Reverence and Revolution

Recent comments on the liturgy have certainly stirred up some strong feelings in the combox! Unfortunately, what strikes me about so many of the comments from people defending the Latin Mass is a tone of snobbish superiority, self righteousness and an undercurrent of sour negativity. I would not, for a moment, accuse everyone who likes the Latin Mass of such things, but it does seem that a few who put themselves forward as the most vociferous spokespeople for the Latin Mass do, too often, fulfill their opponents’ worst expectations.

Another thing which I find rather strange is some readers’ inability to grasp the point I am actually trying to make. In fact, I’ve had one commenter say, “What a wonderful post. At last it is good to see someone say that all the problems with the church come down to lack of reverence at Mass.” In fact, I am attempting to make precisely the opposite point, –not that the problems in the church are due to lack of reverence at Mass but that lack of reverence at Mass are due to the problems in the church.

I wish to make the point again as simply as I can: simply obeying the rubrics or performing the Mass in this direction or that direction or standing here or there or wearing this particular vestment or that particular vestment or holding your fingers together there and bowing properly there do not necessarily make a Mass reverent. It makes the Mass more formal. It makes the Mass conform to the rules, but it is not the magic bullet people would wish for. Plenty of priests have ‘said the black and done the red’ and the Mass was still sloppy, irreverent and unfocused.

Does this mean I am opposed to the Latin Mass. No. I’m glad the Latin Mass is enjoying a revival. Does this mean I am in favor of polka Masses, Clown Masses and all the other extreme abuses? No. I think they’re stupid and wrong. Do I acknowledge that a formally celebrated Mass with Gregorian chant, trained servers, a good homily and fine music is better suited for Catholic worship? Of course. Do I think rubrics don’t matter? No. I think they do matter.

Here is my main point: I think those who blame all the problems of the church on the Novus Ordo are simply missing the point. If there are things wrong with the Novus Ordo they are symptoms, not causes. The core problem in the church is not the Novus Ordo or the liturgical abuses or the bad hymns and liturgical dance and all that awful stuff. These things are symptoms of a disease, not the cause.

The cause is much deeper, and it did not start with Vatican II or with the introduction of the Novus Ordo. The cause of the malaise is a very deep departure from the ancient faith. The cause is modernism, and modernism is a complicated and many headed beast. The beast’s genealogy dates back five hundred years before the Second Vatican Council. The beast’s roots are in the Protestant Revolution and the other godless revolutions that followed. The malaise in the church has grown out of the philosophical and cultural shifts within Europe for the last five hundred years.

The result is a turn away from a supernatural understanding of the faith to a utilitarian and practical understanding. The faith shifted its center from God to people, from heaven to earth, from a focus on God’s redemptive work in the world to our good works in the world. In other words, we turned from looking to God for our salvation and turned to ourselves and our community for our salvation. The philosophical and cultural waves that swept over us undermined a supernatural and God-centered view of the Christian faith and left us with a mish mash of half baked psychology, social theory, political activism, sentimentality, utilitarianism and self help ideologies which we have made into a new religion.

This is, if you like, the way of the world. This hotch potch of philosophies and ideologies and sentimental mush is the air we breathe, the education we receive, the culture in which we live. It is this radical departure from the faith of our Fathers which has been cooking for 500 years which produces the abuses in worship and the dire state of our Church in our age.

Lack of reverence at Mass is not the cause of all our problems. The problems are the cause of lack of reverence at Mass. The reason the Latin Mass seems to be ‘more reverent’ is not because the language is in Latin or because the priest obeys all the rubrics or because he faces East. (remember I am not against all those things!) The reason the Latin Mass seems more reverent is because the people who attend the Latin Mass are far more likely to be well catechized Catholics who believe in the old, old story of God’s supernatural grace in the world, the tender story of a pure maid who bore the Son of God into the world to suffer and die and save poor lost sinners. Those who prefer the Latin Mass are more likely to believe and seek to live these precious old truths, and that’s why the Latin Mass seems more reverent.

The reason the Novus Ordo so often seems irreverent is not any intrinsic deficit in the Novus Ordo. (otherwise why would Holy Church say that it remains the Ordinary Form of the Mass?) Instead the Novus Ordo is sometimes celebrated irreverently because people regard the Mass as a celebration of their social activism, or a community festival to increase their self esteem or a sentimental, individualistic, spiritual comfort session. They have ceased to really believe in sin and grace and a God who saves, and instead they look to one another for their salvation. So there’s not much reverence required there.

I say this after serving as a priest in a parish and school where the Novus Ordo is celebrated with great solemnity and beauty–often with the priest in an ad orientem position, and among many friends who love the Latin Mass and attend it regularly, and (by the way) are not of the snooty, self righteous variety I criticize above. I also say it as a priest who makes every attempt to simply ‘say the black and do the red’ myself. In my own parish the servers are dressed well, are trained well and serve with dignity, simplicity and beauty. The music is simple, classic and worshipful. The building?…well we’re working on that.

So don’t hit me with a stick about not being in favor of ‘proper liturgy’. I’m simply making the point that the root problem is not lack of reverence at Mass or liturgical abuses at Mass. These are symptoms, and even if we could correct the symptoms with a magic wand, it would be putting a band aid on cancer, or lipstick on a cadaver.

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