Two Commentaries on Liturgy

The Mass and Our Unity

Anthony Esolen

Like many people today, I have been thinking about the Holy Mass – and confusion.

In the beginning, God creates the world by circumscription, distinction, separation.  He divides the light from the darkness, and he gives each of them a distinct name.  He says to the sea, “Thus far, and no farther.”  He makes living creatures according to their kinds.  He makes man and woman, male and female.  Certain sins do more than encroach upon the rights of God or one’s neighbor.  They are worse than failures in duty.  They are a kind of anti-creation, confusion, a movement to lapse back into the state of the heavens and the earth before God gave them their forms.

The modern world is awash in such confusion.  Men fear to draw distinctions, because they imply boundaries that should not be crossed, or circumscriptions in being that cannot be crossed.  The ancient pagans may have raised many a bad man and many a bad woman, but beyond the stews of the imperial court at its worst, they knew what a man or a woman was.  The Egyptians used slaves as we use machines, but they never advanced so far as to consider their slaves or themselves as machines.  We had to wait more than 2000 years to discover the merits of the drab and the slovenly.  Phidias and Praxiteles never did.

The love of order, the sense of the beauty of a thing wherein nothing is extraneous or exaggerated or misplaced or tending to corrupt or obliterate the whole, is universal to mankind.  It has the power to unite.  Imagine a band of Zulu warriors chanting a war song in polyphonic power, while Japanese samurai listen in proper silence.  Imagine Onondaga chieftains traveling from far away to hear Jenny Lind sing Swedish folk songs just for them, and then departing with honor both given and received.  That actually happened, in Rochester, in 1850.

Pope Francis wants the Mass to unite Catholics, rather than to be the site of division.  It is right to want that.  But can the means deliver?

The question is not ecclesiological.  I am not asking about what God can do.  I am on the near side of the matter, asking about what does in fact raise the mind of man.  Now, the Novus Ordo Mass can be celebrated in a beautiful and reverent way.  The reverence may be easier to secure than the beauty.  Most priests are reverent.  Most of the faithful who attend Mass want to be reverent.  But beauty is another thing.  That, for the Novus Ordo, takes work.

You must first know what you’re doing.  And the Novus Ordo gives plenty of room for people who do not know what they’re doing: bad songwriters, treacherous translators, peacocks in the choir, Miss Hospitality interrupting your prayer by welcoming you from the pulpit and advertising the hosts for today, the lounge pianist who plays like Billy Joel while you are coming back from Communion, tempting you to say, “Man, what are you doing here?”

This disorder, sometimes a casual and breezy negligence, sometimes a showy display of tastes and talents or quasi-talents, sometimes both at once, and always a failure to conceive of the Mass as an artistic whole, is anti-evangelistic.  If you want bad art, you can get a much higher quality of it – worse, with more talent for the bad – by staying home and listening to Beyoncé or somebody.

I don’t go to Mass for the art.  I go to receive the Lord in the sacrament, and to hear the word of God, grit my teeth as I may when I hear it strangled in translation.  The Mass is valid.  I receive the Lord.  When the priest and the people seem well-disposed, I remember to thank God for them and to pray for them, regardless of the clumsiness, and I ask God to remind me that taste doesn’t save or damn.

Still, when I go to an ordinary Mass and I find no choir, I thank God.  I shouldn’t have to do so. Were I a Byzantine Catholic, I’d never have occasion for it. When no one bugs me at the door with false welcomes, I am relieved.  I shouldn’t have to look for the side door when I enter a strange church.  I shouldn’t have to avoid the near occasion of toothache.  Silence – another thing that the modern world flees – is a stream of living water.  In silence I pray.  Only then do I really notice people, they and I with our social guards down.

Imagine you were a Catholic in Vietnam, in old Da Nang, sixty years ago.  You go to Mass.  You are immediately at home.  The vernacular does not obstruct.  Are the service and the church Vietnamese?  They cannot help but be so.  The art isn’t merely French, transplanted.

When the priest preaches, he speaks in a language his people can understand.  But the work of art, realized with a French Vietnamese accent, planted in the soil of a real and vital culture and watering and enriching that very soil, is the same in all important respects in Da Nang as in Dublin, in Saigon as in San Diego.  Can you say the same, now, of Saint Joe’s on one side of town, and Saint Mary’s on the other?  You are a visitor, and you want to go to Mass.  It is like tossing the I Ching wands: “The thirty-sixth hexagram, the hexagram of Haugen.  Alas.”

The unreliability of it all gives powerful witness to this truth about man and God.  We are united only from above, by what transcends us.  When we fall to our knees and pray, when we observe the distinction between ourselves and God, between the profane and the sacred, the everyday and the eternal, then more than ever do we draw near to one another, and hearts and hands are joined in anticipation of that city whose single language is praise.


Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, and most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.


The Death of Liturgy

David G. Bonagura, Jr.

“Liturgy” means “public work.” The “public” is the people of God; the “work” is the service that the people offer to God as an act of worship. “From the liturgy the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God. . .is achieved in the most efficacious possible way.” (Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10)

To be capable of sanctifying men and glorifying God, the “work” cannot merely be the creation of human beings. Humans create idols for worship, as the long history of Israel, from Sinai to the Babylonian exile, makes painfully clear. The “work” of the liturgy, therefore, must come from God, and that work is sacrifice, as Abraham first recognized: “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” (Gen 22:8)

Worship of God reaches its epitome in the sacrifice of the Son of God, the lamb whose self-offering took away the sins of the world. Thus, God brings the New Covenant out of the Old by again providing the work of the liturgy, and bidding its repetition: “Do this in memory of me.”

From that moment, the Church’s worship found its definitive form: re-presenting the sacrifice of Christ in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. This work has been handed on from generation to generation for 2000 years. In imitation of God’s directives for decorating the Ark of the Covenant, the Church has added accouterments to the liturgy – vestments, vessels, colors, seasons, and even the recitation of the Nicene Creed – to complement, but never overshadow, the sacrifice of Christ. In this earthly liturgy, “we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem…where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8)

If the liturgy parts from its purpose of sanctifying men and glorifying God, it ceases to be the work of God. It would become instead the work of men, which would sap its power. Reduced to a tool beholden to worldly ends, liturgy would be dead.

Critics of the New Mass that emerged in years after Vatican II have long maintained that the reformed liturgy – with its prayers gutted of references to sin and sacrifice, re-oriented altars, a multitude of options, focus shifted from God to the people – was engineered to facilitate ecclesial and worldly ideologies rather than the worship of God. For sure, the same sacrifice is validly offered in the New Mass as in the Old, and countless priests and laity pray the New Mass in good faith. But the design of this new work was doctored just enough to make us believe that we, not God, ought to dictate the terms of agreement.

Tragically, Francis’s Traditionis Custodes and its new “clarifying document” confirm this interpretation. The liturgy was reformed, writes Archbishop Arthur Roche, to witness “the expression of a renewed ecclesiology.” This ecclesiology elevates a nebulous “spirit” of the people over the laws of the Church, while driving a wedge between “pastoral” and “doctrinal” so that the former is a cover for moral license.

The Old Latin Mass, and those whose spiritual lives it animates, stand in direct opposition to this vision of a new Church. So, in the name of “ecclesial communion,” the man whose office is to ensure communion has quashed the Old Mass by formally declaring a rupture in the Church’s liturgy. The New Mass of 1970 replaces what came before it so that the New Church of 1970 can replace what came before it.

This purposeful manipulation of the work of God into a tool by which men promote their petty ecclesial visions leads not to sanctification, but to apathy. To debilitate the Mass and the Church is to fool ourselves into thinking that God’s power over us has waned, since all ecclesiology stems from a deeper theology.

It is no wonder, then, that the partisan commission that wrote the New Mass changed it so dramatically from its older expression. To change the liturgy is to change our view of God. The temptation is to reverse God’s declaration in Genesis in order to say: “Let us make God in Our own image; in the image of Man we will reduce him. Sniveling and uninspiring, we will make him.”

Is it any wonder, then, after fifty years of the New Mass widely offered in a casual way, that a majority of Catholics no longer fear God, repent of sin, or believe in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist?

With Traditionis Custodes, it is Francis, not the invisible traditionalists he accuses, who professes allegiance to a “true Church,” one whose origin requires the death of the “old Church” that preceded Vatican II. With this new instruction, Archbishop Roche proves guilty of what he condemns in others: that “the ritual itself is often exploited by ideological viewpoints.”

Liturgy flourishes, achieving its end of sanctification and glorification, when it follows Peter in his bold fidelity to Christ: “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) Liturgy dies when it follows Peter in his worldliness: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Mark 8:33)

Today, with Peter mired in worldliness, a wounded Church cries out for healing, which can only come about when communion is restored between the Church’s past and present forms of worship. Only then can liturgy live again, and when it does, it is God’s greatest means to communion with Him forever.


David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God’s Plan of Salvation.


*Image: The Foundation Mass of the Trinitarian Order by Juan Carreño de Miranda, 1666 [Louvre, Paris]

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