Monday, December 05, 2016

Where Can “Mutual Enrichment” Really Take Us?

The reason liberals hate Summorum Pontificum is that they understand perfectly well that the revival of the old liturgy constitutes a challenge to key principles behind the liturgical reform and to much of its practical outcome. It is not so much a “turning back of the clock” as a destruction of the clock, that is, the peculiarly modern Western assumption that our practices have to be changed (or changing) lest they become stagnant and meaningless. In reality, it is too much change that brings meaninglessness; having no fresh perennial source leads to stagnation and dryness.

Imagine this scenario: say you have a community, half of which attends a feisty charismatic Novus Ordo and the other half a whispered Latin Low Mass. Both celebrations are permitted by the Church. The charismatics are probably going to be thinking: “We’re the ones who are really open to the working of the Holy Spirit, and we show it in the way we praise God with hands and voices. Those Catholics who just kneel quietly at a Latin Mass while the priest does everything — they’re sure missing out!” The Latin Mass-goers are probably going to be thinking: “This is the way that countless men and women were sanctified for centuries; this is an intimate encounter with Our Lord in His Passion and in the mystery of the Eucharist. Here I have a vivid sense of the Presence of God, and it keeps me going throughout the day or the week. It’s so sad to think of how the charismatics are stuck at the level of their emotions and don’t reach this deeper experience!”

Neither way of thinking is completely correct; each verges on caricature. A charismatic may enter into the Holy Sacrifice and the silent glory of the Eucharistic Lord; a traditionalist may sing the Gloria vigorously and fervently beseech the Holy Spirit. But, humanly speaking, do we not see that these groups, having made choices that tend in opposite directions, stand in judgment over one another? Is it possible for the one group not to think that what they are doing is better than what the other group is doing — and so much better that, in an ideal world, the other group wouldn’t exist? No, it is not possible; for otherwise they would not be doing what they think is better. This is why a “chant-crazed Latin-loving charismatic guitarist/vocalist” is about as rare as a functional democracy.

In much the same way, the majestic cathedrals of the Age of Faith stand in judgment over the sterile modernist churches of Corbusier and his imitators; the great paintings and sculptures that cover the Christian world stand in judgment over cubist hulks and felt banners; the soaring melodies of Gregorian chant and the mystic harmonies of polyphony stand in judgment over the worldly sentimentalism of contemporary church music; vestments of silk brocade and lace albs stand in judgment over polyester drapes and velcro-albs; ornate bejewelled gold chalices and patens stand in judgment over clumsy faux-Franciscan cups and plates. It is not possible for such things merely to “co-exist,” let alone to complement one another. They are antagonists in a duel for the face of the Church and the soul of the people. A church looks like this or that; the people are this or that. We are dealing not with the Catholic “both-and” but with the metaphysical “either/or.”

Let us take an example: kneeling to receive communion on the tongue from a properly ordained minister. A traditional Roman Catholic thinks that this way of receiving, which developed naturally out of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament and achieved total stability for centuries of devotional life, is superior in every way to the practices introduced in recent decades. With full consistency, then, a traditional Catholic will also think that the modern practice of receiving communion in the hand, standing, from lay ministers, is a bad thing, that it had a bad origin and has bad consequences. In such matters, it is simply not possible — I repeat, not possible — for everyone to smile and agree that everything and everyone is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.[1]

Pope Benedict XVI arranged that the Novus Ordo and the usus antiquior should co-exist in order that “mutual enrichment” might occur — presumably a sort of cross-pollination of the one by the other. If one looks at Ratzinger’s papal example and reads his works, and if one looks to such figures as Cardinal Ranjith, Cardinal Canizares, Cardinal Burke, and now Cardinal Sarah, it seems that 90% of the enrichment will go in one direction, namely, from the usus antiquior to the Novus Ordo, since the former possesses great riches of which the latter stands in desperate need. It is like St. Martin of Tours cutting off a piece of his ample cloak to cover a naked shivering beggar. As for the 10% where the older form could learn from the younger one, we may safely say it concerns just the sort of things that would have happened slowly, were it not for the bungling of a certain committee.

All this being the case, the result is plain: while the Novus Ordo and the usus antiquior are currently co-existing, they are a challenge to one another, and they could not not be. If the Novus Ordo world does not learn to assimilate the lessons that the usus antiquior can teach it, we are on a crash course to Armageddon. Either the philosophy of Summorum Pontificum will bridge the enormous abyss between the two forms by bringing the modern Roman Rite into a more obvious harmony with the preceding liturgical heritage, or we will see over time a dramatic intensification of our internecine conflicts. I say this not in a pessimistic spirit but as one who believes that having two supposedly equal forms of the same rite is a recipe for radical instability UNLESS there can be a genuine and profound rapprochement between these forms. And we can be certain this will never happen by the older form becoming hip, trendy, and modish, swapping Gregorian for guitars. It will happen instead when the modern form relinquishes its counterfactual claim to be “just what the doctor ordered.”

As with everyone else who ponders such questions, I have no idea what the long-term results will look like. Will there still be a Novus Ordo or an usus antiquior a century hence? Will there be a hybrid? If mutual enrichment actually occurs, will we see one or the other form fall away as dead weight, so that the sanity of a common worship may be restored to the Roman Church? God alone knows.

Meanwhile, it is our task to appreciate and live by the immense riches of our liturgical heritage and to share them with others while we await better, happier, more peaceful days. Like the joy of the Lord, this treasure is one that no man on earth can take away from us, because it belongs to Christ and His Church as a permanent endowment.


[1] Before someone thinks it needs to be pointed out, I am of course aware that Eastern Christians receive the Lord standing. However, first of all, this was their long-standing custom, as kneeling was ours, and if they should keep their custom, we should keep ours. Second and more importantly, outside a concentration camp emergency, they would not dream of having lay people administer holy communion; I think they would rather die a thousand deaths. Third, the layman never handles the sacred vessels, for the handling of which the priest’s hands have been anointed. Communion is by intinction. Fourth, the layman receives tilting his head back like a baby bird, with a red cloth beneath his chin, and the priest standing above him, as is fitting to his hierarchical position. All in all, the traditional Eastern practice and the contemporary Western practice have practically nothing in common.

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