Monday, August 20, 2018

Mass “Facing the People” as Counter-Catechesis and Irreligion

The essence of the Mass is not that it is a communal gathering, for there are many sorts of communal gatherings that are not Masses, and, as the Church has consistently taught, a Mass celebrated privately by a priest and a server, or even in a case of necessity, by a priest alone, is still a true and proper Mass. No, the essence of the Mass is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary, made present anew in the immolation of the Victim under the species of bread and wine, and offered again to the Father as a sweet-smelling oblation for the salvation of the world. This, and not the circle of people who may or may not gather around the table, is the essence of the Mass.

As a consequence, the Mass is a theocentric prayer. It is ordered to God. As the Gloria sings: propter magnam gloriam tuam, for the sake of Thy great glory; or in the words of the doxology at the end of the Canon: “All glory and honor are Thine, Almighty Father…” Yes, the Mass was given to us by Our Lord at the Last Supper for our benefit, but it benefits us precisely by ordering us to God first, giving Him the primacy that is His by nature and by conquest. We are benefited by being subordinated to God, yielding ourselves to Him as a rational sacrifice (cf. Rom 12:1); we profit from being decentered on ourselves and recentered on Him, our first beginning and last end.

It is exactly for these reasons that celebration of the Mass versus populum or “facing the people” is not merely an unfortunate aberration based on poor scholarship and democratic-socialist habits of thought endemic to modern Westerners. It is a contradiction of the essence of the Mass and a distortion of the proper relationship of man to God. Because of its inversion of the proper directionality of the worshiping community, people and priest alike, to the uncreated Font and Origin, it functions as a sort of “immunization” against the rational self-sacrifice that turns our souls and our bodies towards the Father, in union with His beloved Son, whose meat is to do the Father’s will, not His own as a man (cf Jn 4:34; Jn 6:38).

To privilege a partial, secondary truth over the fundamental truth is to inculcate untruth.

We can see this if we look at the history of Christian heresy. When the Arians privileged the truth that the Son is in some sense less than the Father (cf Jn 14:28) but neglected the more fundamental truth that He is God—God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God—they inculcated an untruth, for the Son is not less than the Father simply speaking.

When the Pelagians privileged the truth that man is not saved without his own effort, but neglected the more fundamental truth that even our efforts are God’s gift and that without His aid we can do nothing, they inculcated an untruth, for we are saved not by works simply speaking.

When the Protestants privileged the truth that Jesus Christ is our Savior but neglected the truth that He saves us in and through a visible body, the Church, of which we must become members in order to benefit from His saving action, they inculcated an untruth, for there is no salvation outside of the body of the Savior. A subjective conviction that “I am saved” has nothing to do with what we see happening in the New Testament, let alone the history of the early Church.

When modern-day European liberals privilege the truth that man has innate dignity but neglect the truth that his dignity is not absolute or independent of his social nature with its ensuing obligations towards society and its susceptibility to just punishment up to and including death, they inculcate an untruth, for neither death nor the punitive sovereignty of civil authority is contrary to human dignity simply speaking.

In all of these examples (and of course they could be multiplied almost indefinitely), we see how the emphasis of a partial truth taken out of the context of the network of truths that give it meaning results in the establishment of a false system of belief, an -ism that separates itself from Catholicism.

I maintain that the same is true of versus populum. When liturgical reformers privileged the idea of a communal gathering for table fellowship, but neglected the more fundamental truth (recognized as de fide dogma by Trent) that the Mass is the unbloody representation of the bloody Sacrifice of the Cross, they inculcated an untruth, for the Mass is not first and foremost a group doing something together, but Jesus Christ offering Himself in sacrifice and granting us the opportunity to unite ourselves to this perfect, all-sufficient offering, in which our very salvation consists. It is the man who has, over his lifetime, become one with Jesus on the Cross who will be saved, not the man who gets together with friends to reminisce about the itinerant preacher of kindness from Nazareth. The emphasis of a partial truth (that the Mass is a social or communal event involving edible refreshment), when taken out of the context of the larger dogma that gives this event its meaning and power (that the Mass is the sacrifice of Christ, Head and members), falsifies the partial truth and in fact makes it to be harmful, in the same way as Arianism, Pelagianism, and Protestantism are harmful, although each is built upon a truth.

Celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist facing the people necessarily decontextualizes and falsifies the social nature of the Mass and unavoidably (even if, in many instances, contrary to the devout wishes of its celebrant) suppresses its theocentric essence. For this reason, it inculcates a false understanding of the Mass, effectively decatechizing the faithful as to its true nature. It does not simply tilt the emphasis to one side or the other; it cancels out the orientation that is demanded by the very meaning of sacrifice, which is to be offered manifestly to God alone. He alone, moreover, deserves and demands our adoration, and if it is not clear that we are united together in adoration of the One who alone is worthy of latreia or divine worship, then the unique right of God to such worship in spirit and in truth has been compromised or canceled out.

If we recall that “religion” names for St. Thomas Aquinas the moral virtue by which we offer to God what is owed to Him by means of external signs and rites (cf. Summa theologiae II-II, q. 81), it would be accurate to say that ad orientem worship and versus populum ‘worship’ are the expression of different “religions,” at least in the sense that something different is being displayed and given.

The problem, then, is not merely that the practice of celebrating Mass “towards the people” has no foundation whatsoever in the history of Catholic or Orthodox worship. No, it is much worse than an unfortunate sociological aberration, like the current fashion of body-piercing. The use of versus populum erodes and corrupts the faith of the people as to the very essence of the Mass and the adoration of God propter magnam gloriam eius — the absolute primacy of God over man, and the corresponding duty of man to subordinate himself to God, as opposed to the ancient sophists and enlightened moderns who unite in the error that “man is the measure of all things.”

The "Benedictine altar arrangement" in a Mass versus populum
Years ago, I used to think that the “Benedictine altar arrangement,” whereby six candles and a crucifix are placed on the front of the altar between the congregation and the celebrant (with the crucifix facing the celebrant as a resting point for his gaze), was an imperfect but valid temporary solution to the dramatic pastoral crisis of the anthropocentric inversion of the Mass. I still believe it is better, all things considered, if only to break up the closed circle and offer visual respite from the tête-à-tête, but I can no longer see it as adequate to the magnitude of the problem.

The placement of six candles and a crucifix on the west side of the altar, useful though it may seem as an “instant fix,” creates two major problems of its own. First, it leaves the false orientation intact, as the priest is still standing with his back to the East (and, in a church with a centrally-located tabernacle, his back to the Lord!), towards the West which — as indicated in the Byzantine rite of baptism — symbolizes the kingdom of darkness. The idea of a “virtual East” represented by the crucifix, while clever, is too cerebral; it is contradicted by the “body language” of the sanctuary, the altar, and the priest.

Second, it throws up an arbitrary barrier between the celebrant and the people, in a way that never happens in ad orientem worship, where everyone faces the same direction and feels the unity of this common orientation.  That is, it could subtly accentuate the “priest over against people” mood that is already such an annoying characteristic of the Novus Ordo, which was composed by clericalists masquerading as populists.

I am not at all opposed to the existence of real, permanent barriers in a church whenever they make sense liturgically and ceremonially: the ancient curtains around the baldachin, the chancel screen or rood screen, the iconostasis, the communion rail. Such barriers articulate liturgical space and provide for a meaningful progression of ministers and actions, while catechizing the faithful about hierarchy, sacredness, and eschatology. But introducing a line of furnishings on the western end of an altar in order to make up (somehow) for the lack of a proper common orientation is arbitrary. It looks temporary and temporizing, as it is, and more often than not, marks an awkward caesura in the sanctuary, like a divider between office cubicles.

In versus populum is symbolized and promoted the anthropocentrism of modernity; its forgetfulness of God; its refusal to order all created reality to the uncreated source; its humanistic this-worldliness, which does not decisively subordinate the here and now to the Lord, the Orient, who has come and who will come again to judge the living and the dead. With this change alone, the liturgical ethos or consciousness of Christianity was shattered. If the old Mass were suddenly to be celebrated versus populum, in the manner in which the Novus Ordo generally is, it would be totally undermined by this one change; if the reformed Mass were to be celebrated ad orientem, this liturgical prodigal son would, by that metanoia, have already begun its journey back to the father’s house.

So much depends on the priest and the people facing east together, that it would be no exaggeration to say that orthodox Christianity will thrive only where public prayer is thus offered, and will suffer attrition wherever it has been abandoned.

The eastward stance and all that it symbolizes and implies is not a mere accident, an incidental feature that we can take or leave, like this or that style of chasuble. It is a constitutive element of the rite of the Holy Sacrifice. We should stop pretending that this is a matter of “six or one-half dozen,” a case of de gustibus non disputandum. A Mass that refuses to orient itself in continuity with the universal tradition and theology of Christian worship is irregular, harmful to the priest and people whom it malforms in an anthropocentric mentality, harmful to the Mystical Body in which it perpetuates rupture and discontinuity, and less pleasing to God whom it deprives of due adoration.

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