Saturday, June 22, 2013

Fr. George Rutler on Liturgical Narcissism

June 23, 2013
By Fr. George W. Rutler

Any young man called to the priesthood must be like St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is true of all Christians. Cupio dissolvi — “I wish to disappear.” Dioceses that understand this, especially in their liturgical life, excel in vocations, and those that do not, fail.

When I arrived at this parish, there were many liturgical abuses. Let it not be said that these were the predilections of young people, for there were practically none then. Rather, they had become the habit of older people who had simply shifted from perfunctorily expedited Masses and a few sentimental hymns to the fabricated folk Masses of the 1960’s. I put a stop to the habit of applauding the organist and choir. The musicians we have now would be embarrassed by such behavior. Pope Benedict XVI said: “Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”

There is even a danger of that same narcissism when attempts at a “reform of the reform” become self-conscious spectacle. Evelyn Waugh said that Anthony Eden was not a gentleman because he dressed too well. We try to offer the best to God, but we must not be fussy about it like the nouveau riche. It once was said that dowagers in Boston did not buy hats, they had hats. C. S. Lewis’ view was that true worship should be like a good old shoe, so comfortable that you don't have to break it in: “The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.” That is a sensibility I have long admired in the Byzantine liturgies. While some speak of the High Mass of the Western Church as the “most beautiful thing this side of Heaven,” I know of nothing so formally transcendent and still so informally natural as the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

The constant fidgeting for “theme liturgies” and experimentation is a sign of failure. Worse yet is the priest who solicits laughter like a ham actor in a dying vaudeville show. Such clerics should limit their repertoire to the jokes that St. John told the Blessed Mother as her Son bled on the Cross. One is struck by the way Pope Francis, in his personal simplicity and affability, is so enrapt in the solemnity of the Mass that he would not think of smiling through the Sacrifice of Calvary.

It may seem that reform of abuses is as futile as King Canute ordering the tide to roll back. Actually, that great king was showing his court that human pride has no authority over what does not belong to him. That is why he placed his own crown on a figure of Christ Crucified, and that is what true worship is all about.

Fr. George W. Rutler
Church of Our Saviour
59 Park Avenue
New York City, NY 10016

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