Monday, September 19, 2005

More from Fr. Stravinkas

Homily delivered by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D. on the occasion of the annual celebration of the patronal feast of the St. Gregory Foundation for Latin Liturgy, 3 September 1996, at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.

As we once more find ourselves honoring st. Gregory the Great, we are reminded of the fact that he earned the title of “Great” because his influence extended to so many areas of ecclesiastical and civil life. The one sphere of his interest and perhaps his finest success, however, was that of beautifying the Roman Liturgy. It was for that reason, obviously, that he was chosen to be our heavenly patron when we embarked upon our venture with this Foundation seven years ago.

When Pope Gregory looked at the Roman liturgy of his day, he realized a reform was needed.. Today we hear voices like Cardinal Ratzinger’s raised, calling for “a reform of the reform” which occurred in the seventies. What might some obstacles be in the way of such a project? I have assembled a dozen such hindrances – in no special priority order; the list is not exhaustive, but I think it makes a good start. Will you allow me to lead you in this introspective and reflective exercise? What problems suggest themselves?

1. The lack of eschatology: “Eschatology” is an intimidating word for a most essential aspect of Christian faith, namely, conviction about the afterlife. Sacraments, you see, ultimately make no sense if we don’t view our life here below as the prelude to something bigger, better and more enduring. Cardinal Ratzinger maintains that the gravest error of the post-conciliar period has been the shunting off of eschatology to the sidelines of the Catholic experience. Admittedly, forty years ago one could get the impression that life on earth was little more than a troublesome way-station, through which we had to pass to get to the “real thing.” But we’ve now gone to the opposite extreme in many cases, both in our preaching and in our teaching. Twenty years ago, people were already remarking that we never heard homilies on Hell anymore; now, it’s hard to discover homilies on Heaven. The sacraments are the meeting-place between time and eternity, between Heaven and Earth; hence, a one-dimensional view of things does irreparable damage to the sacramental system as God willed it for our salvation. Sacramentality without eschatology is meaningless and ineffectual sentimentality.

2. A misreading of Sacrosanctum Concilium: Please do not think me irreverent when I say that the greatest Catholic secret is not the “third secret of Fatima.” Without fear of contradiction, I believe it is the material contained in Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal giving it competition for neglect. Before anyone is allowed to declare something a desideratum of the Council, it should have to be proved that the person in question has indeed read the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – and has read it with the same lenses as the Council Fathers who approved it. A careful reading of that text reveals that the goal was to be liturgical renewal, not a liturgical reform which has devolved into liturgical choreography which, in turn, has led to little more than an incessant re-arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

3. Spiritualism/Neo-Gnosticism: We must recall the significance of symbols and how the created world brings us into contact with the uncreated. Ironically, not a few liturgists who press mightily for a deeper appreciation of sign and symbol are the gravest offenders when it comes to what I have dubbed “neo-gnosticism.” The “old” gnostics had no use for the material universe and so despised the use of sacramental signs. Their contemporary descendants do not see how important it is to take symbols seriously – which means, among other things, not tampering with them unnecessarily. Or, as the priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley is fond of saying, “When you’re talking about a symbol, you can never modify it by the adverb ‘just’.” Nothing is “just a symbol.” As a body-soul unity, the human person needs signs and symbols to direct and focus one’s being on affairs outside the normal scope or range. St. Thomas Aquinas understood this well when he asserted that “we arrive at the invisible through the visible.”

4. Exaggerated immanentism: One of the most tragic developments in liturgy has been an anthropocentrism which has pitted itself, with a vengeance, against theocentrism, that is, an approach to liturgy which has so emphasized the horizontal as to obfuscate or even, in some instances, obliterate the vertical. Now, no one would be foolish enough to suggest that human considerations and realities should not be given due attention in the celebration of worship; after all, as Pope John Paul has put it so well, “man cannot live without adoring.” So, yes, there must be concern for what “makes us tick,” so that worship can be “meaningful” in the most profound way we can interpret that word. However, the focus must nonetheless be clear: It is God Whom we must adore, not ourselves.

When we lose sight of the sacred and the transcendent, in the end we distort the nature of Christian worship so fundamentally as to make it of little use to man and an abomination to God. We desperately need to re-capture reverence, awe and mystery in our rites; without those basic components, it is no surprise that our young people inform us that they find the Sacred Liturgy “boring.”

5. A lost sense of sin: If we have lost our sense of the sacred, even more have we lost our sense of sin, so much so that over two decades ago, the non-believing psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, could author a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? Granted, we Catholics are not Lutherans or Calvinists or Fundamentalists who almost delight in sin. But we must take account of sin – it is an indispensable element of the human equation since the sin of our first parents, no matter what Matthew Fox would have us believe. In fact, the ever-quotable Chesterton once quipped that the only dogma of the Catholic Faith which is absolutely provable from human experience is original sin. And it is precisely because of the existence of sin and our weak human natures that God, in His goodness, gave us the sacramental system. Adam and Eve, in the state of original justice, did not need sacraments; they communicated with God face-to-face.

Similarly, we must recall that each and every sacrament is, in some way, connected to returning man to his lost innocence. And that awareness should make us rejoice in the goodness of God and in the nearness of our salvation. Anything less is but a shadow of the fullness and brightness of the whole truth.

6. Excessive subjectivity: In the “old days,” it is probably fair to say, the sacramental principle of ex opere operato may have been over-emphasized, but now that is being done with the companion principle of ex opere operantis. What do I mean? Ex opere operato theology holds that the sacraments “work” simply by virtue of the power of Christ’s grace, so that with a duly ordained minister, proper form and matter and a right intention, a sacrament is confected.

Nowadays, we suffer from the flipside. Ex opere operantis teaches that human cooperation is needed for the offer of divine grace to be fruitful. And that has brought about a new form of Pelagianism. You may remember old Pelagius from the fifth century, who preached the sufficiency of human effort for salvation. He was mightily resisted by none other than the great Father of the Church, St. Augustine. The Doctor of Grace acknowledged that there is a human element to human salvation, to be sure, but he also stressed that God’s work is primary and indispensable. In much of the liturgical practice of the day, we encounter both implicit and explicit denials of the necessity of grace. In all too many of the ICEL translations, for example, the Latin word gratia is totally ignored in the English renditions, with subtle, long-range but truly disastrous effects.

7. The reduction of language, art and music to the least common denominator: Thomas Day tweaked the liturgical establishment with his insightful and popular book, Where Have You Gone, Michelangelo? The sign of their discomfort was their near-total silence in response. So much of the external dimension of Catholic worship in the post-conciliar period is impoverished, banal and bleak. A visitor from Mars would never imagine that we are supposed to be the spiritual descendants of a Giotto or Mozart, a Da Vinci or Vittoria, a Boromini or Palestrina. Style and class have been banished from most Catholic sanctuaries in our land – and we are all the poorer for it. The transient, the ephemeral, the cheap have replaced the beautiful, the uplifting, the inspiring. The perfect symbol of all this is the disposable missalette, for there is little of permanence to be found therein.

When we survey the landscape of the would-be liturgical arts of the past thirty-five years, what do we behold? Truth be told, we find little, except for what was created last year or the year before.

As we turn our gaze toward the language of worship, what could be more confusing and upsetting than English translations which are of a lower quality than most tabloids and of such dubious theological worth? Only a fool would imagine that the average worshipping Catholic on any given Sunday morning is a Shakespearean scholar, but he is not an idiot, either. The genius of the Book of Common Prayer was that it used elevated language to elevate an entire nation, so that words, phrases and thought-patterns of that liturgical text became the very fiber of language of the English people from that day forward.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not arguing for a “bells and smells” attitude in regard to liturgy so well exemplified by the Anglicans because, in sadness, we must admit that most of them are “all dressed up with nowhere to go.” But once again, there is a happy medium between foppishness and the contemporary cult of the slob. Beyond that, it is crucial to recall that Aristotle taught us that “the good, the true and the beautiful” coinhere, that is, you can’t have one without the others. Having lost the beautiful, should we be amazed to wake up and find that we shall have eventually lost the good and the true as well?

8. Celebration of sacraments without requisite faith or knowledge: Someone has observed that the contemporary problem may be summed up in the line that all too many of our people are “sacramentalized but not catechized.” I would go even a step farther and say that in many instances, they are not even evangelized. Granted, we believe that sacraments confer grace by their very operation, but Sacrosanctum Concilium (which spends several paragraphs talking about this matter) makes the point that all this presupposes recipients who are “well-disposed” [cf. nn. 59-61]. In addition to the obvious element of being in the state of grace, proper disposition includes faith and a basic grasp of the doctrines involved. Without those two dimensions, the Church’s sacramental life would be little more than magic – a caricature of her teaching and Tradition from time immemorial.

9. American Pragmatism: We Americans are notorious for being satisfied with the “quick fix,” which leads to a poor sense of liturgy and is revealed in minimalism. The old “get
’em in and get ’em out” mentality did not die with the last celebration of the pre-conciliar rites. We find it today when people ask questions like: Is incense required? If not, forget it. It is operative when pastors decide that they will use extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion “because otherwise it’ll take too long.” It comes to the fore when we go for a vessel or vestment which is ugly and cheap because it “works” just as well as something beautiful and more expensive.

We need to re-capture the idea of liturgy as having no practical purpose – only to adore God and elevate man. More than two decades ago, Hugo Rahner [Karl’s brother] wrote a book called, Man at Play. Father Rahner used the expression in its best and deepest sense, namely, that the most important thing that man can do is to “waste” time and energy before his God.

10. “Chinese Monkey” Bishops/Liturgy Offices: By this term, I refer to those in authority who are committed to hearing, seeing and speaking no evil. In other words, they don’t want to be confronted by reality and do not wish to confront it, either. Therefore, when liturgical abuses are reported, they are ignored or glossed over or, worse yet, the complainer is labeled “negative” or “legalistic.” I am firmly convinced that demands for the Tridentine Mass are directly related to the inability of those in authority to control the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy according to the revised rites. Many indult-Mass devotees mistakenly equate the new rite with aberrations, forgetting that without enforcement of norms, the old rite would go in exactly the same direction. After all, if a priest or other minister has no intention of following the rubrics and his superior has no intention of making him do so, a liturgy hand-written by the Son of God Himself would be ruined as well.

Put simply, disregard for liturgical law – whether coming from the left or the right – must be dealt with, if we are going to have a liturgy which is sacred, closed to political influence, and conducive to the peace of the Church.

11. Pseudo-sophistication: One of the most justified gripes against the liturgical reform is the charge of an inordinately verbal/cerebral approach to worship. We are awash in words and short on symbols – and that is not the Catholic way. The Protestant reformers shied away from signs and symbols because, whether consciously or not, they had a fear of the Incarnation. Catholic sensibilities have always been very keen on celebrating the beauty of created things and their ability to move us beyond to their Creator – and ours. The Baroque in art, architecture and music was the Catholic response to Protestant skittishness with beauty. Nowadays, we often come up against a mindset which suggests that what cannot be quantified, objectified and analyzed is little more than magic, superstition or peasant spirituality. Pascal was right to warn us that “the heart has reasons the mind knows not of.” In good catechesis, in good liturgy, as in all fully human experiences of life, there is not, nor should there ever be, any dichotomy between the head and the heart; they are intimately, inextricably related and mutually reinforcing.

12. Antiquarianism/Trendiness: Many observers have remarked that so-called liberals and conservatives have much more in common than they would like to admit. One wit said of an archconservative priest-friend, “He’s gone so far right to the right that he’s on the left.” In liturgical matters, it is not uncommon to hear proponents of a particular practice imagine that they have secured their argument with the line, “And it was done that way in the Early Church” – or some other allegedly “golden era” in the Church. In Mediator Dei, that landmark liturgical encyclical of Pope Pius XII, the Church was cautioned against “antiquarianism.” We judge something on the basis of its value, not its age. Therefore, simply because something is old does not necessarily mean that it is good. Trendiness makes the opposite presumption, and it is equally wrong.


As we come to the end of our liturgical review, we recall that St. Gregory’s nickname, which is engraved on his tombstone in St. Peter’s Basilica was “God’s consul” since he always endeavored to make the divine agenda the human agenda. May I suggest that we ask “God’s consul” to give us the insight, the faith and the courage to advance the restoration of the good, the true and the beautiful to the Roman Rite? I am sure that he would be most receptive to such a petition and would even be willing to share his title with us.
Sancte Gregori, ora pro nobis.

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