The Mass and Modernity

February 10, 2009

The Mass and Modernity
Walking to Heaven Backward
Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory (Ignatius, 2005)
377 p.  First reading.

Fr. Jonathan Robinson is the founder of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto, and was formerly a professor of philosophy at McGill University in Montreal.  He is well-qualified, therefore, to write a book on the relationship between the Catholic Mass and modern philosophy.  His book is a history of modern philosophy from the point of view of its effects on theology and religious practice, a primer on the traditional theology of the Mass, a critique of much modern liturgical practice on the basis of that theology, and a set of recommendations for reform of the liturgy.

The effects of modern thought on Catholic faith and practice can be summarized briefly: it has been corrosive. This is hardly surprising. From the beginning the modern project has defined itself against medieval civilization, which was, if not the, then certainly an important example of a Catholic culture. Many of the architects of modernity — Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel — were not Catholics, and many of those who were — like the French philosophes — were nonetheless hostile to the Church.  It is little wonder that the Church and modern society have so often run at cross-purposes.  Fr. Robinson traces the trend of modern philosophy as it progressively departed from the principles of Catholicism.  Modernity sought, in the beginning, to replace revealed religion and faith with “natural religion” and reason.  This involved denying the significance of mere historical events, such as the life of Christ.  The sacraments were attacked as superstitious, and the Church itself condemned as a foe of the new concept of freedom that shaped modernity’s self-understanding.  The soul, the after-life, and miracles all came under scrutiny, and more often than not were rejected.  In time denial of the very existence of God became commonplace.  The idea that God was Himself a creation of the human consciousness came to maturity in the thought of Hegel, who argued that “God” is immanent in the historical process, and especially in the development of human society.  The transcendence of God was destroyed, and what was left of Him was subsumed into politics.  The “community”, with its needs and aspirations, became the focus of concern.

Fr. Robinson contends that this re-orientation, this rise of a secular consciousness focused on politics and society rather than transcendence and revelation, has had bad effects on the Church, not just by seducing her less faithful members and reducing her size, but actually by confusing the Church’s self-understanding.  This confusion is evident in the Church’s liturgy, which suffers principally on three counts: first, a decline in its focus on the transcendent God as the object of worship; second, an increased focus on self-expression of the local community; and third, a forgetfulness of the sacrificial nature of the Mass which connects each liturgical celebration with the historical sacrifice of Christ.

Dissatisfaction with the liturgical changes that happened after Vatican II is fairly wide-spread, and comes not just from fringe cranks but from the highest authorities in the Church.  Our present Pope has written frequently and eloquently on the problems, as in his important book The Spirit of the Liturgy. The decrees of the Council concerning liturgy were often not followed — Fr. Robinson points out that the two most obvious liturgical changes after Vatican II, namely the disappearance of Latin and the “turning around” of the altars, were neither of them mandated by the Council — and, when they were followed, were sometimes followed poorly.  He draws particular attention to the rubrics of the Novus Ordo Mass, which he considers too sparse and inexact to really convey how the liturgy ought to proceed. When combined with our generation’s curiously stunted capacity for appreciating the value of ritual, this has led to too much casual local variation in the liturgical rites, and too much room for the parish to “get creative” with their liturgy. Moreover, the translations of the prayers and readings are often drab, and the music prosaic.  That the liturgy is to strive after beauty seems too often forgotten.

If asked to paraphrase the rationale behind Vatican II’s liturgical reform, many would respond that the reform aimed to encourage “active participation” by the congregation.  As Fr. Robinson points out, however, this phrase has been misunderstood.  It has sometimes been taken to mean that the congregation should be kept busy, and that therefore extended periods of silence (as were common in the older rite) are to be avoided.  Careful attention to the Council’s decree on liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium shows, though, that the phrase “active participation” occurs in a passage about the value of silence.  Fr. Robinson, borrowing a phrase from von Balthasar, argues that the liturgy should lead to “silent, recollected adoration”; whatever encourages this is good, and whatever does not is not.

In the closing sections of the book, he offers several recommendations for “reform of the reform”.  They are modest suggestions, calibrated to avoid the kind of rupture that occurred in the wake of Vatican II.  (He cites a priest of the London Oratory: in liturgy, “All change is for the worse, even when it is change for the better.”)  He recommends that priests renew the tradition of celebrating the Mass ad orientem; the current practice was not mandated by the Council, and it tends to over-emphasize the person (and personality) of the priest.  He counsels that everyone involved in liturgy ought to strive to celebrate the Mass as a formal ritual and to minimize local idiosyncrasies and self-expression; in particular, ad lib comments from the priest are strongly discouraged.  Priests should strive to immerse themselves so thoroughly into their ritual role that they disappear. (I cannot agree more with this recommendation. There is nothing that breaks the spell of prayerful meditation more than when a priest insists on asserting his originality by adding decorations to the text of the rite.  I knew one priest who seemed incapable of uttering a single sentence of the Mass without varying it, and even went so far as to paraphrase the Gospel readings!  Dreadful.)  As mentioned above, he advises that the rubrics should be revised to be more detailed, and translations should be improved.  Finally, Latin ought to be reintroduced into the liturgy, and especially into the music, for the loss of Latin has meant the loss of the Church’s immense treasure-house of music.  The liturgy should always strive to encourage a spirit of contemplation, making full use of symbols, ritual action, and silence.

There is more to this book than I have indicated here, but I hope that I have not done it an injustice.  It is a good book that is well-informed, well-intentioned, charitable, and modest in its program for reform. Arguments about liturgy in the Church can become heated, but not here.  I am in substantial agreement with his recommendations.  That said, I do think the argument of the book could have been improved by more clearly articulating the manner in which the habits of modern thought have had a negative affect on liturgy; the discussion of the history of modern philosophy is very interesting, but too often its bearing on liturgical matters was opaque to me.  The grounds for his disapproval of our contemporary liturgy could also have been better stated; more examples of troublesome practices would have gone a long way to help the reader understand his complaints.  Finally, the book is rather disjoint; for example, a chapter on Iris Murdoch and Charles Taylor as modern critics of modernity, while very interesting in its own right, feels like it was stapled into the manuscript without being sufficiently well-integrated into the overall argument.  Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile book.

My homework, I suppose, is to go to Fr. Robinson’s parish again.

4 Responses to “The Mass and Modernity”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    “Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.” (Sac. Conc. 11) This is not from a passage about silence . . . .

    Also, the church has by no means reduced in size. Proportional numbers in the west may have decreased (though perhaps not in the United States), but world-wide she is larger than she has ever been. In Africa the church grew by several thousand percent from 1900-2000. In Asia she continues expanding.

    Finally, you might be happy to hear (if you haven’t already) that a new, more faithful English translation of the mass is in the works:

    http://www.usccb.org/liturgy/missalformation/index.shtml

    I think it will be an improvement: the French and Spanish translations are much better than our current English one and I think this could bring ours to a par.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thank you, Adam. You make good points, as usual. I don’t deny — and neither does the author of this book — that reform of the liturgy was needed, and I agree with you that many of the changes, particularly the introduction of the vernacular, have been, on balance, for the better. But, having experienced both the ordinary (new) rite and the extraordinary (old) rite, I do think that the former has something to learn from the latter. What that something is is not very easy to say, but von Balthasar’s phrase about “silent, recollected adoration” points in the general direction.

    I did not intend to say that a decline in Catholic observance in the West has been caused by the liturgical changes, nor that the Church as a whole has become smaller. As you rightly say, the opposite is true, and dramatically so. I intended to say that modernity — European history for the past few centuries — has largely been an antagonist of the Church, and that the effects of that contest are seen in the drooping religious life of Europeans. That, I think, is true.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Fr. Robinson does argue, though, that modern thought did influence the changes that were made to the liturgy after Vatican II, and in the ways I mentioned (transferring the focus from God to the “community”, and obscuring the theology of the Mass as sacrifice). If it is true that modernity is basically hostile to Christianity, then its influencing the liturgy should be cause for concern.

    Maybe this is to vague. Let’s consider an example. Fr. Robinson contends that much of the self-expressive experimentation with liturgy that we have seen is a manifestation of the Hegelian idea of the immanence (and non-transcendence) of God as manifest in human history: liturgy begins to be about putting ourselves forward, fulfilling ourselves, rather than elevating and adoring God. That is the claim. When I first read it, I thought it badly overstated the case. Then, a few days later, I was at Mass and we sang a hymn (I think it was #346 in CBWIII, but I forget the title) that seemed to have been written to confirm all Fr. Robinson’s fears: it was all about how wonderful we are. So I was formed to admit that even if he does overstate the problem, the problem does exist.

    His claim that the new liturgy obscures the sacrificial nature of the Mass also has merit. I, at least, do not often think of the Mass as a sacrifice offered to God. It is much more common to hear it spoken of as “community sharing”, or some such thing. Yet Fr. Robinson demonstrates that this is a significant departure from our Church’s historic theological understanding of the Mass. So again he seems to have a point. Whether this has come about, as he argues, because of modernity’s tendency to sever our ties with history is another question.


  4. I have to agree that even in parishes where Holy Mass is celebrated with great reverence and due attention to the Roman Rite there remains a focus on us, on receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion. This is good. Receiving Holy Communion is central to the Mass. However, there is frequently little focus on offering worship to God the Father through the offering of the Son’s Sacrifice on the altar. That we are worshiping and adoring God is largely missing, even from parishes that have a good sense of transcendence.


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