Monday, April 26, 2021

How Liturgical “Forms” Concretely Define Religious Belief — or Undermine It

For a thousand years, priests offering Mass in the Roman rite observed the rule that they should hold their thumb and forefinger together from the time of the consecration until the ablutions (a rule still observed, of course, wherever the traditional Latin Mass is celebrated). This custom reflects the Church’s profound faith in the Real Presence. After the consecration, Our Lord is really, truly, substantially present wherever the outward appearances of bread and wine are present, which means in every last particle of the host. For this reason, the priest should not casually handle other things after touching the host, but keep those two fingers together except when distributing communion, until he is able to wash them in the ablutions. In this way, too, the priest is continually reminded of the awesome mystery he is handling with his fingers — and so are the laity.

As a layman, it bothered me that this longstanding and sensible custom had disappeared, so I decided to pose a number of questions to a sizeable group of priests who celebrate the usus antiquior, primarily to learn the importance they themselves attach to the custom. The results were published at NLM in five installments, with a concluding reflection (links may be found here). One priest responded to the series with the following account:
At the Mass in which I was ordained a deacon, the Eucharist was “served” from a glass dish of sorts … I purified it with great care after Holy Communion; it required a rather noticeable period of time to do so, which was obviously more than local clergy and people were used to. After that Mass both the vocation director and the ordaining bishop “corrected” me on this matter, with the bishop reminding me that the purification was only a “ritual purification” and that such care was not needed in carrying it out, since a sacristan would wash everything after. (A totally incoherent position.)
          This was my introduction — and a rather painful one, at that — to the practical lack of faith on the part of the clergy in the Real Presence, which I have witnessed and experienced many times in the 11 years since then. I say “practical,” because few would deny the Real Presence and most would even defend it quite eloquently. But the way they actually handle the Eucharist betrays their lack of understanding and/or belief. (This is particularly the case with how they handle the Precious Blood, the purificator, etc. — but this is the topic of another discourse.)
          Therefore, when I began to study the usus antiquior and learned about the detailed and systematic process of purification, which really leaves little room for error, and of the practicalities such as holding the consecrating digits together until purification, my faith was confirmed. And, although knowledge of the Church’s historic practice served, perhaps, to heighten my awareness of just how bad things generally can be now, and thus heightened my sense of pain, yet at the same time, it was a consolation to know that I was on the right track.
This author has put his finger (if I may say so) on the nub of the problem. The Catholic faith is not something purely abstract that we learn and assent to as an intellectual exercise. We learn our faith and we discern its meaning through practice, through what we do with or to the words, things, and persons that embody this faith. How we speak to Our Lord or about Him; how we handle the sacramental signs and, above all, His all-holy and life-giving Body and precious Blood; how we treat our priests and how they treat their people. This is where we find out, experientially, day after day, what the Catholic religion is — and whether it has been replaced by a rival system of belief.

In our practice, we teach ourselves; by our example, we teach those around us, especially children. This is where modern liturgy has grievously failed, in numerous ways and as a matter of practice, through its repudiation of the meaning of vital forms of expression, forms that convey the essence and purpose of the Mass. What is at stake in the escalating tensions between divergent liturgical “sensibilities” is not just mere “form” (as if we were talking about matters of taste or fine art), but rather, the meaning inherent in form and expressed by it — that is to say, truth. And not truth alone, but justice, as in the virtue of justice by which we give to God and the things of God that which they rightly demand and which we owe as His creatures and dependents. Thus, the divergence between “old rite” and “new rite” is a divergence of truth and justice: two different “religions,” taking this word in its Thomistic acceptation.

Just as the reverent forms and practices of the traditional liturgy point to and express vital truths for our faith, the numerous casual practices that permeate Novus Ordo liturgies are not coherent with the meaning and the purpose of the Mass. A friend of mine, a young lady who transitioned a few years ago from the Novus Ordo to the traditional rite, sent me a reflection that illustrates this point:

In my years attending the N.O. at very mainstream parishes (not like Oratorians at all), I experienced a palpable and oppressive sense of what I can only describe as a dictatorship of the casual. It wasn’t that I didn’t personally wish for more reverence, but the atmosphere just made it feel very out of place. It felt strange to be one of the few who bowed in the creed (we never dreamed of making a genuflection). It felt equally strange to show extra reverence such as bowing of the head after adoring the host at the consecration. Some faithful received on the tongue, but this was unusual. If one stayed in the pew, even for a moment, to make acts of thanksgiving after Holy Mass, one was most certainly in the minority. Then of course there was the chit-chat about sports games, social events, and all kinds of trivialities that took place in the Sacred Presence. Also there were frequent rounds of applause tucked into liturgies. Rounds of applause for a good joke in the homily, for a speaker advertising the parish picnic, for the choir upon completion of the rousing recessional song — the occasions were all too frequent.
          There is a pervading “bad attitude” that results in this oppressive dictatorship of the casual. It is a mystery to me what drives this insidious force. It took root years ago, but why does it still thrive when many good people in these parishes desire, if only in a vague way, greater reverence? Now, I know that we should all be willing to openly express our faith in God even unto death. However, something has gone terribly wrong when one feels a furtive sense, almost guilt — a feeling of “Well, who do you think you are, acting all holy!” — when one expresses reverence in a visible act.
          I’ll give a vignette that comes to mind. My sisters and I thought wearing veils would be kind of nice, but I remember my argument against it was: “We’re already such a distraction up in front of church playing our instruments in view of everyone. Then we’re going to throw veils into the equation? Besides they don’t ‘go’ with the kind of music we play.” I really don’t know if that reasoning was sound, but it illustrates the conundrum of reverence-hungry faithful who find themselves in the rigid N.O. framework. It’s a framework where piety and devotion often look ridiculous. Think of it: we have on our hands an atmosphere where showing due honor to Our Lord in what is supposed to be His house, at what is His Sacrifice, looks ridiculous. This is a brazen evil.

It is ironic that some Novus Ordo proponents criticize those who favor the traditional liturgy as people fixated on form, when in reality it is impossible not to care about form, since there is no truth accessible to us humans without the clothing of form. Every liturgy comes to us as a definite concrete set of forms with their own inherent meaning, and this meaning will be either full, rich, accurate, and nourishing of orthodoxy, or banal, impoverished, ambiguous, and inadequate to our needs. In this sense, everyone is fixated on form because human language and spiritual activity are formal through and through. The primacy of form, and the corresponding priority of getting it right, are inescapable; there is no “essential thing” independent of form that is “enough” for us.

No doubt, truth is known by the divine intellect apart from any created form; but men know the truth as expressed in a definite way, under sensible and intelligible signs. Some signs are well suited to the truth they signify, and others are not. For example, solemnity is compatible with, indeed required by, the notion of the sacred, while casualness and spontaneity are not.

Martin Mosebach’s The Heresy of Formlessness illuminates the folly (and ugliness) of imposing on ourselves the modern faith in abstract society and an abstract world with abstractions reigning globally and governing relationships individually, in contrast to the real spiritual vitality that can be found in things, real things, and how real things and actions resonate in the spiritual realm. This sensitivity to material reality is something our society has lost — not only the idea that there is a spiritual reality encompassing the material world, but also that we touch the spiritual through what we do with matter, or, in other words, that the form of things and what we do with them matters in the life of the spirit. One sees the same Cartesian contempt for the flesh in the liturgical reform, which strips barren the inherited treasury of forms in order to present as purely verbal and conceptual a worship as is still consonant with public human activity.

As the historical record indicates, Modernity fears Catholicism because Catholicism reminds it — reminds us — that reality includes the supernatural, that which encompasses and penetrates the natural with mysterious powers that reason can approach, but only through faith and analogy. This approach requires a surrender to the divine and an acceptance of tradition that modern epistemology in its egocentric rationalism and voluntarism cannot tolerate. Like liberalism in Newman’s analysis, a halfway house between Catholicism and atheism, the Novus Ordo is a halfway house between a time-embracing and time-transcending tradition and a modernity trapped in its own death spiral.

In conclusion, the past fifty years of liturgical praxis have taken a serious toll on the faith life in our communities. The Novus Ordo perspective dwells erroneously on abstractions like validity and fails to recognize the deep (human and divine!) connection between form, meaning, and truth. The consequences of this error are now unmistakable. According to Bishop Barron, for every new Catholic, six are leaving the Church. In a survey of Catholics, 80% under age 50 do not believe in the Real Presence. The pandemic has only accelerated the already glaring differences between the traditional practice of Catholicism and its modern substitute. The loss of faith evidenced statistically is understandable, even predictable, given that the main catechism for most Catholics is the Mass. A concerted return to the traditional liturgy is not simply beneficial but necessary for the continued life of our churches. Bishops who do not grasp this in time will preside over the white-chasubled funerals of their cremated dioceses.

In the cycles of history, including the history of salvation unfolded for us in Scripture, we perceive times of exile, as well as the varied responses people make to their exilic condition. It seems that we are living in a peculiar time marked by institutional self-exile, as if the Church had become its own Pharaoh and Pilate. That is no excuse for failing to do what we can and must as children of Israel, as disciples of Christ; rather, it is the perfect opportunity to pray for and seek a return to Catholic tradition, having at its heart a liturgy that is worthy of — and truly communicative of — the most important work the Church does, and, consequently, that is capable of serving as the foundation for a coherent future.

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