Friday, November 11, 2005

Complements of the Thirsty Scribe.. Mass and Modernity

[Many thanks to the Thirsty Scribe blog for pointing this out to me and kindly allowing me to post it in its entirety on this blog. I think this book is quite important and its author is second to none as a scholar. Having experienced the liturgy at the Toronto Oratory personally, I can attest it serves as yet another model for the reform of the reform.]

Have you ever had the intuition that something at Mass was missing? Does the divergence between what the Church says Mass is, and how ministers act today, ever leave your faith shaken? Ever wonder why so many in the church think this way? And why even some church authorities ignore the existence of a problem? Are you perplexed that so many of those in charge of liturgy today seem to think that the holiness of God is unimportant? And have you ever wanted to know what the historical causes of this crisis might be?

A book has been written on the topic, and I had the privilege of meeting the author at the book’s recent launch.

It took place in the context of the Evenings at the Oratory, at Holy Family parish in Toronto. As a special guest, I had special privileges. This meant joining the fathers for prayer in their candlelit chapel. The darkness, the discreet bells, and the aroma of incense, made it feel less like Parkdale, and more like a Carthusian Charterhouse. Most of this time was in silence, but when they did pray, it was in unison, and the words were sharp, fast and in Latin. This gave their prayer a manly characteristic. After prayer, I joined the fathers and seminarians for supper, where in total silence, we listened to readings from the Fathers, and from Church history. Dinner was followed by tea and conversation.

The book-launch then took place in the parish basement. There was standing room only. Between 150-200 people were there. I even spotted a Ukrainian rite priest, and several converts from Anglicanism. Unfortunately, I saw no representatives from the chancery's liturgical department, and none from the Archdiocesan seminary.

Pictures of the author, Fr. Jonathan Robinson, signing books:

The author brings to the task extensive knowledge of philosophy and theology. But the book is unusual for another reason: the author is honest. I am shocked with his willingness to say openly, what so many of us have felt intuitively, but for the sake of politeness, or because of a misinformed notion of obedience, we keep quiet. The author does not let politeness get in the way of truth. As an example, consider how many churchmen today would say something like this:

“The Enlightenment began by denying revelation in Jesus Christ, by neutering the doctrine of the Mystical Body, by denying the existence of God, and by discrediting the Resurrection of Jesus and the possibility of everlasting life. The nineteenth century went on to provide a theory in which the community became god. Put in this blunt way, I do not suppose many people would recognize these elements in the current ideology that drives an apparently insatiable desire for more liturgical change; but recognized or not, they are the fuel driving the changes today.”

The book was introduced, by Fr. Derek Cross, also a father at the oratory. Fr. Cross began his talk with the following statement:

“If you have been to a Mass where a priest puts emotions at centre stage, you experienced precisely what modern liturgists intend. This is complicity with modern atheism, where transcendence is defined as our inner-enrichment."

He outlined what he saw as a major implication of the book:

“The celebrant at Mass ought to face the liturgical east, that is, he should not be facing the people.”

He described the thesis of the book this way:

“The theology of the Paschal Mystery urges us to live the Mass by reproducing the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Christ in our lives, and Vatican II stressed the Paschal Mystery. Why then does this spirituality of the Mass seem ever far removed from everyday Catholic comprehension? Did the reforms of the Council to better display the Paschal Mystery somehow go awry? Robinson’s book fingers another villain for the trivialization of the Mass in modernity: The principles of modernity are hostile to the sacramental religion of Christ. The Church found itself in a double bind at the council. On the one hand, modernity made it advisable to have a liturgical revision so the inner meaning of Mass would not be lost from site. At the same time, modernity is the worst possible context in which to undertake such a revision, because the revisers and implementers themselves are likely to be infected with conscious and unconscious modern attitudes that will make it difficult for them to revise a Rite in its integral authenticity."

To hear this from men who have years of training in graduate theology, and years of pastoral experience, is sobering. They are not fundamentalists or obscurantists:

“Someone might suggest this is an extreme thesis. Surely there is more to modernity than anti-theological ire. Robinson makes perfectly clear we should live in the actual world, and not some romantic ecclesiastical ghetto of our own devising. We are moderns, and we must acknowledge that. He examines developments in modernity, like positivism, romanticism, etc. Nonetheless, these varieties of modernity may be seen as phases of one overarching modern project that tirelessly pushes man closer to a state that would shut off all trace of transcendence. Any hope of retracing the Paschal Mystery, would be doomed, a world with no place with room for sacrificial love or bliss. If churchmen had sufficiently critical understanding of modernity, we would have been able to negotiate it’s dangerous currents, but without this critical understanding, we are always tempted to surrender ...”

Why are the assumptions of modern philosophy incompatible with Catholic liturgy? According to Fr. Cross:

“The modern idea of knowledge, is that knowledge only comes from clear, distinct ideas, where things are spread out, separated, on one level. The result is that for some people, liturgical renewal will mean explaining, displaying, standardizing, where there are no shadows, nothing is hidden, no repetition, and no hierarchy.. Everyone who ministers must have his place in the sun. A sense that is alive to tragedy, irony and playfulness, gives way to mere earnest didactism. There is no sacrifice, no aspersion, and no turning eastward for the longing of the God to come with the rising sun.”

After a lively social gathering where wine and desert was served, the people made their way upstairs to the Church, where Compline was sung. I hope many people buy this book. And I hope people read the book collectively, in groups, and then decide to do something.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: