Monday, August 22, 2005

BOOK REVIEW: Thomas Aquinas and the Liturgy

THOMAS AQUINAS AND THE LITURGY by David Berger. Translated by Christopher Grosz (Sapientia Press, 300 West Forest Ave., Ypsilanti, Mich. 48197, 2004), x + 127 pp. P8 $14.95.

This is truly a remarkable little book. In 113 modest-sized pages of text, the German Thomist David Berger offers us a feast of high theology, meditative reflection, and sharp critique. How many books offer a readable summary of St. Thomas’s subtle account of transubstantiation and the real presence (89-110), or pay attention to his beautiful “allegorical” interpretation of the ceremonies and prayers of the Latin-rite liturgy (27-41), or unfold a compelling vision of “mantas] by nature a liturgical being” (52-61) who, estranged from God by sin, can yet return to him and cleave to him ever more intimately through the mercies of Jesus, who is “at once priest, sacrificial gift, and God” (61-87)?

No, this is an unusual book, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it should be required reading for priests, seminarians, and all who have a serious interest in theology. It performs the important service of focusing our minds, so easily distracted by scandal and scattered by contemporary quarrels, on what is essential and timeless in the liturgy. Among other things, Aquinas helps us to see that just as Jesus lived first and foremost for the glorification of the Father, so too our liturgy, principally the Mass, must be directed first and foremost to the cultus divinus, the pleasing and acceptable worship of God for his own sake—­propter magnam gloriam tuam, as we pray in the Gloria—and only secondarily, as a result of that, to our own sanctification and instruction. When the liturgy is transparently adoration and thanksgiving, when it is “man’s incorporation into the cultic glorification of God through Christ,” it can then truly become our healing and our source of community. But if we commit “anthropocentric idolatry” (73) by putting ourselves and our human preoccupations first, we fall prey to “rationalisms and the banality that follow in their wake” (Berger, quoting Ratzinger, 79), yielding ultimately to total desacralization and loss of faith. No perceptive Catholic needs to be told that this idolatry has been tried and found wanting; but many are still wondering what to do next, how to recover balance, sobriety, beauty, after dizzying doses of experimentation.

Helpfully Berger starts off with a summary of Thomas’s unique authority in the Catholic Church, a reminder that is especially necessary in these times of free-wheeling dissent and, even among orthodox Catholics, philosophical and theological pluralism. It was not for superficial reasons that Vatican II became the first ecumenical council in history to single out “one individual author,” none other than the Angelic and Common Doctor, as a universal guide for Christian education, in this respect echoing Leo XIII’s Aeterni Parris and anticipating John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio. Thomism’s real relevance, argues Berger, consists in its very “otherness” from the fashions of today—”where it breaks through those superficial plausibilities that support the spirit of the age’s articles of faith . . . where its timeless wisdom causes us a painful yet salutary disquiet” (10). On a number of occasions Berger notes how theological errors have distorted the authentic meaning of the awesome mysteries re-enacted every time we gather for the Mass, and shows how Aquinas gives us the principles we need for the purification and ennoblement of our public cultus. Surprising, as it may initially seem, we have a voice from seven hundred years ago that can and will help us greatly in this process of reparation and renewal.

The book’s brevity comes at the cost of a certain density. Berger presupposes in his reader a thorough grasp of Catholic doctrine and at least a passing familiarity with basic scholastic terminology (act and potency, form and matter, hypostatic union, sacramental character). So, the book is targeted, one might say, at amateur and professional Thomists, those who seek to know the mind of Aquinas on the liturgy. It is not, however, written in the pompous, inaccessible jargon typical of many academic books today. The style and substance are a breath of fresh air (for which some of the credit surely goes to the book’s capable translator). I recommend the book in a special way to priests, who may find its radiant explanations of central truths about the Mass, the Eucharist, and the sacraments in general a source of solid ideas for preaching.

In contrast to an oft-assumed “decline of liturgy that allegedly started in the Middle Ages” (2), the greatest of our mediaeval predecessors knew what the liturgy is far better than many of today’s liturgical scholars—it is the ineffable mystery of God planted as a fruitful vine in the soil of our world, the supreme sacrifice of praise, a heavenly wedding feast, the gateway to the heart of Jesus, the lover of mankind whom we meet under veils in the darkness of faith, warmed by the fire of his love. Through his doctrine and his heavenly intercession, may St. Thomas help us toward that new beginning, that “rediscovery of the living center” (1), we so desperately need and so deeply long for.

Peter Kwasniewski

International Theological Institute
Gaming, Austria

(Reprinted from the June 2005 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review)

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