Liturgy Amidst the Challenges of Modern Culture

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By R. Jared Staudt, Crisis Magazine, July 10, 2017

I offer this reflection for the tenth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, which occurred on July 7, which provided greater access to the traditional Latin Mass (now known as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite). Summorum represents a highlight of Benedict’s reform in continuity. It’s no secret that Pope Francis is not as enthusiastic about liturgical continuity. In his early interview with his Jesuit friend, Fr. Spadaro, Francis stated:

Vatican II was a re-reading of the Gospel in light of contemporary culture… Vatican II produced a renewal movement that simply comes from the same Gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall the liturgy. The work of liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a re-reading of the Gospel from a concrete historical situation. Yes, there are hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity, but one thing is clear: the dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualizing its message for today—which was typical of Vatican II—is absolutely irreversible. Then there are particular issues, like the liturgy according to the Vetus Ordo. I think the decision of Pope Benedict [his decision of July 7, 2007, to allow a wider use of the Tridentine Mass] was prudent and motivated by the desire to help people who have this sensitivity. What is worrying, though, is the risk of the ideologization of the Vetus Ordo, its exploitation.

As momentum toward a New Evangelization in the Church grows, an important question emerges. Is the renewal of the celebration of the “Old Mass” related to this overarching renewal in the Church, or is it simply an isolated phenomenon of a minority conservative group. The answer to this question may not be immediately forthcoming. We have not seen the complete fruits of Benedict’s Motu Proprio, but I will nonetheless reflect on some ways that the extraordinary form can enrich the life of Catholics and the Church at large in her efforts for a New Evangelization.

Before providing this reflection, I would like to make my intention extremely clear. I am not advocating a complete return to the extraordinary form: making the extraordinary ordinary again. I am also not providing a direct critique of the Novus Ordo, and, furthermore, not even an indirect one, holding up the extraordinary in order to show the deficiencies of the ordinary. Rather, I am advocating for a greater knowledge of the extraordinary in order to enrich the celebration of and participation in the ordinary form of the Roman rite. As Benedict himself said: “the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching.” It’s important that he said “can be” and not simply “are,” because it implies that we have work to do to make this happen.

My focus is primarily on Catholic culture, the way in which Catholics live in the context of the postmodern world, and how worship both shapes and is shaped by this context. What is the source of disconnect between most Catholics and the Latin Mass?

Beyond lack of exposure, I think it is that the Extraordinary Form represents a way of thought and worship that is foreign to modern culture. This is not simply a matter of pre or post Vatican II, but rather a broader shift between pre and postmodern culture. For instance, you hear many Catholics saying that they would not want to pray in a language they do not fully understand, and yet the possession of a sacred language, reserved for prayer, is a common element throughout the entire history of religion. It was understood that sacred actions required a language apart from that used for the ordinary and mundane. Our habits of prayer have changed, and although this must be accepted and used by the Church, I think we should also reflect on how we can deepen the prayer of Catholics by at least making traditional forms of prayer familiar once again.

Take, for instance, the direction of the priest at Mass. Though the priest and people have always faced the same direction during the Mass throughout Christian history, a change in direction previously would not have had the same impact as today. Why? Does not facing the people give the congregation the impression that the Mass is about them at the very time that we live in an individualistic and narcissistic culture? Pope Benedict has shown us that commonly facing the Lord during the Mass does not require ad orientem, but at least making ad orientem common again, if not universal, will reinforce that the Mass is ordered toward something beyond the individual. How many times have we all heard Catholics analyzing the Mass based on their own feelings and desires: I was bored; it was too long; the music and/or homily was bad, etc. The focus is not on the worship and honor given to God, that is, our direction ad Dominum.

Our culture is also very pragmatic. In this setting, the Eucharist itself is drawn into questions of convenience. This can be seen, for instance, in the necessity of using large numbers of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist so that the length of the Mass is not extended beyond now commonly accepted norms. The sense of the tradition is that reverence toward the Eucharist transcends pragmatic concerns. I have heard even critics of the traditional Mass readily admit that it clearly manifests profound reverence toward the Eucharist and also a sense of mystery. Receiving Communion on the tongue while kneeling is a clear sign of the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, which can inform the reception of Communion more broadly.

Related to the issue of pragmatism, is the desire in our culture for immediate gratification, that is, what is consumed in the culture should be fast and immediately appreciable. I think this is related to the decline in appreciation for classical music and art. In the age of TV and the internet, something that seems obscure and removed from direct experience is rejected. Therefore, the extraordinary form, which requires an extended catechesis, seems too difficult to crack into—fumbling through books, periods of silence, gestures that are not understood. There also is a modern understanding of participation at work. In order to participate in the Mass, the congregation must be front and center in the action, while traditionally participation was understood as interior union with the action of Christ offering himself to the Father in and through the Mass. A renewal of interior participation should give more profound meaning and depth to active participation.

Our culture is also one that thinks it has reached the height of civilization through the use of technology and through the comfort and ease that we all experience. The Mass is drawn into this directly with comfortable seating and loud, projecting microphones, and indirectly through the conformity of music, architecture, and modes of expression to modern standards. The celebration of the extraordinary form confronts this through extended periods of kneeling, silence, and the use of Gregorian chant—all of which require more of the participant than simply sitting back and receiving something in conformity with the normal mode of expression of our culture. There is also the rootedness of the extraordinary form in the traditions of Rome in particular, frequent prayers to Peter and Paul, as well as to other Roman martyrs, the centrality of the Roman Canon, even with its own particular form of the consecration (with the phrase “the mystery of faith” within it). This continuity with the past manifests to Catholics that the Mass is the Mass of the Ages and not simply something related to their own contemporary experience.

The question does not revolve around Old Mass versus New Mass, but rather about Catholic culture versus our postmodern culture. The New Evangelization is focused on reengaging lapsed Catholics. Many Catholics who would like to engage in this work assume that we must conform to the sensibilities of those whom we would like to evangelize. There is some truth to this in needed to speak a language that they understand, and using modern symbols to engage their imagination. However, if we are limited to these modes of expression, we would experience a great lack in our ability to reengage Catholics, because the culture itself is so limited. We are living in a cultural desert and must not only conform to that desert, but also irrigate it with the riches of our cultural heritage. The greatest treasure we have is our liturgy, which has been venerated and handed down by countless saints and faithful Christians. I have heard many testimonies of conversion rooted in the beauty and sacredness of the liturgy, precisely because it offers something that the culture cannot.

As I mentioned previously, I am not advocating a return to the traditional Mass exclusively. Rather, I am arguing for a general familiarity with it among Catholics in our parishes. The reason is that the way in which we pray the Mass has become shaped by our contemporary culture. We need to do something drastic to enrich our prayer with the richness and traditions of our faith. Pope Benedict called for a mutual enrichment between the two forms of the Roman Rite. I have been focusing on one direction in this enrichment, because most Catholics are familiar with the ordinary and not the extraordinary form. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life and therefore renewed devotion to the Eucharist and a deeper praying of the Mass must be at the center of the New Evangelization. Rediscovering the treasures of Catholic prayer in the extraordinary form is one important way in which all Catholics can be enriched and nourished so that they can go out and transform our culture.