Monday, December 11, 2017

Time for the Soul to Absorb the Mysteries — Part 2: The Offertory and the Canon

Last week, we looked at how the traditional Roman Rite, from the entrance to the Gospel, gives ample “time for the soul to absorb the mysteries.” Today I shall speak of how the Offertory and the Canon do the same.

The Offertory

It hardly needs to be said that the Offertory, with its richness of content and ample length, is one of the parts of the traditional liturgy most appreciated by clergy and laity alike. One does not feel, as in the usus recentior, rushed on to the Eucharistic Prayer, as in a supersonic flight from Word to Eucharist; there is generous time and space for preparing the gifts thoroughly, making the significance of this offering known, felt.

In the Novus Ordo, the meaning of the presentation of bread and wine risks being lost due to the rapidity and superficiality with which they are treated.[1] One does not recognize them as proto-sacrificial offerings that will subsequently be transformed by divine power into the actual sacrifice that wins our redemption and, as a result, into the banquet that unites us to the Savior; emphasis is placed rather on man’s own work in preparing food and drink, which will become food and drink — a true sentiment as far as it goes, but not at all the focus of the authentic Offertories of historic liturgical rites.

The old offertory is a dramatic caesura, a long drawn-out breath in which we clearly show forth what we are about to do and how it will redound to our benefit, unworthy though we are to approach the awesome mysteries of Christ. The Offertory makes it possible for us to participate fruitfully in the Canon of the Mass. Without it, something vital is missing. Even worse, when the modern quasi-Offertory is combined with the second Eucharistic Prayer, the sacrificial portion of the Mass  —  its very essence  —  can pass by so rapidly that one might be forgiven for thinking that the Mass is a lengthy liturgy of words followed by a rapid distribution of tokens of our confidence in words, which is to say, a purely Protestant conception.

The Canon of the Mass

Much can be said on behalf of the absolute fittingness of the silent Canon. I have gone into this topic elsewhere.[2] Suffice it to say that many among the clergy and the faithful are sharply aware of the loss of this contemplative reservoir at the heart of the holy Sacrifice. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy:
Anyone who has experienced a church united in the silent praying of the Canon will know what a really filled silence is. It is at once a loud and penetrating cry to God and a Spirit-filled act of prayer. Here everyone does pray the Canon together, albeit in a bond with the special task of the priestly ministry. Here everyone is united, laid hold of by Christ, and led by the Holy Spirit into that common prayer to the Father which is the true sacrifice — the love that reconciles and unites God and the world.[3]
Citing this passage in his magnificent book The Power of Silence, Cardinal Sarah observes:
I am familiar with the regrets expressed by many young priests who would like the Canon of the Mass to be recited in complete silence. The unity of the whole assembly, communing with the words pronounced in a sacred murmur, was a splendid sign of a contemplative Church gathered around the sacrifice of her Savior.[4]
A priest with whom I was conducting a correspondence once wrote these words to me, as if to confirm Cardinal Sarah’s observation:
If I were permitted the quasi-papal power to make just one change to the present Ordinary Form, it would be to bring back the silent canon. As one who regularly celebrates both forms of the Mass, that is the single difference that I find makes the most spiritual impact. And quite a few lay people I know have made similar comments. That silence, after all, is much more obviously noticeable to the congregation than, say the omission of certainly medieval offertory prayers.
At a Novus Ordo Mass, it is all I can do to focus my wandering attention on the mystery taking place, since there is a constant washing of words over my ears — words that lose their force either from their familiarity (I’ve heard Eucharistic Prayer II, a.k.a., the “Roman Canonette,” so many times it sounds like an eye-rolling cliché) or from their length (the historic Roman Canon said out loud in English, facing the people, is phenomenologically interminable) or from their grating unfamiliarity (as when a priest, in a sudden Lucretian swerve, picks out one of the Eucharistic Prayers of Reconciliation).

None of this is conducive in any way to prayer, to the adoration and spiritual longing we should cultivate in the presence of our Savior as we join our hearts to His Sacred Heart in the most holy offering at the altar. This is no less true, indeed it is rather more true, for the poor celebrant who gets hardly a moment of mental peace, hardly a moment to repose his head against the Lord’s breast, in company with St. John. The rite keeps the faucet of loquacity nearly always turned on.

I’m afraid there are many new Masses after which one says to oneself: “Did I pray at all during that long harangue from the sanctuary?” And one cannot be sure that one has done so. Sometimes, one is aware, on the contrary, of a suffocating lack of time and space to pray. But I cannot remember a single traditional Mass at which I did not experience, at least for a few fleeting moments, a vivid awareness of the prayer of Christ and a palpable sense of the mystery of God, a real connection with the divine. In stark contrast with its intended replacement, the old Mass — whether Low, High, or Solemn — seems built, from the ground up, to connect one to the divine in this way. Its whole raison d’être is union with God, and it pursues this with relentless determination, the preoccupation of a lover. It reminds me of Kierkegaard’s statement that “purity of heart is to will a single thing.”

Next week: how the usus antiquior allows ample “interior space” for the communion of the priest and the people.


[1] As we know, the Consilium originally proposed having no prayers for the bread and wine at all, but simply lifting them up and putting them back down. This was too much even for Paul VI, an otherwise enthusiastic proponent of Bauhaus liturgy; he ordered that the actions had to be accompanied by some words. Bugnini and Co. complied, but looked to Jewish precedent rather than Catholic.

[2] See two articles at the New Liturgical Movement weblog: “The Silent Canon: Is Worship Supposed to be Aweful?,” posted on October 14, 2013; “The Silence of the Canon Speaks More Loudly Than Words,” posted on January 5, 2015.

[3] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 215–16.

[4] Robert Cardinal Sarah, with Nicolas Diat, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), n. 249, p. 129.

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