Embracing the Sacred

I have been thinking about this a lot since Christmas. I went back to my old parish in Indiana for Midnight Mass, and was jolted. It was a Novus Ordo Mass, but done as I had never experienced. The priest offered the Eucharistic Prayers ad orienetem. There were bells at the consecrations. There were Gregorian chants. The priest chanted most of the Mass (and he has a beautiful voice, by the way). It was uplifting. It was prayerful. It was reverent. It was beautiful.

Most importantly, it was Sacred. 

The other day, the Anchoress pointed to an article of Amy Wellborn’s on Eastern Christianity, and while most of the comments are insightful, I think they miss the central issue.

Many, if not most, of the liturgical changes that occurred after Vatican II were wrongly attributed to it, in that the Council did not prescribe them. In many cases, nothing implying the changes was mentioned by the Council. I, at least, am not going to suggest that we should undo the Second Vatican Council, and even though I am a linguist and yes, am old enough that I took two years of Latin in high school, and yes, can halfway read Latin, I have no desire to return to it in the Mass.

But we have lost the distinction between the profane and Sacred. We have profaned our churches and the Mass. And we must recapture the Sacred which, yes, means undoing may of the uncalled for liturgical changes after 1970. (I am, if you haven’t realized it, using “profane” in its correct sense, rather than to mean dirty or blasphemous, so if you’re feeling yourself enraged with self-righteous anger, it isn’t justified.)

I remember the Tridentine. I knelt at the altar rail for my First Communion. I still have the Tridentine missal and breviary I was given for my First Communion. I was in high school and then an undergraduate when the changes were implemented. I am speaking from remembrance, not hearsay, as younger people only can. And because I lived through the era, I can tell you what happened, and where we veered from the Sacred to the profane.

It was the 70s, and I might add, the worst part of the 70s, the beginning of the decade, when the influence of the 60s was its strongest. The world was caught up in nature worship, and relevancy was all the rage — relevancy meaning “attractive to the hippie generation,” I might point out.

Relevancy captured the imagination of the bishops and clergy, who imagined that if the Church were to become more “relevant,” we would have more young people at Mass, even entering seminaries and taking vows. The hierarchy were also caught up in the whirlwind of nature worship — not, understand, to the point of heresy, but the point that holding Mass by the brook or wearing vestments with leaves and trees was felt to be somehow a more honest Christianity. (Note that this updating and relevancy, instead of bringing more young people to Mass and the priesthood, had the reverse effect.)

If you’ve watched these designer shows, you’ve heard this nonsense about “bringing the outdoors inside,” and that’s exactly what the clergy did. The Sacred, the idea that the church was a Sacred space and that Mass should be an experience and celebration of the Sacred, was deemed irrelevant and outdated. Monks, nuns, and priests wrote dreadful doggerel as lyrics for trite “folksy” tunes, all either openly centered around us, our experiences, and nature, or converting God and the Divine into us, our experiences, and nature.

It wasn’t pantheism, but it teetered on the edge.

There are two crucial differences between the Tridentine and Vatican II liturgies: The first, as I have already begun to discuss, was abolishing the Sacred in favor of the profane; and the second, related to the first, was changing the focus from God to us.

The Mass, you see, could not be “relevant” if it was about God and the Divine. Only by becoming profane could the Mass be “relevant.” Gregorian chants were dropped in favor of trite “folk” music accompanied by all too often out of tune guitars. Ugly banners of trees and peace symbols and other profane symbology covered the walls. The Stations of the Cross and many statues were torn down to be replaced with more profane symbols. And in what I believe to be the most destructive act of post-Vatican II excess, the priest turned around to face the congregation.

It was the ultimate act of narcissism. The Mass was finally all about us, and God was some borderline-pantheistic abstraction in the background. Mass had become group therapy. God was no longer why we were there; we were there for us.

As an aside, I know somebody is going to say that I am remiss, and that it is up to me to create my own sense of the Sacred. Well, I do, but no, this is not an argument. I am not speaking of my individual reaction to or experience of Mass; I am speaking of how changing the Mass will inevitably change Catholics.

I have had this discussion many times, and I am often accused of focusing on “superficialities.” Yet it is no coincidence that theology suffered in the same way at the same time. Catholics are balking (to say the least) about the more accurate translation of the Novus Ordo that is to be used: They dislike the most the correct translation of “credo” as “I believe” instead of the current “we believe.” They don’t like it because they do not, in fact, believe. “We believe” takes the burden of belief and faith off the shoulders of the individual and places it on some sort of imaginary communal entity. Catholics voted in a large majority for the most pro-abortion candidate ever to run for President. Catholic universities regularly and predictably teach heretical courses, and award anti-Catholic faculty, so much so that the Cardinal Newman Society was created to act as a watch.

Nothing here is superficial, least of all liturgy. As the Mass decayed, so did our faith, because the Mass is the expression of our faith. When the Mass ceases to be focused upon God, so does our faith.

It is interesting and ironic that one of the largest groups in favor of profaning the Mass at the time, the charismatic Catholics, have now aged, and many have become devout traditionalists. The next time you go to Mass, glance quickly around during the Lord’s Prayer, and you will see people assuming the orans, with elbows bent and palms raised upward, perhaps the most ancient prayer posture of the Church, dating back to images in the catacombs. The charismatics are responsible for people assuming this ancient and reverent posture, and today, people who were charismatics in the 70s are some of the strongest supporters of making the Mass Sacred again.

Certainly, there has been a gradual but constant movement away from the excesses of the 70s. Many parishes no longer display the ugly banners, and guitar Masses are blessedly rare. But we have not (with notable exceptions, such as Midnight Mass at my old parish) yet succeeded in recapturing the Sacred. We still employ hideous music with trite, banal lyrics, instead of using the rich musical tradition of the Church. Mass is still an exercise in narcissism. Priests still wear vestments decorated with profane symbols (admittedly, not as awful as in the 70s). At our relatively conservative parish, altar servers wear a shapeless white robe that looks like a wingless angel costume made out of old sheets for a sixth-grade play, instead of cossacks and surplices. Litanies and homilies center around the mundane, instead of the Divine.

Most distressing, however, is how the Eucharist itself has been purged of God and reverence. We were taught to approach the altar with our hands together and fingers extended to express reverence. People approach the Eucharist doing everything but picking their noses. What is the ostensible reason for standing instead of kneeling when we recieve what is the true Body of Christ? If one does believe that he is receiving the true Body of Christ in the Eucharist, why would he receive it in his hand? Why is the congregation asked to sing during the Eucharist, instead of kneeling and praying afterward? And although I think lay ministers are an unimportant issue in themselves, why do parishes with ordained deacons, like ours, not use them, and why have eight lay ministers to administer the Eucharist, unless you see it less as receiving the Body of Christ, and more as an assembly line to get it done as quickly as possible?

The post-Vatican II Eucharist is a travesty, and in practice, falls just short of blasphemous. All of the reverence has been purged, because it’s no longer about God. It’s about us. We receive it in our hands because it’s about us. We stand, and do not take the trouble or discomfort to kneel, because it’s about us. We sing instead of pray because it’s about us. Us, us, us, us, it’s always about us.

This leads to the central, fundametal issue that Amy and her commenters missed. The crucial distinction between the Mass and the Divine Liturgy is that the profane has never corrupted the sacred in the Divine Liturgy. Attend the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and you feel the sense of the Sacred as soon as you walk into the church. The liturgy transports you, and the profane, the “relevant,” is left behind. The liturgy centers solely on God and the Divine. There are no trite lyrics, no peace symbols or dove banners, the litanies are directed to God.

Most importantly, the Eucharist has not been profaned. If you are unknown to the priest (or are known, but have not been to Confession, or are known to be a twice-a-year attender) and approach, he will not give you the Eucharist. In Eastern Christianity, the priest is still the guardian of the chalice, and the clergy, both Eastern Rite and Orthodox, take this duty most seriously of all.

We must reclaim the Sacred and eject the profane from our churches. To do so, we need only look to our Eastern brethren. I do not mean that we should adopt their liturgies, but that they have never rejected the Sacred, and they can show us how to embrace the Sacred once again.

If you have an Eastern Rite or Orthodox church nearby, I encourage you to attend. I am not suggesting that you change parishes, but go and experience the Sacred. Only if we have this experience will we have any hope of reclaiming it in our own parishes.

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3 Comments on “Embracing the Sacred”

  1. David Says:

    You are correct that in the years since Vatican 2 there have been some awful liturgics going on – guitar masses, liturgical dance (good Lord, spare us!), Star Trek vestments, man-centred “hymns”, etc. etc. You are also correct that in the past few years things have indeed gotten better.
    In our own parish here in Washington State (one of the largest) our music is quite good, and a very nice mix of chant, good chorales, good modern hymns, with only a very occasional one that makes me go, “Oh no, not THIS one!”
    Our clergy are very reverent, incense is often used, holy water sprinkling too, and the Sanctus bell is properly rung at the Consecration. On Tuesdays we have Adoration and quite often we have Benediction services.
    Our altar, however, is not against the wall. The Tabernacle is in a side chapel (quite beautiful actually and folks DO either genuflect or bow when passing), we receive standing queue, and there is a mix of in the hand or on the tongue. None of that really bothers me any more.
    While the Novus Ordo masses CAN be done quite irreverently, they can also be done with great reverence, as I witness every Sunday. I used to attend Byzantine masses and Orthodox liturgies when I lived back East, and yes, they are often very impressive. Something I observed though: VERY often, they seemed more show than anything else, the clergy more concerned with exactness of ritual than with anything else.
    It’s difficult to walk the fine line between what is every day and what we think is sacred. In the earliest Church, people met in houses, used nothing more than a common table, there were no vestments, and most prayers were ex tempore. It would seem VERY “everyday” to us. We must be careful not confuse aesthetics with true religion. (Not that you necessarily are…I am saying that there was a time when I did, however.)
    Remember that even in the “old days”, masses were often irreverently done with priests hurriedly muttering bad Latin, poorly trained choirs butchering the chants, many in the congregation doing their own private devotions because they didn’t understand what was going on anyway etc.
    What I see that what “works” is each of us working in our respective parishes to encourage a spirit of true piety whether the Mass is done Novus Ordo or using the old Tridentine ritual.

  2. All you say is so very right,but with all the failures and consequences of the Vactican Two Council why does the clergy in general rail against any consideration of the orthodox traditional view

  3. David Says:

    Well, as wicked as this might sound, THAT generation who does and did most of the railing against sound doctrine and practice is, quite frankly, dying off!! They are all in their late 50s and on up. The generation of younger priests are, at least all the ones I have met, quite orthodox in belief and reverent in practice.
    Also, it says something that the new religious orders (and there are many now) are orthodox and HABITED!
    The 60s were really just bad news for everyone and pretty much for every church and religion. But, the pendulum does swing, doesn’t it?
    We think things were/are bad; in the Middle Ages you had clergy who could barely read, bishops who ordained for pay, churches in disrepair, congregations who laughed and gambled and drank DURING Mass etc. There have been some bad times in our history. I thank God I live in THESE times…comparatively, not bad really.

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