Monday, April 16, 2018

Living the Vita Liturgica: Conditions, Obstacles, Prospects

I have been teaching young adults in college and graduate school for 20 years now, and find it not only endlessly rewarding, but also endlessly provocative. What these young people take for granted, what they see or do not see, what they doubt, question, assume, expect, or aspire towards, is always subtly shifting from year to year, and certainly from one decade to the next. I do not claim to be the best analyst of the phenomena, but I have noticed consistent patterns that cannot be insignificant.

One thing that puzzled me for the longest time is how difficult it proved to be — initially, at least — to make headway with Catholic young adults in convincing them to live a vita liturgica, that is, a life centered on the sacred liturgy.[1] What I mean by this phrase includes living by the liturgical calendar, the seasons, the days of fasting and feasting; paying attention to the saints in their annual pageant; making Mass the heart of one’s day; praying hours from the Divine Office when possible. Authors in the Liturgical Movement used to sum it up as “living from the Mass and for the Mass.”

The perplexity vanished when, as the years went by, I started having among my students an increasing number who came from a more traditional background (let us say, from parishes of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter or the Institute of Christ the King). I discovered that these students were, to one degree or another, already living a vita liturgica. And it was then that I realized the essence of the problem.

If all someone has ever known is the reformed liturgy celebrated in a horizontal way, the very concept of a vita liturgica is alien, and what’s worse, incapable of realization. Asked to center his life on the Mass, the recipient of such an upbringing is likely to stare at you as if you are from a different planet: “Center my life — on what?” It is like trying to sell someone on the merits of cultivating an intellectual life when he has never once tasted the joy of philosophical inquiry, or trying to persuade someone of the value of spending four years studying the Great Books when she has only ever slogged through textbooks.

When the liturgy is bland, perfunctory, in today’s vernacular and with today’s music, it does not — and what is more, it cannot — stand out as the supreme defining act of the Christian’s life, the center of its gravity, the most special, most important thing we can possibly do in our waking hours. The single greatest impediment to living a vita liturgica is the reformed liturgy itself, precisely because of its assimilation to a modernity that is anti-sacramental, anti-ritual, and anti-transcendent. In attending the new liturgy, one moves progressively into further and further stages of alienation from the liturgical spirit per se and its embodiment in an authentic tradition. It makes the vita liturgica recede, weaken, and finally dissolve in a miasma of sentiments that derive whatever grip they have from emotional stimulation.

I am not surprised, therefore, that one can predict with fair accuracy which students grew up with the usus antiquior and which ones with the Novus Ordo. The young man or woman who cares about the liturgical seasons and tries to observe them; who wants to set apart Sundays and Holy Days as something special; who pays attention to which saint’s feast it is, or wishes a friend a happy name day; who knows what an Ember Day is, or what a Vigil really is; who fasts and abstains with regularity — this one most likely grew up with the traditional Latin Mass, or at very least in a milieu influenced by the usus antiquior.

In contrast, the young man or woman who thinks of Mass as something you “have to do on Sundays” and is pretty clueless about the rest of the stuff mentioned above is most likely an ecclesiastical orphan separated at birth from his own tradition, someone who, having grown up far away in another country with a foster liturgical mother, no longer speaks the same language as his ancestors. Apart from sudden conversions (which I have seen, Deo gratias), the learning curve will be steep. Progress can be slow, in fits and starts, with regressions, and fluency is rarely achieved. Sometimes people in this predicament do not seem to care at all — what they have is “good enough” for them, and they feel no need to reconnect with their family, their history, their heritage, their native tongue. This is the tragic product of the Consilium’s laboratory: a man without roots, and without awareness that he is without roots.

“Let nothing be put before the work of God” (Rule, ch. 43). This sovereign principle of cenobitic monasticism became the foundational principle of Christendom and of Europe. What have we done instead? We have put dozens of things before the opus Dei: ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, youth ministry, social work, evangelization, you name it. Ironically, even the organization Opus Dei seems to put vocation, activity, and fellowship before what is properly called the opus Dei.[2] The gradual disappearance of Christianity from the West is caused by nothing other than this eclipse of our primary obligation, our first love.

If a spouse betrays a spouse, it does not many how many children they have, or how big a house, or how much worldly success; the marriage is vitiated at its core, and the rest turns to ashes. The Bride of Christ has for her permanent and preeminent duty to love, honor, and obey her husband, and this she does in the purest, deepest, most powerful way in the liturgy. All the rest flows from this and returns to augment it, as indeed Sacrosanctum Concilium said (§10) — and one is free to think that many actually shared this conviction, before it was abandoned as one more medieval fetter shattered in the Great Awakening.

But the thousand-year Reich of purified piety and exultant participation never materialized. Achieving the nirvana of participation not only prescinded from meaningful content, it actively precluded it. The faithful who did not drop out of the Church were rewarded with decades of banality, mediocrity, and wooing of the world, epitomized in churches half-full of half-engaged Catholics half-singing the ditties led by the geriatric Youth Ensemble. If this is the mystery hid from the ages, it should have remained hidden. No wonder the wild warbling of muzzeins and the disciplined silence of Buddhists continue to make inroads throughout the West: they face no spiritual resistance, and claim a native soil surrendered by once-liturgical Catholics.[3]

In his 1891 encyclical Au Milieu des Sollicitudes, Leo XIII advocated the policy of ralliement, urging French Catholics to abandon monarchical aspirations and throw themselves into secular politics for the good of the nation. Decades later, Paul VI issued a ralliement to Roman Catholics to abandon medieval mysticism and throw themselves into modern liturgy for the good of the Church. But this modern liturgy, at least in the hands of its most ardent promoters, proved to be as secular in its assumptions and aims as the godless republicanism of France. Pius X was compelled, finally, to condemn once and for all the principle of the separation of Church and State in Vehementer Nos (1906). We are still waiting for our “Pius X moment” with regard to liturgical republicanism and the “Law of Separation” embodied in the lex orandi of the new liturgical books.

We may be waiting for that for a long time. But the interior life of each individual is left in his own hands. Each of us is supposed to be leading a liturgical life, and we need to find or make the right conditions for doing so, and help others to do it. A first and irreplaceable step in awakening the souls of liturgical orphans to the grandeur of divine worship is simply to invite and encourage them to attend the traditional Latin Mass from time to time. There they will experience something strange and uncomfortable, something directed to a transcendent God and not bending over backwards to include and instruct them, something curiously unmodern and even indifferent to its surroundings, yet utterly in earnest. They might get a taste of what adoration, supplication, and repentance feel like. They will see a visible sacrifice offered up.

The traditional Catholic liturgy benefits modern man precisely by accentuating much that is profoundly unmodern — truths and symbols that come to us from the Old Testament, the Apostolic age, the Church of the Fathers, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque, every century through which the believing and adoring Bride of Christ has walked, offering up her Lord and herself in the sacrifice of praise. As Bishop Athanasius Schneider has said, the liturgical reform in its relentless turning away from this vast and living repository (rhetorical nods to heavily redacted ancient sources notwithstanding) has wounded Christ’s Mystical Body on earth and afflicted it with an accumulating amnesia. For fifty years we have deprived Our Lord of due worship and ourselves of its benefits, with Him as its sole object and we as humble servants of His sacred mysteries. We must not only repair this damage, but, as Aristotle would have it, bend the stick in the opposite direction, cleaving with all our might to inherited forms redolent of the piety of the Age of Faith.

But the traditional liturgy does more than reconnect us with the wisdom and love subsisting in the communion of saints. It benefits man as man, the homo liturgicus who was created to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” bearing the gold of sacred music, the incense of stately ceremonial, the myrrh of silent homage, so that he may fully exercise the virtue of religion.

What was hidden from the learned and clever but is obvious to little ones is that the richer the liturgy’s content, the more incentive and reward there is to work oneself into it. If we apprentice ourselves to Catholic tradition, we will lose something, yes — our contemporary illiteracy and the illusion of our superiority. But we will acquire something far more precious: the rock-solid reality of a bimillenial inheritance, the demanding and delightful school of the saints. We will find ourselves beginning to live the vita liturgica in earnest.


[1] The phrase vita liturgica itself comes from Sacrosanctum Concilium §18: “Priests, both secular and religious, who are already working in the Lord’s vineyard are to be helped by every suitable means to understand ever more fully what it is that they are doing when they perform sacred rites; they are to be aided to live the liturgical life and to share it with the faithful entrusted to their care.”

[2] This is not the theoretical account they would give of themselves. It is, however, not difficult to see that the organization is not in fact centered on the opus Dei as traditionally defined and practiced, and to this extent, its name is a troubling equivocation.

[3] For supporting argumentation, see a number of the excellent “Position Papers” published by the International Federation Una Voce—on the EF and China, the EF and Africa, the EF and Islam, the EF and the New Age, etc. I am not claiming that all Catholics prior to the liturgical revolution were liturgically “literate” or that all praxis was ideal; far from it. But the Liturgical Movement had made significant inroads; the Ward method and others like it had taught countless children and adults how to sing chant; seminaries and religious houses were overflowing; confession was held in honor as a regular part of Christian life; and the list could go on and on. Anyone who cannot see that this situation was far superior to our current malaise would seem to be living in a state of denial, either from ignorance of historical record, the blinding influence of ideology, or the fear of succumbing to depression. But Our Lord teaches us that knowing the truth will set us free; it will be no different in this case. Before we can correct our wayward postconciliar course, we must first admit we made a wrong turn and are lost. Then, something can be done about it.

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