Thursday, May 17, 2018

Revolution, Rebuilding and Reform

In the course of rearching something, I recently stumbled across this rather interesting painting.
This work by the Russian artist Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904) represents one of Napoleon’s generals, Louis-Nicholas Davout, the Marshal of the French Empire, using the sanctuary of the Chudov Monastery in Moscow as his office. (This was a very important center of learning, inter alia, the place where the first complete Old Church Slavonic Bible was produced.) Vereshchagin, who was born 30 years after the infamous Russian campaign, specialized in depicting the horrors of war; some of his paintings were so graphic that they were never exhibited publicly. This work is one of his series of twenty paintings known simply as “1812”, which also includes this image of French soldiers stabling their horses in the Cathedral of the Dormition.
And this painting, known as “Bad News from France”, in which Napoleon himself is camped out in a Russian church.
It seems to me that when considering the current parlous state of the liturgy, we often forget what an unbelievable amount of damage was done to the Church’s whole patrimony (liturgical, scholarly, artistic, etc.) in the long and disgusting period of Europe’s history that runs from the French Revolution to the Second World War, and well beyond that in the lands dominated by Communism in the 20th century. These paintings are but a few examples of a scene which was repeated an incalculable number of times, as all over Europe, monasteries, canonical chapters and religious houses were closed down and plundered by the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, the Italian Risorgimento, and so on. Religious orders like the Premonstratensians and Cistercians, that once numbered hundreds or thousands of houses, were reduced to a shadow of their former greatness; cities that once boasted 20 religious houses were lucky to preserve one as a parish in the hands of the secular clergy.
This map of Liège from 1627, long the seat of an ecclesiastical principality, contains in the legend at the bottom 295 entries of notable places, 83 of which are churches and religious houses. (Click to see in close-up; public domain image from Wikipedia.)
Of course, as canonical and religious life disappeared from most of Christian Europe, for a great many people, there disappeared with it their contact with the fullness of the liturgical life, the regular celebration of the Divine Office and the Solemn Mass. Solesmes Abbey has managed to persist, despite the fact that the monks were expelled from it by their government three times in the 1880s, and the entire community had to live in exile for over 20 years, from 1901-22. But in most places, the liturgical life that was revived after the age of revolutions was partial at best, and merely functional at worst. No honest person denies that the post-Conciliar reform changed the liturgy far more than the Fathers of Vatican II imagined it would. However, the reformers’ imprudent haste was all the more imprudent for the fact that they did their work while the Church as a whole was still very much recovering from the damage done to it over the previous 200 years.

When the time comes to undo some of their unhappier deeds, as it surely will, though we know not the day nor the hour, we should remember Pope St John Paul’s famous admonition that the Church needs to breathe with both its lungs. Without romanticizing the current state of things in the Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, we can see that many of them have come through some of the most ferocious persecutions Christianity has ever suffered, and many of them still undergo it on a regular, even daily basis. They seem, however, to be blessedly untouched by the idea that the best way for them to recover, and to bring the faithful closer to the public worship of the Church, is to radically divorce the liturgy from its own history and tradition. The West would do well to follow their example, even if that means shifting into reverse.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: