The chief purpose of the whole external worship is that man may give worship to God. Now man’s tendency is to reverence less those things which are common, and indistinct from other things; whereas he admires and reveres those things which are distinct from others in some point of excellence. Hence too it is customary among men for kings and princes, who ought to be reverenced by their subjects, to be clothed in more precious garments, and to possess vaster and more beautiful abodes. And for this reason it behooved special times, a special abode, special vessels, and special ministers to be appointed for the divine worship, so that thereby the soul of man might be brought to greater reverence for God. (Summa theologiae I-II, q. 102, a. 4)
If the Mass, as we celebrate it, is a reflection of who and what we already are or what we already think and feel, it will not unsettle us; it may even cause our mental habits to ossify. When “inculturation” is carried too far, it ends up being accommodation to the pure present, which, in the today’s world, is likely to be a culture of suburban narcissism.
In the spiritual life, peace comes to us through a relentless reshaping of the self. For this reshaping to occur, one does not need liturgical shock tactics, techniques for social consciousness-raising, or novelties to fabricate occasions for lay involvement. Quite the contrary: these things remain at a superficial level and do not penetrate into the murky depths of the soul where the first origins of desire and aversion faintly shimmer.
Good liturgy does not, in and of itself, set people in the right direction. More is required: a clergy devoted to prayer and zealous for souls, adequate catechesis for the people, hearts ready to receive the seed of the word. Liturgy has been done well at many places and in many historical periods, but at some places and in some periods it has produced what seem negligible good effects in the faithful. There is no magical recipe for success, but there is an instrument, namely, traditional liturgy, that we neglect at our peril, at the risk of a deadening of our sensitivity to the sacred and the transcendent. It is a congenial context for representing and assimilating the richness of the Christian mystery.
The Mass, in its hieratic formalism, is the optimal school of prayer. One would only need to add that all the aspects of liturgy have to be taken into account for this schooling of the Christian heart: the ritual, the music, the architecture, must evoke the distinctively sacred and shadow forth the mysteries of faith, and must do so with a searing intensity of seriousness.
It isn’t as if saints are a guaranteed product of solemn liturgy. Formal, beautiful liturgy might be spiritually empty, while a threadbare liturgy could be the vehicle through which God sanctifies souls. Nothing argued here would require a complex liturgy, but only one which is taken seriously, a motivation quite compatible with simplicity and poverty. As Fr. John Baldovin acknowledged in a 2002 article in Antiphon, seriousness is, in a sense, the key question for the liturgy—the seriousness of purpose revealed in a spirit of adoration, in earnest pleading, signs of sacred dignity, augmentations of otherness and the proclamation of an ungraspable intimacy.
We are asleep and we must be awakened. It was with a keen instinct for spiritual realities that our forefathers, over many centuries, gently built up a liturgy that challenges our minds and hearts at every turn, confronting us with the known in the unknown, the unknown in the known, the impenetrable, inscrutable, and ineffable in the melismas of jubilation and the silences of searching prayer. I am grateful to countless saints and to the Holy Spirit, their guide, for having bequeathed even to us, in the desert of modernity, a liturgy that is inexhaustibly rich and profound, ever more life-giving, younger and fresher, as the worshiper comes to know it. And I am grateful to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI for having liberated this treasure of the Catholic Faith, “so that thereby the soul of man might be brought to greater reverence for God.”