Heart and Soul

If – as I try to – you go to Mass nearly every day, you might say that attendance has become a habit (and surely the good kind). But as is true of any habit – whether good or bad – you may over time come to take for granted why you do what you do. In the case of the Mass, you may forget to remember its graceful meanings or fail to savor its intricate details: the standing and the genuflecting, the reading and the reciting, the materials worn and used by the priest and even the taking of Communion itself – each may become more a commonplace routine than a sacred ritual.

If so, you must read The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition by Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina. This is a book about the renewal of our understanding and love of a central element of Catholic life. As Cardinal Francis George writes in his preface to the book, “active participation in the Mass is the very soul of participation in the life of the Church.” Or as Wuerl and Aquilina put it: the Mass is “the heart of Catholic life. For individuals and for the community.”

Implied in the authors’ approach is the imminent appearance of the new English version of the Roman Missal that we’ll all begin using on the first Sunday of Advent (November 27, 2011). As each aspect of the Mass is described – from the Procession to the Blessing and Dismissal – readers will note the new language of the Third Edition. (For instance: instead of “And also with you,” the new response, “And with your spirit,” is used.)

If the book has a flaw, it’s that it misses the opportunity to be not only a guide to understanding the various elements of the Mass we’ve been hearing but also a practical handbook of transition to this new missal. For that matter, there’s not a word about the return to many parishes of the Tridentine Mass, although many of the Latin words and phrases of the pre-1963 rite are mentioned in passing.

       It’s rare that I’d write this, but I suspect I’d have enjoyed the book ten times more if it had been twice as long. But then I’m fascinated by the current fluidity of the Mass, by the fact that in my neighborhood I can hear the Mass as it was in the Fifties and early Sixties, with its solemnities and its silences, and also in its Seventies and Eighties version, streamlined and denatured. Is the new Missal meant to be a hybrid of the pre- and post-Vatican II liturgies? Is that even possible? Or are we going to be closer to, as the Holy Father put it in one of his book titles, the spirit of the liturgy – to worship that is authentically Catholic? I’d have enjoyed reading Cardinal Wuerl’s reflections on these questions.

As it is, however, Cardinal Wuerl’s and Mr. Aquilina’s book is a short, authoritative study of some fascinating details concerning the history and practice of the Mass that many of us think we know but probably don’t. For instance, I was unaware that during the first two-hundred years of the Church the language of the Mass was Greek or that the liturgy wasn’t standardized by the Church for another thousand years or more, the first authoritative Roman Missal appearing only in 1570.

And I’m very happy to have become reacquainted with the glosses of the Mass: paten, ciborium, pyx, corporal, lavabo, credence table. No Catholic who reads this book can fail to be more well-informed about the Mass, and all will deepen their appreciation of our most sacred ritual.

The book almost convinces me to appreciate more the Sign (or Kiss) of Peace. “We should do,” the authors write, “what is culturally appropriate.” In support they quote Saint Ambrose: “When I am at Milan, I so as they do in Milan; but when I go to Rome, I do as Rome does.” Still . . . I’m actually unsure what’s culturally appropriate in my parish, where for some the Kiss seems the hungered-for human contact they get nowhere else and for others like an attempted mugging.

I was disappointed that music is mentioned only in passing, never fully discussed. Over the millennia, Catholics have created some of the world’s greatest music to accompany the Mass, from medieval polyphony to Mozart’s requiem. If offered, I’d gladly attend workshops to learn plainchant. As it is, I cringe at what’s sometimes sung in churches. “This Little Light of Mine”? It’s time to revise our hymnals too.

I loved the fact that The Mass makes frequent reference to our Jewish roots, emphasizing the connection between the Liturgy of the Eucharist and Passover. There are still some “experts” who dispute that the Mass reenacts a Seder, but Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina have no doubt:

It took place once, but for all. Now when we go to Mass, we speak of the Paschal Mystery as a present reality, just as the families of Israel spoke of their deliverance during the Passover ritual.

This is a very different book than one of my favorites, The Mass in Slow Motion (1948) by Msgr. Ronald Knox, a beautiful, poetic (even introspective) description of the rite by one of last century’s finest Catholic writers. Sad to say, that book is out of print, and is anyway a guide to the Mass that Catholics priests used to say. (These were lectures Knox gave to schoolgirls, and it’s lovely to note how he spoke up not down to them, assuming their intelligence and their interest.) Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina have given us the definitive guide to the Mass priests will be saying, probably for at least the rest of this century.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.