Monday, August 17, 2015

What Do “the People in the Pews” Deserve?: On the Right of the Faithful to Integrally Catholic Worship

In 2004, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, “On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist.” It makes for melancholy reading, given that this Instruction, like so many other damage-control documents, was summarily ignored by the liturgical establishment and most diocesan chanceries. In 2005 a friend of mine called her diocese one day to complain about an outrageous liturgical abuse and mentioned that Redemptionis Sacramentum had specifically declared it outlawed. The person on the other end, an officer of the chancery, said she’d never heard of it, but she would ask around to see if they had a copy. Some time later she came back and said: “No, no one here has heard of that document. Maybe you could send us a letter with your question?”

But I digress. Here is one of my favorite passages from Redemptionis Sacramentum:
Arbitrary actions [in the liturgy] are not conducive to true renewal, but are detrimental to the right of Christ’s faithful to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church’s life in accordance with her tradition and discipline. … It is the right of all of Christ’s faithful that the liturgy, and in particular the celebration of Holy Mass, should truly be as the Church wishes, according to her stipulations as prescribed in the liturgical books and in the other laws and norms. Likewise, the Catholic people have the right that the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass should be celebrated for them in an integral manner, according to the entire doctrine of the Church’s Magisterium. Finally, it is the Catholic community’s right that the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist should be carried out for it in such a manner that it truly stands out as a sacrament of unity, to the exclusion of all blemishes and actions that might engender divisions and factions in the Church. (nn. 11-12) 
The document refers several times to the Church’s “patrimony” and “heritage,” which are to be preserved. I was thinking of all this recently in connection with a poignant quotation from an article by David Warren:
Through the centuries, and even to the present day, the faith of the Church has been communicated by music, as much as by words; the very Word, through the Church, embodied in music. … The Mass in its nature is sung, chanted; and the innumerable musical settings of the Mass are intrinsic to its meaning, to its universality, to the dimensionality: it is not “just words.” … I am convinced that the recovery of the musical traditions, within Holy Church, can do more to evangelize than any quarrelling with the world. For what we must do is not argue, but proclaim; and music in its nature does not argue. It proclaims.[1]
The traditional sacred music of the Church is part, and not a small part, of that patrimony and heritage that simply ARE Catholic and MAKE US more thoroughly Catholic when we embrace them for the God-given gifts they are. Redemptionis Sacramentum lays it out quite clearly: Catholics have a right to the sacred music of the Church as defined by the Magisterium of the Church, and pastors have a duty to provide it for our spiritual benefit.[2] Not to provide it would constitute a kind of liturgical abuse; not to seek it would amount to a form of acedia or spiritual laziness.[3] To love it would be the humility of the disciple; to be offended by it, the pride of autonomy, a non serviam. To sing it with gratitude would be one way of proclaiming the Good News to a world enveloped in warped or bad news.

Still, we all know that there are people who, for reasons great and small, despise sacred music and all sorts of other things that fall into the category of “patrimony” or “heritage.” What do we say about them? Should we make room for them and their latest version of worship, accommodate their views, cater to their tastes? Should there be a “Mass slot” for their sentiments and shenanigans?

This is where some tough love is in order, if we actually wish to be charitable. It can happen that people are looking for the wrong thing — and it’s not the Church’s job to give them the wrong thing, but to show them what is better. To Americans this sounds elitist, but it’s always been the way: to show a higher path, to live it as well as we can, and to beg the Lord to move people to follow. We do a disservice to evangelization when we entice people into the Church for the wrong reasons or with means that are non-catholic or even anti-catholic.[4] By consistently offering the divine liturgy and its sacred music in their better (i.e., more traditional) forms, and doing so without cultural apologies or the security valve of postmodern pluralism, we honor the great holiness of the inherited liturgy and we give good service to evangelization, which must be founded on the fact of having received something worthwhile to hand on.

Returning to the pastoral question, to what extent should we “make room” for that which is less good, less worthy of the liturgy (such as poor quality music), in order to avoid offense or exclusion? It seems to me obvious that one has to take an incremental approach wherever there has been, for 50 years or more, a smorgasbord or secularized approach. One shouldn’t expect to change everything overnight or attempt to do so, because one will lose not only those who are ill-disposed to any change, but also those who might come around given a little time and some experience of the beautiful. To avoid meandering and losing momentum, however, one must always preserve a single sovereign goal: feeding the faithful with the best of our Catholic tradition, which is what the people in the pews need and deserve, and what the clergy owe them. It is an act of love and respect to share our riches and not to hide them under a bushel basket; it is an act of obedience to submit to the given liturgical forms (e.g., the use of the Propers of the Mass, Gregorian chant, Latin, and the other things Vatican II called for) rather than randomizing or customizing them.

The liturgy is given to us as something objective, formal, public, and traditional — and we have terribly lost sight of that in the past fifty years, as we rushed to make it subjectively appealing, informal so as not to scare away the half-hearted, privatized in accordance with our social sectors, and full of novelties to win over the progressive, the bored, or the curious. It has all been a resounding failure, leaving us divided, scattered, and bleeding to death. We have learned, or we should have learned by now, that trying to figure out what “modern man” needs and then custom-fitting everything to that is certainly not going to work. What modern man needs is what man, as such, has always needed and will always need: worship in spirit and in truth, aided by the sensible elements of the liturgy, in continuity with apostolic tradition. Anything less than that leaves us prisoners to ourselves and our age; anything less is a form of abuse, open or subtle. Good liturgy is demanding because anything fine, noble, great, and transcendent is demanding.

Besides that, the liturgy cannot be expected to perform every job. We need social events, social outreach, catechesis, apologetics — and, most basic of all, the witness of good Christian lives. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in particular, is a very specific thing in the life of the Church, and it was never intended to be all things to all people. It breaks under that kind of impossible weight. The Mass will come to life again, and we will come to life through it, if we can just let it be itself — if we let the Mass be simply and totally the sacrifice of Calvary, nothing else, with all that is proper to it, and nothing that is foreign to it. It cannot be the youth rally, the senior club, the show of Padre Centro d’Attenzione, the Buddhist-Bauhaus zone of emptiness, or the Billy Graham Bible Study. Give it back its music, its ritual fabric, its tapestry of solemn, sung, and silent prayer handed down in hallowed forms, its gaze riveted on the bloody Tree of Paradise, and it will become once again the hidden font of torrents of grace.

Meanwhile, we poor servants of the mystery should not reproach ourselves about offering the liturgy as beautifully and worthily and reverently as we can, even if, by doing so, we lose some of our congregation. When Jesus preached the doctrine of feasting on His Eucharistic flesh and blood, He lost some disciples, too — or rather He allowed them to go away. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has ever been and will ever be a scandal to certain individuals, and this “scandal of the particular” includes all of its particularities: the fixed rites, the content of the prayers, the hieratic garments and gestures, the visible hierarchy of male ministries, the traditional music that is part and parcel of the liturgy, the ascetical demands placed on the faithful by the rites or their surrounding laws. These and all such things are or can become offensive to the fallen human mind with its resistance to the obedience of faith and the discipline of mysteries. What we must be thinking, instead, is that by God’s grace, which we must always implore, the human mind can be opened to faith and mystery, and once open, can be filled with holiness and grow into connaturality with the good, the true, and the beautiful.

The measure of our love for our neighbor is how willing we are to share with him what is best — not the mediocre, the bland, the banal, the has-been, the latest fad, or the good enough, but the best. The measure of a pastor’s love will be how eagerly he takes pains to learn what is truly best, to introduce and foster it in his community, and to make it prevail over false progress, grim habit, and tired indifference. This is no time for likes and dislikes; it is a time for love and hatred — love of the sinner and his genuine good, hatred of sin and all obstacles to transformation in Christ.


[1] David Warren, "Oh Had I Jubal's Lyre."

[2] As the hypothetical bishop in last week's "A Blueprint for Parish Musical Reform" noted, Redemptionis Sacramentum explicitly states: “It is the right of the community of Christ’s faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration there should customarily be true and suitable sacred music” (n. 57).

[3] On this matter of acedia, see Mark Nowakowski's review of an exceptionally fine book that has recently appeared on the subject.

[4] Not that our efforts in recent decades have been especially successful in attracting or retaining members.

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