Liturgy must draw us towards the world beyond, says Fr John Zuhlsdorf. That's how we can wake up our faith
There is a great deal of confusion in the Church today. We have in large part forgotten who we are as Catholics and why we belong to the Church.
We don’t belong to the Catholic Church first and foremost for earthly motives. Bettering the world, improving the lot of others … these flow from our love for God and our desire to be with Him in heaven.
Try as I might, with the possible exception of the fact that Jesus founded her, I cannot think of a more important reason to be a member of Holy Catholic Church than the certainty that one day I will die. I will die and I will be judged. You will too.
Why are we Catholic? Why bother with Mass? With the Church’s teachings about moral issues? Why stand against the wind in the public square and twist in it, just to lose friends, status, and comfort?
Why? Our Saviour established the Catholic Church as our way to salvation. No matter how bad some fellow members of the Church may be, or how alluring the world surely is, or how tough we think we have had it, we are going to die one day, some of us pretty soon. That’s why we are Catholic. Trump that.
I hope by grace and elbow grease to do His will and to serve and worship Him fittingly in His Church. I try to love God. I want to please God. I believe He will help me, a sinner, in my weakness and forgive me when I fail. I strive to make changes when I am doing something that isn’t working. Why? Because I’m going to die, that’s why. I want to go to heaven.
If we love God, we will try to help other people get to heaven too.
We have some problems with that part right now, my friends, because Catholic identity is weary and weak where once it was strong and everything.
We are all men and women of our age. To one degree or other we are subject to prevailing trends and world-views. Also, we are wounded from sin and death is scary. Death yawns before us as that door we must go through to come before the great mystery which is both fearsome and alluring. We are, to our peril, quite willing to avert our eyes from this fearful prospect, death, through innumerable distractions which fog our inner compass. We easily forget the one transcendent source of our being, our origin and goal.
We have problems in Holy Church as well. Many people working in the Church today have an immanentist mentality. Immanence, from the Latin “to remain within”, refers to a notion that divinity permeates the material universe. A radical immanentist would be something like a pantheist. Such a one would say that God is not transcendent, but is rather in everything that is.
As Christians we affirm that God alone is holy, almighty, omnipresent and transcendent. God entirely transcends the natural order. We also affirm God’s immanence, especially in the Second Person of the Trinity, God incarnate, Christ Jesus. Church immanentists don’t deny the transcendence of God, at least as a proposition. But it just isn’t that important. They will even affirm God’s transcendence if it occurs to them or when they are pushed. Call their position “Immanentism Lite”.
Immanentism corrodes our view of who God is and who we are. We glide into neglect of the supernatural. We become less and less concerned with guilt for sin, even with the idea of sin as anything beyond transgressions of what we ourselves determine is right for ourselves at this time (read: passing trends). We lose sight of our absolute dependence on God for help through grace, our need for a Saviour, and our impending judgment. We forsake clarity in doctrine and the obligations which come from the profession of the Christian Faith, including submission to the Church’s authority given her by Christ. The suggestion that something we might do could offend God and endanger our salvation sounds increasingly foreign. We get the idea that we are self-sufficient. We forget the real reason why Jesus died for us and why we are Catholic.
I propose that, to get at the root of our problems, we need encounters with the transcendent, with mystery. The regular way for this is through participation in true worship, Holy Church’s sacred liturgical worship.
This is not without its own set of problems. Much of what passes as liturgy today is unworthy of the name, our forebears, and us. Fr Aidan Nichols, in his Looking at the Liturgy, warns of the danger of “cultic immanentism”, “the danger, namely, of a congregation’s covert self-reference in a horizontal, humanistic world”. In many places we find self-centred liturgies with little or no thought given to the God who is wholly other, mysterious, transcendent. Such worship is really idolatry.
Joseph Ratzinger noted in The Spirit of the Liturgy that as the Hebrews danced around their golden calf they knew the calf was not God: they simply wanted a god less remote and less challenging.
Can we at long last admit it? Under the incessant erosion from a modernist, immanentist mentality, especially in our worship, many of our brothers and sisters in the Church no longer even notice the calf, much less realise they made it in their own image. Self-reference is no longer “covert”, it’s in your face. Quite often, it’s all there is.
Already in 1995 Ratzinger observed in A New Song For The Lord that young people were reacting to the loss of mystery, rejecting the “banality and the childish rationalism of the pathetic homemade liturgies with their artificial theatrics”. Young people don’t want frauds. They want what Ratzinger calls the “true presence of redemption”. This search might lead the more secularly inclined to the euphoria of rock concerts, alcohol and drugs, faux neo-gnostic “spirituality”, anything out of the ordinary, anything to distract. Sound familiar? Look around.
Ratzinger counters, “new places for faith emerge again where liturgy is lit up by mystery”. For Ratzinger, mystery has “authority”.
Participation in worthy liturgical worship leads us beyond the didactic, the interesting, the entertaining, even the individualist experience into an encounter with mystery. This encounter draws us back to recognition of the gift of life, the fact of our coming death, back towards fearful, loving awe for God. True worship is the remedy for the self-centred, self-enclosed, self-sufficient self-obsession of modern times.
Our worship must focus on the one who is Other.
Is this what your regular experience of Mass offers you? If it doesn’t, it has quite simply failed.
Dear Fathers, Most Reverend Bishops, if any alarm has sounded in your hearts and minds of late as you survey the portion entrusted to you, rethink your approach to liturgy. Is what we have been doing for the last few decades really working?
For the love of God and neighbour, and with an eye on your judgment, rethink your approach to Holy Church’s proper public worship. Do everything in your power to foster liturgical worship of God which conforms not to worldly goals but rather to the real point of religion and of being Catholic: getting ready to die.
If you do this, you will be challenged and blocked and attacked. Forewarned is forearmed. We must do this.
On 20 December, Pope Benedict met with members of the Roman Curia to exchange Christmas greetings. His Holiness used this annual event in 2005 to deliver one of the most important messages of his pontificate, the speech about the “hermeneutic of continuity”. This year, Benedict delivered a grim “state of the Church” address. At one point he actually said: “The very future of the world is at stake.”
Benedict had the Church throughout the world in mind for his speech, but a large portion of it was about his state visit to Scotland and England, probably the most important trip of his pontificate, and on the beatification of John Henry Newman. The Vicar of Christ reminded the whole Church, but in my opinion, the people of Great Britain in particular,
“When [Christ’s] powerful word had calmed the storm, he rebuked the disciples for their little faith (cf. Mt 8:26 et par). He wanted to say: it was your faith that was sleeping. He will say the same thing to us. Our faith too is often asleep. Let us ask him, then, to wake us from the sleep of a faith grown tired, and to restore to that faith the power to move mountains – that is, to order justly the affairs of the world.”
To wake up our faith and even to save our world we must save our liturgy. Pope Benedict XVI has explicitly called for a new liturgical movement.
Shall we embark on a “New Evangelisation” where Catholic identity has become weary and weak? Let us renew Holy Church’s liturgy. Worthy, vertical, transcendentally-oriented liturgy slaps us awake, tears us out of the ephemeral and worldly, and gives us space to pause in awe and in longing for what we cannot understand and yet know to be true and necessary. The older, Extraordinary Form of Mass of the Roman Rite explicitly asks for surrender to the supernatural, and strips us of our power to control. The newer, Ordinary Form – especially where Pope Benedict’s influence is being felt – also can achieve this when offered in continuity with the Church’s Tradition.
Some will object that elements of Extraordinary Form worship are too hard for us now. The difficult elements of worthy worship, especially in the traditional form of Holy Mass, create in the soul the tensions which are essential for an encounter with mystery, our way out of the trap of being self-absorbed.
We cannot easily argue ourselves or others away from this prevailing, modernist mentality or out of incessant distraction, though we must certainly try. The more people encounter mystery through liturgy, the more hollow will clang the world’s passing distractions and the proposals of those who have strayed from the good path.
A reform of our liturgical worship along the lines Pope Benedict proposes is our most charitable and effective plan of action. Summorum Pontificum is a valuable tool. The new English translation, though not perfect, will be of great help. This time of transition is a precious opportunity.
Fr Zuhlsdorf is a columnist for the American weekly newspaper The Wanderer and blogs at wdtprs.com.