world is turning at a mad pace, careening out of control, and unfortunately, because of the conciliar prejudice for aggiornamento, the world has pulled the postconciliar liturgy in its wake, like a moon orbiting a planet. The classic Roman liturgy abides in its grandeur, and seems, perhaps not too surprisingly, more “relevant” to us today than something devised by a committee in the 1960s.

My book goes into all this, but also into the crisis in the papacy and in evangelization, which I believe are linked with this tragic decision to “re-orient” Catholicism along new lines. This has led not to renewal but to accelerating deformation and irrelevance. Thanks be to God, we see a countermovement gaining strength across the world, and characterized by its opposition, point for point, to the official program. That will be the drama of the next decades: how this massive “civil war” inside the Church plays out under the hand of Divine Providence.


The Table of Contents of this third issue:


Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Baptism of the Lord 2019

This day, when the Lord was baptized in the Jordan, the heavens were opened, and the Spirit descended like a dove, and remained upon Him, and the voice of the Father sounded forth like thunder: * This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased. V. The Holy Ghost descended upon Him in a bodily shape like a dove , and a voice came from heaven. This is My beloved Son... (The first responsory of Matins of the Baptism of the Lord.)

The Baptism of Christ, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, ca. 1655.
R. Hodie in Jordáne baptizáto Dómino aperti sunt caeli, et sicut columba super eum Spíritus mansit, et vox Patris intónuit: * Hic est Filius meus dilectus, in quo mihi bene complácui. V. Descendit Spíritus Sanctus corporáli specie sicut columba in ipsum, et vox de caelo facta est. Hic est Fílius meus...

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: