Monday, May 08, 2023

The Mass Is the Faith and the Faith Is the Mass

Hilaire Belloc is famous for many sayings, but perhaps the most famous—and among the most heavily criticized—is his claim: “Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe.”

It is in the nature of hyperbole to be… exaggerated. The very modus operandi of the Chesterbelloc was to say extreme, provocative things that stood precariously balanced on one leg of truth. We all know that the Faith has taken root in many places other than Europe. We know that Asia Minor, that is, modern-day Turkey, hardly “counts” as Europe, yet this is where so much of apostolic Christianity flourished.

Nevertheless, Belloc’s statement is more true than false, as Joseph Ratzinger himself recognized (not with explicit reference to Belloc, of course, but with reference to the debate about “hellenization” and “dehellenization”). The Catholic Faith flourished above all in the lands that were once embraced by the Roman Empire, and Europe is the fairest fruit of this Roman miracle. As Benedict XVI put it in his Regensburg Address:

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history — it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.
Allow me to suggest an analogous statement: “The Mass is the Faith, and the Faith is the Mass.”

All the same sorts of knee-jerk objections could be raised to this hyperbolic claim. Surely the Faith is much more than the Mass! It is orthodox dogma; it is the life shaped by the Decalogue and the Beatitudes, lived in many states, vocations, and friendships; it is devotion, meditation, wordless prayer. Indeed, there is far more to the liturgy itself than the Mass: there is the Divine Office, there are the other sacramental rites, blessings, processions, penances, pilgrimages.

However, no one can really dispute the point that the Mass is the burning heart of the Faith, the axis, the pith, the focal point, the “fons et culmen.” Once we know that Jesus is there — that He reigns as King in our midst from the altar and in the Holy Eucharist — we know that all things in this world of pilgrimage culminate and are meant to culminate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Mass, in itself, expresses the dogmatic content and doxological purpose of our religion. It is the summation, the synopsis, the synaxis.

St. Leonard of Port Maurice wrote in his popular treatise The Hidden Treasure:
The sacrifice of the Mass is the soul of faith, the center of the Catholic religion the compendium of all the good and beautiful to be found in the Church of God. Do you know what the Holy Sacrifice is? It is the sum of Christianity, the soul of faith, the center of the Catholic religion, the grand object of all her rights, her ceremonies, and her sacraments: it is, in a word, the summary of all that is good and beautiful in the Church of God.
In history, it functioned in just this way, as Fr. William Slattery observes, quoting Christopher Dawson: 

The Ancient Rite’s impact is due not only to the fact that it is the Mass but to the fact that it is this concrete rite, this “Ancient Rite,” a clearly defined complex ceremonial embodying “everything that the [Western] Christian world possessed of doctrine and poetry, music and art [that] was poured into the liturgy, moulded into an organic whole which centered round the Divine Mysteries.” (Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization, citing Dawson, The Formation of Christendom)

Traditional Catholics (yes, this phrase is defensible) are sometimes criticized for “making too much of the Mass.” “Why are you people always going on about ‘the TLM this’ and ‘the TLM that’? It’s as if you think of only one thing!”

Well, of course we don’t just think about one thing. If someone is married, he has a wife and children to think about, help out, take care of. If he has a job, he has to pay attention to it and carry it out. If he is studying, he has his studies; if teaching, he prepares his classes. And so on and so forth. But the traditionalist intuitively perceives, intellectually grasps, and passionately feels that the Mass is the concrete symbol and mediation of the unum necessarium. He knows that, if the Mass is as it should be, all other things will find a way to fall into place around it, like iron filings drawn to a magnet, or bodies drawn to a center of gravity. He knows with no less certainty that if it is not as it should be, all other things will fall apart around it, fly away from it, crash into chaos.

Catholicism fully believed and fully lived is centripetal toward the Mass in its full “thickness,” its full-fledged form; Catholicism in a state of decline is centrifugal from the Mass, falling apart and breaking down. This, tragically, can happen even within the Mass, when certain actions, practices, customs, adaptations, inculturations, cause it to disintegrate into the ambient worldview, the horizontal environs, the religious titillation of the moment, the project of a department, the ideological tool of a dicastery.

Indeed, the Mass is the microcosm in which we see reflected the macrocosm of the Church. As goes the Mass, so goes the Church. The Mass is the center of all the concentric circles that define Catholicism as a religion — as the true religion offering the true sacrifice of Jesus Christ, in continuity with the Chosen People who looked in faith for Him, with His Apostles ordained by Him, and with the Church that His Spirit has guided over the course of 2,000 years of divine worship.

I shall end with a marvelous quotation from the journals of Dom Pius de Hemptinne, a disciple of Dom Columba Marmion:

Although Jesus Christ the divine High Priest appeared only once on earth, to offer up His great sacrifice on Calvary; yet, every day He appears in the person of each one of His ministers, to renew His sacrifice on the altar. In every altar, then, Calvary is seen: every altar becomes an august place, the Holy of holies, the source of all holiness. Thither all must go to seek Life, and thither all must continually return, as to the source of God’s mercies.           Those who are the Master’s privileged ones, never leave this holy place, but there they “find a dwelling,” near to the altar, so that they never need go far from it; such are monks, whose first care it is to raise temples worthy to contain altars. Making their home by the Sanctuary, they consecrate their life to the divine worship, and every day sees them grouped around the altar for the holy sacrifice.
       This is the event of the day, the centre to which the Hours, like the centuries, all converge: some as Hours of preparation and awaiting in the recollection of the divine praise—these begin with Lauds and Prime continued by Terce, the third Hour of the day; the others, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline, flow on in the joys of thanksgiving until sunset when the monks chant the closing in of night.
       Thus the days of life pass, at the foot of the altar; thus the life of man finds its greatness and its holiness in flowing out, so to say, upon the altar, there to mingle with that Precious Blood which is daily shed in that hallowed place: for, if the life of man is as a valueless drop of water, when lost in the Blood of Christ it acquires an infinite value and can merit the divine mercy for us. He who knows what the altar is, from it learns to live; to live by the altar is to be holy, pleasing to God,—and to go up to the altar to perform the sacred Mysteries is to be clothed upon with the most sublime of all dignities after that of the Son of God and His holy Mother. (A Benedictine Soul: Biography, Letters, and Spiritual Writings of Dom Pius De Hemptinne, 145–47)

(A charming cover from one of the many printings of Belloc’s book. I’d say we could use some axe-wielding fervent Catholic statesmen right about now...)

Read Dr. Kwasniewski’s Substack “Tradition & Sanity.

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