Monday, June 18, 2018

The Incomparable Perfection and Beauty of (Traditional) Catholic Worship

Not too long ago, I brought back into print an old catechetical textbook, The Life of Worship: Grace, Prayer, Sacraments, and the Sacred Liturgy [original title: Exposition of Christian Doctrine, Part III: Worship], written by an anonymous seminary professor of the Christian Brothers in France in the late nineteenth century, and published in English in the early twentieth.

It is a classic of its genre. Although written in a question-and-answer format, the well-formulated, wide-ranging questions and thorough answers — including frequent references to Scripture, Church Fathers, and scholastic doctors — puts to shame any of the catechetical materials produced in the past half-century, the supposed new springtime of the Church. I would wager to say, on the contrary, that a new springtime will only start blooming if we take up materials like this textbook and humbly put them to good use again, building on the truly substantial accomplishments of our predecessors.

In any case, there is a particular section of this book that I would like to share with NLM’s readers, both for its inherent interest, and because it gives a sense of the confidence and clarity typical of Catholic writers of the past. It could serve as a model for us today, who are at last finding our way out of self-doubt, ecumenical relativism, aesthetic brutalism, and millimeter-thin religious content. The author is speaking about why Catholic worship is “of incomparable perfection and beauty.” May it once again become so! May it remain so where tradition has been retained or recovered; may it spread across the world and reclaim it for Christ, on whom aggiornamental churchmen have turned their backs.
The worship rendered to God outside the true religion, consists for the most part either of puerile ceremonies, gross rites, cruel and obscene practices, as among the pagans of old, and the followers of Brahmanism [Hinduism] and Buddhism of to-day; or of innumerable prescriptions and prohibitions, many of which are totally wanting in religious character, as among the Mahometans [Moslems]. Even within the Christian fold, the sects that took private judgment for their rule of faith have so mutilated dogma that they have ended by impoverishing worship and drying up its sources, to such an extent that nothing in their temples and their ceremonies recalls the infinite greatness and the unspeakable goodness of God.
          In the Catholic Church alone, the worship given is of incomparable perfection and beauty. Now these qualities manifestly indicate the presence of divine revelation in its essential elements, and when they are found in the work proper to the Church, they give testimony also to the assistance of the Holy Ghost.
          The first perfection of Catholic worship is to be at one and the same time a means both of honoring God and of obtaining His grace. In it the glory of God and the salvation of man are inseparable. God wills to place all His glory in saving us, and we shall be saved only by glorifying God. All the practices of worship, prayers, the sacraments, the celebration of Sundays and festivals, correspond to this double end. They are so many acts of adoration, praise, and thanksgiving, and at the same time, so many appeals for God’s mercy, that He may forgive us our sins and grant us the spiritual or temporal favors of which we stand in need in our short and painful journey to our heavenly country.
          Another perfection of Catholic worship is its intimate union with dogma and morals. There is not a ceremony, not a word, not all outward sign, that does not embody the idea of a mystery or a precept of our religion. Thence comes that admirable unity, that harmony of parts, which is the seal of God’s works. To illustrate: prayer supposes the dogmas of the existence of God, of His providence, of grace, and of free will; and at the same time, it implies the command to adore Him, and indeed all the rules of morality. The celebration of feasts lifts our hearts above the perishable things of this life and attaches them to the blessings of life everlasting. Here too faith teaches that we were created by God for a life that will never end, and the moral law forbids us to make the miserable pleasures of this world the last end of our actions. The holy sacrifice of the Mass, the representation and renewal of that of the cross, is founded on the very dogma of redemption and on the law of atonement. The sacrament of baptism is inseparable from the dogma of original sin and from the precept which God imposed on the first man after his fall, of earning his bread by the sweat of his brow. The sacrament of penance supposes a transgression of the moral law, and consequently it implies the dogma of reparation. Indeed, in all the sacraments without exception, in all the sacred rites of Catholic worship, may be found the like intimate relation with both dogma and moral; for there is neither rite nor sacrament that does not remind us of some truth to believe and some duty to fulfill.
          A third perfection of worship is its admirable unity. Every thing in it converges to the one centre, the adorable sacrament of the altar. The Eucharist contains the Very Author of divine grace, who is communicated to us through prayer and the sacraments. Moreover, this sacrament is the end for which all the others exist, it is the very motive of sacred orders, the principal object of all feasts, the most excellent means of fulfilling all our duties to God and of obtaining His graces and blessings.
          It is to honor the holy Eucharist and to give sensible testimony to its adoration and gratitude, that Christian genius has created those magnificent temples, in which architecture, sculpture, and painting have rivaled one another in their efforts to reproduce, in the most brilliant and most touching forms, all that is majestic and ravishing in this august mystery. It is to celebrate the God of the Eucharist that so many masterpieces of poetry and eloquence have been composed, and so many melodies have been written, now joyous, now sad, according as the Church contemplates, on the one hand, the glory and the triumph of her divine Spouse, or, on the other, His sufferings and death. The altars and their ornaments, the vestments and the sacred vessels, the ceremonies of the holy sacrifice with their symbolic signification, the divine office, processions and pilgrimages, the whole liturgical year with its feasts for every day—everything in worship has for its object Jesus Christ reigning in heaven and residing among us; and, through Jesus Christ, the most holy and adorable Trinity. (pp. 809–11)

Link to this book at Amazon.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: