Reverence Rubrics and Self Righteousness

Once when I was in Westminster Cathedral in London for Mass a homeless man came up the center aisle. At the transept he fell prostrate and then on the hard marble floor he crept up on his belly making slow and painful progress to the foot of the altar. After lying prostrate for a time a server came and helped him up and away.

Then I remembered a Baptist who said to a friend of mine after the doctrine of transubstantiation was explained to him, “Well, if I believed what you say you believe, then I would fall on my face as soon as I stepped into any Catholic Church and would crawl to the altar.”

Are you concerned about reverence at Mass? So am I. Sadly, the discussion too often ends up not being about reverence, but about rubrics and self righteousness. “Oh Father you really must say Mass in this form or that form. You really must have this kind of server and this sort of music and that sort of architecture and those sorts of vestments. I simply do not accept that one form of words automatically makes a celebration of Mass reverent and another form of words does not, and those who are convinced that this form or that form is magically better and more reverent are fooling themselves and (understandably for we all do this) falling into the error of thinking that what they experience as reverent must be so for everyone else and that anyone who doesn’t have those same preferences must be second class or simply wrong.

G.K.Chesterton said every argument is a theological argument. Here is where we must agree: the real reason for lack of reverence at Mass is the erosion and eventual abandonment of a real, solid and actual belief in the Real Presence of the Body Blood Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. Behind this is an even more insidious abandonment of the Catholic faith–a gradual ignorance of and denial by neglect of all the cardinal doctrines of the faith from which a belief in the real presence is derived: that is to say, the central beliefs of the Immaculate Conception, the Incarnation and Virgin Birth, the Atoning Work of Christ on the Cross of Calvary, the Resurrection and Ascension into Glory and the Hope of his coming again.

The real reason for lack of reverence at Mass is because huge numbers of Catholics just don’t believe that stuff. They’ve never been taught it (except in some vague theoretical manner which implied that it was all some ancient system of symbolism) If they have been taught it they’ve forgotten it. They never hear it preached from the pulpit and they’ve never been fully catechized. If priests and people really believed that Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, who really took human flesh and died for the redemption of the human race and who really rose again on the third day and left a sacrament of the memorial of his suffering and death to be re presented by his mystical body the Church, why then, like the homeless man in Westminster Cathedral and my Baptist friend, there would suddenly be reverence in church.

And that reverence would be present whether the Mass were Solemn Missa Cantata in the Extraordinary Form celebrated in the Basilica of St Mark in Venice with a boys choir singing a celestial mass by Palestrina or whether it was a barefoot Nigerian priest celebrating in tattered vestments in a thatched hut church or yes, shock horror! a Life Teen Mass.

The real reason why so many Catholic masses are irreverent and why people come to Mass chewing gum wearing flip flops and T shirts and skimpy shorts and sing shallow hymns to saccharine music is because to many of them simply don’t believe the Catholic faith. If the priests and people really believed what we say we believe, why then, Mass would be reverent immediately because the reverence is not something produced like some ecclesiastical stage production: “Do it with these words and these gestures and stand this way and you will produce the emotion called reverence.”

I think rather that reverence is something we bring to worship based on what we believe is happening there. It is not something we experience because of external forms. Oh, yes, the external forms may amplify and enable the reverence we bring to worship, but if we do not bring that reverence with us (which is, of course a gift of grace) we will not find any form of worship to be truly reverent. Indeed, if we are not careful, we may find that instead of reverence all we experience is self righteousness.

And then we’re really in trouble.

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  • Deacon Dean

    As a convert to Catholicism and a deacon, I am following your discourse on reverence with great interest. It is a subject that has been gnawing at me for several years and in your last two posts you seem to have hit the proverbial nail on the head. I will continue to preach "Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity" to our congregation with the hope that understanding, belief, and finally reverence will follow. Thank you for all you do!!

  • Karen

    The thing this whole discussion on reverence reminds me of is one of the BIG reasons that I'm Catholic.When I first started going to Mass, one of the biggest things that struck me was just after the Consecration when the priest genuflects, you could really tell that the priests really didn't believe what they said had just happened. One priest in particular genuflected and bowed his head and paused a moment and everything about him said this is Jesus here in front of me.That spirit of reverence that I saw in our priests really drew me into the Church. It kept me coming back to Mass even though I wasn't really sure what I was doing at that point.And my parish, a fairly middle of the road parish. It has your typical OCP music, Masses that are mostly done according to the rubrics, and the typical make up of people from those who are active Catholics to ones who obviously don't know much about their faith. But it the priest continue to act like they really believe this is Jesus here on the altar and others in the congregation do to, maybe we can make others take notice and begin to explore more like I did.

  • MMajor

    Ditto Deacon Dean – very good post!Now, how to catechized in love and charity without becoming self righteous?

  • Fr. Josh Miller

    One word to sum up how I feel about every single thing you've said in this post:Exactly.

  • laurazim

    Thank you for this entry!! Father, do you think that part of the belief in the true Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord, Jesus Christ could be even further conveyed if more parishes offered more regular–even 24 hour (perhaps once a week to begin) Eucharistic Adoration? Where I am, we have a Perpetual Adoration chapel which is now under renovation, thanks be to God–because when the Perpetual Adoration was begun, it was done so in the undercroft of the church, in a room which is not meant to be a chapel, and so was made to feel more like one.Anyway, the availability of Our Lord at any hour of the day or night has brought with it an incredible increase in reverence at Mass in our parish, and in the city, and likely furter into the diocese as well. We are used to solid catechesis from our beloved priest–and indeed, also from our dear bishop, who is with us regularly in the Cathedral Parish–and we are also blessed with stunning reverence, gorgeous chant from a wonderful choir, legions of servers (all in cassock & surplice), and many large families.Even in a "NO" parish.Yes, it *can* be done.

  • Ryan Ellis

    Lex orandi, lex credendi.You're getting cause and effect confused, Father. One of the reasons people don't know all these things (and respond accordingly) is because the liturgical praxis fails to communicate it to them.99 percent of Catholics experience 100 percent of their ongoing catechesis at Mass on Sunday. Should they pray the Divine Office or have a CCC reading club every Wednesday? Sure they should. But they don't.That makes it all the more important that the liturgy be done well, according to the rubrics and in a worthy and fitting manner. When this happens, the truths of the faith are transmitted as through a polished glass. A rainbow chausible here and a peripatetic homilist there puts bits of gunk on the glass. In very bad liturgies, the faithful can only see the truth of the faith obscurely.Good liturgy is not relative. It's saying the black and doing the red. It's about making the focus God, and not the celebrant or the assembly. It's about giving our best, most beautiful, most worthy offering to God in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Notice I am not saying one form or rite is better than another, provided that each form or rite is done strictly and faithfully well. This is especially crucial in certain forms or rites in which the rubrics are less clear and there's less of a safety net for the praxis.To do less than the by-the-book best not only harms the liturgy (that is to say, it harms the re-presentation of the most important event in human history), but it does a grave disservice to the ongoing catechesis of Joe and Mary Catholic.To not see that the lex ordandi/lex credendi angle is what this is all about is to miss much of the point of this debate.

  • shadowlands

    ‘Many think that sanctity consists in accomplishing things which attract the eyes of men. These things are necessary and oftentimes good for the Church, but this is not sanctity. Sanctity must be within us. How many humble priests there are in distant missions who are considered as inferiors, but who are higher in the sight of God in sanctity than those who seem to be on the pinnacle. God does not measure things from the human standard, and if we have the supernatural point of view we will never be discouraged. If we make sacrifices joyfully, and not in a half-hearted way, even the greatest trial will be a pleasure. This is the supernatural standpoint, and if we take it we will not be crushed by humiliations and mortifications.’- from a speech by Rafael, Cardinal Merry del Val, to the Seminarians of the North American College, Rome, on the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6th) 1921. Thought the above was rather appropriate, so I pinched it off my mate Dominic's blog

  • torculus

    If more priests (and laity for that matter) learned the value of non-verbal forms of communication, then perhaps both the head and the heart might be engaged and a response to God's invitation at Mass would be expressed reverently.Too often catechesis amounts to flinging information at individuals through some form of linear catechesis that merely creates big-brained believers. Effective catechesis should not only teach us "what" but also "how" to worship. We rehearse the creed at every Mass. There's plenty there for people to ruminate upon. The problem is that people don't know how to ruminate.The non-verbal forms of communication such as icons, stained glass, incense, sprinkling with holy water and statues (and most sublimely Exposition and Adoration of the Bless Sacrament!) help shape the interior landscape in ways that spoken words cannot. The non-verbal leaves room for the imagination and the heart to flourish. In adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, for example, the mind is not without an object upon which to meditate. The Person of Christ is fully present. There is a necessary interdependence between word and action (even if that action is stillness or silence). The "thing" which does more than merely amplify what we bring to worship is the thing which leaves room for and guides interaction and is most often overlooked these days, i.e., rubrics. Rubrics, i.e., sacred choreography, should be invisible, which is what choreography should be – invisible. One should only see the "dance". Ineffective choreography draws attention to itself, just like flashy violin playing draws attention to technical skill rather than serving the music itself. The rhythm or pacing of the Liturgy is itself instructive and formative. Too often at Mass, ignorance of the power of non-verbal communication (especially silence!) leads to a word-fest (a bogus attempt to fill a "void"), and the pattern of the Liturgy and the richness of other forms of communication (visual, agogic) is/are obscured by an intrusive didacticism."Yes" to better formation (not just mere instruction)! Yes to engaging the intellect and the will through a beautiful liturgy where rubrics guide priest and lay faithful to know when to be still and how to hear God's invitation. Yes to the theological truths embodied in the Mass and communicated through a poetry of movement that mirrors the solemn and sublime choreography of the angels in the heavenly liturgy!

  • Giovanni A. Cattaneo

    …Which extends largely from the abandonment of the rubrics and stripping the Mass from its true meaning by means of minimalistic view towards both Sacred Architecture and the Liturgy. Father you are trying to separate the chicken from the egg and I am sorry but this is a circular argument. There seems to be a disconnect as far as what the rubrics of the Mass and what they are not. I seem to get the impression that you believe that they are arbitrary in nature. When in reality much like our common prayers they are the result of 2000 years of development. Again I must appeal to Lex Orandi Lex Credendi. To have abandoned the rubrics is to have abandoned our prayers for the not only the words that are said at the altar conveyed the Truth of what is being re presented but also the action or rather the posture that follows conveys the same Truth. The body must follow what the mind knows in order to connect completely with the transcendental.

  • anthony

    excuse this digression from the good Padre's earnestnessI might consider 'jumping ship' if I saw you doin a hip-hip Massthat's entertainment(just jokin)not.

  • Kristyn

    My two cents…Surely I can't judge anyone's heart, but before we were received into the Church we visited a lot of parishes, and it was hard to see in many cases that the priests believed in or loved Jesus, Eucharistic or otherwise. It kind of made you wish you could ask how it was that they ended up in the priesthood. We were accustomed to outspoken and vibrant love of God in our protestant past and it was a little disconcerting to see parishes being bored to death by priests who were bored themselves.When the time came, God directed us to the parish He wanted us at. Our priests are diocesan priests who celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass, but let me tell you, we have reverence, we have rubrics, we have whole-hearted love of God. Yes, we have lousy Catholics in the parish but it isn't because they don't hear the truth. My mother left the Catholic Church many years back and when she wanted to return to faith she went the protestant, evangelical route. But she has said things would have been different if she had had priests like ours. Faith in a living God must be a living Faith. The priest makes a huge different just in the attitude he brings with him when he celebrates Mass. A priest who is fully alive in Christ might make a few people think, "What a weirdo" because those people are there out of obligation. But for the rest of us, it is contagious. One priest in our area said, "I want people to fall in love with the One I love." When you listen to him preach you hear truth, not spoken out of anger or duty or self-righteousness, but out of love. The other night the responsorial psalm was "The Lord delights in His people" and during Eucharistic adoration after Mass I could hear our priest praying, "Help me to delight in You… Help me to delight in Your people." That is the key. The average person could care less about the red and the black until they love Him—and then suddenly it matters that God be worshiped rightly.Okay, more like $2 ;)

  • Marilyn

    Something universal is ignited in us when we experience something of great beauty. I am particularly moved by Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, especially the rendition conducted by Pletnev. Beauty grabs our attention and instills in us something greater than ourselves. Sadly, Pletnev has recently been arrested and charged with child pornography and pedophilia. So help me, I continue to be moved by his sublime music. I realize that this is a poor analogy, but when Pletnev picks up that baton and the music flows forth, just as when a priest administers the Host, whether he is personally mediocre, irascible, sinful, or otherwise, the beauty and mystery remain intact. St. Therese of Lisieux said, “And now it is in the Host that I see you consummate your self-annihilation. O divine King of Glory, with what humility you submit yourself to all your priests, without making any distinction between those who love you and those who, alas, are lukewarm or cold in your service.”Fr. Longenecker, another great post. Thank you!

  • Alexander

    I simply do not accept that one form of words automatically makes a celebration of Mass reverent and another form of words does not, and those who are convinced that this form or that form is magically better and more reverent are fooling themselves and (understandably for we all do this) falling into the error of thinking that what they experience as reverent must be so for everyone else and that anyone who doesn't have those same preferences must be second class or simply wrong.Right. The reason why the TLM is superior to the Novus Ordo is not because of supposed reverence but because the prayers are more explicitly Catholic, more humble and better suited for the sacrifice – not to mention superior forms that better represent Catohlic doctrine and better reflect that the Mass is a sacrifice. This would intern influence reverence to some extent. However I have seen Novus Ordo Masses just as reverent as a TLM. The argument I am trying to make here rather is that the TLM is more defensive against abuse and lack of reverence (because of the lack of options, the use of a liturgical language, stricter rubrics, etc.)not that it magically generates it.

  • Dev Thakur

    I can agree, Father, that reverence comes from belief in the Real Presence. But why really has this belief eroded?There has been a tremendous shift in how we treat the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. The priest turns his back to Our Lord in order to speak facing *us*. Many more people, in all sorts of dress, are let into the sanctuary for even minor reasons. (As a server at the Traditional Latin Mass, I approach the altar with trepidation even when doing something necessary like placing the altar cards). We let laypeople touch the Host, even when completely unnecessary. We bow instead of genuflect, even with good knees. We receive in the hand.Lex orandi, lex credendi, as has been said above. Treat the Mass like it is an amazing, extremely sacred, special, Sacrifice, holy, do be done carefully, something you have to learn Latin for, study before you are able to enter the sanctuary to help the priest, etc., and THEN we will be able to restore our belief.

  • StevieD

    When I was a child, many years ago, talking, even in a whisper, in church would bring stares of disapproval. Now I see families come in sit down and start chatting and laughing and waving at friends. It drives me potty. Don't they want to speak to Jesus in the tabernacle before Mass starts? At the end of Mass it's even worse as people find their friends and say hello very loudly. It is all part of the same disbelief and if I'm offended, how does Jesus feel? The priest recently put up a sign over the altar that says 'We are here to do your will'. I am wondering whether or not I am brave enough to suggest that he change it for one that says 'Silence'.

  • Giovanni A. Cattaneo

    "And that reverence would be present whether the Mass were Solemn Missa Cantata in the Extraordinary Form celebrated in the Basilica of St Mark in Venice with a boys choir singing a celestial mass by Palestrina or whether it was a barefoot Nigerian priest celebrating in tattered vestments in a thatched hut church or yes, shock horror! a Life Teen Mass."I suppose then Father you would have to include this as well. again I might just be being self righteous.

  • Julie

    Nail on the head here, father. From high school, you look around and see so many people who go up for communion and yet have zero belief and no shame in it. Time and again you are disappointed, made to feel like some kind of religious freak because the world generally is populated with these type of people, who even if they go to services are proud to say they just do it out of habit or "culture" or liking the music. And then you search out a trad parish and say, aha, here are my people.But treating our brothers and sisters as though they are what they are and we are what we are and those idiots can't be changed is not what Christ commands us. As father points out, just because we code "trad = devout" doesn't make it so.

  • Natasa

    Alexander and Dev,I completely agree with your comments. The NO is more people focused and thus it is easy to forget what Mass is and why we are there. Its form has allowed the priests to make it very informal and even banal. I have never ever been to a traditional parish where people behave in a disrespectful way. Surely there is a connection? Of course, many people say that a NO Mass can be equally reverent, but when a priest starts the Mass by greeting the people, rather than with prayers at the foot of the altar than I don't think that it can. I admit that I was a church shopper for all of my adult life because I thought that music and preaching that catered to my taste were what's important. But that shopping brought me to TLM a year ago and now I intend to stay put.

  • Bender

    To say that any set of external forms of worship are "better" or "objectively" more holy or "more pleasing" to God is a gross error. As indicated in the Psalm for today's Mass, the only acceptable sacrifice is sacrifice of the human heart, what is most pleasing to God is the internal worship of giving Him and others love. A loving heart — THAT is the worship most pleasing to God. As such, the attitude that one set of external rubics is necessarily or more objectively better or more reverent is an attitude that is actually LESS pleasing to God. If God was more pleased by such mindsets and attitudes, so prevelant among trads, unfortunately, then He would have patted the Pharisees on the back and said, "Now, that's how you do worship!" Instead, He castigated them for being whited-sepulcers, externally beautiful and internally empty and dead. The most hippie infested Ordinary Form Mass, if done with love, is, by His own word, more pleasing than the most beautiful Extraordinary Form that is filled with a bunch of proud, holier-than-thou, hypocritical "oh, don't say this is all about me pleasing me" types. ————–To put this in understandable human terms, understanding that, compared to God, we are ALL simply little children –What is a loving parent going to cherish more?(a) some crude drawing done by their three-year-old in crayon, consisting of little more than a bunch of scribbles, but done with immense love; or (b) some artistic masterpiece done by their older, but obnoxious and contemptuous child?Which will they proudly put up on the refrigerator? The one that is, by "objective" standards, lousy, but filled with love, or the one that is beautiful, but devoid of love?

  • Natasa

    Bender,I really don't understand the link between worshipping the way our ancestors did and having a cold heart. Could you clarify this?

  • Calistus Thomas

    Dear Father, I am A keen follower of your Blog for a Long Time now, really Great Work that your doing through your Blog,I thank God Your work. As for this Post…really SPOT ON…all that is wrong in the Universal Church can be Traced to this root cause…the Lack of reverence to the Eucherist….This post will be shared and i am sure it will wake a lot of sleeping ppl. Thanks and God Bless you…Pls Continue this work.

  • Giovanni A. Cattaneo

    Yes a lack of reverence in the Eucharist whose rampart beginnings we can trace back to 40 years ago when the New Mass was being promulgated. Rubrics matter.

  • Bender

    I really don't understand the link between worshipping the way our ancestors did and having a cold heart.I really don't understand the reasoning behind thinking that if one worships the way our ancestors did (for a few hundred years anyway) automatically involves having a loving and penitent heart.The Pharisees worshiped the way that Jesus' ancestors did for hundreds of years and that didn't give them a loving heart, did it?If you need how one has a loving heart to be explained to you, don't ask me, ask Him.

  • Natasa

    Bender,I hate to say this but you are prejudiced and arrogant. What gives you the right to say such things about people? I may not think much about your taste and attitude towards liturgy and Catholic tradition generally but I'm not assuming your faith is not genuine or that you have a 'cold heart'. That would be stupid, no?

  • Fr Longenecker

    Take a deep breath Natasa. Bender isn't saying all lovers of traditional Mass have cold hearts. He's simply making the point that following a particular set of rubrics does not guarantee a warm heart.

  • Wine in the Water

    Ryan Ellis,"Good liturgy is not relative. It's saying the black and doing the red."No, it's about much more than that, and I think that is the good Father's point. It is entirely possible to be without reverence while following the rubrics. Remember one of Jesus' more scathing criticisms of the pharisees, cleaning the outside of the cup while the inside remains dirty. We can do that with our liturgy, following the rubrics without the reverence in our hearts.I think that it is fair to say that neglecting the rubrics makes it more difficult to be reverent, but following the rubrics is no guarantee of reverence. Honestly, the SSPX and EF liturgies I have attended do not even make my top 20 of most reverent liturgies.

  • Linda C DeMars

    I just wanted to throw out an observation – we used to always get up at 5:30 and go to the Easter Vigil which was early in the morning very early. Outside was a gigantic bonfire tended by the Scouts, from which we will get the New Fire to light the candles on the altar. It is dark and cold, need the winter coat still that early, so nobody can see the Festive Easter Attire. Everybody is holding a candle and probably dropping the wax on the selves. (A couple of years ago our nice spring had turned to winter again, away with all the spring things, pull back out the cold weather gear. I was half dowsing in the dark in my boots, tweed pants suit, and winter coat –the only one who looked like Spring and Easter was a pretty teen age girl in a love white dress who had just been baptized)> All of a sudden, the sun comes up,The priest in a joyful voice announces “The LORD is Risen!” and we all say back very loudly and joyfulfull, “The LORD is Risen Indeed.” WE blow out our candles, the lights are turned on the organ begins to play, and we all sing “Jesus Christ is Risen today, Alla- allla- lui00-uyah, Sons of Men and Angels say—” you know it. The clergy brings the candle sticks and Cross back to the altar, They put flowers on the alter, etc.

    It always give me goosebumps when I hear the announcement “The Lord is Risen” Suddenly I am awake and happy- it is Easter, The Lord is Risen.

    A few years ago, The above had just happened, and I was thinking of all joy that the church was suddenly full of. Suddenly I thought of the a scene in the first HARRY POTTER book when Voldemort had gone away (been temporarly defeated by a baby), nd how the wizards were so happy, they were shooting off fireworks and sending messages to all the family and friends (Spreading the Good News) and standing around the streets, enthusiastically talking ,and having parties and , hugging strangers to share with them their joy. I thought, if we sincerely believe the Lord is Risen, why aren’t we acting this way? Not being able to bear that one person should not know?

    Well, it’s a thought.


  • Charles E. Mac Kay

    I am privilaged to teach the sacraments to our children. I teach that the eucharist is the highest point of our lives (Dare I say the pinnacle of complete intellectual thought.) and is the visible presence of Christ. It grieves me after 40 years of teaching that the churches are empty and the numbers are in decline. Marked with the decline in the UK we have the increase in materialism and the decline of morality not just in public life but in private life. Practices which were abhored by our fathers have become acceptable not to Christians out side the church but inside the church as well. To see the sanctity of human lufe being destroyed and women becoming things is revolting. The rise of unhappiness is not surprising in the casual acceptance of what is evil. To express such views today makes one a pariah (I am not afraid to express such views). It does start with reverence and awe in church. This blog made me think