Bringing Back Reverence in the Liturgy


The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.  – Pope Francis

Much has been made of the remarks made by Pope Francis in his recently-published interview in America magazine. Like many others, I am concerned that his words left much opportunitiy for exploitation by the forces most actively engaged in opposing the moral agenda of the Church on the matters of abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. It is a dangerous time to pull focus away from these issues, since it is not the Church which is obsessed with the ethics of human sexuality, but rather the world which is simply obsessed with sex.

But there are other issues which have been given short shrift in the past five decades which truly are important in the life of the Church. I have personally believed for a very long time that one of the foremost of these is the way that Catholic liturgy is celebrated, and the way the faithful comport themselves while in attendance at this singular event which is the apex of the Christian life.

A friend who visited my family from out of state attended Mass at our local parish on a recent Sunday before heading home. He later notified me that a young woman in front of him was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, “Look Better Naked”. On my own visits to area Masses in the ordinary form, I’ve seen children playing video games on handheld devices throughout the entire liturgy, heard ushers carrying on loud conversations in the back of the Church (where parents of small children, like myself, often find themselves) and seen my own share of inappropriate Mass attire, including a man at least ten years my senior wearing a “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” t-shirt that was at least two sizes too small. At this morning’s Mass, roughly a third of the pews emptied after communion as people made a mad dash for the exits.

Lex orandi, lex credendi is an old but applicable motto for the life of faith. As we pray, so do we believe. For many Catholics, Sunday Mass is their only encounter with the numinous. They do not study the scriptures, read papal encyclicals and apostolic constitutions, or study the spiritual writings of the saints. Many have never laid eyes upon the works of G.K. Chesterton, let alone St. Augustine’s Confessions or the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What they encounter in the liturgy forms their understanding of God’s relationship with man, and if what they experience is something banal and uninspiring, it trains them to believe that the Catholic Faith is something less than serious or deserving of their full effort or attention.

It was for this reason that certain friends of mine were raised in the Byzantine (Ruthenian) rite. When their parents saw the changes wrought by the introduction of a new liturgy in the early 1970s, they fled to the venerable Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It is for this reason that in 2004, my wife and I decided to begin attending the Traditional Latin Mass, and why we have done so almost exclusively ever since. So much liturgical theology has been lost, and with it, the reverence which is befitting such an ineffable sacrifice as the Most Holy Eucharist.

As Catholics, we cannot evangelize the world with truths we do not possess. Half of the adult Catholics polled in a recent survey did not know what the Church teaches about the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. And in a way, this makes sense. Did your parish have a Eucharistic procession through the streets around the church this year on the feast of Corpus Christi, offering a witness to the world what we believe about Christ? Do they have perpetual adoration? Benediction? Is the Real Presence preached in homilies or reinforced through suggested gestures of reverence for reception of Holy Communion such as genuflecting or kneeling and receiving on the tongue?

For most parishes, the answer to almost every one of these questions is “No.” I never saw adoration and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament until I was 16 years old. That was also the first time I heard Gregorian Chant. I don’t think I saw an actual, outdoor Eucharistic procession until I was in college. I certainly didn’t ever see a Latin, ad orientem liturgy until then, or hear sacred music like Schubert’s Mass in G. These things that have been longstanding treasures of the Church’s liturgical tradition, that inspire wonder and reverence, have been all but lost in most quarters. 

In The Heresy of Formlessness, Martin Mosebach’s seminal work on the anthropology of liturgy, the case is made plain:

Go to any city church: What do people do naturally and as a matter of course? Hardly anyone kneels for the act of transubstantiation; often enough, not even the priest genuflects before the transubstantiated gifts. A woman brings the Hosts for the congregation from a little golden cupboard to one side; she does so in a busy and confident way, as if she were bringing some medication from a medicine cabinet. She places the Hosts in the communicants’ hands; few of them show the Host the reverence of a genuflection or a bow.

People of aesthetic sensibility, much scorned and suspect, are the recipients of a terrible gift: they can infallibly discern the inner truth of what they see, of some process, of an idea, on the basis of its external form. I had often spoken with pious apologists about the situation I have just described—it is observable all over the world. It was painful for the clergy to talk about these things, but they were not willing to admit that there had been a loss of spirituality. Kneeling was medieval, they said. The early Christians prayed standing. Standing signifies the resurrected Christ, they said; it is the most appropriate attitude for a Christian. The early Christians are also supposed to have received Communion in their hands. What is irreverent about the faithful making their hands into a “throne” for the Host? I grant that the people who tell me such things are absolutely serious about it all. But it becomes very clear that pastors of souls are incredibly remote from the world in these matters; academic arguments are completely useless in questions of liturgy. These scholars are always concerned only about the historical side of the substance of faith and of the forms of devotion. If, however, we think correctly and historically, we should realize that what is an expression of veneration in one period can be an expression of blasphemy in another. If people who have been kneeling for a thousand years suddenly get to their feet, they do not think, “We’re doing this like the early Christians, who stood for the Consecration”; they are not aware of returning to some particularly authentic form of worship. They simply get up, brush the dust from their trouser-legs and say to themselves: “So it wasn’t such a serious business after all.” Everything that takes place in celebrations of this kind implies the same thing: “It wasn’t all that serious after all.” Under such circumstances, anthropologically speaking, it is quite impossible for faith in the presence of Christ in the Sacrament to have any deeper spiritual significance, even if the Church continues to proclaim it and even if the participants of such celebrations go so far as to affirm it explicitly.

Mosebach, Martin (2010-09-24). The Heresy Of Formlessness (Kindle Locations 288-307). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

I have recently been to a liturgy according to the ordinary form wherein the pastor chose to celebrate ad orientem — a very positive liturgical development. This priest explained to the parish how he personally found this way of celebrating Mass to be beautiful, as well as the history of the way liturgical reforms and moral reforms have coincided in the history of the Church. He was quick to point out, however – no doubt to assuage the concerns of those made uncomfortable by the change – that a Mass celebrated ad orientem is no better, no more pleasing to God, than a Mass celebrated versus populi. He did not, unfortunately, give sufficient weight to the historicity and rich theology of this liturgical posture. He did not mention how for centuries, Catholic priests have celebrated Mass facing the altar in order to indicate a sacrifice offered on behalf of the faithful to God the Father as an oblation for sins, or that this posture in any parish built according to Church tradition also faced the priest toward the East, from which direction Christ is expected to come again.

Not long ago, I asked a priest friend of mine what he thought about Mass celebrated ad orientem. A diocesan priest — not a member of one of the traditional orders — his response was crystal clear:

The restoration of the posture in which “priest and people are all facing the same direction” i.e. “towards God” is an absolutely vital part in the ongoing “Reform of the Reform.”

I believe that the New Translation of the Roman Missal … also has taken this into consideration.  The retention of the rubrics in which the “priest turns to face the people,” in those instances listed, is proof that this ancient posture is an organic part of the Roman Rite.  Additionally, it will help priests and members of the lay faithful recall that the Mass is a sacred prayer directed to God.

But, realistically, how should this happen?

One proposal I’ve heard about had to do with the priest facing the people for the  “Liturgy of the Word”—which is a heavily didactic part of the Mass— and then turning to celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist ad orientem or ad Deum, since that is the supreme sacramental moment in which our Lord’s sacrifice to his heavenly Father is made present upon the altar.  That seems to be a perfectly reasonable step in the right direction.

One final thought:  if the liturgy we celebrate here on earth is a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy to come, then orienting ourselves towards the Father is but a prelude of eternal glory.   We are worshipping the One, here and now, who is the consummation of all things.

Food for thought.

One thing I am certain of: it is impossible to evangelize effectively without a liturgy that inspires the convert. The only fruitful evangelism is an evangelism of return — one that focuses on bringing the convert into the bosom of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I am thankful that the Holy Father has provided this opportunity to talk about some of the other important issues facing the Church outside those unfortunate fruits of the sexual revolution. I hope that we will take to heart a desire to improve upon the law of prayer, so that we may enhance the law of belief.


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