A very good priest friend objected to my recent stance in favor of a reform of the liturgical reform. I hope I am not putting too much into his words when I say that he was more than skeptical about the benefits to be gained from a return to Divine Worship ad Orientem, priest and people together praying with their eyes and hearts lifted to Christ. He rightly pointed out that priests gave scandal and abused the liturgy back before the Council too. He is an earnest man and a truly good and zealous priest; he would be one of those priests of the older generation who suffer from the estrangement (lack of mutual understanding typical of our day) often found to exist between his contemporaries and a younger generation of priests, many of whom are drawn to the usus antiquior in their search for worship in Spirit and in Truth. Although the two of us disagree on the priority I give to reforming the reform through a return to Divine Worship ad Orientem, both of us agree that shepherding after the mind of Christ is first and foremost, seeking out the lost sheep, binding up wounds, and pasturing the flock entrusted to our care.
The debate is not a new one. If we look to the early Church Fathers we can find any number of impassioned pleas from these great saints for making the care of the poor and neglected Christ in our midst our first priority and not seeking to salve our consciences with memorial gifts to embellish His Altar and the Sacred Liturgy. After setting these priorities, however, the Fathers always go on to urge people and presbyters to do the one without neglecting the other (i.e. the gold chalice, yes, provided that the poor Christ in your midst is fed). What is new, however, and I appeal to the authority of the Holy Father, as well as to others more learned and insightful than me, is the wide-ranging concern shared by many today that we have indeed suffered a loss of the sense of the sacred generally in contemporary worship.
Needless to say, when confronted with this objection to the reformed liturgy as it is often celebrated in the Church today, a priest might experience no small sense of personal disarray. It is indeed a terrible thought that the order of worship given to me by the Church’s highest authority, taught to me in the seminary and (for most priests living today) the mode of worship might be wanting which has made up the better part in years of our lives, has nourished our spiritual life and been the focus of our efforts on behalf of the people. A priest might rightly be thoroughly confounded at the thought that this approach (face-to-face across the altar) might be less than the best or even flawed as a way of worship.
How do you even bring up such a topic? In terms of his leadership, I have unbounded admiration for the gentle hand demonstrated by our Holy Father in dealing with a situation which might confuse some and certainly provoke others to denial. By the same token, I do not doubt in the least that this critique of the liturgical reform, or better, the Holy Father’s challenge to us to find ways to restore the Liturgy to the realm of the sacred is entirely lost on most good priests. What to do?
The objection comes back: but these niceties are lost on the rank and file. Too much attention to the placement of candles and folding of hands can hardly compare with reaching out to youth and bringing them to the knowledge and love of our Lord and Savior. We do one without neglecting the other, as the Fathers have taught us. The point however is that we’re not in the realm of niceties, of things totally lost on our contemporaries. The way the liturgy is celebrated does teach; it is formative. A too informal or colloquial celebration is at counter purposes to our goal: in divine worship we’re seeking admission to the forecourt of heaven, if you will. We cannot “force the door”; it is the Lord Who grants us entrance; it is the Lord Who instituted the Eucharist and gave it to His Church.
Common “wisdom” simplifies the “then” of the Tridentine tradition of worship and the “now” of contemporary liturgy by saying that what has fallen away in our time are the social strictures which kept people back then coming to something they didn’t really get anything out of. In freedom today we need to make liturgy attractive, they would say… I beg to disagree. When the sense of the sacred is lost, all is lost. Entertaining liturgy, creative liturgy, relevant liturgy or however you want to describe an act which accommodates and is embellished with “sound and light”, with bouncy music, mime, dance and lots of hugging at the kiss of peace is unfettered only if that’s how you describe a ship without an anchor; it places itself on the same level as the “competition”, so to speak; it cannot be other than run-of-the-mill. Granted, there is no man or woman of good will and prayer who would not see in these allusions anything other than liturgical abuse.
The ad Orientem discussion however challenges even the best of renewed liturgy. Make no mistake about it, from my experience, there are some truly glorious renewed liturgies, caught up to the Throne and to the Lamb. As I shared my ideas with one young priest, he acknowledged spontaneously: “You know you’re right. How often it seems as thought young priests in particular don’t know what to do with their eyes after the Consecration.” Personally, I’ve sensed for years a real sense of awkwardness myself, that is, a problem with the priest’s focus during the Communion Rite. (When facing the people) where should the priest be looking when he prays the “Libera nos…”? The Sign of Peace opens with a prayer; where should the priest’s gaze be directed at that moment with the Lord Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, right there before him on the Altar?
I must confide that today is a landmark day for me as I received in consignment the central canvas of an altarpiece which will enable me to orient our new chapel here. The other pieces and its frame will be forthcoming in the New Year. Hopefully the Christmas holidays should provide time to write a first draft of my catechesis to be shared with the people who join us for daily Mass. No doubt this catechesis will eventually become a blog posting as well. While the “brick by brick” slogan I have heard repeated by some leaves me cold, I certainly would like to celebrate ad Orientem in a beautiful environment which even my successor might enjoy (as it is or soon will be) for Eucharistic Adoration and hopefully, if he finds my catechesis convincing, also for the celebration ad Orientem of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.