Peter Kwasniewski

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When liturgy is not sacred, it becomes a Judas to the Real Presence

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

November 12, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — In my last article, I spoke of how we have a right and an obligation to seek the worthy worship of God, and that seeking it elsewhere than one’s local parish is not a form of “parish shopping” or “parish hopping,” but the result of a legitimate desire to give the Lord the glory due His Name and to obtain for our souls the nourishment they need.

But the counter-argument will always come, fast and furious: “Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, no matter how bad the liturgy may be, as long as the words of consecration are valid. Are you looking for something more or better than Jesus? You won’t find it. This is all that matters.”

It is absolutely true that the Lord will be present under the forms of bread and wine whenever the words of consecration are pronounced by a validly ordained priest who intends to confect the sacrament. But this objection misses something very important. Our Lord through His Church has given the liturgy to us for our benefit, for our growth in holiness, not for His (He is already infinitely good and cannot be improved by anything we do), and He becomes present in our midst in order to accomplish this transformation in us wayfarers, since it is already accomplished in the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.

The external form of the liturgy in all its details must prepare the souls of the faithful for the working of the Holy Spirit and remain ever transparent to this work of salvation. If we cannot get past the opening bars of guitar music or the Hallmark greetings without a groan of weariness or a quick surge of anger, how well disposed can we possibly be to receive the Lord when He comes? It is a thoroughly false asceticism to pretend that one should buck up and suffer everything — including the distortion or demeaning of the worship owed to God! The Church has the duty of leading souls to perfection, not of setting up obstacles to it; her priests have mighty powers, but inflicting harm on their own flocks is not numbered among them. A parish does not serve a lofty penitential calling by punishing its members with a combination of bad taste and ignored rubrics. However much God is present in all places, including dens of Babylonian lions, we are not required to throw ourselves into them each and every Sunday.

(If that allusion is lost on anyone, that might be because the new lectionary has excluded the story of Daniel in the lions’ den [Dan. 14:27–42]. It is read every year at the usus antiquior on Tuesday of Passion Week, where it has been read for over a millennium as a parable of the condemnation of the innocent Christ, His abandonment to the powers of death, and His Resurrection and triumph over His enemies.)

Speaking in 1988 to the Bishops of Chile, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger addressed these words, which have lost nothing of their relevance:

We ought to get back the dimension of the sacred in the liturgy. The liturgy is not a festivity; it is not a meeting for the purpose of having a good time. It is of no importance that the parish priest has cudgeled his brains to come up with suggestive ideas or imaginative novelties. The liturgy is what makes the Thrice-Holy God present amongst us; it is the burning bush; it is the Alliance of God with man in Jesus Christ, who has died and risen again. The grandeur of the liturgy does not rest upon the fact that it offers an interesting entertainment, but in rendering tangible the Totally Other, whom we are not capable of summoning. He comes because He wills. In other words, the essential in the liturgy is the mystery, which is realized in the common ritual of the Church; all the rest diminishes it. Men experiment with it in lively fashion, and find themselves deceived, when the mystery is transformed into distraction, when the chief actor in the liturgy is not the Living God but the priest or the liturgical director.

So do not be deterred from a salutary purpose of amendment — to put it more bluntly, leaving your substandard parish for the sake of a better one — by the argument that “the Eucharist is, after all, the Eucharist.” It is for good reason that there has never been in the history of the Church a liturgy of five minutes’ duration comprising only the consecration and distribution of hosts. If we were disembodied intellects capable of fixing our attention immediately and immovably on just one thing, then nothing but the Real Presence would make any difference, and we could institute the aforesaid five-minute liturgy — or for that matter, a fifty-five-minute liturgy of polyester, pop tunes, and pop psychology — because it would make no difference anyway. You’d still “get Jesus.”

But the Lord who instituted the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass — the Lord who knows all that is in the heart of man (cf. Jn. 2:24–25), his spiritual needs and yearnings and limitations — wanted to provide nourishment for the whole man on every level of his being, the senses and the intellect, the mind and the heart. He says: “With desire have I desired to eat this Pasch with you” (Lk. 22:15). He has inspired the same holy desire within us: we, too, eagerly long to share the sacred mysteries with Him. The liturgy is intended to nourish us in this holistic and comprehensive way, and to the extent that it impedes or undermines this purpose, it betrays itself and becomes a Judas to the Real Presence of Christ.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.