THE ARGUMENTS for the New Liturgy have been neatly packaged, and may
now be learned by rote. The new form of the Mass is designed to engage
the celebrant and the faithful in a communal activity.
In the past the
faithful attended mass in personal isolation, each worshipper making
his private devotions, or at best following the proceedings in his
missal. Today the faithful can grasp the social character of the
celebration; they are learning to appreciate it as a community meal.
Formerly, the priest mumbled in a dead language, which created a
barrier between priest and people. Now everyone speaks in English,
which tends to unite priest and people with one another.
In the past
the priest said Mass with his back to the people, which created the
mood of an esoteric rite. Today, because the priest faces the people,
the Mass is a more fraternal occasion.
In the past the priest intoned
strange medieval chants. Today the entire assembly sings songs with
easy tunes and familiar lyrics, and is even experimenting with folk
music. The case for the New Mass, then, comes down to this: it is
making the faithful more at home in the house of God.
Moreover, these innovations are said to have the sanction of
Authority: they are represented as an obedient response to the spirit
of the Second Vatican Council. This is said notwithstanding that the
Council's Constitution on the Liturgy goes no further than to permit
the vernacular Mass in cases where the local bishop believes it
desirable; the Constitution plainly insists on the retention of the
Latin Mass, and emphatically approves the Gregorian chant.
liturgical "progressives" are not impressed by the difference between
permitting and commanding. Nor do they hesitate to authorize changes,
such as standing to receive Holy Communion, which the Constitution
does not mention at all. The progressives argue that these liberties
may be taken because the Constitution is, after all, only the first
step in an evolutionary process. And they seem to be having their way.
It is difficult to find a Latin Mass anywhere today, and in the United
States they are practically non-existent. Even the conventual Mass in
monasteries is said in the vernacular, and the glorious Gregorian is
replaced by insignificant melodies.
MY CONCERN is not with the legal status of the changes. And I
emphatically do not wish to be understood as regretting that the
Constitution has permitted the vernacular to complement the Latin.
What I deplore is that the New Mass is replacing the Latin Mass, that
the old liturgy is being recklessly scrapped, and denied to most of
the People of God.
I should like to put to those who are fostering this development
several questions: Does the New Mass, more than the old, bestir the
human spirit -- does it evoke a sense of eternity? Does it help raise
our hearts from the concerns of everyday life -- from the purely
natural aspects of the world-to Christ? Does it increase reverence, an
appreciation of the sacred?
Of course these questions are rhetorical, and self-answering. I raise
them because I think that all thoughtful Christians will want to weigh
their importance before coming to a conclusion about the merits of the
new liturgy. What is the role of reverence in a truly Christian life,
and above all in a truly Christian worship of God?
Reverence gives being the opportunity to speak to us: The ultimate
grandeur of man is to be capax Dei. Reverence is of capital importance
to all the fundamental domains of man's life. It can be rightly called
"the mother of all virtues," for it is the basic attitude that all
virtues presuppose. The most elementary gesture of reverence is a
response to being itself. It distinguishes the autonomous majesty of
being from mere illusion or fiction; it is a recognition of the inner
consistency and positiveness of being-of its independence of our
arbitrary moods. Reverence gives being the opportunity to unfold
itself, to, as it were, speak to us; to fecundate our minds. Therefore
reverence is indispensable to any adequate knowledge of being. The
depth and plenitude of being, and above all its mysteries, will never
be revealed to any but the reverent mind.
Remember that reverence is a
constitutive element of the capacity to "wonder," which Plato and
Aristotle claimed to be the indispensable condition for philosophy.
Indeed, irreverence is a chief source of philosophical error. But if
reverence is the necessary basis for all reliable knowledge of being,
it is, beyond that, indispensable for grasping and assessing the
values grounded in being. Only the reverent man who is ready to admit
the existence of something greater than himself, who is willing to be
silent and let the object speak to him- who opens himself-is capable
of entering the sublime world of values. Moreover, once a gradation of
values has been recognized, a new kind of reverence is in order-a
reverence that responds not only to the majesty of being as such, but
to the specific value of a specific being and to its rank in the
hierarchy of values. And this new reverence permits the discovery of
still other values.
Man reflects his essentially receptive character as a created person
solely in the reverent attitude; the ultimate grandeur of man is to be
capax Dei. Man has the capacity, in other words, to grasp something
greater than himself, to be affected and fecundated by it, to abandon
himself to it for its own sake - in a pure response to its value. This
ability to transcend himself distinguishes man from a plant or an
animal; these latter strive only to unfold their own entelechy. Now:
it is only the reverent man who can consciously transcend himself and
thus conform to his fundamental human condition and to his
Do we better meet Christ by soaring up to Him, or by dragging Him down
into our workaday world?
The irreverent man by contrast, approaches being either in an attitude
of arrogant superiority or of tactless, smug familiarity. In either
case he is crippled; he is the man who comes so near a tree or
building he can no longer see it. Instead of remaining at the proper
spiritual distance, and maintaining a reverent silence so that being
may speak its word, he obtrudes himself and thereby, in effect,
silences being. In no domain is reverence more important than
As we have seen, it profoundly affects the relation of man
to God. But beyond that it pervades the entire religion, especially
the worship of God. There is an intimate link between reverence and
sacredness: reverence permits us to experience the sacred, to rise
above the profane; irreverence blinds us to the entire world of the
sacred. Reverence, including awe-indeed, fear and trembling-is the
specific response to the sacred.
Rudolf Otto has clearly elaborated the point in his famous study, The
Idea ol the Holy. Kierkegaard also calls attention to the essential
role of reverence in the religious act, in the encounter with God. And
did not the Jews tremble in deep awe when the priest brought the
sacrifice into the rancta sanctorum? Was Isaiah not struck with godly
fear when he saw Yahweh in the temple and exclaimed, "Woe is me, I am
doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips . . . yet my eyes have seen the
King?" Do not the words of St. Peter after the miraculous catch of
fish, "Depart from me, 0 Lord, because I am a sinner," testify that
when the reality of God breaks in upon us we are struck with fear and
reverence? Cardinal Newman has shown in a stunning sermon that the man
who does not fear and revere has not known the reality of God.
When St. Bonaventure writes in Itinerium Mentis ad Deum that only a
man of desire (such as Daniel) can understand God, he means that a
certain attitude of soul must be achieved in order to understand the
world of God, into which He wants to lead us.
This counsel is especially applicable to the Church's liturgy. The
sursum corda-the lifting up of our hearts-is the first requirement for
real participation in the mass. Nothing could better obstruct the
confrontation of man with God than the notion that we "go unto the
altar of God" as we would go to a pleasant, relaxing social gathering.
This is why the Latin Mass with Gregorian chant, which raises us up to
a sacred atmosphere, is vastly superior to a vernacular mass with
popular songs, which leaves us in a profane, merely natural
The basic error of most of the innovations is to imagine that the new
liturgy brings the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass nearer to the faithful,
that shorn of its old rituals the Mass now enters into the substance
of our lives. For the question is whether we better meet Christ in the
Mass by soaring up to Him, or by dragging Him down into our own
pedestrian, workaday world.
The innovators would replace holy intimacy
with Christ by an unbecoming familiarity. The new liturgy actually
threatens to frustrate the confrontation with Christ, for it
discourages reverence in the face of mystery, precludes awe, and all
but extinguishes a sense of sacredness. What really matters, surely,
is not whether the faithful feel at home at Mass, but whether they are
drawn out of their ordinary lives into the world of Christ-whether
their attitude is the response of ultimate reverence: whether they are
imbued with the reality of Christ.
Next Tuesday: Part Two
Dietrich von Hildebrand, was one of the world's most eminent Christian
philosophers. A professor at Fordham University, Pope Pius XII called
him "the 20th Century Doctor of the Church." He is the author of many
books, including Transformation in Christ and Liturgy and Personality.
The article above is reprinted from the October 1966 issue of TRIUMPH
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