April 21, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — People sometimes object to my body of work in defense of the traditional Latin Mass and in critique of the liturgical reform of the sixties and seventies by saying: “Do you think that Latin, or chant, or the priest facing east, is some sort of magical recipe for success — all we have to do is put this into practice and all will be well? That’s very simplistic.”
I agree that that would be a simplistic point of view. It’s not what I hold.
I recognize that good liturgy, in and of itself, does not automatically set people in the right direction. An immediate and total conversion of an individual through the liturgy is a rare grace. It can happen, as one exposure to solemn Vespers at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1886 converted Paul Claudel from glib agnosticism to a fervent Christian faith, but it cannot be predicted or assumed. What people bring to the liturgy is important: are they searching for God? Are they looking for an encounter with the sacred mystery that underlies all things and alone explains all things? Are they ready to yield themselves to a power they cannot comprehend or control, that they are called first of all to acknowledge and adore?
I see every conversion — whether to theism, Christianity, Catholicism, or the traditional liturgy — as God’s grace finding a welcome in a soul that has been furrowed to receive the seed. The furrowing can take all manner of forms: suffering, loneliness, a philosophical disposition, a passion for the arts, a deep relationship of love with another person who can open one’s eyes to see new things.
My argument is not about any “magical” recipe for instant success, but rather about a potent instrument or set of instruments that we neglect at our peril: traditional liturgical rites, customs, practices, and art forms, with their deep associations with and evocations of the sacred, the supernatural, the otherworldly. It is not easy for fallen human beings to be lifted out of and above themselves to the divine. Making use of the gifts that Providence has bestowed on us over the millennia of sacramental worship is a simple matter of being responsible stewards of the mysteries of God, ensuring (as far as it lies in our hands) the proper context for representing and assimilating the richness of the Christian mystery and avoiding its banalization, which is no less offensive to God than it is harmful to us. If our worship does not “provoke” us with a challenge to our worldly, fleshly, humanistic way of thinking, then it fails to awaken faith and longing for God and confirms us in our bad habits of secularism and materialism. Our sensitivity to the divine is left dormant, or worse, deadened.
The modern liturgical crisis originates from an abandonment of a true norm for liturgy that exists not only outside our individual community, but outside our historical period and our manipulative legislative reach. Liturgical rites in all apostolic-sacramental Christian churches have always been seen as a gift that reaches us from afar, from our predecessors, bearing within themselves the cumulative “weight” of prayer, devotion, piety, and dogma. They are not born from us and for us, but pre-exist us and outlast us. This, indeed, is one of the greatest blessings of tradition in the Catholic Church: it is not something we ourselves manufacture, but something to which we must surrender, placing ourselves to be formed into the hands of others who have gone before us. We can contribute, yes — but only in such a way that we do not destroy the inheritance.
Inebriated with technology and technique, Modern Man has a strange fascination with “getting the job done” and “I’ll do it my way” and “we can build a better world.” All of these slogans reek of Pelagianism — the view that our salvation is primarily our achievement. All are diametrically opposed to the Catholic principle of tradition, according to which what is important is doing the job that was handed down to me and to you — doing it not my way or your way, but the right way. In the Church and in her liturgy, we are to build up not an earthly city destined to fail, but a ladder to the heavenly Jerusalem that lasts forever. Lay people have the vocation to build up the earthly city, to be sure; but always with a view to preparing citizens for the city that eternally endures. The liturgy must be the time when we “lay aside all earthly cares,” as the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom says, and turn completely to the Lord and His Kingdom. We will find an answer to our earthly cares when we look beyond them, much as people find that the solution to a vexing problem comes once they turn away from it for a while and do something else.
The liturgy is the sphere of the “something else.” This is why, to take one example among many, Pius X tried to lead the Church away from the use of secular-flavored music at Mass. If we hear in the Kyrie the same operatic Mozart that we hear in the theater — or, nowadays, if we hear a ditty that sounds not too different from the folk music revival radio channel or the advertising jingles on TV — we are left prisoners to the same old world from which we need to be lifted and, in a way, distanced, “transferred to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13), so we can get proper perspective and the freedom to worship the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who dwells in light inaccessible: “I Am Who Am.”
Because God’s holiness is a consuming fire and His love seeks everything, a liturgical life lived to the full, with the outward signs and practices of tradition, breaks apart the complacent ego fed on a diet of flattery and platitudes. We are not allowed to remain asleep, but, in different ways, are awakened to the reality of God, which is at once overwhelming and freeing. Eucharistic worship is nothing less than a total, radical surrender of one’s being into the hands of Christ, the Word made flesh who inscribes his Word into our flesh. Man’s highest dignity consists in worship, the giving of thanks and praise; his most dynamic activity consists in receiving divine gifts — or, as St. Dionysius and St. Thomas say, suffering them. Baptism brings with it the mystery of a sacramental character by which the soul is imprinted or inscribed with an ineradicable conformity to Christ the High Priest. By it the Christian is enabled to receive divine gifts and use them fruitfully (cf. Summa III, q. 63).
This is the first, greatest, and eternal identity of the Christian: the one who receives divine gifts poured out from the Heart of Christ, and so bears lasting fruit. For this reason, worship’s highest dignity consists in its being at once a transparent communicator of divine initiative and a delicate modeling of human receptivity. That is why I defend the traditional Latin Mass, which accomplishes this communication and modeling to perfection; that is why I love everything about it, down to the last detail, and wish to share it with everyone. It is not an instant fix to our crisis. But it is an indispensable condition for restoring the Faith in our times. Without it, we will not have a firm and deep enough spiritual foundation on which to build Catholic lives, families, and societies. We need to build on solid rock, not bring in endless truckloads of sand.