Tuesday, August 03, 2010

CDW Secretary Writes Preface to Italian Edition of "The Mass and Modernity" by Fr. Jonathan Robinson

Many readers will already be familiar with Fr. Jonathan Robinson's book, The Mass and Modernity published by Ignatius Press. Recently, this book was translated and published in the Italian language by Libreria del Santo. In that edition of this book, Archbishop Augustine di Noia, the current Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, wrote a preface wherein, amongst other things, he comments that Fr. Robinson's book is "one of the most important books on the post-conciliar reform of the liturgy to have appeared in the last ten years."

The NLM is pleased to have been provided a full English translation of this preface which we are able present here to our readers today.

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This is one of the most important books on the post-conciliar reform of the liturgy to have appeared in the last ten years. It is particularly valuable for venturing and achieving an overview of modernity, a secularising view of the world all but taken for granted in the contemporary West, with philosophical origins in the thought of Kant, Hegel, Hume and Comte.

The author of The Mass and Modernity is Father Jonathan Robinson, founder and provost of the Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in Toronto and sometime professor and Chairman of the Faculty of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal. His background explains the rigour and clarity with which his analysis unfolds. Modernity, as Fr Robinson presents it, denies the presence of Incarnate Truth within temporal and historical change. In this sense, modernity accords with modernism: a restricted conception of the ‘modern’ which builds exclusively upon the ‘new’ and refuses what is unchanging.

As The Mass and Modernity shows, this philosophy has become a social and cultural commonplace, with profound consequences for our understanding of the liturgy of the Church. We no longer worship God as one who is objective, independent of our understanding or experience; God has been made subjective, reflecting only what we want him to be. The implementation of the post-conciliar liturgical reforms has contributed to this loss of objectivity. As Pope Benedict XVI has suggested, the new Missal “was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear.” St Peter’s Successor, the Supreme Pastor of the Church, has voiced his grave concern for the “arbitrary distortions of the liturgy” that have inflicted so many wounds on the People of God.1

According to Robinson, modern philosophy has generated conceptions of ‘community’, ‘science’, ‘reason’ and what it means to be ‘modern’ which have shaped contemporary self-understanding and, having entered Catholic consciousness, have contributed to the present deformations of Catholic liturgy. One of the book’s particular strengths lies in its masterful disclosure of how deeply rooted such conceptions are in the development of modern Western thought.

In the first part of the book, arrestingly entitled “Wingless Chickens,” Robinson discusses the Enlightenment’s refusal of Revelation: God’s self-manifestation in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Kant accordingly extrudes from ‘enlightened’ consciousness any conception of the Sacraments or of the supernatural mission of the Church, confining religion within the limits of a purely rational morality and according it a merely instrumental significance in the ethical regulation of society. In Hume, empiricism replaces metaphysics and so not only the Church but God Himself is excluded and made irrelevant both to his human creatures and to creation as a whole. In Hegel and Comte we see God and his significance to human self understanding progressively replaced by, respectively, the human community and by sociology.

It has become a commonplace to point to the Enlightenment’s devastating effects on the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, but the particular harm done by Hegel’s notion of community has not always been appreciated. Among Robinson’s original insights is that in desiring to overcome the Kantian antinomies by which God is rendered unknowable, Hegel reconfigured him as the embodiment of the exigencies of human community.

The damage done by this inverted hypothesis to our understanding of the worship of God, which is reconfigured as the community’s celebration of itself and the denial of anything lying beyond it, has been identified by authors of very different background and education, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Peter L Berger, and Aidan Nichols.2 Above all, Joseph Ratzinger’s writings have drawn attention to this tendency to conceive of the liturgy as communal self-consciousness: “In this manner, the liturgy is no longer a lifting up to Him, but a lowering of God to our own dimensions. . . . Thus worship becomes a community’s celebration of itself, a celebration that does nothing more than confirm itself. From the adoration of God we move to a circle that devours itself. In the end there remains a kind of frustration, a sense of the void. There is no longer that experience of liberation which takes place in a true encounter with the living God.”3

In the second part of his book, with the equally intriguing title of “The Night Battle,” Robinson points out that “various strands of the Enlightenment and of its heritage still affect the practice of the Church” (167). While Post-modernism is critical of the Enlightenment, it is equally determined to deny God; the apparently inescapable deepening of the process of secularization that results, means that even within the Church one can find the thought expressed that liturgical reform means that “the worship of God must be radically altered because the liturgy does not relate to the secularized consciousness of modern man” (169).

Is there a way out of this dilemma? Robinson discusses various solutions proposed by contemporary intellectuals. The first of these, Iris Murdoch, departed from both modernism and post-modernism to embrace a metaphysical vision in which the Good is ontologically transcendent but nonetheless truly manifests itself as a reality that can be known and pursued. Murdoch’s intention of replacing God with the Good is something which neither as a novelist nor as a philosopher she is able to vindicate. Nonetheless, her project of retrieving for contemporary reflection the important ideas of transcendence and objectivity has succeeded in stimulating an important debate.

Charles Taylor, in his book The Malaise of Modernity, points out how the quintessentially modern desire for self-realisation can exceed the resources of technological and bureaucratic conceptions of existence. “Subjectivity and freedom are real goods, and they encapsulate modernity” (221). Contemporary man, freeing himself from secularizing conceptions of modernity, can therefore find room for religion; but, as Robinson points out, Taylor’s idea of religion does not always accord with historical Christianity. In a way reminiscent of Hegel, Taylor thinks that if the Christian influence upon society is to endure, the Church must relinquish its responsibilities to the state. But as Robinson points out, “It would not be cooperation but capitulation to hand over the Gospel to the state” (227).

Jacques Derrida shows how the post-modernist dissolution of stable and objective points of reference culminates in a blank canvas and, from this perspective, although the Christian narrative is among the most dominating and comprehensive, ultimately the Gospel can be considered only as “one story among many others.”

In the third part of his book, Fr. Robinson invites us “Ad coenam Agni”, examining the meaning of the Paschal Mystery and showing that a renewed awareness of God’s transcendence is necessary for both the very worship of God and to grasping the supernatural dimension of the Christian community. In retracing the significance of the paschal mystery, Robinson is able to restate what belongs essentially to the worship of God and to the Mass without getting bogged down in the difficulties about ‘sacrifice’ characteristic of modernity.

In this more practically-orientated part of his book, Robinson asks us to consider the 6th-century mystic, known to tradition as the Pseudo-Dionysius, or Dionysius the Areopagite. Through the centuries Dionysius has enjoyed a very high reputation among theologians and philosophers. Robinson’s choice of Pseudo-Dionysius is a happy one, which Benedict XVI has seemed to confirm in dedicating a general audience to exploring his significance, focusing on his “liturgical theology” according to which “God is found above all in praising him, not only in reflection, and the liturgy is not something made by us, something invented in order to have a religious experience for a certain period of time; it is singing with the choir of creatures and entering into the cosmic reality itself. And in this very way the liturgy, apparently only ecclesiastical, becomes expansive and great, it becomes our union with the language of all creatures.”

In Robinson’s exegesis, Pseudo-Dionysius places the heart of the liturgy in the sacrificial love of Christ for His people, who respond with a love that is not merely intellectual but is manifested in enacting the liturgy. Only the love of God can give birth to authentic human community, in contrast to the community conceived by Hegel, to which the value of the individual person is subordinate. In order to grasp the essence of Christian community, it is the worship of God which must be considered first and foremost. “Community costs something; and what it costs is the effort to respond to God’s call to live as he wants us to live” (290).

Now in his eighties, Father Robinson has lived through the history of the Church and her liturgy during the second half of the 20th century, “with all its hopes and its confusion” (Benedict XVI)4 and this means the perspective on things which he offers us is deeply considered. Of course the liturgy on the eve of the Second Vatican Council needed renewal, but not that hermeneutic of discontinuity which has brought “a diminishment of that ability ‘to reach out and touch the Divine’ --- that was once the central thrust of the liturgy” (301). So the desire to return to “the way things used to be” (303) (or to the usus antiquior, according to the terminology established by the Holy Father,) is not due to an antiquarian passion, but to “an anguished plea for a liturgy that draws the worshipper into the hidden mysteries of God made visible in Christ” (304). What is at stake here is not harking back to a situation that even fifty years ago was perceived as needing reform, and which for many today is only a distant memory. Rather, Robinson suggests that “[t]he deformation of the liturgy has to be understood as the result of cultural and intellectual forces that will have to be recognized before anything very serious can be accomplished in the way of serious liturgical reform” (307). And so, with pastoral sensitivity, we must proceed to re-establish a liturgy that shows forth the transcendence of God, his Incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Father Robinson, whose book predates Benedict XVI's motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, adopts an unambiguous position: “I think the only way out of this morass is to move the Novus Ordo to what the Old rite in fact was: the worship of the transcendent God, through participating in the sacrifice of His Son. The role of the Old Rite in this will be to provide a standard of worship, of mystery, and of catechesis toward which the celebrations of the Novus Ordo must be moved” (313). He concludes with some practical proposals for restoring to the heart of the liturgy that adoration of God which is lacking in many celebrations today.

Fr. Robinson begins his book with some striking words from a homily by the great English theologian and Oratorian, John Henry Newman, whose beatification we shall celebrate this year: “We walk to heaven backward.” These prophetic words illuminate the path of liturgical reform traveled during the last fifty years. In retrospect, one can see clearly the choices which were right and those which were mistaken. Above all, we can in this history confirmation of the profound conviction expressed by Benedict XVI in the preface to the first volume of his Opera Omnia, entitled “The Theology of the Liturgy”, that the worship of God must take priority in the life of the Church. “When the focus is not on God, everything else loses its orientation. The words of the Benedictine rule ‘So let nothing be put before the work of God’ (43,3) apply specifically to monasticism, but as a statement of priority they are also true for the life of the Church, and of each of its members, each in his own way.”5

+ J. Augustine Di Noia, OP
Vatican City, 30 April 2010



1. Benedict XVI, “Letter of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Bishops on the occasion of the publication of the Apostolic Letter ‘motu proprio data’ Summorum Pontificum on the use of the Roman Liturgy prior to the reform of 1970”(July 7, 2007).

2. c.f. U.M. Lang, Turning Toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, [Rivolti al Signore. L’orientamento della preghiera liturgica, secunda edizione, Cantagalli, Siena 2008, pp. 75-77]

3. J. Ratzinger, Davanti al Protagonista, Cantagalli, Siena 2009, pp. 79-80 [Seemingly no English edition

4. Cited only by the Pope’s name as a parenthetical note in the Italian, the reference is to the letter already cited of the the present Pope on the occasion of the 7/7/07 motu proprio.

5. Benedict XVI, “Zum Eröffnungsband meiner Schriften”, in J. Ratzinger, Theologie der Liturgie: die sakramentale Begründung christlicher Existenz (Gesammelte Schriften 11), Herder, Freiburg 2008, p. 5-6 (English translation: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo208933?eng=y); c.f. “Homily for the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord” 24 December, 2009.

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