Monday, June 21, 2021

Formation and Malformation: Why Catechesis Isn’t Enough if the Liturgy is Countercatechetical

In many discussions online, I have encountered versions of the view that we should not be “fussy” about liturgy, because as long as we are attending a Catholic rite, and we are sincere in our intentions, we will be led to God. Those who hold this view fail to recognize, however, that bad liturgy damages the spiritual lives of the faithful; it actually sets them back. A letter I received some time ago from a friend really brought this out, and I share it now with NLM readers, along with my briefer reply.

Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

I’ve been reflecting on the idea of malformation in the liturgy. What is the effect (if it can even be measured) of the liturgy of the past 50 years on the faithful? Specifically, in the way that it has formed us (or malformed us)?

Reflecting on this, I realize that I first thought of this problem about seven years ago. I can still picture myself driving in the car listening to Catholic Answers. The new translation of the Missal had just been issued and the host was discussing the repetition of “through my fault” in the Confiteor. I believe the caller was troubled by an “overemphasis on sin.” The host was lamenting a “loss of the sense of sin” in our culture.

However, as I listened (and I had not studied the liturgy at all), I couldn’t help but think that the liturgy itself, in the old ICEL translation, had itself downplayed the sense of sin (at the time, I didn’t know that this was more than just the translation, but was also the fact that the Consilium deliberately removed this type of language from the Missal). And so, I found myself actually somewhat upset with the host. His caller probably wasn’t a “now-and-again Catholic”; most likely, this was someone who had attended Mass faithfully over the past several decades. Part of the reason this person had lost the “sense of sin” wasn’t just “the culture,” but was the fact that the liturgy itself fails to adequately convey this.

I’ve worked in faith formation in a variety of roles over the past several years. We were always lamenting the “failures in catechesis” regarding things like sin, the Mass as Sacrifice, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, marriage, the importance of Confession, the reality of hell. We thought all we needed to do was to teach people about these things and to explain their meaning and importance, developing programs and faith formation series, making more resources available, getting priests to talk more about them in homilies.

While all of those endeavors are certainly helpful, what we failed to comprehend was that the liturgy itself was working against us. Week after week, the average Catholic’s experience of the liturgy was malforming them in all these areas. And this is something, it seems to me, that catechesis can never overcome. Catechesis, the lex credendi, should flow out of liturgy, the lex orandi. I can remember a relative of mine—a very faithful man, and something of a “postconciliar exile”—being so struck by John Paul II’s Ecclesia de Eucharistia. He would say again and again that at the Mass, we are at Calvary. Years later, I realized that when I’m at the TLM, it actually feels like I’m there at the Cross. At the NO, I have to direct my intention and make a greater effort to be mindful of what’s taking place on the altar.

Another common thing I’ve heard in discussions of evangelization is the fact that “only 5–7% of people in the pews are evangelized.” What I always thought about this was that we need to have different in-parish evangelization programs to help these people understand what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus. We have to understand the “thresholds of conversion” (Sherry Weddell) and help guide people through them to the place of “intentional discipleship.” Then they will be ready and in a position to benefit from the Mass.

While there is probably some truth to this, my thinking is starting to shift in this area as well. If these people are at Mass, presumably they have some faith, some relationship with Christ. What if it’s been the liturgy that has actually been an obstacle to them deepening this relationship? What if they have actually gone backwards in their journey, because they are not being drawn into a deeper encounter with mystery and a richness of prayer? I don’t think we’ve sufficiently considered this as a real possibility as we try to find “solutions” to these problems. Generally the thinking seems to be that these people won’t “get anything out of the Mass” until they are evangelized and have a personal relationship with Christ. But isn’t the liturgy the very place where this relationship is fed? What about situations where the liturgy does not instill the habits that allow us to grow closer to Him?
In my own life, I see this struggle especially with the Liturgy of the Hours. I have prayed the LOTH on and off for about fifteen years. Lately, however, I’ve been using either the Roman Breviary or, more recently, the Anglican Use Office (which allows for the continuous reading of the whole psalter over the course of a month). I notice that I’m actually formed differently. Using the Anglican Use Office, I’ve been going through all 150 psalms, with no omitted verses. It conveys a very different sense of God, of myself, of what I should ask for in prayer, than the LOTH does. I guess my point is that even if someone is immersed in the new Mass and the LOTH, they aren’t going to get a lot of those things that we (from the “faith formation” perspective) most want them to get: the sense of sin, the importance of penance/fasting, a deepening immersion in the liturgical year, the Mass as Sacrifice, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the uniqueness of the ordained priesthood, the four last things (death, judgment, heaven, hell).

Having come to this, I’m understanding more and more your call for a wholesale return to the traditional Latin Mass and the other traditional rites. Even if the Novus Ordo is celebrated beautifully (along with Vespers at the parish, for example), it still seems that in some way we have to put back in all sorts of elements that have been removed (through homilies, catechesis, explanations, etc.). But this is incredibly laborious, never totally successful, and finally, doesn’t seem to be what the liturgy is intended to be. It should be able to do what it does just by being what it is, rather than needing constant life-support from a team of doctors.

Nowadays, when people are bored at Mass or “don’t get anything out of it,” we often ask: well, what are you bringing to it? Again, there’s some truth here, I don’t deny it. But am I right in thinking that this is fundamentally a wrong way of looking at liturgy?The liturgy is supposed to call these things out of us. We aren’t meant to simply put ourselves, by our own effort, into the proper dispositions. The liturgy is intended to draw these things from us, demand them of us.

Yours in Christ,
Parish Catechist

Dear Parish Catechist,

You have hit the proverbial nail on the head. Obviously, the rudiments of faith and catechetical knowledge are presupposed to engaging the liturgy—but the liturgy is then supposed to take that and nourish it, carry it further, like Christ multiplying the few loaves and fishes the disciples offered Him. If the liturgy is not assisting in the development of a deep interior life and a reliance on sacramental grace and an awareness of the sacred mysteries of Christ in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, then it is simply failing in its proper work as liturgy. I talk about this in a few chapters of Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright, especially 5, 7, and 19 (online versions of which can be found here, here, and here).

The Divine Office was destroyed by the Liturgy of the Hours. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but it’s the sober truth. For the first time in the history of the Roman church, the full psalter is not recited. In the old breviary the 150 psalms are recited each week; in the LOTH, it’s not quite 150 over a month—and with plenty of verses skipped, as you know. The Anglican book, which I’m not familiar with, sounds very good. It’s clearly superior to the LOTH, and if you find it spiritually fruitful, I’d say stick with it. It’s better, all things considered, to pick one book and make it your go-to for the office than to bounce between several.

What you have described can be rephrased this way: the reformed liturgy simply lacks whole dimensions of the traditional Catholic faith—heck, whole dimenions of the Old Testament and the New Testament. So it really doesn’t matter if you add all the “smells and bells.” It’s like putting royal clothing on a starved and shivering waif. There’s a disjunct that cannot be overcome by piling up externals but only by restoring the fullness that already existed in the old rites. It seems to me plausible to believe that Divine Providence, with a “severe mercy,” permitted the “mystery of iniquity” of the liturgical revolution in order to send the most almighty wake-up call and cold shower in the history of the Church. “O my people, pay attention to the riches you have—or I will take them away.” He says this a thousand times in the Old Testament. We are still Israel journeying through the wilderness of this world en route to the Promised Land of heaven, equipped with laws and rites that we seldom perfectly observe or appreciate. He bestows what is good; He tries the hearts and reins; He chastens whom he loves; He sends into exile; but He always promises to relent, for a remnant, and He does relent, letting the sweetness of His love be tasted and seen. This is the very logic of salvation history, and we have seen it playing out before our eyes.

I have no more to add to your excellent analysis. Would that more pastors and religious educators would wake up to the sharp inadequacy of reformed means to accomplish traditional ends; would that they could turn again to what the Lord has already provided in the history of the Church, and feed the people with liturgical bread, not stones!

In Domino,
Dr. Kwasniewski

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: