Is There a Way to Get Beyond Making the Best of a Bad Liturgy?

Is There a Way to Get Beyond Making the Best of a Bad Liturgy? March 13, 2017

The “Mass of All Ages” (itself a historical misnomer as any liturgical historian knows) can easily degenerate into the Mass of the aesthete, the Mass of those who grumble against the Pope, who see the Novus Ordo as spiritually vacuous.

51jOebMeh1L__SX327_BO1,204,203,200_This latter attitude in particular is detrimental to the Church. The Novus Ordo, despite its sometimes-haphazard celebration, has generated spiritual vitality in the Church. On a personal note, it is the very celebration of the Mass that formed in the Eucharistic life of the Church, that convinced me to study theology, and that formed me to pray. It’s the Mass at my local parish (no matter where that might be) where I see the first fruits of the redemption of humanity, as men and women kneel in the presence of the living God. Anyone who calls it an abomination…well, cannot see.

That being said (and I had to say all of this before I make the following claim), not every dimension of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council was successful. Many of these reforms did depend upon a faulty epistemology, one that seemed to see ritual action as the communication of information from Church to the receiver participant. If the Mass were comprehensible, understandable, then it would end secularization, individualism, racism, and every modern malaise. That’s a lot for a Mass to do.

To me, the reformers of the Council did not adequately understand the aesthetic and contemplative dimensions of ritual activity in Catholicism. In reforming the liturgies, they did not attend, for example, to the importance of repetition in ritual prayer. They focused most of their attention upon texts, with little concern about music and architecture. They set up a chasm between public liturgy and personal piety. Today’s liturgy is the result of these biases.

51j-+LsTWCL__SX337_BO1,204,203,200_For me, the way forward is not a denial of the Second Vatican Council. But a fresh approach to Ressourcement. The Ressourcement of the 1960s liturgical reforms depended almost entirely upon the patristic era. Medieval Catholicism, in particular, was vilified. I get it. They hadn’t read Irenaeus, and Origen, and Nyssa, and Augustine. It was exciting stuff.

But medieval Catholicism was an authentic development of the patristic era. We didn’t look to this era for our renewal and thus avoided the liturgical creativity, aesthetics, festivity, and contemplation produced by this era.

We forgot, in the end, that the Mass is first and foremost a prayer. Not a way of passing on a culture from one generation to the next.

[NOTA BENE: If you have further questions, then post them in the comments. We’ll see if we can continue this conversation…]

Kevin L. Hughes is professor with a joint appointment to the Theology and Religious Studies and Humanities departments at Villanova University. He is the author of Constructing Antichrist and Church History: Faith Handed On, along with articles appearing in journals such as Modern Theology, Theological Studies, Franciscan Studies, and the Heythrop Journal. He lives in Media, PA with his wife Bridget, a ceramic artist, and their three daughters.

Timothy O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He is the author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love. He is presently working on a monograph entitled On Praise: Worship and the Eschatological Imagination. This book is a work of historical liturgical theology, unfolding the eschatological dimensions of Christian worship in Augustine, John Henry Newman, Joseph Ratzinger, Jean-Yves Lacoste, et al.

Suggested further reading: On Liturgical Asceticism by Fagerberg; The Spirit of the Liturgy by Guardini; Introduction to Liturgical Theology by Schmemann; The Spirit of the Liturgy by Ratzinger; Heresy of Formlessness by Mosebach; Church’s Liturgy by Kunzler; Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology by various authors; Christianity in the West 1400-1700 by Bossy; Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love by O’Malley.

Make sure you don’t miss the piece On a Middle Class Pilgrimage published previously on this blog by Kevin Hughes.

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