A Crisis of Saints
The Call to Heroic Faith in an Unheroic World
George W. Rutler
If ever I should have opportunity to pass a few days in New York City, I want to attend Mass at St. Michael’s parish on West 34th Street, where Fr. George Rutler is pastor. Fr. Rutler is something of a national treasure, beloved (by those whom his wit does not wither) not only for his service to the Church, but for his avocation as an erudite essayist and author. He brings to his writing a sharp intellect, dry humour, and a profound love of Catholic tradition. This book collects a half-dozen long-form essays on various aspects of Catholicism, ranging from reflections on the state of the Church since Vatican II and the nature of Catholic tradition and authority to the knowledge of God and the character of Christian faith. Though the essays do not feel especially well integrated, the book’s subtitle is a fair summary of their general thrust.
For me two essays were of greatest interest. The first was an appraisal of the state of liturgy in the Church since Vatican II. Those who know something of Fr. Rutler will not be surprised to learn that he views most of what went under the banner of reform as ranging, according to the case, from merely unfortunate to downright disgusting. Not that he contests the authority of the Church to make reforms, of course, but he asks hard questions about their timing, the wisdom (or the witlessness) with which they were carried out, and the permissiveness of Church authorities as it was happening. The implementation of the reforms “marks the first time in history that the Church has been an agent, however unintentionally, in the deprivation of culture, from the uprooting of classical language and sensibility to wanton depreciation of the arts,” he writes. His concern is not merely (though perhaps partly) that of a cultural elitist, but of a pastor of souls:
It is immensely saddening to see so many elements of the Church, in her capacity as Mother of Western Culture, compliant in the promotion of ugliness. There may be no deterrent more formidable to countless potential converts than the low estate of the Church’s liturgical life, for the liturgy is the Church’s prime means of evangelism. Gone as into a primeval mist are the days not long ago when apologists regularly had to warn against being distracted by, or superficially attracted to, the beauty of the Church’s rites. And the plodding and static nature of the revised rites could not have been more ill-timed for a media culture so attuned to color and form and action. Edification is no substitute for inspiration.
He pointedly remarks on the general defense of the reforms by Church authorities occurring alongside a stream of alarming announcements about the declining state of religious and sacramental life: “It was a bit like the town crier calling, “Six o’clock and all is well. Bring out your dead.””
The essay goes on to compare the reforms of the liturgy in the past fifty years to what occurred in England after the Reformation, when Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth promulgated a series of reforms intended to disrupt the Catholic tradition. It is not, of course, that Fr. Rutler believes that Church authorities in our own day have intentionally set out to deface or disrupt our tradition, but he does want to point out that there are certain similarities in the reform programmes in the two cases, and he wants to explore the plight of those English Catholics who were affected by the disruptions, as an aid to a better understanding of our own situation and how best to respond to it: “In ruined vaults old voices may still sigh for what saddened the houses of God in their day, and such sounds are a parable.”
The second essay is adapted from (or perhaps simply cut and pasted from) Fr. Rutler’s introduction to More Quotable Chesterton, and it is a very fine reflection on why Chesterton has a claim on our attention. Consider, for example, this assessment of Chesterton’s humour: “By cultivating humility instead of a sense of superiority, he avoided condescension in his indulgence of the human comedy. He suffered fools gladly, even deliciously, because his one target was the cant that makes the grand comedy a farce.” Clearly, Fr. Rutler knows his Chesterton. Or there is this, about Chesterton’s (oft lamented) literary style:
His diction is loud, as befits one who loved the very sight of Fleet Street and who hymned to “the great lights burning on through darkness to dawn and the roar of the printing wheels”. The Ciceronianisms of Newman were attributed to his habit of playing a violin before composition; Chesterton seems to have tuned up on a bugle. On a bugle, that is, and a set of chimes; for there is a crystalline cut in every declaration such as intimidates the modern essayist accustomed to muddy sentences flaccid with subjunctives.
(That last phrase is an apt description of most of what one finds on this web log.)
But more than his personality or his style, Fr. Rutler sees that Chesterton had an intellectual and moral depth belied by his populist manner. “He was more than a Renaissance man,” he writes, “[for] his reference is positively deep, and deep enough to dig beneath anything so occasional as a renaissance until he strikes the radical birth of order and truth.” Writing in particular about Chesterton’s columns in the Illustrated London News, which he contributed weekly for thirty years, Fr. Rutler points out how deeply Chesterton knew and understood our cultural roots:
Chesterton did not plagiarize in the despicable and low sense; his was an inspired plagiarism that forsakes incidental sources for the Source. It pillages the treasury of the saints. Such heavenly theft marks the genius from the hack. The procedure was according to high dogma, blushing through the pallor of civil events which are the incidental subjects of his journalistic essays. It makes each of his columns in The Illustrated London News, for instance, a flickering votive light to the orthodox creeds. I cannot imagine Schopenhauer getting his ideas through elegies to local cheeses, the shape of men’s noses, snails and The Mikado. But this is precisely what Chesterton did to reach the truth each week. He was a foremost example of Quintillian’s vir bonus docendi peritus: the good man who speaks from practical knowledge. And he was not content to pass on interesting bits of information as isolated items; as surely as the whole Mediterranean had once washed well within the circumference of Virgil’s fine skull, and the Brooklyn Bridge spanned the lobes of Roebling’s brain, the whole experience of Christian humanism cavorted in the head of Chesterton at his weekly dictation.
This is wonderful writing, and it could hardly be lavished on a better subject.
(Incidentally, if you’d like to read some selections from the Illustrated London News columns Fr. Rutler praises, you are invited to look here.)